3 Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. 4 He instructed them: “This is what you are to say to my lord Esau: ‘Your servant Jacob says, I have been staying with Laban and have remained there till now. 5 I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, male and female servants. Now I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favor in your eyes.’”
Genesis 32:3-5 NIV
When I look at the world, I see three distinct explanations for why things happen to people—justice, evil, and grace. Karma, a Hindu word for “what goes around, comes around” is the idea of justice. The universe is ironic, and the bad vibes you push into the world will push back to you. Our sin has also unloaded random evil in the world. I believe natural disasters and freak accidents are evil. They are not punishments to those involved but rather a symptom of the random evil in our world. If bad things only happened to bad people it would be justice, but since they are random, it is evil. Then there is grace, when we get better than we deserve.
(The idea of random evil has nothing to do with our passage here, but I mention it because too many people want to blame themselves for every random bad thing that happens. The book of Job is a testament to how this isn’t true. Jesus drives the point home in Luke 13:1-5. So as I talk about karma and grace, I want make sure we aren’t heaping needless amounts of destructive guilt on ourselves in the process.)
Genesis 32 is about Jacob preparing to encounter his brother Esau. The lead-up and experience of this story are a textbook study in karma and grace. To see this, you have to know Jacob and Esau’s story (Genesis 25:19-33:20, or you can take my word for it):
-Jacob and Esau are twins. Esau is slightly older. When they came out of the womb, Jacob was grasping at Esau’s heel (that’s what his name means). This signified from the beginning one of the most legendary tales of sibling rivalry.
-As they got older their mother Rebekah showed obvious favoritism to Jacob, while Isaac showed obvious favoritism to the older brother, Esau.
-One day, Esau returns from hunting really hungry, and in exchange for Jacob’s stew, he gives up his birthright.
-Another day, Jacob and Rebekah dress Jacob like Esau and have him bring his blind father some more stew he requested in order to steal Esau’s blessing.
When Esau finds out about this last bit, he’s furious. Jacob runs away from home for around 20 years. The passage we’re talking about today is them meeting for the first time since then. Before this meeting, Jacob experiences some serious karma. Let’s look at that.
When Jacob runs away from home after deceiving his brother, he goes and lives with his uncle Laban. Jacob falls in love Laban’s daughter, Rachel (kissing cousins, I guess). Laban agrees to let Jacob marry Rachel if he works for Laban for 7 years. But when the seven years are up, he gives Jacob his other daughter Leah instead (The bible says that Rachel is pretty, and Leah has weak eyes….savage). Laban insists that Jacob work another 7 years for Rachel. When all this labor of love is over, he marries Rachel.
Then, Jacob and Laban begin one-upping each other in shady business deals. Laban says Jacob can have speckled and spotted livestock that Laban promptly gives to his own sons. Jacob on the other hand, has the rest of the livestock mate in front of striped branches so that the offspring would be speckled and spotted (because science?). Things sour between Jacob and Laban (surprise!) and God tells Jacob it’s time to leave and go back home.
Look at all the karma. Jacob spends his youth deceiving and spends adulthood getting deceived by his uncle/father-in-law. In the meantime, (story I didn’t tell you) the sibling rivalry he began with his brother comes back around, when his wives and then his sons have their own sibling rivalries. He causes drama by sleeping with extra wives and showing favoritism to his youngest sons (just like his father and grandfather). People left to their own devices reap what they sow. Is there any hope? (assuming you didn’t get bored during that long summary)
God tells Jacob in a dream to return to his home country, from which he has been an exile for 20 years. So for the first time in Jacob’s life, instead of fighting and clawing for his piece of the pie, he just listens and obeys and heads back home. After another exhausting encounter with Laban over some stolen idols that Rachel hides while pretending she’s on her period (seriously, Genesis 31), Jacob runs into some more angels on his way back home. So it’s clear that God has planned and blessed this journey—a journey back to his home, to the Promised Land that God gave to Jacob’s grandfather, father, and him.
But then, Jacob begins to prepare to meet his brother. In this story we see Jacob go back and forth between planning for the worst and trusting God (a battle we often find ourselves). Jacob sends a message that he’s coming with significant wealth and asks for kindness. He may have done this to say “I’m powerful” or to say “I don’t need my birthright (that I stole) anymore,” since Esau’s wealth comes from his inheriting Isaac’s stuff, and Jacob doesn’t want him to think Jacob is returning to claim it. Jacob subsequently finds out that Esau is coming with 400 men (soldiers?). Then Jacob prepares to be attacked, splitting his entourage into two camps, so that if one is attacked the other can escape.
Then, Jacob tries something new. He prays. He recognizes that God’s hand is in the journey, but he also recognizes that he deserves Esau’s wrath. He asks for God’s protection on the grounds of the promises that God made him even though he doesn’t deserve those promises.
“I don’t deserve how loyal and truthful you’ve been to your servant.” Gen. 32:10
However, after saying amen, Jacob goes back to his scheming. He sends two groups from his camp that offer Esau presents. One after the other. Perhaps this will appease Esau. Perhaps it will appease his mercenaries. Perhaps it will slow Esau down, exhaust his rage, and make it hard for him to attack while also having to tend hundreds of animals.
This scheming ends with yet another divine encounter (that’s 3 encounters and 1 prayer in this story, if you’re counting). He wrestles with God himself as a man (maybe the Word pre-Jesus, if you’re feeling Trinitarian). He forces the wrestler God to bless him. God changes his name to Israel (he struggles with God).
Just so we’re clear, God told him to go home. Angels showed up on his journey. He prays, and then beats God in a wrestling match, resulting in further blessing. Yet he is still scared that he’s going to get what he deserves.
But then he meets with Esau, tries to act like a servant, but Esau ran and hugged him, and they wept. If you think this sounds like the prodigal son homecoming, that’s because it does. It should also remind you of Jacob’s son Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers. All is forgiven. Family is restored.
Our world is full of justice because our God is just. But our world is also full of opportunities for reconciliation because our God loves mercy and reconciliation far more than he loves justice. He is a God of grace. This family is pretty messed up—adultery, cheating, rivalry, selfishness, lying, manipulation, and then Jacob’s sons will sell Joseph into slavery. God kept his promise to them. He’ll keep his promises to you.
So if you have left your old life to follow Jesus, but are still afraid karma is coming for you. Know that our God of mercy and grace wipes away your guilt and prepares a way for you. Will you still struggle? Yes. Will bad things still happen? Yes (back to that random evil idea). Will things from the past try to haunt you? Probably. But we are no longer slaves to fear, we are children loved by God. Forgive yourself (because God does) and walk in that hope.
Also, don’t spend your life cheating your family. Even with God it can still be messy.