Forgiveness and the Heart of God

We've all heard that God is love, but God is also forgiveness.

But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.
(Genesis 33:4)

But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
(Matthew 5:39)

When I sat down to write, I intended to talk about Thanksgiving Day and family reunions, but then it went the way these things often go: somewhere else. Instead of Thanksgiving, I’m going to tell you about three seemingly unforgiveable crimes and their suprising aftermaths.

We hurt each other every day. Selfishness, offense, and anger are commonplace, while mercy and forgiveness are rare.

We’re all familiar with the story of Jacob taking the blessing and the inheritance from his brother, Esau, but what happened between them later isn’t told as often.

I’m sure that Rebekah, their mother, loved them both, but she found Esau’s personality and life choices to be a constant irritation, and her favoritism toward Jacob probably made Esau feel as though she didn’t love him at all. When Jacob deceived dad into giving him Esau’s blessing, it almost certainly damaged whatever relationships remained in the family. You can almost hear the pain in Esau’s voice as he begged his father, “Don’t you have anything left for me?” Jacob took Esau’s mother, then he took his birthright, and finally he conspired to take his father’s blessing too.

Esau was understandably more than a little upset.

Jacob fled the country to escape his brother’s murderous wrath and didn’t return until decades later. During the whole journey home from Haran–weeks at the least and probably months–Jacob dreaded the confrontation that was sure to come. He begged God to protect him from his brother, but as he approached the borders of Canaan, he heard that Esau was headed out to meet him at the head of a small army. Jacob sent gift after gift in an attempt to appease Esau, but he knew that his brother had a hot temper and would not have forgotten how he had been mistreated.

Finally, Jacob saw his brother in the distance, a massive cloud of dust billowing behind him and the four hundred men who were with him. He got down on his knees and bowed his face to the ground seven times, but Esau came on even faster. When he reached Jacob, he yanked him off the ground, put both arms around him, and kissed him. Imagine Jacob’s relief!

Was it really that simple, though?

In the Hebrew of Genesis 33:4, there are small marks above each letter of the word for “kissed him”, vayishakehu. I have heard three interpretations of these marks:

  1. They are Esau’s teeth because his greeting was disingenuous and he would rather have bitten Jacob on the neck than kiss him.
  2. They emphasize Esau’s genuine affection for Jacob. They are tongues of flames or rays of light from one bright point in an otherwise bleak family landscape.
  3. They are scribal marks to indicate a copyist error and the word should have been deleted.

More than 2500 years after the fact, we can’t do much more than speculate. The truth is that we don’t know what was going on in Esau’s head at that moment. All we know is what he did: He embraced his long-estranged brother, kissed him, and wept. And what he didn’t do: Accuse and remind his brother of all the pain he had caused.

Esau was a fool in his youth and repeatedly made bad decisions, but there’s no doubt that he had been wronged. Jacob knew his brother’s weaknesses and used them to take everything that he valued. Esau is never described in Scripture as a righteous man–quite the opposite!–and he had abundant reason to hate his brother.

Yet he still forgave Jacob graciously and earnestly.

“Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.”
(Psalm 133:1)

On October 2, 2006, Charlie Roberts saw his two children off to school, then, armed with guns and knives, he drove to a nearby Amish schoolhouse. He ejected everyone from the building except for ten young girls. When the school was surrounded by the police, he shot all ten of them in the head, killing five and leaving others with permanent injuries. Then he shot himself. Later, the families of some of the girls he shot came to his house to express their condolences to his family and to help them through their own loss.

Let me say that again: The families of the victims helped the family of the murderer to get through their grief. The only thing more astonishing than this would be to have shown kindness directly to the murderer himself, but he denied them that opportunity and even the possibility of justice when he took his own life.

The Amish have their faults, but in this they brought the very love of God into the midst of death and tragedy.

There isn’t much you can do to someone that is worse than deliberately and coldly murdering their children. There is another story of brutality and forgiveness that we have all heard.

We suffered from a terminally diseased heart. There was no medicine, no exercise, nor surgery that we could perform to be well again or even to slow our decay. We were doomed. God saw our pain and our impossible position. He understood that our only hope was a new heart and that the only heart suitable for saving the entire human race was his son’s. So he sent Yeshua to show us how to live with a new heart, but we rejected him and his teaching, and then we killed him for it.

God understood that this too was necessary, because you can’t transplant a heart from a living donor.

Yeshua came, knowing that he would be tortured and killed by the very people whom he came to save, and at the height of his torment he said, “Father, forgive them.”

True to his purpose and his word, the Father does forgive us, despite what we’ve done. For all those who repent of their sins and beg his mercy, he forgets their sins and grants them mercy, and like Esau, God doesn’t remind us of the terrible things we did before. He wants us to forget them too, and then to move past them and to live in a manner that honors the new heart that he is creating in us.

The greatest part of Yeshua’s story is that his death wasn’t the end, because he rose from the grave so that we too could rise and share in his glory, not only with a new heart inscribed with his Torah, but a whole new everything and a story with no ending at all.

We’ve all heard that God is love, but God is also forgiveness. Yeshua forgives because he and the Father are one and forgiveness is in his blood. We are called to be like him, and there is no greater way to honor him than to forgive like he did, like the families of Roberts’ victims, and even like Esau forgave Jacob: without reservation and without condemnation.

The Passion of Esau

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how Esau wanted to do the right thing but never stopped to ask what that was.

Last week, I wrote about some of Jacob’s encounters with angels and his trust in God.

This week, I’m going to beat up on Esau again, and not just Esau, but his descendants too.

Esau was a man of passion. That isn’t a bad thing. Any self-help guru worth his salt will tell you that passion is a basic ingredient of success. It just needs to be balanced with self restraint.

When he was young, Esau was ruled by his passions. His physical urges drove him to make foolish decisions that he would later regret. He was hungry, so he traded his birthright for a meal. He wanted a woman, so he went out and got himself two of them.

Edom means red. Esau was ruled by his passions. He burned hot and burned out quickly.

Fortunately, as Esau aged, he learned to reign himself in. His desires drove him to obtain the seeds of wealth, while his late learned discipline allowed him to keep and develop them into a substantial sum. By the time Jacob returned from Haran with his family, Esau had accumulated large herds and an army of servants. When they met east of the Jordan, they met peacefully. When Jacob resisted Esau’s attempts to assimilate his family into his own, Esau didn’t respond with anger or force, but went on his way.

Unfortunately, he passed his impetuous tendencies onto his children.

These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom [another name for Esau], before any king reigned over the Israelites.(Genesis 36:31 ESV)

At first reading, this verse sounds like the Edomites were a great success, and in many respects they were. While the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, Esau’s descendants became kings and their kingdom lasted for more than a thousand years. But examine the list of Edomite kings in the following verses:

  • Bela son of Beor of Dinhabah
  • Jobab son of Zerah of Bozrah
  • Husham the Temanite
  • Hadad son of Bedad of Avith
  • Samlah of Masrekah
  • Shaul of Rehoboth
  • Baal-Hanan son of Achbor
  • Hadar of Pau

These were kings, not judges in the style of Israel, yet not one of them was the son of the previous king. A scepter rarely passes from one man to another who is not close blood relative without violence. The Edomite culture was one of violence and upheaval, each regime wresting the kingdom from the one before and taking the people in a new direction. Like their father, Esau, the Edomite kings saw what they wanted and took it.

When Moses asked the King of Edom if the Hebrews could pass through their land on their way to their own homeland, their king refused and threatened to attack if they crossed the border. The people of Israel even offered to pay for any resources they might use. The Edomites responded by sending an army. One interesting aspect of this exchange is that after the initial communications, the conversation is described as happening between Israel and Edom, alternate names for Jacob and Esau (Numbers 20:21). The Edomites followed Esau’s pattern of responding to Israel’s return to the land with a show of force, but unlike Esau, the Edomites had not learned to temper their immediate passions for the sake of future material gain.

The end result is easy for us to see today. The Jews maintained themselves as a distinct people even without a homeland for thousands of years and have reestablished themselves as an independent state, while the Edomites were completely absorbed by the surrounding peoples, including the Jews, during the time of the Romans. Their land is the harshest desert now, occupied by Israel and Jordan.

All of our base physical urges–hunger, desire, ambition, etc.–are good things. God built them into us and we wouldn’t be human without them. But be careful and remember Esau. He is a warning to everyone. Don’t look for the easy way or the fast way. Seek wisdom, not gain, and gain will follow in time. Teach your children to act boldly, but always to consider tomorrow’s consequences of today’s actions. Your great grandchildren will remember the lesson.