Healing the Hurts of the Past

Genesis 32-33

November 1, 1992 | Ray Pritchard

Which is more difficult? To forgive or to be forgiven?

You could argue it either way.

If you say it’s more difficult to forgive, you are right. When you forgive someone, you are doing at least two things:

1. You are choosing to overlook the pain of the past.

2. You are choosing to give the offender another chance.

So you’re right. It’s more difficult to forgive.

Unless, of course, you say it’s more difficult to be forgiven. In which case you are obviously correct because whenever you decide to be forgiven, you are doing at least three things:

1. You are admitting your guilt.

2. You are accepting forgiveness.

3. You are implicitly agreeing to a new course of action.

Which is more difficult—to forgive or to be forgiven? That all depends on your point of view—and whether you are the offender or the victim.

The truth is, both are humanly very difficult. Most of us find it hard to forgive. Many of us find it even harder to be forgiven. That, really, is the message of Genesis 32-33. Forgiveness is hard, but so is being forgiven. In fact, sometimes it’s easier for us to forgive someone than it is to allow ourselves to be forgiven by someone else.

One thing we can agree on: Whether you are forgiving or being forgiven, the goal is always the same—Healing … Reconciliation … Reunion … Restoration … Tearing down the walls that separate us.

Twenty Years To Think

So how do you heal the painful hurts of the past? Genesis 32-33 provides an answer to that question. It’s the story of Jacob’s reunion with his estranged brother Esau. Through hard experience Jacob discovered that reconciliation is possible, but it is very, very difficult and very, very costly.

Twenty years have passed since Jacob last saw Esau. During those long years at Haran, I wonder what Jacob thought about. Did he remember that day he tricked Esau out of the birthright for a bowl of red soup? Did his cheeks burn with shame as he remembered dressing up like Esau? Did he feel remorse for lying to his father? Did he regret kissing Isaac and pretending to be Esau? Did he wonder what might have happened if only he had waited on God? Did he regret his impulsive behavior back in Beersheba?

But now only one question lingers in his mind: How will Esau respond? In our last study Jacob has sent messengers to Esau, hoping to win his favor. The messengers come back with word that Esau is traveling to meet Jacob—accompanied by 400 men!

400 men!

Jacob panics—and with good reason. In his mind, it can only mean one thing: Esau is coming to get even with him. He’s still angry after all these years. So Jacob takes three precautionary steps:

A. He divides his people into two groups. (Genesis 32:7-8)

His reasoning is understandable: “If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape.” This makes good military sense, and it shows how desperate the situation was from Jacob’s point of view. He is willing to sacrifice one-half of his family in order to save the other half.

B. He prays to God for deliverance. (Genesis 32:9-12)

This is the first recorded prayer for Jacob—and what a great prayer it is. First, he recalls the promise God made to Isaac and to Abraham. (9) Second, he confesses his unworthiness. (10) Third, he declares God’s undeserved goodness to him. (10) Fourth, he prays for deliverance from Esau. (11) Fifth, he states his fear that the mothers and their children will be attacked. (11) Sixth, he reminds God again of his promise to bless him. (12)

Though it is only four verses long, this prayer contains all the elements of true biblical prayer. Jacob says all the right things. It breathes a spirit of honest humility and deep trust in God. Best of all, the prayer is short and to the point, which is exactly how I would pray if I thought my family was being threatened.

C. He offers gifts to Esau to turn away his anger. (Genesis 32:13-21)

This is a classic example of propitiation—which means “to turn away wrath by offering a gift.” Husbands do it all the time when they stop to buy flowers when they are coming home late from the office. But Jacob is offering much more than flowers. The text lists his gift as follows:

200 female goats

20 male goats

200 ewes

20 rams

30 female camels (and their young)

40 cows

10 bulls

20 female donkeys

10 male donkeys

Clearly, Jacob is sending several messages by offering such a large gift of animals:

1. That he has become prosperous

2. That he truly wants fellowship with Esau

3. That he recognizes the enormity of his sin against his brother

4. That he recognizes Esau’s greatness by offering him a great gift

All these elements are at play. Jacob not only picked out the gift for Esau, he also gave specific instructions to the men who would lead the herd to Esau. When Esau asks what this is all about, they are to say, “They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau and he is coming behind us.”

You Can’t Buy Forgiveness

Jacob’s motives are transparent. He hopes to overwhelm his brother and turn away his anger. In fact, verse 20 states that fact explicitly: “For he thought, ’I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.’”

What’s wrong with this? Nothing, really. The whole idea of giving a gift to turn away wrath is biblical. Propitiation is one of the Greek words used to describe the death of Christ (Romans 3:24-25; I John 2:2). By his sacrificial death on the cross, Jesus “turned away” the wrath of God. On a relational level, Proverbs 18:16 says, “A gift opens the way for the giver and ushers him into the presence of the great.” Something like that is what Jacob is hoping for.

But there is a problem here. Jacob is still thinking on a purely human level of revenge and appeasement. He’s trying to “buy” forgiveness with his extravagant gift. He thinks he can atone for his sins by offering some goats and camels and bulls. It doesn’t work that way—on earth or in heaven. God doesn’t want the blood of animals; he wants his people to come to him with broken and contrite hearts. The same is true for Esau. The last thing he needs is a few hundred more animals to take care of. Even if he accepts the animals, that won’t atone for what Jacob did.

Jacob at the Jabbok

But Jacob hasn’t figured that out yet, so he sends the animals on ahead. It’s at precisely that point that he spends the fateful night by the Jabbok River. What words would describe his emotional state?




Unsure of himself



That’s when the mysterious stranger appears and begins wrestling with him. By the next morning, Jacob has three new things:

A New Name

A New Limp

A New Confidence in God

In those few hours by the Jabbok, his stubborn self-confidence was finally broken. By sunrise Jacob had learned two valuable lessons:

1. When you walk with God, you have no need to fear.

2. When you walk with God, you have no need to play games.

Once he was totally yielded to God, his fear vanished and he was ready to meet Esau. Note: He wasn’t sure how Esau would respond, but after wrestling with the angel of the Lord, it really didn’t matter any more.

Not Certainty, But Confidence

What a tremendous truth that is. God’s answer to fear is not certainty, but confidence. The absence of fear does not equal the certainty of deliverance. Do you remember the words of the three Hebrew children when they were thrown in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3)? “Our God is able to deliver us from these flames, but if not we will worship him anyway.” That’s true biblical confidence. Maybe you’ll be delivered; maybe you won’t. But if you know God, it doesn’t matter. He can deliver you from the fiery furnace or he can deliver you in the fiery furnace. Or he might not physically deliver you at all, but even then, God has promised to never leave you no matter how bad your situation might be.

So Jacob has no idea about what he faces when he finally sees Esau. But this time it doesn’t matter. No more games. No more extravagant gifts. No more deals on the side. Just one brother going out to meet another brother. What happens next is up to God.

Jacob Meets Esau—At Last!

Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming down the road toward him, flanked by 400 men. The moment of truth has arrived. Whenever a problem arises, you always have two options: You can run from it or you can face it head-on. Jacob decides to face Esau man to man. “He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother.” This was the appropriate way to greet an Oriental monarch. Do you remember what Jacob had called Esau when he sent the gift to him? He called him “my lord” and he called himself “thy servant.” These are the words of a guilty man! By bowing down, he was in effect, admitting his guilt and begging for forgiveness.

How would Esau respond? With just a word, he could command his soldiers to kill Jacob on the spot! What will he do? If he wants to get even, this is his big chance.

“But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.” What a moment that must have been. While Jacob is bowing and scraping, Esau is running to hug his brother. Just like that the animosity of 20 years is swept away.

Rebekah was right. She had told Jacob when he left Beersheba that Esau’s anger would eventually pass away. She knew her boys, didn’t she? Like a spent volcano after an eruption, Esau had cooled down, had made a life for himself, and on his own initiative he had decided to forgive Jacob.

What an irony! During all those years Jacob lived in mortal dread of seeing his brother. At the same time God was working in Esau’s heart, leading him to the place of forgiveness. While Jacob feared his brother, Esau couldn’t wait to see him.

Forgiveness is Given—Not Earned

After Jacob presents his family to Esau (5-7), Esau asks why Jacob sent the animals to him. His answer is pure Jacob: “To find favor in your eyes.” (8) But, says Esau, “I’ve got all the animals I need. Keep them. (9) Jacob’s reply is instructive: “If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favor-ably. Please accept the present that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have all I need.” (10-11) The text adds that Esau accepted the gift only because Jacob insisted.

Do you see the difference between Jacob and Esau? To some extent Jacob is still trying to earn forgiveness. He sent the herds in order “to find favor” in the eyes of Esau. But now he knows that you don’t give a gift in order to earn forgiveness, but in response to forgiveness which has been freely given to you. That may sound like a word game, but the difference is crucial. In one case, you give in order to get. In the other, you give because you have first received.

Forgiveness is always a free gift. If it isn’t free, it isn’t forgiveness.

I pause to make a crucial observation. In this chapter, Esau looks better than Jacob. That’s the shock of this story. At every point, Esau seems more ready to forgive than Jacob is to be forgiven. Jacob looks and acts like a guilty man.. While Jacob bows and scrapes, Esau is the one who runs to meet him. While Jacob calls him “my lord,” Esau throws his arms around his neck. While Jacob forces the gift upon him, Esau invites him to his home.

Which one was the son of the promise? Jacob.

Which one was chosen by God? Jacob.

Which one knows the Lord? Jacob.

And yet it is Esau—the child of the world—who is ready, willing and eager to forgive. He’s more willing to forgive than Jacob is to be forgiven. In this case the sinned against is more willing to forgive than the sinner is to be forgiven.

One Final Deception

By all rights, Esau ought to be angry. But he’s not. And Jacob had a hard time dealing with that. As you come to the end of the story (33:12-17), Esau begs Jacob to come with him to his home in Seir. Jacob reluctantly agrees and promises to follow him there. But when the time comes, Jacob goes west to Succoth while Esau goes south to Seir.

What’s going on here? Jacob’s old nature comes to the surface again and causes him to deceive Esau one more time. Think about that. Even after forgiveness … and after reconciliation … after the gift has been accepted … and the hugs and the tears … even after all the stories have been swapped … after all of that, and with the best of motives, Jacob still can’t quite believe that everything is okay between him and his brother. So he tells one final lie, and goes his own way.

Reconciliation is Difficult

Does this diminish the reality of their reconciliation? Not at all. It merely points out how difficult reconciliation is in the real world. The 20 years of separation had taken their toll, and created cultural differences and emotional distance that could not be easily overcome. Perhaps Jacob feared that by going to Esau’s home he would be risking a revival of their rivalry. Perhaps he was just blown away by Esau’s openness and simply didn’t know how to deal with it. In truth there are some people we can be better friends with if we don’t see them very often. And there are some family members we will love more if we don’t see them more than once a year.

To say that is not to justify deception, but it does put Jacob’s actions in proper perspective. The reconciliation was real, forgiveness was offered and accepted, the relationship was restored, but in the nature of things, Jacob and Esau could not roll back the clock as if nothing had ever happened.

The final proof of Jacob’s sincerity is the altar he builds when he gets to Succoth (33:18-20). There he worshiped God, praising him for his goodness in bringing him home at last and restoring his relationship with Esau.

Four Lasting Lessons on Forgiveness

Let’s sum up four of the key lessons on forgiveness that surface in Genesis 32-33:

1. Sometimes it is more difficult to be forgiven than it is to forgive.

2. Accepting forgiveness requires deep humility and enormous courage.

3. As long as we live in fear, we can neither forgive nor be forgiven.

4. Healing begins when we confess our sins and accept God’s forgiveness.

Is healing possible? Yes.

Is it difficult? Yes.

Will it change the past? No.

What will forgiveness do? It sets us free from the past so we can move into the future.

What’s the hardest part about being forgiven? Believing that forgiveness is possible.

“Tie a White Cloth on the Oak Tree”

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the young man who had sinned greatly, and like the Prodigal Son, had moved far away from home. For many months the young man followed the path of sin wherever it led him. No evil thing was kept from him. He committed every sin in the book and broke all the Ten Commandments. Never one time did he write home to his parents. They did not know if he was dead or alive.

The day came when he realized what a fool he had been. Desiring to be forgiven, he wrote a letter to his father, saying, “Dad, if you’ll take me back, I’m ready to come home but I’m afraid you won’t let me. I’ll be on the train next Tuesday. If you are willing to forgive me, when the train passes by the house, tie a piece of white cloth on the oak tree in the front yard. When I see the white cloth, I’ll know you are willing to take me back. If I don’t see it, I’ll stay on the train and keep going.” The father wrote back, “Come on home, Son. I’ll be waiting for you.” But the son didn’t believe him.

When Tuesday came, he boarded the train, filled with fear, wondering what his father would do. As the train drew near, he said to the man sitting next to him, “I can’t bear to look out the window. When we go by the white house around the next curve, tell me if you see a piece of white cloth in the oak tree.” The son put his head down and waited. When the train went past the house, the son raised his head and said, “Mister, what did you see? Was there a piece of white cloth in the tree?” And the man said, “I didn’t see a tree. It was completely covered with white cloth.”

Oftentimes other people are more willing to forgive than we are to be forgiven. Many people live for years in broken relationships because they can’t believe that forgiveness is possible. The hardest thing you’ll ever do is to go to someone and say, “I was wrong. Will you forgive me?” Nothing is more frightening because—like Jacob—we fear what others will say or do. We fear that if we go out on a limb, the people we have hurt will not forgive us. The wall that keeps us apart—all too often—is our unwillingness to be forgiven.

Your Greatest Need

I close with a word of good news. Your greatest need is for God’s forgiveness. I’m happy to tell you that the trees of heaven are covered with white cloth. God says, “If you are ready, you can come home. If you are tired of sin, you can be forgiven. If you are tired of eating the Devil’s leftovers, there’s a place for you at my dinner table.”

Too many people are chained to the past, and the jailer’s name is Fear. Good news! Jesus has the key that opens the door to freedom. If you are willing to be forgiven, Jesus can set you free.

Question: Are you willing to be forgiven? Until the answer is yes, you will stay chained to the past. But when you are willing both to forgive and to be forgiven, the healing can begin.

Father in heaven, we desperately need the ministry of your Holy Spirit right now. Some of us are literally scared to death of forgiveness—too scared to forgive, too guilty to be forgiven. We would rather stay as we are than risk being rejected one more time. We’d rather be guilty than be forgiven. God forgive us for choosing to live chained to the past. Grant courage and deep humility both to forgive and to be forgiven. May the walls that separate us come tumbling down by the power of Jesus’ love. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?