Jacob and Esau: Grudges and Humility

Like many women in the Bible, my mother waited a long time for my twin and I to be born: ten years. It is only natural that when you wait that long, or even when you don’t, you want your daughters to be best friends. My sister and I are best friends, but we haven’t always felt like it. For a few years in high school and college, we were further from each other than ever before. Fraternal in biology, we also felt fraternal in soul: we had different priorities, experiences, and beliefs.

The Old Testament has a pair of fraternal twins—hairy, red-headed Esau and slightly younger Jacob, who was born grasping Esau’s heel. Rebecca had waited twenty years for them, and when she asked God why they jostled within her, God said, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will grow stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger” (Gen 25:22-23). Jacob’s name, meaning to supplant or deceive, hints at this subversion.

Jacob lives up to his namesake, negotiating Esau’s birthright from him when Esau is hungry and vulnerable (Gen 25:29-34). He is naturally competitive with his slightly older twin. But some of the competition is also stoked by their parents: Rebecca favors Jacob, and Isaac favors Esau (25:27-28). So when the time comes for Isaac to bestow his blessing on his eldest son, Rebecca tells Jacob to pretend to be Esau and trick his father so that he could receive the blessing instead. The plan works, and when the real Esau comes to receive his blessing, Isaac can only miserably offer him an alternative one: “Your dwelling will be away from the earth’s richness, away from the dew of heaven above. You will live by the sword and you will serve your brother. But when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck” (27:39-40). Naturally, Esau is furious. Riddled with anger and holding a grudge, he plans to kill Jacob, so Jacob runs away from home to start a new life.

Even twins make power distinctions. My twin is only about a minute older than me (my mother had a cesarean section) but our joke throughout childhood was that she was the older sister. We mapped ourselves onto every set of twins on TV, her being the studious, rule-following one and me being the rule-breaker. As we got older, this role-playing became something of truth, and playful differences became real misunderstandings. There came a point where my sister turned to me in the car and said, “You know, I just don’t feel like I know you anymore.” I felt diminished and small, like I was being looked down on and assessed. Although my parents didn’t instill any competition between us like Jacob and Esau’s did, we both probably thought that we put unequal burdens on the family. Our communication broke down and we grew distant, harboring grudges against each other for not being what we wanted each other to be anymore.

Grudges are not good for much, however, and the story of Jacob and Esau makes that clear. Between the time Jacob leaves his family and returns to them, Jacob meets God several times. Each time, he is left with the reminder that he is not the almighty power in his own life: God is responsible for Jacob’s ability to travel and have children. Jacob’s humility is also reinforced with Laban, Jacob’s uncle and the father of Leah and Rachel. Laban tricks Jacob into marrying his older daughter Leah before his younger daughter Rachel, even though Jacob loved Rachel and worked seven years for her (Gen 29:26-27). Laban’s deception is ironic given that it corrects the older/younger distinction Jacob subverted when he stole his older brother’s blessing. It also reminds Jacob that it is awful to be deceived by someone you trust.

In time, Jacob runs away from Laban with his wives and livestock from the growing tensions, and Laban follows him and asks “Why did you run off secretly and deceive me? Why didn’t you tell me, so I could send you away with joy and singing to the music of timbrels and harps? You didn’t even let me kiss my grandchildren and my daughters goodbye. You have done a foolish thing” (31:27-28). Jacob listens to him, and the two build a mound that stands as a witness between the two of them, so that they do no wrong by each other again (31:45-53). The event is a final example to Jacob that past wrongs and grudges do not have to endure forever—communication can instead lead to understanding, and even surprising compassion. By the time Esau and Jacob reunite, Jacob is able to bow before Esau, offer him gifts, and declare himself subservient (32:17-18). The humility is not feigned, because Jacob knows what he put his brother through and how grateful he should be for his own life. Esau, instead of coming with his four hundred men to kill Jacob and his people, embraces his brother and weeps (33:4).

Like with Jacob and Esau, time can heal but ultimately communication seals the wound. Jacob and Esau’s resolution reminds me of my twin’s and mine: after they reunite, they leave to go on separate paths and live separate lives (Gen 33:12-17)—but they come together when it is important (35:29). They respect and love one another; all grudges are gone.

Isaac’s blessing to Esau is actually a very fitting one. As a prophecy, it comes true: Esau throws off Jacob’s yoke; Jacob is no longer an over-powering enemy to him. But Esau gains back control in the way that friends and family should gain control in their relationships: through love, humility, and forgiveness.

My twin and I are young, but I am all the more grateful that we have been able to forgive each other for past grudges. We have already learned one way or another that communication and humility are key to being true friends. We may not always agree, but I hope we always seek to understand each other.

Lisa Meskimen graduated from Mercer University in 2020, where she wrote for The Cluster and interned at Mercer University Press. She loves writing and editing and is pursuing a career in publishing. You can find her on Philosophy Z, where she writes about philosophy from the perspective of Generation Z. 

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  1. Beautifully written, Lisa. God gave you a gift of writing (and speaking) in an articulate and eloquent way. You are a deep thinker and have an gigantic heart, and anyone who reads what you have to say will be enriched and inspired. I look forward to each and every one of your articles/blogs.

  2. This was a great piece Lisa! I have never heard about the story of Jacob and Esau, and you told it along with your own story wonderfully.