Favor or Fear
“Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children.
Jacob brings a desperate and honest prayer to God, as he approaches a meeting he has dreaded for years. I imagine he gave thought to Esau’s fury at his deception and robbery often during the two decades of service under Laban’s own deception. Right before his expression of fear, Jacob remembers how he came with nothing but the clothes on his back and the staff in his hand. But God brought him back over the border of the Jordan with enormous wealth and a host of spiritual encounters and dreams, to boot. Even just a few days earlier, he is granted a mysterious view into the march of the unseen armies of the heavenly host, as if they are going before him into battle.
He is still afraid — and he has a choice in front of him.
The first three patriarchs of Genesis all share a very human struggle with fear. Abraham had no example in front of him and had to find out God’s providence for himself. He has the brilliantly fearful idea to claim that Sarah is his sister (technically accurate) instead of his wife, so that the men of the land won’t just kill him and take her. This leads to the near destruction of both Egypt and Gerar, in that God threatens doom if they do not give Sarah back to Abraham.
In both cases, these leaders are understandably angry — but God’s providence simply forces them to give Abraham loot and land. It is nearly comical, but also profoundly humbling to consider. Abraham screwed up, and these pagan men are nearly punished for it, save God’s mercy and infinite wisdom. But, does God leave Abraham for this, or scold him, or punish him? No — His providence shows up when Abraham doesn’t.
Hilariously, Isaac pulls the same exact stunt later, in the same kingdom! It’s a different Abimelek, but Isaac makes the same call for the same reason: “Because I thought I might lose my life on account of her.” What happens here? Oh, God just makes Isaac so wealthy Abimelek begs him to leave. Isaac might have embarrassed himself, but God doubles down on being there.
Isaac has the benefit of Abraham’s life to look to and his own experiences with God’s favor, and he still decides “No, I think fear will help me more.” How human is that? We can’t mock them for it, because it is a choice we might make in the face of imagined problems.
Now, for Jacob. Jacob gets himself into a lot of trouble; his name means “Supplanter” or “usurper”, after all. God meets with Jacob, and he experiences dreams at Bethel and during the years he worked for Laban. He reveals one of these real experiences with God’s favor to his wives, and it informs us that God had blessed Jacob at Laban’s expense, vindicating him. God tells him that it is time to move on and continue the pilgrimage of obedience that Abram started long ago.
Once again, in human fashion, Jacob chooses to leave in the night without telling his father-in-law. He chooses to believe that Laban’s might is greater than that of the God who had been robbing that cheater blind for decades, justly blessing Jacob and his household. Who knows how much more peace Jacob would have had if he had allowed Laban to say goodbye, and then part with boundaries in place?
And once again, in His patient fashion, God reminds Jacob and Laban who the Boss is. Jacob’s fear caused harm where none should have been, but God’s favor intervenes and both man pass from the other with an understanding and borders they won’t cross. God’s favor always prevails, even when our always-needless fear leads us to anxiety and missed opportunities.
Right before he approaches Esau’s land, Jacob sees the armies of God and names the location in awe. With that experience of favor added to the long list, Jacob comes before God. This time, there could be danger, and he makes preparations to protect his family. But, instead of reaching for fear and acting, he reaches for God’s favor. His fear is on one path, but he looks to the other. The other path says: “But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.’”
Like clockwork, the pattern of God’s favor overpowering Jacob’s fear emerges. The night before the fateful day, Jacob has one of the most mysterious, personal encounters with God. He literally wrestles through the night with a man, one who seems to be bemused that Jacob asks his Name — as if Jacob may already know it. Despite an injury from the “stranger”, Jacob refuses to relent in holding on until he gets a blessing. Whatever comes next, he knows he must have that favor.
By the time the sun rises, Jacob knows that he has experienced something magnificent — God has shown his undeserving and glorious favor to the line of Abraham again: “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
When Jacob finally reunites with his brother, every imagined fear, every fantasy of terror from an angry Esau vanishes. God brings a deeply delighted and wholly content man to face Jacob. Esau is moved to tears and is thrilled to see all of Jacob’s family and the blessings of his life. Esau has no desire for any of Jacob’s gifts, but only suggests traveling with him for a while as Jacob makes his way back to the land of Canaan. He offers Jacob protection, a reprieve, a chance to mend old wounds. God might have even provided a way for Jacob to restore a relationship long thought lost.
I won’t infer too much beyond that, as the narrator rarely supplies direct judgement to the actions of the patriarchs. But, the patterns are hard to read past. Here is Jacob, time after time seeing God’s providence being certain and his fears being vain, just as the fears of his father and grandfather were before him. He has seen the armies of heaven and, a mysterious expression of the very Person and Face of El Shaddai. Jacob even says this to Esau after they embrace: “For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably.”
Surely, Jacob would not resist the current of favor, here?
Yet — he does. Like we all feel we do, if there are times we fail to remember God’s favor and covenant faithfulness. Jacob “politely” declines, but still seems to fear Esau, for no presented reason. There never really is, is there? We might convince ourselves that there really is something to be afraid of, but is there? He makes the mistake of settling instead of sojourning (apparently — once again, the narrator only describes what happens) near Shechem, and this leads only to total disaster for his family. His fear ends with two of his boys wreaking horrifying vengeance on every man in Shechem for the sake of their sister’s honor.
There’s a lesson to be drawn from consequences of fear, but this is not where God ends things. God does not abandon Jacob, the man He renames Israel. He calls him back again to Bethel, as before, and draws him to renew old vows and to abandon pagan thinking. The Promise hasn’t lessened in response to some of Jacob’s failures. It is just as unfathomably huge as it was before.
“I am God Almighty; be fruitful and increase in number. A nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will be among your descendants. The land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I also give to you, and I will give this land to your descendants after you.”
Every step forward and every step back, the favor of God hounds Jacob. We might fail, but as we continue to obey, the favor of God will always show up wherever we don’t, and everywhere else, too.