Friday, January 3, 2014

Compassionate Brother (part 11)

It is as soon as Laban departs from him that Jacob’s thoughts turn to his brother.  He knows that he has a serious problem on his hands.  He knows that he has wronged his brother, and that he has dishonored his brother and his entire family.  He devises a plan.  Indeed, “Jacob sent messengers on ahead to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the region of Edom.  He commanded them, ‘This is what you must say to my lord Esau: “This is what your servant Jacob says: I have been staying with Laban until now.  I have oxen, donkeys, sheep, and male and female servants.  I have sent this message to inform my lord, so that I may find favor in your sight.”’” (Genesis 32:3-5)

Jacob is quite right to be concerned.  This concern, and the reasons for the concern (which are culturally dependent) will be well understood and top of mind by those that would hear this story independently as part of the oral tradition being shared amongst the Israelites, or as those that would hear/read this story as a post-exodus people, doing so after the stories have been codified and taken the shape in which they have been passed through history.  Though all will already know the outcome (much like the initial church communities that were the hearers of the Gospels hear those stories with knowledge of their outcome), they can still share in the building tension by which the story is shaped. 

Having made this initial effort at what Jacob believes to be necessary for the assuaging of Esau, “The messengers returned to Jacob and said, ‘We went to your brother Esau.  He is coming to meet you and has four hundred men with him.’” (32:6)  Understandably, and with full cognizance of what he had done to his brother, “Jacob was very afraid and upset” (32:7a).  Owing to this, he took some precautions.  Knowing that the dishonor to which he has subjected his brother could be satisfied with a certain level of vengeance, and undoubtedly expecting the worst from Esau, Jacob “divided the people who were with him into two camps, as well as the flocks, herds, and camels” (32:7b). 

Jacob’s reasoning process, as it is steeped in an honor and shame culture (as the stories are being circulated within communities that also function in the dialectic of honor and shame), is on display as he thinks “If Esau attacks one camp… then the other camp will be able to escape” (32:8).  In hope, Jacob reasons that the dishonor which he has foisted upon his brother (really to his own shame) will be satisfied by Esau’s slaughter of half of Jacob’s people and possessions. 

After devising this plan, Jacob is said to have prayed to the Lord, saying “Rescue me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, as well as the mothers with their children” (32:11).  He then repeats the promise that has been conveyed to him, reminding his Lord of His words in which He had said “I will certainly make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand on the seashore, too numerous to count” (32:12). 

Having offered up this prayer, and perhaps gaining a bit of confidence in light of this recollection and of all that has happened to him to this point, Jacob makes a change to his plans.  “He sent as a gift to his brother Esau” (32:13b) a sizable number of animals, in the obvious hope that doing so would make up for what Jacob had stolen from him, and as something of a symbolic (and tangible) transfer of honor.  Is this a semblance of humility here on Jacob’s part?  Perhaps. 

It is recorded that “He entrusted them to his servants” (32:16a), telling them to “’Pass over before me, and keep some distance between one herd and the next.’  He instructed the servant leading the first herd, ‘When my brother Esau meets you and asks, “To whom do you belong?  Where are you going?  Whose herds are you driving?” then you must say, “They belong to your servant Jacob.  They have been sent as a gift to my lord Esau.  In fact Jacob himself is behind us.”’” (32:16b-18)  There is an element here, however faint it may seen, of Jacob attempting to shame himself (and so acknowledge his own shameful actions) as he approaches Esau.

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