Parashat VaYishlach, Gen 32:4–36:43
When someone asks us, “Will you do me a favor?” we’re likely to ask what they have in mind before we say yes or no. Why? Because a favor by definition is something undeserved, something that might go beyond the ordinary, and we want to know what it is before we agree to do it. Favor, in the form of the Hebrew word chen, makes a cameo appearance in this week’s parasha, when Jacob returns home after his long absence to be met by his brother Esau (accompanied by 400 men).
This encounter reveals that favor—receiving and giving good that we don’t deserve—elevates us, and reveals an aspect of God’s character.
As Jacob is about to return home, he remembers the bitter rivalry with his brother Esau, which had caused him to flee twenty years earlier. He prepares an elaborate tribute: 200 female goats and 20 males, 200 female sheep and 20 rams, 30 milk-camels and their colts, 40 cows and ten bulls, 20 female donkeys and ten colts. It will take a lot to overcome this rivalry, because it has deep roots. It began even before the brothers were born, when their mother Rebekah could feel them struggling with each other in her womb. She said, “If it’s like this, why is this happening to me?” (Gen 25:22 TLV), and Hashem told her that two rival nations were in her womb, with the older (Esau) destined to serve the younger (Jacob).
Moreover, this rivalry is just one in a series of sibling rivalries beginning with Cain vs Abel and continuing through Isaac vs Ishmael, and now to Isaac’s two sons. Sibling rivalry is woven into the fabric of Genesis because it’s woven into the fabric of human families in all places and times, including our own. From family it’s readily translated into relationships at work, school, and in our religious communities. The primal rivalry for parental affirmation morphs into comparison and competition in our homes, businesses, schools, and even our places of worship. But favor provides a way out.
Sibling rivalry demands what I (think I) deserve and you don’t; favor gives what you and I both don’t deserve. The undeserved favor I receive from God empowers me to give undeserved favor to others.
Let’s see how this works between Jacob and Esau.
Esau receives Jacob’s extravagant gift of tribute, then he sees Jacob’s huge family and asks, “Who are these with you?” Jacob responds, “The children with whom God has favored your servant” (Gen 33:5; in this whole passage I consistently translate chen/chanan as “favor”). When Esau asks why Jacob is presenting him with all this abundance, he replies, “To find favor in your eyes, my lord” (Gen 33:8).
Jacob is saying that he doesn’t deserve what God has given him, and he doesn’t deserve the kindness he’s seeking from Esau either. So he presses Esau: “If I have found favor in your eyes, then accept my gift from my hand. . . . Take, please my blessing which is brought to you, because God has favored me and because I have all” (Gen 33:10–11).
Jacob has discovered in his long exile that God is always with him and that his favor is without limit. This favor displaces Jacob’s old struggle for blessing, and Esau’s resentment over losing it. That was a zero-sum struggle; when one brother gets the blessing, the other loses it. Now, when Jacob says to Esau, “Please take my blessing,” he’s symbolically returning what he had taken from Esau, and mysteriously his blessing won’t be diminished—“God has favored me and I have all!” Jacob begs Esau to receive the gift and seal the forgiveness that he seemed to offer at the moment of their reunion.
Favor frees us from the rivalry of comparison and competition.
If you think you’re totally free of this kind of rivalry, think of how you react when someone in your class or office wins the coveted award or gets the big raise. Remember how you mentally compared your very nice kids with your friends’ super-star kids, or your congregation’s modest growth with that mega-kehila down the road. Remember how you once had to take a deep breath and fake that congratulatory smile when your friend got a big promotion, or a romance-filled engagement, and you didn’t. When we give in to envying the success of others, comparing what we have and who we are, we’re re-enacting the primal rivalry between siblings. Some of us go through life keeping score, and whether we come out ahead or behind it’s a lousy way to live. But unilateral favor—favor that I give freely because God first gave it to me—points the way out.
In counseling married couples I often see their desire for fairness as a barrier to intimacy and fulfillment. The load of work, responsibility, and benefits will never be perfectly balanced. Instead of comparing themselves with each other and seeking a perfect 50-50 split, I sometimes advise a husband or wife to give freebies in their marriage. It’s favor instead of fairness, and it’s a practical way to reflect the favor of God.
As I receive undeserved favor from God, I’m empowered to give undeserved favor to others. As I give undeserved favor to others, I’m empowered to receive undeserved favor from God.
Back to our parasha: When Esau first saw the returning Jacob, he “ran to meet him, hugged him, fell on his neck and kissed him—and they wept” (Gen 33:4 TLV). Now, there are lots of reunions, lots of kissing and falling on the neck (whatever that means, exactly) in the family stories of Genesis, but this is the only time that this particular combination appears—running to meet someone, falling on the neck, and kissing. In fact, it appears only one other time in the whole Bible: “But while he was still far away, his father saw him and felt compassion. He ran and fell on his neck and kissed him” (Luke 15:20 TLV).
Messiah Yeshua seems to have chosen these words from Genesis to picture the response of the compassionate father to the return of his prodigal son, which in turn pictures the compassion of God. In that moment of favor, when Esau met Jacob, he reflected the boundless compassion of God, and lifts himself above all his bitterness and resentment.
Jacob can see this uplifting quality of favor in Esau. He’s still Esau, the emotional and impetuous big brother, and Jacob will soon decline his offer to hang out together. But Jacob is sincere when he says to Esau, “I’ve seen your face—it is like seeing the face of God—and you’ve accepted me!” (Gen 33:10b TLV). Esau is elevated by receiving and giving favor, and for this instance becomes an example to us.
Favor—receiving and giving good that we don’t deserve—elevates us and our knowledge of God.
Yeshua’s story reveals the boundless undeserved favor of God. We are elevated when we give some of this favor to others, especially to those who have wronged us, and we reflect in a small way the favor of the Father himself.