Esau's Transformation From Prodigal Son to Beloved Brother
Then Esau ran to him and embraced him, threw his arms
around his neck and kissed him. And they both wept.
When Isaac was forty years old, he married Rebekah. It didn't take them long to realize that Rebekah couldn't have children. So Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, and God answered. Rebekah soon became pregnant with twins: Jacob and Esau.
If you're like me, you don't know as much about Esau as you do Jacob. When I read Jacob and Esau's story, focusing on Esau, I realized he was also a prodigal. I wrote a devotion earlier on Jacob as a prodigal, and gave little thought to Esau other than the story he is most known for; the story where he gives up his birthright for some stew because he was hungry after an unsuccessful hunt. From that incident, we might surmise that he did not care about the way God did things and was, instead, controlled by his fleshly appetites. Hebrews 12:16 confirms this when it says, "Make sure that no one is immoral or godless like Esau who traded his birthright as the firstborn son for a single meal."
At the age of 40, Esau married two local women that were not descendants of Abraham, further showing his disregard for God's ways. On top of that, Genesis 26:35 tells us Esau's wives made life miserable for Isaac and Rebekah.
Later, when Esau finds out his brother, Jacob, has deceived their father and received the blessing that should have gone to him, Esau was devastated. He asked his father if there was at least one blessing left for him, and Isaac replied, "I have made Jacob your master and have declared that all his brothers will be his servants. I have guaranteed him an abundance of grain and wine--what is left for me to give you, my son?" Esau pleaded for his father to bless him: "Oh my father, bless me, too!" He broke down and wept, presumably for all he was losing. Finally, his father told him, "You will live away from the richness of the earth, and away from the dew of heaven above. You will live by your sword, and you will serve your brother. But when you decide to break free, you will shake his yoke from your neck."
The Bible tells us from that time on Esau hated Jacob. He determined to kill his brother as soon as their father died. As understandable as Esau's anger is, he would have to come to terms with what happened and forgive his brother. He would have to admit that he was the one who sold his birthright for a single meal, thereby giving up his right to a double portion of all that was passed down (Deut 21:17). Esau was foolish to sacrifice spiritual blessings to satisfy his physical appetite; he cared more about himself than he did the things of God. Until Esau recognized his part in this fiasco, he would not break free of the hold his brother had on him.
After Jacob flees, the story goes with him, focusing on his life and not Esau's. But first, we learn that Esau is starting to pay attention to what was going on around him, possibly even looking at his own foolish behavior. Genesis 26:6-9 tells us that Esau was aware that his father had agreed to send Jacob to live with his grandfather so that he wouldn't marry a Canaanite woman. He also knew Jacob had obeyed. It was clear to Esau that his parents did not like the local Canaanite women. So, Esau went to his Uncle Ishmael's family and took a third wife, the daughter of Ishmael, and son of Abraham. Was he trying to do the right thing? Was God working on his heart? I like to think so. It's also interesting that Esau didn't go after his brother.
It would be twenty years before we hear about Esau again. God reveals to Jacob that he is to return home with his family. Jacob is afraid because he well remembers what things were like when he left. Esau wanted him dead. Whereas we get to witness Jacob's transformation, we have no idea what is happening in Esau's life during this time other than the beginnings of reconciling to his family and God. Jacob doesn't even know that because he has had no contact with his brother and no reason to think Esau feels any different. So you can imagine his surprise when the two brothers finally meet. Something wonderful has taken place in Esau's heart; he has been transformed. And the end of the blessing Isaac gave Esau comes to pass. Through Esau's gracious forgiveness of his brother, Esau breaks free from his brother's yoke. The two brothers reconcile. I imagine that included Esau's reconciliation with God because only God can transform a life; only God can can take someone with a heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh (Ez 36:26).
I find three takeaways from Esau's story that gives us hope for our prodigals:
Just because you don't know what is going on in your loved one's heart doesn't mean God isn't doing something beautiful and transformative. Jacob had no idea what was happening in Esau until he saw him again. I don't even know what was evident to Esau's parents, who lived with him. I read once that when prodigals begin to rediscover God, they don't want to let loved ones know until they are sure. They don't want to disappoint them again. Other times, the transformation isn't complete or known until some action takes place, such as Esau hugging and kissing his brother. The action proved his sincerity.
For those who have been waiting for many years, you see that transformation may take a long time. It was twenty years before God told Jacob to return home, and possibly twenty years before Esau was ready to face his brother. God's timing is always right! Sometimes I wish I could see how Isaac and Rebekah were affected as parents and how they dealt with the long wait. I imagine they had many of the same feelings as we do today. I like to think both his parents lived to see their boys transformed by God and reconciled to each other. Although we aren't told when Rebekah died, we are told her nurse passed away after Jacob returned (Gen 35:8). And that both Jacob and Esau buried their father.
Transformation often comes in stages. You sometimes get glimpses of what God is doing in their lives, and think maybe now is the time they will return. You get your hopes up and then dashed when they fall back into unbelief. God is still working; He is still in control! Soon after Jacob left, we see God working in Esau's heart to make amends with his parents by marrying a woman they would approve of. But that wasn't the full transformation. He still had to forgive his brother and come to terms with how he had disobeyed God. God does not waste the little things that happen along the way; rather, He uses them. Someday, you may get to see how God used all the little glimpses you were given and how they were meant to encourage you, not discourage you.
Let having a prodigal keep you running to God. Don't let setbacks derail your hope in God's ability and desire to transform a life. Don't let what you see with your physical eyes deceive you into thinking nothing is happening. Let the glimpses remind you God is working. And don't let the amount of time that has passed convince you they will never change. That is what the enemy wants you to focus on rather than on the God who is able to do exceedingly more than we can think or imagine (Eph 3:20). Let the stories of God's transformative power in Scripture keep your hope alive!