THE PRODIGAL SON AND JACOB AND ESAU

“A certain man had two sons: And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he had spent all there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country;and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, Father I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: and bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. And they began to be merry.”

Gospel of St. Luke 15. 11-24 excerpt from the parable of the Prodigal Son (KJV 1611).

“And Jacob lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold, Esau came and with him four hundred men. And he divided the children unto Leah, and unto Rachel, and unto the two handmaids. And he put the handmaids, and their children foremost, and Leah and her children after, and Rachel and Joseph hindermost. And he passed over before them, and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. And Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him: and they wept. And he lifted up his eyes, and saw the women and the children; and said Who are those with thee? and he said the children which God hath graciously given thy servant….And Esau said I have enough brother; keep that thou hast unto thyself. And Jacob said, Nay I pray thee, if now I have found grace in thy sight, then receive my present at my hand: for therefore I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God and thou wast pleased with me.

From Genesis Ch. 33 KJV 1611

I have long been a lover of Christ’s parable of the Prodigal Son much of which is transcribed above. It has, I think, been rightly reckoned one of the greatest short stories ever told. On Sunday’ s worship on BBC 1 I learned something I had never heard before in relation to that parable. It came from Holy Trinity Platt, Manchester where the priest, the Rev.Dr. Paul Mathole, in his address made the illuminating suggestion that Jesus in forming the parable of the Prodigal had in mind the great Genesis story of the reconciliation of the twin brothers Esau and Isaac.

I want to tell you of the background of that story from Genesis, that book so full of a wondrous treasury of stories of the patriarchs. From the beginning, from their emergence from Rebekkah’s womb the twins are involved in struggle on with the other. Already in Genesis there is another, perhaps related, background story of two brothers in opposition, that of the very early tale of Cain and Abel, in which the differences between the two brothers , one a hunter one a shepherd leads to the murder of Abel by Cain -a story, the significance of which is brilliantly brought to life by a Jordan Peterson lecture. With Esau and Jacob there is a similar contrast:

“and when her days to be delivered were fulfilled, there were twins in her womb. And the first came out all red, all over like an hairy garment; and they called his name Esau. And after that came his brother out, and his hand took hold on Esau’s heel… and the boys grew and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a plain man dwelling in tents. The contrast is complicated by the rival favourings of the parents :And Isaac [by this time an old man] loved Esau , because he did eat of his venison: but Rebekkah loved Jacob.

I wont go into the detail of the two stories by which Esau is tricked by Jacob of his birthright and -aided by his mother- his dying father’s blessing which if you do not know I would very much encourage you to read. The consequence is that Jacob has to run away and while eventually he does very well marrying and building up his wealth he is conscious of Esau’s assumed enmity for his former treatment of him. The confrontation with Esau described at the beginning of the quoted excerpt, in Ch. 33, is approached by Jacob with dread. The last thing he expects is the kind of welcome he receives from his brother, just as the prodigal son does not expect the reception he gets from his father.

There is a further element to the story. On the night before the encounter with his brother Jacob has a vision:

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he said ,Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said Jacob. And he said , Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed. And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me , I pray thee, thy name. And he said Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there. And Jacob called the name of the place Penuel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved. And as he rose over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh.

(Genesis 32: 24-31 KJV 1611))

In the story of the Prodigal we see the Father representing the love of God and the care of God for the lost. It is consistent with the view of God as Father presented throughout the gospels (“Our Father”). In Jacob’s vision, whether brought by fear for his life in encountering Esau or by his guilt for his past treatment of his brother, he wrestles with an opponent, who is perceived to be God, and whose blessing Jacob is conscious of needing. The blessing makes Jacob conscious he has been brought face to face with God.

When, however, Jacob experiences Esau’s loving reception he sees in Esau, God’s face (“I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me” Gen. 33.10). The two stories then -that of the reconciliation of Esau and Jacob and the reception of the son in the parable of the Prodigal Son- are similar in their dramatic interest. Both present characters whose repentance is expressed as fear they will be given their just desserts for their past actions, both show those characters forming prudent schemes for escaping full censure, both demonstrate a surprising reception expressing generous love, that both sweeps aside the faults of the past, and the proposed prudent settlement, for one of loving unity; in doing which both express a love that is seen to be the action of a loving God.

Published by alan

As a retired lecturer in English Literature with the Open University I continue to run reading groups on our literary heritage. This blog seeks to interest readers in enjoying and thinking about a wide range of classic novels, plays and poems

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