Shalom in Unexpected Places


Genesis 33:1-17


Beth Henricks – September 8th 2019




I am giving the message on our fall kick off Sunday because I took an intensive class on the Gospel of Peace from Earlham School of Religion in August.  This was an amazing class where we connected with students from Nigeria that have experienced significant violence from the terrorist group Bokam Harem and had a professor from the Theological College of Northern Nigeria as well as a Professor of New Testament studies from our sister seminary, Bethany and   we researched, reviewed and discussed how do we live into the gospel of peace when we live in a world of violence.  I prepared a research paper on the text that Bob read and part of our student experience in this class is to share a message with all of you on this text.  Thank you for being a part of my journey with this Master of Divinity.


We Quakers talk about peace quite a bit and usually reference this in terms of the absence of war.  We have a long history of seeking other alternatives to violence and war.  But what does the Bible say about peace?  As we read it cover to cover there is an awful lot of violence in the Scriptures and some of this violence seems to be commanded by God.  Even Jesus says in Matthew10:34  that he doesn’t come to bring peace but the sword.  Is God a God of peace or a God of violence and judgement?  We wrestled with this question throughout the class.  Our different flavors of Christianity have a number of views on this very issue.  I  believe the text that Bob shared with us today offers us a picture into the face of God and a glimpse of understanding into God’s character.


One of the things I have learned at seminary  is that we should never take anything at face value, particularly when it comes to reading the Bible.  There are issues of translation (from Hebrew, Greek to English),  the changes that occurred in manually copying the texts again and again over hundreds of years, the context of the environment when the words were written and understanding of what happened before and after each text.


The word peace is used in our English Bible but in the Hebrew language the word is shalom.  Most of us have heard this word before – I remember going to the Jon Stewart event in Washington DC in 2010, The Rally to Restore Sanity and I carried  a sign that said Shalom.  I thought I was holding up a sign advocating for peace – the absence of war.  But the meaning of shalom in the Hebrew is much deeper and more holistic then I ever understood. 


Shalom means being complete, being whole,  having a non-anxious presence,  a sense of well-being,  harmonious.    It calls us to a wholeness within ourselves.  So much of our violence starts within us and shalom calls us to allow God to bring us into our complete and whole being.  That is where we start. And then shalom takes us into the world and how we can impact the completeness of our family relationships, our neighbors, our communities, our country, and our enemies.


I selected Genesis 33:1-17 because this passage shows in a very dramatic way the possibility of shalom between two enemies that are flesh and blood, but also symbolized two nations and their possibility of reconciliation.  I view it as a powerful example of God’s shalom and the potential of bringing enemies together with deep divisions and former hatred.


This  text  is  all about transformation and reconciliation.  Both Jacob and Esau experience transformation and because of their vulnerability and openness they experience reconciliation.  While they could not live in the same land together, they maintained a peace between them.  I believe there are several lessons here that can impact us today.


This passage is considered a unified plot where the narrative prior to the chosen Scripture is important to the text.  That is why we must begin earlier in Genesis to understand why this reconciliation is so significant in showing the way of peace and shalom to bring wholeness to this relationship and provide an example for all of us in the possibility of shalom.


We start our story in Genesis 25.  Many of you will  remember this story.  Jacob and Esau are twins with Esau the first born and Issacs’s favorite son while Jacob, the younger brother was his mother Rebekah’s favorite son.  (Gen 25:24-28)


Esau gave up his birthright to Jacob for a pot of stew that he made, and it doesn’t seem like he cares much about what this birthright will mean to him.  Jacob continued in his deceit and trickery when Isaac calls out to Esau to hunt game and prepare a stew so that Isaac would give him his blessing.  Rebekah hears this and tells Jacob to bring her a goat so that she can prepare a stew and Jacob will pretend to be Esau and receive Isaac’s blessing.  They pull off the deception and Isaac gives Jacob the patriarchal blessing.  When Esau discovers this and confronts his father, Isaac stands by his covenant of blessing to Jacob even as this was done in deception to him.  (Genesis 27)


Esau was furious and hated his brother for stealing the blessing and was prepared to kill him. (Gene 27:41)  Rebekah hears about this and sends Jacob to her brother’s home for safety (Gen27:42-45).  He stayed there for 20 years and became successful in terms of animals and assets although he experienced great hardship through the trickery of his uncle Laban.  And his mother Rebekah was supposed to tell him when it was safe to return to their homeland.  He never heard from her for over 20 years and became a victim in Laban’s world.  However, Jacob continued with deceit and also tricked Laban to gain his own wealth.   


Jacob desired to return to the land of his birth, yet he feared an encounter with Esau even though it’s been 20 years they have been apart.  Esau by now is living in the land of Seir, the country of Edom.  Jacob sent messengers ahead with the promise of gifts to appease Esau.  The messengers returned telling Jacob that Esau is on his way to meet Jacob and his group with four hundred men.  (Genesis 32)   When Jacob sees 400 hundred men coming with Esau, he is frightened and divides into two groups.  He puts the least important individuals at the front and places his beloved Joseph and Rachel in the very back.  He goes ahead of all of them to face his brother.


Jacob made the first move in verse 3 by bowing to the ground 7 times until Esau is upon him.  Bowing to the ground would denote honor and respect to Esau and placed Jacob in an inferior position.  I believe  this is when shalom begins between these enemies. 


Verse 4 is such a powerful verse of grace, love and forgiveness.  It states, “But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”    The running of Esau might have initially frightened Jacob as this could be the start of the attack, but instead there is a kiss, an embrace and tears  that offer reconciliation.    Is this not the expression of God’s love and peace?  Forgiveness of those who have wronged us?


Esau is then introduced to Jacob’s wives and children and they all bow down to Esau.  Esau asked for an explanation of all of this and Jacob declared that he wants to find favor with Esau and offers these gifts.  Esau said that he has enough, and that Jacob should keep all of this for himself.  So clearly even without the first-born blessing, Esau has been successful and does not need the offerings from Jacob.  Jacob insisted that Esau accept his gift because he has been blessed and has all that he needs.  Jacob must be feeling guilt knowing how he deceptively received the birthright and the blessing and wants to offer some recompense for his actions.   He might also be looking to  ensure that his stealing of the blessing is negated by acceptance of these gifts and that Esau cannot enact revenge on him in the future.  The scripture indicates that Esau did take and accept the gifts.  It is interesting to note that Esau used the term brother in addressing Jacob while Jacob used the term “My Lord” three times in these verses.  What is Jacob’s intent?  Is it to give honor to Esau to negotiate a treaty between them?  Is Jacob giving back the stolen blessing?  Or is he just afraid of Esau and appeases him with a false sense of honor and positions himself as socially inferior? 


Even after this amazing reconciliation, Jacob is still suspicious of Esau’s true intent.  Esau wanted to journey alongside Jacob, but Jacob made up excuses for why this is not possible.  He encouraged Esau to go ahead of him (maybe so there won’t be any blind attack from the rear).  Esau suggested leaving some of his people with Jacob, but Jacob feigns  an objection of why should my lord be so kind to me?   So, Esau returned to Seir and Jacob built a house in Succoth.


The very ending of the passage is a bit disappointing from the climactic embrace of the brothers.  Jacob told Esau that he would see him in Seir  (verse 14) but never goes to visit him.   While we see a total transformation in Esau’s heart, we don’t see quite the same transformation of Jacob.  While it appears that Esau has matured into the older son, Jacob is still looking behind his back.   Some biblical scholars say that a reconciliation has not occurred because the two former enemies  will not live together.  Do they in fact have reconciliation?   Can there be reconciliation without community?  Could this be a model of two nations living in peace?   Even with this ending, I would still propose this is a significant event of transformation and reconciliation.  Jacob and Esau moved from hatred and fear to respect and a  willingness to find a way to live peacefully.   Sometimes when we forgive it doesn’t mean that we will be close,  live by each other, forget the offense or be friends.  But what this forgiveness does is bring about shalom within us.


In this passage Esau conveyed God’s forgiveness and compassion.  Jacob saw God in Esau’s face because of the acceptance and favor Jacob experienced from Esau.  While the Jacob story line is the one that the Old and New Testament follow, I believe that Esau is essential to God’s narrative and a character in the story that should be honored more than our Christian tradition has conveyed. 


This story of Esau and Jacob is referenced in Obadiah (Obadiah 1:1-21) and Malachi  (Malachi 1:2-5)  and seems to interpret this story as “an inscrutable act of divine election”  These two prophets talk about this story in terms of Israel being selected as Yahweh’s chosen without any reason for this.   And view Esau’s descendants as the enemies of Israel.  These scriptures seem to enforce the idea of enemies that are destined to be in conflict because of God’s selection.  Jacob received this blessing even though it is achieved through trickery and deception.  This was ok with God?  That is a hard concept to accept as I have struggled for many years to understand how God selected this group of people to be his “chosen nation” and yet will reject others.   The NIV Student Bible commentary states that “God narrowed his focus to a single person in order to carry out his plan to save the world.  God couldn’t choose everyone – moreover, those individuals God did choose were not always the ones we admire.   I was raised in a fundamentalist tradition that taught me that we are predestined to be a part of God’s family.  I have struggled with this idea my entire life.  I embrace the God I see in this text that loves and accepts everyone and never gives up on anyone. And uses flawed characters to achieve shalom. 


References are made to this story in Paul’s writings in Romans 9:11-13.  This passage indicates that God had chosen Jacob over Esau even while in the womb that continued the narrative discussed of Divine selection.    Maybe this upending of the normal patriarchal system of the first born being given the blessing and birthright was to show God’s mercy to the underdog?  It is troubling to me in Verse 13 that says,  “As it is written, I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.”     How does God hate Esau that has shown so much compassion and forgiveness?  There is no question in the passage we have reviewed that we see the face of God in Esau. 


I believe there is a blessing for Esau as he embraced shalom and God’s calling for forgiveness and wholeness.  Esau is a significant part of the narrative of God’s shalom and displays the character of God through his forgiveness and reconciliation with his brother even though Esau’s descendants are mostly ignored in our Bible.  God asks all of us to be peacemakers in our own contexts.  Even when we have been wrongly accused, our honor has been denounced, our status or possessions have been taken from us, we are called to shalom.  We may have righteous vengeance in our hearts but our openness to God’s calling of forgiveness can be profound even if it takes many years to come to this point of understanding.   We all are called to the Gospel of Peace.


I invite you to reflect on the queries listed in the bulletin.  If God is speaking to you directly please hold that message tenderly in your heart and reflect on what it means and what you do with it.  If God is giving you a message to share with all of us, please be faithful and stand and wait for a microphone to be brought to you.