Lessons on Community from Jacob’s Reconciliation with Esau

Jacob and Esau were estranged for many years. Their reconciliation provides lessons on community transformation.

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You can get a glimpse of how relationships can be restored and a sense of community can be established from the story of Jacob and his reconciliation with his brother Esau in Genesis.

In this story, Jacob is returning home and meeting his brother after stealing a family inheritance, fleeing the scene, and building a new family. After many years’ absence, as Jacob nears home, he comes to understand the need to turn away from his old ways of scheming, deception, and manipulation; and accept God’s ways of honesty, humility, gratefulness, and generosity. (See the backstory.) He is terrified of meeting Esau, whom he fears is going to attack him. But the reunion goes well and the two are reconciled to each other and their troubled past, much to Jacob’s surprise and relief.

There are several epiphanies that Jacob seems to have on his path to transformation, which happens largely because of his desire to reconcile with his brother. Truths about both personal and community transformation are illustrated in Jacob’s story:

Deception harms relationships

Jacob used deceit to get what he wanted for himself. This approach worked in many instances, enabling him to get his father’s blessing and increase his wealth through a deal with his father-in-law. But he was also the victim of deceit, and ended up with a wife he didn’t really want or love.

At first, Jacob didn’t seem to care much about the fallout of his decisions to deceive; later, he comes to understand that having poor relationships stemming from scheming, deception, and manipulation hurts him and his family in unexpected and unpredictable ways.

Dishonest methods wreck relationships, even for noble causes

Many of us champion noble causes. These may be brand new initiatives or minor tweaks in the way things happen in our community, whether the community is defined as our family, our neighborhood, our schools, our church, our nation, etc.

We often think we know the best way to solve a problem or seize an opportunity, and we may be exactly right! Our thoughts and desires are honorable, and our approaches to getting things done typically have integrity. Rifts occur though, if we use dishonest or deceptive means to achieve even desirable results.

The problem (besides that dishonesty and deceptiveness are wrong) is that people who live in the community pay a whole lot more attention to a leader’s methods than his or her results. Yes, they”ll applaud accomplishments and may honor the advocate. But don’t be fooled: they won’t forget how someone made things happen. Superficially things look great but the fabric of community has been ripped apart underneath, not knit together when desirable results are achieved through dishonest methods.

Jacob eventually realized that his tactics to increase his wealth weren’t honorable ones, even if they worked. Sure, he reaped immediate rewards. But the long-term impact of his deception nearly caused him to lose everything he owned.

Good (and bad) approaches will be mirrored in the community

Jacob was deceitful, he married into a deceitful family, and his children were deceitful. His unhealthy patterns were mirrored by those in his community (specifically, his father-in-law and his beloved wife who stole household objects from her father and refused to confess that she had taken them) and replicated in the next generation (Jacob’s sons threw their brother Joseph in a pit and lied about the incident.)

So, bad behaviors are not benign. They cause dysfunction and distrust to grow in a family and destroy community.

I can easily blame others for havoc wreaked by their actions. But I must realize that people close to me follow my lead. Modeling right behavior, demonstrating trust, generosity, humility, and openness creates a foundation (though not a guarantee) for building healthy relationships and a strong community.

Building community often requires admitting mistakes and desiring reconciliation

As Jacob neared home, he seemed to have a growing recognition that he could not control all that happened in the world, despite his efforts to prevail over others. He seemed to acknowledge his shortcomings and stop blaming his mistakes on circumstances and the weakness of others.

After the notable restless night in which he wrestled with God, Jacob indicated a desire to be reconciled to his brother. He hoped that Esau would forgive him, not simply to spare his life but also to bring about genuine reconciliation for his family.

God works in other people to create community

I can’t build a healthy community alone. Others need to cooperate. God is always working to build community and often intervenes so that we will forgive and be forgiven, and relationships can be restored.

No matter how much he repents of his past, Jacob may not be accepted and embraced by his brother.

In this situation, though, God has been working in Esau’s life. The previously defeated brother has not become bitter. He has not wasted his life, ruminating about how things might have been different had his brother not tricked their father and stolen his birthright. Instead, Esau has continued with his life and created wealth in his own right. Perhaps he has also made peace with God for his mistake of so easily trading his inheritance for a bowl of soup. At any rate, Esau gladly welcomes his brother Jacob.

The simple lesson here is that I must avoid bitterness (no matter how well deserved), offer forgiveness, and seek reconciliation if I want to live in community.

I love that Jacob’s fear and anxiety lead to a confrontation with God but also to reconciliation with his brother. Transformation starts with personal understanding but naturally extends to relationships because we all live in some form of community with other people. There’s a happy ending here, at least in Genesis 33, with what I would interpret as hugs all around.

Sometimes, though, we can be transformed but our relationships remain broken and we don’t enjoy the hoped-for community. Still, the foundation for healthy relationships is there. If I can’t rebuild with those from my past, I can ask God to help me form or become a part of a new community.

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