The reunion story between Jacob and Esau is the Old Testament way of foreshadowing grace to come. Esau had every right to resent Jacob and even hate him for Jacob’s deceptions. Instead, he extended unmerited grace. Time did the first part of the healing (over twenty years) and the two brothers did the rest. They chose to let go of the past.
Genesis 33:1a, 3-4
Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men . . . He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother. But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.
They didn’t talk about the past, but they both knew what had happened between them. Jacob poured out his plea through the giving of very generous gifts (220 goats, 230 sheep, 30 camels plus their young, 50 cows and bulls, and 30 donkeys). Then, when he himself came forward, he bowed down seven times (and his children likewise). This gesture in this time and culture indicated that the other person was superior. By bowing seven times, Jacob was accepting the position of vassal to Esau. (See discussion by Dr. Claude Mariottini)
Instead, like the story of the prodigal son, Esau greets his brother warmly with an embrace. We do not know if this change of heart was from the beginning when he first heard of Jacob’s coming or if Esau’s heart was touched by the gifts and Jacob’s obeisance. Nonetheless, their embrace was a willingness on Esau’s part to start over. To let go of the vows for revenge and deceptions.
But Jacob does an interesting thing. Despite Esau’s offer to accompany Jacob or leave additional men, Jacob demurs. I see this as wisdom. Their unspoken agreement is tenuous at best. It’s one thing to initiate peace but another to live it. By keeping their households apart (Jacob buys land near Shechem), they can have their understanding without putting themselves at close proximity where old habits and memories could peck away at their resolve to live amiably.
In the same way should we remember this wisdom. When we forgive, especially in those most difficult cases (abuse, brokenness, and a bevy of other human sorrows), we should not expect the heart to follow quickly. Instead, we must give space and time and new patterns to develop.
I can choose to relinquish my losses from the past, but I must still be wise in building my future.