Esau swears he will get revenge on Jacob, and then Rebekah, mother of them both, sends Jacob away to hide until Esau calms down. "Why should I lose both of you in one day," she says, and never mind that this caper of Jacob's was her idea in the first place. Modern therapists would have a field day analyzing the dysfunction in this family.
So we have that story above.
And then we get the Apostle Paul at his very finest, declaring an ethical standard in Romans 12:9-21 that must have come to him somehow from Jesus himself:
"Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them."If your head is spinning at the contrast in these two stories, that is understandable. Aren't both of these stories in the Bible? Indeed. Which direction are we going? Are we supposed to honor Jacob's deceit or go with Paul's turn-the-other-cheek ethic?
Paul, of course, knew the Jacob-Esau story quite well, and he was aware of how the story comes out -- with the two brothers reconciling in Genesis 33:1-17. Jacob is re-named "Israel," and he has a boatload of problems with his own sons, and yet Jacob will be honored as the patriarch of the nation. Down through the ages, Esau is portrayed in art as looking like a Neanderthal Man and in sermons he gets the short end.
But it is Esau who will show forgiveness, who demonstrates mutual affection, forgiveness, honor, and letting go of hatred and evil. I wonder if Paul had Esau in mind when he wrote his letter to the Romans?
"If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
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Art above: Jacob and Esau, oil on canvas, by Matthias Stom, 1600-1649