Rivalry or Reconciliation?
Genesis 32:22 – 33:11; 50:15–21
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.
If you had siblings, how did you get along? The book of Genesis is full of stories of brothers and sisters in competition and conflict. After the tragic story of Cain and Abel, we come to the story of Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael was Abraham’s first son, born not to his wife Sarah but to her Egyptian slave Hagar. According to Genesis, there was a bitter rivalry between the two mothers and their two sons. Hagar and Ishmael were treated terribly, while Sarah and Isaac were given every advantage. God intervened and made it clear that even if Abraham and Sarah failed to love Hagar and Ishmael, God cared for them deeply.
Years later, Abraham’s grandson Jacob was caught up in bitter sibling rivalry with his older twin brother, Esau. At the heart of their conflict was the belief that God loved Jacob and hated Esau. Based on this belief that he was uniquely favoured, Jacob felt entitled to take advantage of everyone around him, especially his disfavoured brother Esau. He seemed to get away with his trickery again and again until, eventually, Esau grew so angry at Jacob that Jacob had to flee for his life. For many years, the two brothers lived far apart, maturing, but still alienated from each other. During this time, Jacob married two sisters – a favoured one named Rachel and a disfavoured one named Leah. Leah became the mother of six of Jacob’s twelve sons, so her story had a happier ending than anyone expected.
After he became a rich and successful man, Jacob began a homeward journey. He learned that the next day he would be forced to encounter the brother he had wronged in so many ways so many years before. You can imagine how afraid he was. He had lived his whole life by trickery. Now his old tricks weren’t working any more. So all that night, he felt like he was in a wrestling match with God.
His sleepless night of inner wrestling seems like an image for the human struggle common to us all.
His sleepless night of inner wrestling seems like an image for the human struggle common to us all. Like Jacob, we wrestle to get our own way by trying to cheat or defeat anyone who has something we desire – including God. Like Jacob, we grapple with changing old habits, even when those habits aren’t working for us any more. Like Jacob, we agonise through the long night, held in a headlock by despair, fearing that it’s too late for us to hope for a new beginning.
So hour after hour through the night, Jacob wrestled. When the new day dawned, he rose from the struggle with two signs of his emergence into maturity as a human being. First, he received the blessing of a new name, Israel, which means ‘God-wrestler’. And he received a hip injury that required him to walk with a limp, a lifelong memento of his long night of struggle.
Jacob was now ready – limping – to face his brother. Instead of trying to trick Esau as the old Jacob would have done, he sent Esau a huge array of gifts to honour him. When Jacob finally met Esau face to face, Esau had his chance. Now the older twin could finally get revenge on his upstart younger twin for all Jacob’s dirty tricks in the past.
Esau could treat Jacob to a taste of the disdain and contempt Jacob had repeatedly poured upon him. But Esau surprised everyone. He made it clear that he wasn’t holding a grudge. He desired no revenge, nor did he require any gifts or appeasement. He simply wanted to be reconciled.
Jacob was so touched that he said these beautiful words: ‘Truly, to see your face is like seeing the face of God, since you have received me with such grace.’ The upstart trickster had finally learned to see the face of God in the face of the one he formerly tricked and despised. He discovered God’s grace in the one he had always considered disgraced. In the face of the other, he rediscovered a brother. In the face of the one everyone assumed God hated . . . God had been revealed. What a story!
Even though Jacob learned an important lesson that day, sibling rivalry had a resurgence in the next generation. Jacob had twelve sons. One son, Joseph, was resented by his eleven brothers, because – as with Abel over Cain, Sarah over Hagar, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, and Rachel over Leah before him – Joseph was favoured over them. In fact, Joseph dreamed that one day his brothers would grovel before him.
Eventually, driven by the resentment of the disfavoured, they plotted to kill him. At the last minute, however, they decided to sell him as a slave to some Egyptian traders instead. Through a dramatic series of temptations, delays, setbacks and recoveries, Joseph rose from slavery to a place of honour in the court of the Egyptian Pharaoh.
Many years later, when a famine sent the brothers to Egypt as refugees, Joseph had his chance, just as Esau did: he could get revenge on those miserable brothers who had treated him so badly. He could do to them what they had done to him. But Joseph, like Esau, made a different choice – not for revenge, but for forgiveness.
When his brothers grovelled before him, as Joseph had dreamed they would when he was a boy, and when they offered to be treated as slaves rather than brothers, Joseph didn’t gloat. He refused to play God, judge them evil and sentence them to death or enslavement. Instead, he reinterpreted the whole story of their relationship. Their evil intent had been overshadowed by God’s good intent, so that Joseph could save their lives. He had suffered and he had been blessed, he realised, for their benefit. So instead of imitating their resentful and violent example, he imitated the gracious heart of God. By refusing to play God in judging them, he imaged God in showing kindness to them. In this way, Joseph – the victim of mistreatment by his brothers – became the hero.
The one everyone cruelly rejected was the one whose kindness everyone needed. The one who was considered favoured wasn’t made superior so others could grovel before him; he was made strong so he could serve them.
In both of these stories of sibling rivalry, the rejected brother, the ‘other brother’, is the one in whose face the grace of God brightly shines.
These stories pulsate with some of the most powerful and radical themes of the Bible. Blessing, power or favour is not given for privilege over others, but for service for the benefit of others. The weaker brother or sister, the one who is deemed ugly or dull or disfavoured or illegitimate, is always beloved by God. From Abel to Ishmael to Hagar to Esau to Leah to Joseph, God keeps showing up, not in the victors who have defeated or exploited or rejected a weaker rival, but in the weaker ones who have been defeated or rejected.
These same themes are the heartbeat of two of Jesus’ greatest parables. In the parable of the prodigal son, the father who runs out to welcome his runaway younger son behaves exactly as Esau did – running to him, embracing him, kissing him, showing grace rather than retaliation. And he acts just as Joseph did, as well, not making the runaway grovel as a slave, but welcoming him as a beloved member of the family. And in the parable of the good Samaritan, it is the disfavoured Samaritan, not the high-status priest or Levite, who models the love of God.
As in Genesis, life today is full of rivalries and conflicts. We all experience wrongs, hurts and injustices through the actions of others – and we all inflict wrongs, hurts and injustices upon others. If we want to reflect the image of God, we will choose grace over hostility, reconciliation over revenge, equality over rivalry. When we make that choice, we encounter God in the face of our former rivals and enemies. And as we are humbled, surrendering to God and seeking to be reconciled with others, our faces too reflect the face of God.
We come alive as God’s image-bearers indeed.
Meditate and Contemplate
1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about how a conflict or rivalry with a family member, friend or colleague challenged you to face yourself . . . and God.
3. Respond to the idea that in revenge, we seek to imitate the person who has wronged us, and that in reconciliation, we imitate and reflect God.
4. For children: Tell us about someone you had a chance to forgive.
5. Activate: This week, look for opportunities for others to ‘see the face of God’ in your face, and seek the face of God in their faces, too – especially those you may see as rivals or outcasts.
6. Meditate: In silence, ponder forgiveness, and thank God for the joy of being forgiven – and for the release of forgiving others.