Rivals for much of their lives, Esau and Jacob were fraternal twins who competed for spiritual blessings, land, money, and family preeminence. Parental feelings regarding the bestowal of the birthright blessing widened the distance between them. Their story is one of intense feelings and bitter rivalry, yet it has a joyous resolution. It prompts us to evaluate our own family relationships and suggests some ways we may attempt to resolve any lingering unkind feelings.
The conflict between Esau and Jacob was evident even in their mother’s womb. Rebekah, who after almost 20 years of marriage had not been able to conceive, felt a great struggle in her body and “went to enquire of the Lord” (Gen. 25:22). Our Father in Heaven, who knew us all before we were born, answered: “Two nations are in thy womb, … and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23). The order of their birth is important because the firstborn son received the right to inherit (1) the position of head of the family, (2) priesthood authority, and (3) a double portion of his parents’ estate (see Bible Dictionary, “Birthright” and “Firstborn,” 625, 675). Esau was born first, but in the womb Jacob “took hold on Esau’s heel” (Gen 25:26).
The boys grew, each pursuing different occupations. Esau chose hunting and agriculture, while Jacob preferred the breeding and tending of animals. Esau focused more on the things of the world, while Jacob was a “plain man” (Gen. 25:27), or, as the Bible footnote explains, he was “whole, complete, perfect, simple,” suggesting that he was upright before the Lord. Isaac loved the companionship of Esau, and Rebekah favored Jacob (see Gen. 25:28).
Arriving home one day from a hunting expedition, a famished Esau longed for his brother’s food. “Feed me, I pray thee,” Esau pled (Gen. 25:30). Jacob agreed, but for a price: his brother’s birthright. The scripture says, “Esau despised his birthright” (Gen. 25:34). Further evidence of his wayward nature can be noted several years later when, contrary to the commandment, he married a woman outside of the covenant, whose beliefs were not in harmony with the teachings of God. The Apostle Paul called Esau a “profane person” (see Heb. 12:16).
When Isaac became about 130 years old, and his sons more than 70,1 the time was right for the bestowal of the birthright blessing. Rebekah felt the blessing should not go to Esau, that he would not perform in it as he should, and, remembering God’s word that “the elder shall serve the younger,” implemented a plan to ensure that her worthy son, Jacob, would receive it (see Gen. 27:6–10). Yet Jacob was hesitant to participate in the plan, so his mother replied, “Upon me be thy curse, my son: only obey my voice” (Gen. 27:13). Thus, by pretending to be his brother, Jacob received the birthright blessing from his father that his brother had promised him years earlier. Isaac affirmed that the blessing rightfully belonged to Jacob when he told Esau, “Yea, and he shall be blessed” (Gen. 27:33). Further, Isaac indicated in Esau’s blessing that Esau would serve Jacob (see Gen. 27:40).
When Esau learned that Isaac had given the blessing to Jacob, he “lifted up his voice, and wept” (Gen. 27:38), suggesting he had no intention of keeping his earlier promise. The scripture says that Esau “hated” his brother and vowed to “slay” him (Gen. 27:41). Any rift that may have existed between them was now a chasm. As a consequence, Rebekah counseled Jacob to leave the area, feeling that with the passage of time Esau’s anger might subside. Isaac and Rebekah also wanted Jacob to marry righteously (see Gen. 27:46; Gen. 28:1). So at about age 77 (see note 1), Jacob and Esau parted, a separation that lasted about 20 years (see Gen. 31:41).
In time Jacob married and prospered in Haran as a laborer for his uncle Laban, while Esau’s household moved to the nearby land of Seir, also called Edom. Then, in a visit from an angel of the Lord, Jacob was commanded to return to his birthright land (see Gen. 31:11–13). Supposing that his brother’s former frame of mind still prevailed, Jacob sent messengers to Esau with a friendly greeting. They returned with word that Esau was coming to meet him with 400 armed men (see Gen. 32:6). “Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed” (Gen. 32:7). Since God had given the direction, Jacob appealed to Him in fervent prayer for protection. Jacob then instructed his servants to divide over 550 of his animals into many groups and to drive them in a staggered formation toward Esau. Each servant of Jacob presented his group of animals as a separate gift—gift piling upon gift. Jacob hoped this manner of presentation would soften his brother’s heart (see Gen. 32:13–21).
As Esau drew close, Jacob went out with his wives and children to meet his brother, bowing seven times as he went—a sign of respect for his older brother. None of this was lost on Esau, who “ran to meet” Jacob (Gen. 33:4). “How sincere and genuine is this conduct of Esau,” writes a commentator, “and at the same time how magnanimous! He had buried all his resentment, and forgotten all his injuries; and receives his brother with the strongest demonstrations, not only of forgiveness, but of fraternal affection.”2 Esau “embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him: and they wept” (Gen. 33:4). They conversed about Jacob’s beautiful family, and then Esau returned Jacob’s gifts (see Gen. 33:9). But Jacob insisted, so Esau relented, for according to custom, the acceptance of the gift signified a reliable friendship had been formed.
Despite their past, they now knew they could be friends. And though Esau’s path in life would never be Jacob’s, and Jacob’s would not be Esau’s, the scripture notes they later came together to bury their father (see Gen. 35:29).
This story may be rightly focused on the waywardness of Esau. Persons who desire righteousness will be spiritually blessed, while those who put aside their heavenly birthright “have given up something of eternal value in order to satisfy a momentary hunger for the things of the world.”3
However, this is also a story about forgiveness and family reconciliation. “If I were to teach the principle of generosity in human relationships, how marvelous to share with people … the relationship of Jacob and Esau,”4 said Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Just as Jacob and Esau needed time apart, so might we occasionally need time to calm our feelings and reflect on the importance of our family relationships. Yet time and separation alone will not bring resolution. If we are prayerful, the Lord will help us know when the time is right for reconciliation, and we can follow the example of these brothers. How sweet that moment of sincere reconciliation can be! Our Savior will help us. He is the great Mediator, and He is able to soften hearts and heal wounds. He knows how to bring people to a unity of heart and mind. His example of marvelous generosity to us through His Atonement can help inspire forgiveness in our souls.
More on this topic: See “The Letter I Never Sent,”Ensign, Aug. 1994, 22–25; Maxine Murdock, “I Have a Question,”Ensign, June 1994, 60–61; Theodore M. Burton, “To Forgive Is Divine,”Ensign, May 1983, 70–72.
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