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Forgiveness and Reconciliation -- a study of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 33

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 33

Being reconciled with others is truly a blessing from God, one we should seek. It requires humility, patience, endurance, and a lot of faith. In his actions, Jacob demonstrates that he truly is a changed man, and we should be challenged to ask God to help us restore the broken relationships we might have.

Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming toward him with four hundred men. (33:1)

[This Bible study blog started as a printed resource for our teachers; I'm slowly adding older lessons for future reference.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Gift or Bribe?

Because we live in America, I feel pretty good that someone in your group has had to deal with the fine legal line between “gift” and “bribe”. If not, you can still make this illustration work. Bring in some sort of gift for your class members—something they would really like. (Maybe a good food.) Then, after the excitement wears off, ask “Why did I give that to you?” It would be perfect if someone joked “Because you’re bribing us to enjoy your class”. Regardless, the follow-up would be “How do we know the difference between a gift and a bribe?” This is a big deal in the ethics-of-business world; your business people might enjoy talking about this. One website said that you can tell a bribe by (1) being outside the industry norm for gifts; (2) being wildly exotic; (3) giving you the impression you have to do something in return.

For us, the answer to the question is actually quite simple: the difference between a gift and a bribe is the intent of the giver. If it is given with no expectation of anything in return, it is a gift. If we have any sort of intent/agenda for it, it is a bribe. (People might not like that definition; if so, ask them for their definition.) (By the way, if you really want to make you and your class paranoid, ask if everything y’all gave and received at Christmas were all gifts…) What complicates the matter is perception. If you truly gave something as a gift, but the person viewed it as a bribe, you have a problem, don’t you? So the way to wrap up this strange discussion would be to ask “How can you convince someone that you are truly giving them a gift and not a bribe?” I think that’s a great question.

If you used this discussion, you would have two purposes. One is to help folks realize that though everything about Jacob’s behavior in our passage this week screams “bribe!”, we need to think more about the intent. Two is to help your class realize that the way they describe salvation and church membership is important. A lot of non-Christians think that our churches only want their money. That had better not be true! God’s free gift of salvation and the church is totally free. Anything we do in response had better be out of true gratitude—not out of anything we hope in return from God or from the people we invite to church.

What Would You Do to Protect Your Family?

Here’s a thought exercise. How far would you go to ensure the well-being of your family? My guess is that our only limit is the bounds of Christian behavior (and if you have class members who say they would break God’s law to protect their family, that’s actually not a good thing; but that’s a rabbit trail you don’t have time to explore today!). Jacob, when he knew that his family was in danger staying near Laban, packed up and left. But he was jumping from the proverbial frying pan into the fire by taking them closer to Esau. And so he came up with the best plan he could to try to keep them safe. Once you’ve established that concept, tell your class to “evaluate” Jacob’s plan as you go through the lesson. What would they have done differently? Does this motivation help or hurt their opinion of Jacob?


This Week’s “Big Idea”: Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Restoration

I have focused on this topic before, but it’s such a common question that I think it’s worth putting in again. My guess is that people will respond to this passage in one of three ways: (1) Jacob and his brother behaved rightly; (2) Jacob didn’t really reconcile with Esau—after all, he immediately ran away!; (3) Jacob went further with his brother than I have gone with family members I’m not getting along with—I guess I haven’t really forgiven them. If that’s the case, that’s because we tend to confuse three very different actions: forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration.

Forgiveness is something that every Christian must have with every person in the entire world. God says that we must forgive one another. Why? Because God has forgiven us far worse than anything we have ever suffered. True forgiveness is inspired by God’s forgiveness of us. True forgiveness cannot be demanded (and it isn’t easy to give).

Forgiveness is not forgetting the sin. Forgiveness is not denying that someone hurt you. Forgiveness is not minimalizing what someone did to you. And forgiveness is not excusing that person. Those responses don’t deal with the hurt, which means that you’ll never truly be able to move past whatever happened. Instead, forgiveness is rooted in recognizing the truth that some lie/sin has broken your relationship with someone else. Forgiveness is being honest with yourself (and with the other person) about what happened and the effect it has had on you. You can’t fully forgive what you haven’t fully processed. And you also can’t forgive what wasn’t an offense in the first place! (i.e. have you been overly sensitive about something?) All of this to say that forgiveness can be a long, difficult process that requires God’s help.

You can know you have truly forgiven someone when

  1. you no longer want retaliation;

  2. you no longer define that person by their offense;

  3. you look past the person to the real problem—sin is destroying our world;

  4. you can truly pray for that person’s well-being.

[To be fair, we don’t read an encounter in which Jacob and Esau talk about the sins they committed against one another in their younger days and verbally forgive one another; we are forced to infer this.]

The difference between forgiveness and reconciliation is that forgiveness is something you can always do. Reconciliation, on the other hand, is a mutual truce. Reconciliation requires both parties to come together; essentially, this is the next step after everyone has asked for and received forgiveness. It’s an opportunity to let go and move on from the past.

Restoration, however, is a further step. Restoration is a mutually desired rebuilding of a broken relationship. In reconciliation, both parties want to move on, but they might do so separately. In restoration, they want to move on together. Make sense? It sounds like every Christian should always move toward restoration, right? Wrong. Restoration is admirable, but it’s not always advisable. If the other person is not being trustworthy, not addressing their sinful action, or if getting back into that relationship will take you away from God’s will for your life, then you should not try to restore your relationship!

That’s what’s going on with Jacob and Esau. I believe this encounter is a true reconciliation. (I’m not sure that Jacob’s previous encounter with Laban was true reconciliation—I don’t know how much I trust Laban’s motives.) But “restoring” the relationship would this time require that Jacob go with Esau to his new home in Edom. That’s not where God told Jacob to go! So Jacob’s best response was to leave his relationship with Esau there. Does that distinction make sense? True forgiveness took place here. True reconciliation took place. Full restoration did not take place. But that does not minimize what happened! You don’t have to reconcile to forgive. You don’t have to restore to reconcile. All God calls us to do is forgive. And when we forgive, we pray for the heart of the person who wronged us, hoping one day to be reconciled. If any questions about this come up in your discussion, I hope that my clarification helps you explain what was going on between Jacob and Esau and how it pertains to our relationships today.


Where We Are in Genesis

My guess is that you’ll need to explain chapter 32 (otherwise our passage doesn’t make much sense). Jacob got the word that Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men (not suspicious at all, right?; however, in Esau’s defense, it seems that he legitimately was coming with an armed escort to take them safely back to Seir). In a panic, he decided to divide his “tribe” into two groups to ensure the survival of some. He also decided to send his brother some significant “gifts” along the way. (If you didn’t, at least take a look at my icebreaker on “gift” vs. “bribe”.)

Jacob calls his gifts an attempt to “pacify” Esau. It’s hard to call that a bribe—all Jacob wanted in return from Esau was not to be killed. This strikes me as a true gift, given freely. There’s probably a specific term for that kind of gift; if someone in your group knows what it is, tell me!

In my opinion, the most important context your class needs is Jacob’s prayer in 32:9-12:

“God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, the Lord who said to me, ‘Go back to your land and to your family, and I will cause you to prosper,’ I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. Indeed, I crossed over the Jordan with just my staff, and now I have become two camps. Please rescue me from my brother Esau, for I am afraid of him; otherwise, he may come and attack me, the mothers, and their children. You have said, ‘I will cause you to prosper, and I will make your offspring like the sand of the sea, too numerous to be counted.’”

I believe this prayer is legitimate, earnest, and heartfelt. Jacob has “connected the dots” between the God who called Abraham and the God who called him, and he realizes this is the True God. He has finally seen his life as it really is—a blessing of God, not the product of his own clever machinations. In humility, he asked for God’s mercy based on God’s own promise. That’s mature, and it’s something that God Himself has approved elsewhere. In summary, let your class know that Jacob really does see, to be approaching this event in our passage this week as a changed man. It was reflected in his prayer in 32:9-12 and affirmed by God in the event we discussed last Sunday (wrestling with God in 32:22-32) in which God gave Jacob a new name. I think we can be more understanding with Jacob this time.


Part 1: Put Aside Your Pride (Genesis 33:1-4)

Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming toward him with four hundred men. So he divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two slave women. He put the slaves and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. He himself went on ahead and bowed to the ground seven times until he approached his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, hugged him, threw his arms around him, and kissed him. Then they wept.

We’ve all seen a movie in which someone pretended to be humble to someone else, only to later stab them in the back (maybe literally). We have no reason to believe that Jacob is showing anything other than genuine humility and fear. The Hebrew is worded very dramatically—Jacob looks up and sees Esau. We’ve all been there; waiting for a moment. Maybe for the doctor to return with the test results. Maybe the boss has requested a performance review. Maybe for the police to deliver a summons. We play it over in our minds, but when we see that person coming/hear the knock on the door, everything changes, doesn’t it? That’s where Jacob is.

Evidently, Jacob has changed his mind (again) on how to organize his tribe for their protection. They’re now loosely grouped all together in a fairly long line. My guess is that when he saw the size of Esau’s posse, he realized that there would be no hope of escape, so it would only be suspicious to separately his family into two groups, and there was no sense potentially antagonizing Esau.

Yes, the organization he chose means that Rachel and Joseph are still his favorite, but the fact that he went forward by himself toward Esau should earn him credit in your mind. Bowing down seven times in the presence of someone you wronged twenty years before is about as “I’m sorry” as you can get. (It gets me thinking—would you be more affected by someone bowing down to you like this, or saying “I’m sorry”? I think I might find Jacob’s method more moving.)

And then the response is what any of us could dream about. Of course this makes us think of the parable of the prodigal son. Why is it that so many people love that parable? Because in our heart of hearts, what we want from anyone else is forgiveness. We want to know that forgiveness is possible. And this is what Esau offered to Jacob. We immediately lose the fears that Jacob brought with him (note: see the back page; make sure you don’t miss the most important reconciliation we need to have) and we see a brother who is just glad to have his family back. They wept—tears of sorrow and joy, I’m sure. In these verses, we learn the importance of humility in the process of reconciliation. And we see that it takes two for reconciliation to occur. But when it does, it is beautiful and shocking and uplifting. Every time I read these verses, I am surprised how my heart is warmed. If you were Esau, could you do it?


Aside: Esau, Edom, and Seir

So, Esau has asked Jacob to come back with him to Seir. Here are a few things for your group to know. Sometime during Jacob’s 20 years in the north, Esau had taken his family and moved south. (Remember that his parents didn’t like his wives.) For some reason, he moved to the Seir mountains. This is, frankly, strange. The word “seir” means “thicket” or “forested”. This mountain range is very difficult and in places impassible. The region around those mountains (which we call Edom—which means “red” because Esau was apparently very red) was largely wilderness and not conducive to agriculture.

According to archeologists, Edom/Seir (the Bible seems to use those terms synonymously, depending on who was writing) was very sparsely populated in this time. My guess is that Esau picked it because he could hunt there in relative peace. Indeed, Edom the “nation” survived for centuries as an antagonist for the Israelites until it disappeared under the Romans.

Jacob and Esau reconciled in our passage this week. We believe that because their final meeting in Genesis 35 after Isaac’s death seems tasteful. Also, Israel had a respectful relationship with Edom for a time based on the memories of their forefathers. However, later in history, Edomites began to help Israel’s persecutors, and they then earned for themselves punishment from God. Eventually, they disappeared to be replaced by the Nabateans.


Part 2: Be Genuine (Genesis 33:5-11)

When Esau looked up and saw the women and children, he asked, “Who are these with you?” He answered, “The children God has graciously given your servant.” Then the slaves and their children approached him and bowed down. Leah and her children also approached and bowed down, and then Joseph and Rachel approached and bowed down. So Esau said, “What do you mean by this whole procession I met?” “To find favor with you, my lord,” he answered. “I have enough, my brother,” Esau replied. “Keep what you have.” But Jacob said, “No, please! If I have found favor with you, take this gift from me. For indeed, I have seen your face, and it is like seeing God’s face, since you have accepted me. Please take my present that was brought to you, because God has been gracious to me and I have everything I need.” So Jacob urged him until he accepted.

This has probably not happened to you, but if anyone in your group has a story that mirrors this, they could really give some depth to the lesson. Have you gone years without seeing a good friend or relative, only to see them again with children? (a spouse?) What’s that like? How overwhelming can it be?

I do bristle at Bilhah and Zilpah being unnamed “slaves” here, but that was conventional. I also find the reference to “God’s face” to be a bit much, but I still think it’s genuine. Look at how Jacob speaks of his family, his possessions, and his brother. I come away so impressed with Jacob. I pray that I can be so eloquent when I try to mend fences with people in my life. Does anything in Jacob’s response enlighten you in ways you could better handle your broken relationships? How about Jacob’s attitude (doing this without knowing Esau would forgive him)?


Aside: Formal Peace

In the case of Jacob and Laban, they needed a formal covenant to establish the peace between their families (31:45-54). But in the case of Jacob and Esau, they just sort of go their separate ways. It really does seem to be an understanding between them, but it is unspoken as far as the Bible is concerned. What’s the difference between the two? I think that there is still animosity between Jacob and Laban; I don’t think they trust each other. That’s why they need something formal. But there seems to be genuine reconciliation between Jacob and Esau, and that’s why their forgiveness can go unspoken. Their families lived in peace with one another (at least, for a very long time). Can you see the difference? And can you help your class understand that there’s nothing wrong with needing a formal “pact”/”agreement” with someone that perhaps you still don’t really trust? Sometimes you need to come to a written arrangement (hopefully not in the presence of lawyers) in order to have peace with someone else. That’s okay. Do what you have to do to be at peace with others.


Part 3: Agree on Limits (Genesis 33:12-15)

Then Esau said, “Let’s move on, and I’ll go ahead of you.” Jacob replied, “My lord knows that the children are weak, and I have nursing flocks and herds. If they are driven hard for one day, the whole herd will die. Let my lord go ahead of his servant. I will continue on slowly, at a pace suited to the livestock and the children, until I come to my lord at Seir.” Esau said, “Let me leave some of my people with you.” But he replied, “Why do that? Please indulge me, my lord.”

This is the hard part about forgiveness and reconciliation—sometimes, it doesn’t lead to full restoration (see my “Big Idea”). I believe that Esau really wanted to take Jacob to his home and be his host, take care of him, give him a place to live. I think it is all genuine. And his desire was so strong that he didn’t really listen to what Jacob was saying at first. Jacob didn’t want to go to Seir (and if I quibble about anything, it was Jacob lying about that; it’s almost as if that were an implied lie, if any such thing exists, that Esau should have known Jacob didn’t mean it; regardless, don’t ever lie as part of your reconciliation process). God told Jacob to go to Canaan, and that’s where Jacob was going. The distance between their families would make their peace easier. I think this speaks well of Esau. We think of him as the brute, but here he reveals nuance and maturity; he let his brother go. And as I said earlier, true forgiveness and true reconciliation doesn’t always mean that your relationship goes back to the way it was. Sometimes, there needs to be a boundary between you; I think the Lifeway lesson does a good job of noting this.

As far as the Bible story goes, this lesson is about establishing Jacob as a changed man and noting that he has taken his family back to the Promised Land. But as far as personal application goes, this is all about forgiveness. Why is seeking forgiveness so terrifying? And why do we make it so hard? Lead your class through a commitment to seek or offer forgiveness for one sin that’s been burdening them. Pray for God’s help, then challenge them to see it done.


Aside: Fun “Think about It” Questions

My Serendipity Bible has some great questions related to our passage. Use them in some way if you think helpful:

(1) If you were Esau, what would you be thinking about Jacob’s approach? [] Getting angry [] Getting suspicious [] Feeling forgiving [] Thinking “too little, too late”

(2) If you were Esau, what would you do when you finally saw Jacob? [] Run to embrace him [] Give him a piece of my mind [] Sic my guys on him [] Immediately forgive him [] Make him squirm a little

(3) What do you think about Jacob’s approach to reunion? [] He was trying to bribe Esau [] He was using common sense [] He was living in fear, not faith [] He was still trying to manipulate

(4) Why do you think Jacob gave the gifts? [] Dude, they were bribes [] Because he felt guilty [] To make up for the stolen blessing [] Because God had been good to him [] Easier than “I’m sorry”

(5) What meetings do you not look forward to?

(6) What have you found helpful in dealing with difficult relationships?


Closing Thoughts: The Lost Son, Luke 15

The real key to this lesson is that the most important reconciliation is between us and God. The parable of the prodigal son illustrates that moreso than Jacob and Esau. If your class responds well to the idea of being reconciled with their friends and family (and I hope they do), make sure to take them to the more important thing.

Luke 15: He also said: “A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate I have coming to me.’ So he distributed the assets to them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered together all he had and traveled to a distant country, where he squandered his estate in foolish living. After he had spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he had nothing. Then he went to work for one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. He longed to eat his fill from the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one would give him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food, and here I am dying of hunger! I’ll get up, go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired workers.”’ So he got up and went to his father. But while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father told his servants, ‘Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then bring the fattened calf and slaughter it, and let’s celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ So they began to celebrate. “Now his older son was in the field; as he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he summoned one of the servants, questioning what these things meant. ‘Your brother is here,’ he told him, ‘and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ “Then he became angry and didn’t want to go in. So his father came out and pleaded with him. But he replied to his father, ‘Look, I have been slaving many years for you, and I have never disobeyed your orders, yet you never gave me a goat so that I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your assets with prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ “‘Son,’ he said to him, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”


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