November 30, 2006

Genesis 32-34: Appeasement

Today's reading is Genesis 32-34 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers Jacob's reunion with Esau, his wrestling with God and renaming to Israel, and the defilement of his daughter Dinah and the aftermath thereof.

Imagine the scenario: you played a nasty trick on your older, stronger brother, and as a result he threatened to kill you. So you ran away, far away, to an entire other country. There, you settled down, had a family, and became very rich. Then, twenty years later, for reasons not entirely of your own devising, you find that you need to return to your homeland, where your brother still lives and probably still holds a grudge against you. Even worse, the messengers you sent returned to tell you that your brother was on the road to meet you with 400 men, presumably armed.

If you were in this situation, you'd be Jacob at the beginning of Genesis 32.

The question becomes, what do you do?

The first thing Jacob decided to do, after the return of his messengers, was to divide his company into two bands, under the reasoning that if his brother descended in a murderous rampage, at least half his people might have a plausible chance at escape. (Gen. 32:7-8)

The next thing he did, after a prayer to God and a night's rest to think on things, was to send gifts. In fact, he sent some very expensive gifts: several hundred each of goats and sheep, and several dozen camels, cattle, and other animals. He also divided these into groups, so that they wouldn't all arrive at once. Presumably, Jacob was hoping that he would overawe his brother with a never-ending stream of gifts, and thus win his forgiveness. With each set of gifts, he made sure the servants told Esau Jacob was coming behind them, just in case he forgot. (Gen. 32:9-21)

A brief encounter with God later (see tomorrow's breadcrumb, Gen. 32:24-32), Jacob is on the road again, and sees Esau with his 400 men. (Gen. 33:1) Continuing with the "divide and remain unconquered" strategy, he proceeds to divide up his family, placing the most valuable people (Rachel and Joseph) at the back, and the less important ones (his handmaids and their children) towards the front, closer to the oncoming horde. (Gen. 33:2)

Then, mustering up his strength, Jacob goes in front of all of them and arrives before his brother. It turns out that all his fears were in vain: Esau embraces him and kisses him, marvelling over the gifts and the people with his brother. (Gen. 33:4) Nevertheless, Jacob continues in the proud tradition of underdogs everywhere: sucking up. He calls Esau, "my lord" (Gen. 33:8) and compares looking upon him to looking upon God himself (Gen. 33:10), which Jacob himself had, in fact, recently done.

And yet, despite Esau's apparent goodwill, Jacob is still cautious. Esau is magnanimous and apparently wealthy himself, and at first pushes aside Jacob's gifts. But, like his grandfather before him, Jacob refuses to allow Esau to return them. (Gen. 33:9-11) Also, he refuses to let Esau accompany him to Seir, brushing him off with excuses (Gen. 33:12-14). He even refuses to have Esau's men come with him, saying that he's rich enough without them (Gen. 33:15). Indeed, Esau continues on ahead, and Jacob follows behind.

What do we learn about Jacob through this whole episode? First, he's amazingly cautious, perhaps the the point of paranoia. Of course, if I'd had my life threatened, I would be cautious too. But it seems that Jacob's denial of Esau's escort stems from fear: what if Esau wanted to kill him while he slept? What if he hired men to do so instead? What if all this public nicety vanished in the privacy of his own tent? To me, this is the subtext behind Jacob's appeasement. In the words of Will Rogers or Wynn Catlin (variously attributed), "Diplomacy is the art of saying 'nice doggy' until you find a rock." Jacob, it seems, was sizing up the opposition and making sure any nice-size rocks were well out of arms' reach.

Of course, Jacob is not the first person in his family to go to extremes in the name of security. We've already spoken about Abraham's and Isaac's "she's my sister" scheme (Gen. 12, 20, and 26). We've also spoken about Abraham's refusal to place himself in a situation where his enemy's goodwill might come back to haunt him -- for example, when he refused to accept plunder after rescuing Lot (Gen. 14:22-24), or when he insisted on paying for Sarah's burial cave (Gen. 23). Jacob, it appears, is merely carrying on the family tradition of paranoia and extreme self-reliance.

On the other hand, it is amazing to see how many times these episodes of heightened caution backfire. All three times, the "she's my sister" plan was discovered by its intended victims, and all that apparently happened from the refusal to accept gifts or the insistence of payment was that Abraham lost the opportunity to become even richer. Similarly, here, Jacob just seemingly lost a sizeable chunk of material wealth to gain forgiveness from Esau, when Esau had already apparently forgiven him.

I suppose we can't fault Jacob for putting up a few extra safeguards. After all, if I knew I was going to face a person who'd threatened my life, I would at least wear a kevlar vest under my clothes and place a few expendable minions between my opponent and I. Then again, maybe I'd just launch a pre-emptive strike against him to confiscate his weapons of mass destruction and liberate his underlings.

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