One of the great peacemaking stories in scripture relates the remarkable resolution of the mortal conflict between the first born twin Esau and his younger brother Jacob, who came out of the womb “with his hand gripping Esau’s heel.” Gen. 25: 26. Indeed, Jacob’s name comes from a play on the Hebrew word for “heel”, e.g., “he takes by the heel” or “he supplants”. Gen. 25: 26, FN26.
When they grow older, Jacob, with the help of his mother Rebekah, tricks his father Isaac into blessing him, instead of his older brother. Discovering this duplicity, Esau then swears that he will kill his brother after their father dies. So Jacob flees, again with help from his mother, to live with his Uncle Laban in Haran. There Jacob marries Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel, takes concubines, and has 12 sons and one daughter. Jacob prospers, but finally, at God’s behest, Jacob leaves, actually “flees” (Gen. 31:20-22), Haran to return to the land of his birth, where he must confront his brother.
Fearing that Esau will “kill us all, the mothers with the children” (Gen. 32:11), Jacob places his trust in God and decides to reconcile with his brother. To do this, he first sends a series of peace offerings to Esau, hundreds of goats, sheep, camels, cows, bulls and donkeys. That night, after dispatching these peace offerings, Jacob wrestles famously with an unnamed man, whom Jacob does not release until he’s blessed and given a new name: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Gen. 32: 28-29. After deciding to reconcile with and pay restitution to Esau, “Jacob,” the supplanter, becomes “Israel,” the victorious, blessed, god-wrestler.
The next morning, Israel, limping because of his hip, injured during the night, finally meets his brother. Before greeting him, Israel bows seven times. Esau embraces him, and they both weep. What happens next is even more astonishing. Esau initially refuses his brother’s peace offerings, saying that he already has enough. Israel insists, replying: “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God….” Gen. 33:10. Jacob, now Israel, sees “the face of God” in the face of the very brother who had sworn to kill him.
This sacred story shows us just how difficult reconciliation is. It involves risk; comes with sacrifice, even injury; and takes faith and trust in one’s God. The “Israel” of Torah teaches us, however, that when we do this; and are finally able to see “the face of God” in the face of our enemy and reconcile with our brother (or sister); we will be blessed.
*Quotations from the New Revised Standard Version of the Christian Bible. See generally Genesis 25:19 – 33:17.