Saturday 9 January 2010

Facing forgiveness (Genesis 32)

Jacob is the man with a plan. He is on a journey home to meet Esau, the elder brother he hasn't seen for decades; the one he cheated of his birthright - twice; who threatened to kill him as soon as their father Isaac was dead - that Esau; who now has set out to meet Jacob with 400 men (verse 6).

It is not cunning nor bravery that drives Jacob's schemes this time round - but fear. Verse 7: he was " great fear and distress". "Save (or rather, spare) me," Jacob prays to God, "from the hand of my brother Esau".

Jacob is "facing" up to his past - Genesis 32 plays on the word "face" as it records each step Jacob takes in confronting his brother.
  • Earlier on in verse 2: Jacob sends messengers ahead of him (literally: in front of his face) to Esau
  • Now Jacob sends wave after wave of gifts, servants, herds and flocks ahead of himself (in front of his face) - verse 21
  • He instructs each and every servant - should Esau inquire of them the source of these animals before them (before their faces) - verse 17
  • They are to give the same reply - "They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us." (verse 18)

Jacob sends all this before him, but as for himself, he will right behind. Everything and anything except for him to "face" up to Esau.
  • Verse 20: His intention is to "pacify" Esau with lavish offerings ahead of him.
  • The expression in the original text has Jacob thinking to himself - "Perhaps I can cover his face with these gifts before my face, and when I see his face, he will lift my face."
  • Covering one's face is a Hebrew idiom for appeasement; some translations have "propitiate". The picture is that of placating someone's anger, covering over a source of offence or wiping away guilt.

It is not just that Jacob is fearful of the prospect of death. His actions and thoughts reveal an unwillingness to meet with Esau "face to face". Each convoy serves as a buffer and Jacob is evading the inevitable. As each servant's has been instructed to reply - he is always one step behind, never coming forward.

Yet the tension that Genesis is building up to is not an encounter between two estranged family members, but the meeting of a man and his God. The chapter ends with Jacob wrestling with God at Peniel (which means "face of God"), where Jacob would declare "I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared."

God himself declares to Moses that "no one may see me and live" (Exodus 33:20) but the point here is not that Jacob realises how lucky he is not to have perished in meeting God. Remembering his petition in verse 12, he recognises that God has answered his prayer. "Spare me from Esau" was his request; and in verse 30 he exclaims "my life was spared!".

When he finally meets Esau in the next chapter, we see the evidence of the change in verse 3 - "He himself went on ahead (of his wives and children) and ... approached his brother." No longer afraid, Jacob is now assured. It is an assurance that comes not simply from facing our fears but in facing the God who offers forgiveness and reconciliation.

For Christians it is the promise bound up in the hope of the glorious return of Christ - "No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads." - Rev 22:3-4. Jesus has removed our condemnation through his blood, covering our guilt with his righteousness, and thereby opens the way for us to come into the very presence and unshielded glory of God.

The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the waters.

Who may ascend the hill of the LORD ?
Who may stand in his holy place?

He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to an idol
or swear by what is false.

He will receive blessing from the LORD
and vindication from God his Savior.

Such is the generation of those who seek him,
who seek your face, O God of Jacob.

(Psalm 24:1-6)