Genesis 33 – Nice, Evil People
This post is part of an on-going series meant to compliment the wonderful commentary provided in D.A. Carson’s For the Love of God, Vol 1, which tracks along with the M’Cheyne reading plan. The links to both the reading plan and a free PDF of Carson’s book are available here.
Genesis 33 gives us a brief insight into a touching reunion of brothers. Jacob and Esau were, from the start, enemy-brothers. They fought in the womb, were prophesied to fight out of it, even dividing their parents’ affection between them (see Genesis 25).
Two things of great importance happened between the brothers. While God prophesied that “the older would serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23), that is, Esau would serve Jacob, Jacob received his blessing and his inheritance in deceitful ways. First, instead of just giving his brother a bowl of soup (!), he makes Esau give up his birthright for it (Genesis 25:29-34). Second, Jacob and Rebekah go out of their way to trick Isaac into blessing Jacob instead of Esau (Genesis 27).
Such incidents can be recorded as though Jacob is the only scoundrel in what took place and as though Esau just has the bad luck of having a devilish brother. But Esau gave away his birthright for a bowl of soup, showing how little he cared for it (he “despised his birthright” Genesis 25:34) and had murder on his mind after Jacob tricked his father (Genesis 27:41).
The reunion, then, is striking. Jacob fled, not only to avoid marrying a Hittite, but also to escape from his brother. When the two meet again, however, Jacob shows a good deal of reverence for his elder brother, while Esau forgives Jacob for his wicked tricks. Both are stunning reversals. Jacob, tricky and selfish, shows honesty and courtesy. Esau, impetuous and wrathful, shows maturity and mercy.
It is easy to come to black and white conclusions about things, and to always conceive of people or institutions as either categorically good or categorically bad. There is much danger in such thinking. On the one hand, if we think of anyone on this earth as wholly good, we can start to convince ourselves that they are left untouched by the fall. This is, at best, severely discouraging when you cannot live up to that standard, or, at worst, idolatrous. Jesus, who was wholly good, knew this well.
“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good…” Matthew 19:17
On the other hand, there are many people (especially groups of people) you may think of as only being touched by the fall, as though the image of the gracious Creator has been wiped away clean. Thinking this way has the wretched effect of filling you with pride and hatred.
While thinking people are wholly and fully good is a problem in some circles, the chances are, if we find ourselves in one of these two categories, it is the latter. This is especially important in casting generalizations about entire groups. If we castigate groups as being only evil, we find ourselves ill-equipped to deal with their humanity. Not only do we find ourselves in danger of hatred toward them, we begin to think that sin must lie always close to the surface, palpably present. When we don’t find it there, when we see that such people aren’t just hiding their horns, but they really don’t have any, we often begin to think that their sin, or even any sin, doesn’t exist at all.
This often happens with people groups that we have little contact with. I’ve seen friends leave their stance on the sin of homosexual practice when, confronted with someone who was gay for the first time, found that they were quite nice, courteous, and frankly normal. When we think and preach that people are to have horns, and they don’t, we can start to doubt any place for sins in their lives. After all, if people aren’t bad, we think, they can’t be evil. The same can be said for Muslims, our political opponents, and Ohio State fans.
In effect, we come full circle. If we think that people are wholly bad, we are in danger of ending up thinking they’re not evil at all.
But sin is always there, lurking, hiding below the surface. It, like the image of God, is present in all of us. We should neither think that it’s never present nor always present. We are not to think in black and white. Yes, Esau demonstrates great grace in forgiving his cheating brother, but that does not remove from him the sin of despising his birthright. Hebrews 12:16-17 warns us:
See that no one… is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done. (NIV)
Esau, in Genesis 33, embodies many things we would love to be. This does not make him any less a sinner nor any less in need of the grace of God then before. His actions in Genesis 33 did not change what he had done.
Jacob might be chosen by God, but we are not to wipe away his sin from our memory. He was chosen “in order to make known the riches of God’s glory for vessels of mercy’ (Romans 9:23, ESV). He needed mercy in God’s election; he didn’t receive God’s election because he was just.
Remember, we may not always see him, but the Devil is always in disguise.
… for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14; NIV)
Honestly, I have met only a couple of true Ohio State fans in my life, and they have all been good-natured, gracious, kind people. Still, the point stands.