This week’s posts have centred on the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Monday’s looked at the elder brother. Tuesday’s addressed misapplications of the parable to public policy and the church environment. Yesterday’s entry addressed the way Jesus’s audience would have understood the story. Today’s discusses the parable in light of the examples of conflict, forgiveness and blessing in the Book of Genesis among brothers.
Brothers in Genesis
Some of the most dramatic Bible stories concern relationships between brothers in the Book of Genesis.
The Revd James Crampsey SJ, superior of the Jesuits in Edinburgh, wrote a considered analysis of three sets of brothers in Genesis in light of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
In anticipation of the reading of this parable on Laetare Sunday in Lent 2013, he wrote ‘The Transformation of Esau and the Parable of the Prodigal Son’:
I would like to suggest that there are stories about brotherly relationships in the book of Genesis that may provide a fruitful context for the interpretation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son: the well-known stories of Cain and Abel, and of Joseph and his brothers; and the perhaps less familiar one of Jacob and his brother, Esau. In this article I will give a close reading of the latter story, and suggest how the reconciliation between the two brothers points forwards and backwards in the Book of Genesis, and also evokes the parable of the Prodigal Son.
It is a thought-provoking essay and I highly recommend it. Excerpts aid my exposition below, emphases mine.
Cain and Abel
Genesis 4 tells the story of Cain and Abel. Cain was consumed by raging jealousy when God rejected his sacrifice but accepted Abel’s. Cain tilled the soil and offered God some of his crops (verse 3). Abel was a shepherd and offered the firstborn of his flock and the fat portions (verse 4).
God spoke to Cain afterward:
6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted?[b] And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for[c] you, but you must rule over it.”
As we know, Cain did not rule over sinful desire but succumbed to it by murdering Abel (verse 8). When the Lord asked him where Abel was, Cain lied (verse 9):
“I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
Although God deprived Cain from continuing to grow productive crops (verse 11), He did prevent Cain from being killed in revenge. Cain expected to die at another man’s hand:
15 Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. 16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod,[f] east of Eden.
Nod means ‘wandering’. Once there, his wife gave birth to Enoch (verse 17), who later began his own family (verses 18-24). Meanwhile, Eve gave birth to Seth, God’s gift to fill the absence of Abel (verse 25). Seth’s wife gave birth to Enosh and (verse 26):
At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.
Jacob and Esau
Genesis 25 begins the story of Jacob and Esau, twins born to Isaac’s wife Rebekah in a difficult pregnancy (verses 22, 23). They were Abraham’s grandsons.
Esau was red and hairy (verse 25). Jacob was holding onto his heel when they were born (verse 26). Jacob means ‘take by the heel’, which means ‘to cheat or to trick’. The Lord later changed Jacob’s name to Israel and Esau’s was later changed to Edom. In verse 23 the Lord told Rebekah that her pregnancy was difficult because:
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you[c] shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the older shall serve the younger.”
These people were the Israelites and the Edomites.
Isaac favoured Esau because he hunted game which provided tasty meat and Rebekah preferred Jacob who dwelled in tents (verses 27, 28).
Esau lived by his appetites and sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew because he was dying of hunger one day (verses 29-34). The rest of their story continues through Genesis 33. It involves deception, when, as Isaac was going blind and nearing death, Rebekah put animal skins and Esau’s clothes on Jacob to fool her husband into giving Jacob the blessing owed his elder son (Genesis 27:18-29). By the time Esau entered for his blessing, Isaac said, essentially, that he had nothing left for him except to say that he would serve Jacob until he tired of it and broke away (verse 40).
Esau vowed to kill his brother after Isaac’s death (verse 41), but word got to Rebekah (verse 42). She told Jacob to go to her brother Laban’s house and stay there until Esau calmed down (verses 43-45).
From there, Crampsey tells us:
Jacob is tricked by his father-in-law, Laban, to serve for fourteen years to secure the hand of his true love, Rachel, the younger sister of his first wife, Leah. The unloved Leah gives birth to four sons, but Rachel is barren. The sisters’ servants provide Jacob with another four sons; Leah then has two more sons and a daughter. With strong echoes of Sarah, Rachel remains childless. And despite all these births, is there still a threat to the promise? Surely God’s faithfulness to the promise must be bound up with Jacob and Rachel.
Finally, after a long, heart-rending wait for Rachel, who had to live through the experience of Leah and female servants giving birth to Jacob’s children (Genesis 30:22-24):
22 Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. 23 She conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” 24 And she called his name Joseph,[j] saying, “May the Lord add to me another son!”
That is the Joseph of the ‘Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’. His story is below.
Once Rachel gave birth to Joseph, Jacob asked Laban to release him from service. He had fulfilled his commitment to his uncle and wanted to return home (verses 25, 26):
Laban is not enthusiastic, but Jacob (whose name means ‘tricky’) out-foxes his wily father-in-law, having acquired Laban’s daughters, and true to character steals what is due to Laban’s sons. It is time to get out of town (again!).
Genesis 31 describes Laban’s coldness towards Jacob as well as his own daughters Rachel and Leah. It’s understandable. Rachel then stole her father’s household goods (verse 19). Afterwards, they all left. Laban was furious and left with his kinsmen in hot pursuit. On the third day after their departure, God appeared to Laban in a dream and told him to say nothing at all to Jacob (verse 24). When Laban finally caught up with Jacob and his daughters, the two men reconciled (verses 43-54). Before leaving the next day to return home, Laban kissed and blessed Rachel, Leah and their children (verse 55).
The next chapter in Jacob’s story, told in Genesis 32, was to reconcile with Esau:
When we remember the last words of Esau, ‘The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob’, God’s promise of presence and protection needs to take concrete shape, and it does:
Jacob went on his way and the angels [malachim] of God met him; and when Jacob saw them he said, ‘This is God’s camp!’ (32:1-2)
(Remember Psalm 34: ‘the angel of the Lord is encamped around those who revere him to rescue them.’)
This encourages Jacob to send his own messengers (malachim) to Esau to announce his arrival with a hint that he is now rich, and that it might be in Esau’s interests to receive him. The messengers return, and strike fear into Jacob’s heart: Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men. With his brain working overtime (what would someone need four hundred men for?), Jacob first splits his caravan into two in the hope that one of the two of them might escape.
In fear and humility, Jacob prayed for God’s continued blessings, especially safety for him and his family (verses 9-12).
After splitting his caravan up, Jacob and his family crossed the stream of Jabbok. From there, he sent them on ahead and camped out alone. That night, a man wrestled with him until dawn (verse 24). Jacob prevailed throughout. Finally, to stop the struggle, the man touched Jacob’s hip socket and put it out of joint (verse 25). The man told him that from henceforth his name would be Israel, as he had prevailed against God and man (verse 27). It was at that point that Jacob — Israel — realised he had been wrestling with God. After God blessed him, Jacob named that piece of land Peniel — ‘the face of God’ (verse 30).
Now we understand how and why the tribes were called the tribes of Israel, Jacob’s descendants.
Genesis 33 recounts the meeting and reconciliation between Jacob and Esau. Instead of the violence Jacob expected, his elder brother rejoiced:
4 But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.
Yesterday’s post on the actions of the father towards the Prodigal Son mentioned what the embrace and kiss on the neck meant to the Jews; not only was it a loving greeting but, where there had been separation or discord, it also signified forgiveness.
Jacob brought with him servants and livestock whom he planned to give to Esau as a gift of reconciliation. He had sent messengers ahead to give Esau the message, after which Esau set off to journey to meet him with 400 men (Genesis 32:3-6).
Once the brothers were face to face, Esau initially graciously declined the offer, saying he had his full share already (Genesis 33:9). Esau was so godly at that moment that:
10 Jacob said, “No, please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand. For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me. 11 Please accept my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough.” Thus he urged him, and he took it.
In return, Esau offered Jacob some of his servants, but Jacob declined, equally graciously (verse 15).
The brothers left each other’s company and each group returned to their respective homes, with Jacob journeying on, ultimately to the city of Shechem in Canaan (verse 18).
Joseph and his brothers
Thanks to the superb musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, most of us are familiar with his story, told in Genesis 37-50.
Crampsey reminds us:
The spectre of fraternal murder hovers over the Joseph section of the book of Genesis. The coat of many colours has been interpreted as Jacob’s public declaration of Joseph as his heir, even though he is the youngest of eleven brothers. The brothers’ seething animosity towards Joseph increases as the dreamer, rather naively, tells them of his dream about the sheaves of corn. Then he has a second dream in which the sun and moon and eleven stars are bowing down to him. Jacob rebukes him for this but keeps it in his mind; the brothers are consumed by envy. Their chance comes when Joseph is sent out to them as they pasture their sheep.
They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another,
‘Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.’ (Genesis 37:18-20)
Reuben persuades them to put him in a pit but not kill him, as he intends to rescue him later. But while Reuben is out of the picture, the other brothers sell him to the Midianites. Joseph is taken to Egypt as a slave, while his brothers return with the blood-dipped garment to a distraught Jacob.
I wrote last month about Joseph’s amazing success in Egypt managing grain stores for the Pharaoh (as well as advising him) and how this gave rise centuries later to the pyramid-as-grain-silo theory.
As Joseph was stockpiling grain for the people of Egypt to keep the people fed during the famine, it spread to Canaan. Jacob sent his sons to buy grain from Egypt twice (Genesis 42 and Genesis 43). On the second occasion, Joseph and his brothers were reconciled (Genesis 45). Pharaoh was so delighted that he invited all of them and Jacob (Israel) to move from Canaan to Egypt so they could all be together (verses 16-20). This is how the Israelites came to be in Egypt.
They settled in the land of Goshen (Genesis 46:28). Joseph was finally able to see his father once again:
29 Then Joseph prepared his chariot and went up to meet Israel his father in Goshen. He presented himself to him and fell on his neck and wept on his neck a good while. 30 Israel said to Joseph, “Now let me die, since I have seen your face and know that you are still alive.”
Joseph took Jacob to meet Pharaoh. Israel blessed him (Genesis 47:7). Pharaoh told Joseph to settle Israel, his sons and their families in the land of Rameses — Goshen — the best area in Egypt (verse 11). Israel lived there for 17 years (verse 48).
Before he died at the age of 147, Israel asked Joseph to take him back home to be buried with his ancestors (verse 30). He also blessed Joseph’s sons (Genesis 48). Finally, he gathered all his sons to give them his final blessing and foretelling of their futures, some of which were less than favourable (Genesis 49). He left his most fulsome blessing for his favourite son, Joseph.
Genesis 50 records the burial of Israel and the fear Joseph’s brothers had that he might seek revenge. They asked for his forgiveness:
19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people[b] should be kept alive, as they are today. 21 So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.
As Esau had promised himself revenge when Isaac died, so the brothers think that Joseph will do. They manufacture a word of Jacob to persuade Joseph to re-write his narrative. But like Esau, Joseph has already freed himself from the need for vengeance. And despite his disclaimer about being in the place of God, Joseph aligns himself with God’s plan ‘to preserve a numerous people’, and says, ‘I myself will provide for you and your little ones’.
God’s promise is fulfilled by Joseph’s refusal to take vengeance on his brothers, by Esau’s magnanimity toward Jacob. The curse of Cain is not inexorably written into the script of the people of Israel.
When Joseph died, his sons embalmed him and placed him in a coffin in Egypt (verse 26).
Isaac and Ishmael
Crampsey does not go into their story, but Genesis 16 tells us that Abram’s wife Sarai was infertile and that, in order to have a son, he slept with her servant Hagar, an Egyptian. When Hagar conceived, she lorded it over Sarai, who threw her out of the house.
An angel of the Lord told Hagar to return to Sarai and Abram, adding that the boy would be called Ishmael and that:
12 He shall be a wild donkey of a man,
his hand against everyone
and everyone’s hand against him,
and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.”
Genesis 17 relates the circumcision of Abram and Ishmael, then aged 13, and God’s covenant with Abram, whereby his name is changed to Abraham. God also promised Sarai — now Sarah — would bear Abraham’s son Isaac.
Genesis 21 tells us that, once Isaac was born, Hagar laughed at Sarah. Not surprisingly, she told Abraham to throw Hagar out of the house. He was reluctant to do so but God spoke to him and told him to follow his wife’s wishes. There was more:
13 And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.”
When Abraham died (Genesis 25), Isaac and Ishmael buried him together:
9 Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre, 10 the field that Abraham purchased from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried, with Sarah his wife. 11 After the death of Abraham, God blessed Isaac his son. And Isaac settled at Beer-lahai-roi.
17 (These are the years of the life of Ishmael: 137 years. He breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people.) 18 They settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria. He settled[a] over against all his kinsmen.
Parallels with the Parable of the Prodigal Son
Until this week, I had considered the Prodigal Son rather a stand-alone parable.
Now — and particularly with today’s day-long research and writing of this post — I have come to see it as a continuation of God’s infinite love and forgiveness.
I have an old post or a comment from a few years ago which explains that when the word ‘hate’ is used in the Old Testament, in ancient Hebrew it means ‘less loved’, therefore, not ‘loathed to the point of wishing death’, the way it is understood in many languages today.
We see this in the examples above. God loved everyone in different degrees.
God allowed Cain to stay alive and have his own family. He blessed him with life and told him that if anyone tried to kill him, that person would meet with His vengeance ‘sevenfold’. He also blessed him with a wife and a son, Enoch (a different Enoch to Noah’s ancestor).
With Ishmael and Isaac, God sent blessings of descendants and foreign lands to the former. So, although He loved and blessed Isaac more because he was Abraham’s son with Sarah, Ishmael did not want for anything. On a brotherly note, the Bible records that when Abraham died, the two sons buried him together.
Esau was impetuous. Through Rebekah, God punished him for selling his birthright for a plate of stew and for marrying the wrong women. Esau also married Hittites, who caused no end of grief for Isaac and Rebekah.
2 “I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob 3 but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.”
St Paul refers to this verse in Romans 9:10-13.
Got Questions explains:
God chose Jacob (whom He later renamed “Israel”) to be the father of His chosen people, the Israelites. God rejected Esau (who was also called “Edom”) and did not choose him to be the father of His chosen people. Esau and his descendants, the Edomites, were in many ways blessed by God (Genesis 33:9; Genesis chapter 36).
So, considering the context, God loving Jacob and hating Esau has nothing to do with the human emotions of love and hate. It has everything to do with God choosing one man and his descendants and rejecting another man and his descendants. God chose Abraham out of all the men in the world. The Bible very well could say, “Abraham I loved, and every other man I hated.” God chose Abraham’s son Isaac instead of Abraham’s son Ishmael. The Bible very well could say, “Isaac I loved, and Ishmael I hated.” Romans chapter 9 makes it abundantly clear that loving Jacob and hating Esau was entirely related to which of them God chose. Hundreds of years after Jacob and Esau had died, the Israelites and Edomites became bitter enemies. The Edomites often aided Israel’s enemies in attacks on Israel. Esau’s descendants brought God’s curse upon themselves.
Therefore, what the Edomites did long after Esau’s death was less to do with him and more a result of their own sin.
Also remember how Esau embraced and kissed Jacob so warmly when they finally met up years later before going their own ways. Esau also offered Jacob the gift of servants by way of return for Jacob’s gift of servants and livestock.
And then we have Joseph who took care of his brothers and their families after Jacob’s — Israel’s — death. He bore no ill-will towards them. He loved them and their families.
Crampsey ties Cain’s, Esau’s and Joseph’s stories in this way with the Parable of the Prodigal Son:
I would suggest that the murder of Abel is redeemed by the transformation of Esau and his reconciliation with Jacob. This allows the sons of Jacob to grow up in the land of the promise, and even if they mimic the fratricide of Abel with what they plan for Joseph, the spectre of retaliatory homicide at the death of Jacob is removed by the magnanimity of Joseph. It is in refusing the temptation to fratricide that Esau and Joseph are god-like, are in the image and likeness of God, and allow God’s plan to take root. It is almost as though the first verses of the book of Exodus are the conclusion to the book of Genesis:
These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. The total number of people born to Jacob was seventy. Joseph was already in Egypt. Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and that whole generation. But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. (Exodus 1:1-7)
I would also suggest that these stories of brothers in the book of Genesis may be a fruitful context for the interpretation of the Prodigal Son. And is there anything to think about soteriologically [in terms of salvation through Christ] when reconciliation with the brother is more challenging than reconciliation with the father?
It is very rare for me to praise a Jesuit, but this time I will. Today, the Revd James Crampsey SJ has taught me about the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Far from being an outlier parable, it ties together the loving-kindness and mercy of God to brothers in the Old Testament, their many blessings, their reconciliation and to redemption through the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Do keep in mind those first seven verses of Exodus. Those are the subject of tomorrow’s post. I meant to post on it today, but today’s topic needed more exposition than expected. If you have read this far, many thanks.
Tomorrow: The Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Twelve Tribes of Israel