The story of Jacob and Esau gives us a chance to see that God’s sovereignty, God’s ability to move in the world, can coexist with us being wrong. Maybe it helps us to see that God’s sovereign work is also to undo our wrongness, to undo us. When we think we know what God intends, when we hear words we believe are God’s, we might be wrong. We could follow these words to our own devastation, but even then God is in the business of turning all things toward good.
Maybe Jacob and Rebecca were wrong. Maybe Isaac—who has seen his own brother Ishmael blessed, who has seen God take the knife from his father Abraham’s hand—has learned to see this other possibility, the hope found in having enough for two blessings.
Jacob spends the rest of his life undoing the wrong he has done; he gives back what he stole from Esau. That’s how God works in the world. God turns us around, back toward redemption. God sets things right—not just in the end, but all along the way, even when the terms we set for good and evil bring about disaster.
Esau and Jacob let us see that when we read the Bible, we explore God’s nature and our own. We find our words in God’s mouth and God’s words in ours. We are working out who we are and who we think God is along the way, in the long faithfulness that is reading the Bible. This Bible is a discovery of God through human lives, a story that scatters signposts of memory showing us the way home again. We get lost; we find our way back. The way is there, waiting.
The trouble is that we are usually in a rush to make sense of these stories of violence, to pull them out and hold them up for judgement—because we are not entirely sure we want them to be ours. We are not convinced we want this God to claim us. I suspect we want something easier: a plain text about a God who stands outside and above us, setting up morally clear judgements for all time. Instead, we get questions. What will we hear? What will we believe? What will we live?
There aren’t that many images of Esau, whom the church has so often treated as an enemy.The top panel depicts the two brothers’ reunion. They are shown in motion, a step away from embrace. Their faces are already touching. The sword from Esau’s sheath is on the ground, and both brothers stand on it, rendering it useless.
Without stories like Jacob and Esau and Amalek, it would be difficult for us to take the Bible seriously. The Old Testament would consist of colourless platitudes idealising heroes and villains. Instead, the Bible makes room for terror and hope, for what is possible and what is not. The Amalekites complicate our desire for vengeance. We are shown the far edges of enmity, and our fear is exposed. The text holds a space for the complication of that enmity, as we discover the enemy within us—how the Bible calls for each generation not to forget.