The Story of Jacob and Esau as a Type of Our Relationship with Christ

This is a bit of a ramshackle post, which I apologize for. Recently, I have been meditating on the story of the Patriarch Jacob in the Book of Genesis. In particular, I have been struck by the scene of Jacob and Esau’s reconciliation in Gen. 33. The build-up appears in Gen. 32.

I see in this story an account of our life in Christ. In fact, I hold that there is much in this passage that supports Catholic soteriology (teaching on how salvation works), specifically in those areas where it differs from Protestant soteriology. I don’t know that I shall ever have time to write out my thoughts with the proper detail, so I here present what notes I have managed to jot down. Here goes:

Jacob: Our Life in Christ
How the Book of Genesis Proves Catholic Soteriology
and Refutes the Protestant Heresy, Being a Meditation in Eight Parts

What intrigues me most in the story* of the Patriarch Jacob is his reconciliation with Esau as told in Gen. 33. The meeting itself is fairly dramatic. Jacob knows that he has wronged Esau by stealing his birthright. He knows that Esau is coming with an army, and he fears for his family’s safety.

As Esau’s army approaches, Jacob sends forward first different animals from his flock with which to appease Esau (the preparations are narrated in ch. 32). Then Jacob arranges his family: the concubines with their children are first, then Leah with her children, then Rachel and Joseph last. When Esau arrives, he forgives Jacob and tells him that he can keep everything, though he accepts Jacob’s gifts after he insists. There’s little preparation for Esau’s gracious response.

How are we to interpret this passage? What message is God communicating to us through this story? I have some suggestions:

1.) Jacob’s name means Supplanter. He supplants Esau, the firstborn, and takes his birthright and Isaac’s paternal blessing. Esau is often typecast as representative of sin. However, he is also the antitype** of Christ, Who is sinless, and firstborn of the Father. Esau lost his birthright to Jacob, and Jacob took Esau’s proper place in receiving Isaac’s blessing. Christ freely shares His birthright with us, and we “take Christ’s proper place” in receiving God the Father’s blessing at our Baptism: “This is My Beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased.”

2.) The pottage. Esau was prodigal, selling his birthright for a mess of pottage. Christ is prodigal of His own birthright. He offers us His heavenly inheritance in exchange for the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. “Whatsoever you do for the least of my brethren, that you do unto me. If you give a cup of cold water to one of these for My Name’s sake, you shall have your reward.”

3.) In his Treatise on True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort sees Rebekah as a type of Mary, preparing us sinners (Jacob) to obtain the Father’s (Isaac’s) blessing. I’ve also seen Carmelites compare the goat skins on Jacob’s neck to the Brown Scapular. To continue my identification above, we come to the Father to receive the blessing intended for Christ, our elder brother. To receive the blessing intended for Christ, we must present ourselves before the Father and acknowledge our own sinfulness–we must humbly identify ourselves with Esau, the hairy (i.e. sinful) man. And isn’t wearing goat-hair clothing (i.e. a hairshirt, sackcloth, cilice) a sign of penance?

So I propose that our reception of the Father’s blessing requires our penance. By our penance, made possible through the intercession of Mary and the ministry of the Church (both represented by Rebekah), we receive the blessing of the Father. Like Isaac, God the Father is “blind” to our not being Christ–through our penance, He sees only Christ in us. This reading is a bit complex, but I think it would pass muster with the Victorines and some other Patristic and Medieval exegetes.

4.) But this can’t be just a forensic substitution of ourselves for Christ, where God, Isaac-like, merely casts a blind eye to our sinfulness (our not-really-being-Jesus). A mere forensic substitution would suggest Lutheran soteriology (shudder; Olaus clutches his scapular). Now endowed with the blessing of Isaac (sanctifying grace), we must live our lives worthily of this grace. We must merit, and advance in holiness, and obey the commandments, lest grace be taken away from us. So Jacob had to flee from Esau, lest Esau avenge himself. We must work out our salvation in fear and trembling, lest Christ avenge Himself upon us at our particular judgment, and take back the blessing that is properly His (the offer of Heaven).***

5.) To save Jacob’s life, Rebekah sent him off to Laban. There Jacob toiled first seven years for Leah, then seven years for Rachel, then six years for a flock and sheep. Remember that Jacob had been a dweller in tents. He didn’t work outside. Now, he’s out in the fields, working hard. He’s actively gaining those virtues that he lacked when Rebekah deceived Isaac. Jacob becomes worthy of Leah, then worthy of Rachel, and then of the miraculous blessing of the flocks. Jacob works out his salvation, and his children represent his treasure of merits in Heaven. He becomes worthy of the promise.

6.) When Jacob tries to depart from Laban and return to the Promised Land, Laban contrives to force Jacob to stay. He even sends his army after Jacob. This is like the world. We must be in the world, but not of it. We must sojourn in Laban’s camp, and work to merit there, but in the end our treasure is elsewhere. As a result, we must endure the world’s persecution.

7.) Wrestling with the angel at the Jabbok ford. Others have handled this one well; I recommend this article. I have little to add. To foreshadow my interpretation of point #8, there’s a purgative/purgatorial aspect to the struggle. Jacob must limp on his way into the Promised Land; he must suffer before he can enter the Promised Land.

8.) Meeting Esau. Jacob wants to appease Esau, and obtain mercy from him, lest his family be slain. As gifts for Esau, Jacob sends ahead gifts from the camels and cattle and sheep and goats that he obtained while living with Laban. Jacob then bows his head down to the ground seven times before Esau. As suppliants, Jacob comes forward with his concubines and their children, then Leah and her children. At last, he brings forward Rachel and Joseph. At the head of his army, Esau sees all of these gifts and suppliants. He comes up to Jacob and welcomes him and tells him that he can keep everything.

So it is with Christ. At death, we are Everyman from the mystery play. Having labored in the world like Jacob in Laban’s camp, at death we must be judged. We must make an account of our lives. Like Jacob answering for his sins against Esau, we must answer for our sins against Christ our Brother (Who identifies Himself with every “least brother” whom we have offended in life). Like Jacob bowing down before Esau seven times, we must prepare for death by bowing down before Christ in the seven sacraments.**** To be saved, we must have practiced the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and we must have progressed in the virtues, obeying the commandments. The cattle, camels, sheep, etc., represent the merits we’ve piled up in Heaven while tarrying on earth, and the satisfaction we’ve made for our sins.

We can see in the suppliants (Leah, the children, the concubines, etc.) our friends the saints, both on earth and in Heaven, whom we ask to intercede for us at the hour of our death and, afterward, when we are in Purgatory. Rachel and Joseph come last. They are the dearest to Jacob, and his last argument for Esau’s mercy. I see Rachel as a type of Mary, who intercedes for us “now and at the hour of our death.” Old Testament Joseph points forward to New Testament Joseph–St. Joseph, Patron of a Happy Death. Our Lady and St. Joseph are the dearest to Jesus’ Heart, and the best intercessors for us when we go to meet Him and make an account of how we lived out the blessing we received vicariously through Him. If we do as Jacob did, then Jesus will do as Esau did–tell us to enjoy the fruits of our labor, and welcome us into the Promised Land.

If you have any thoughts, please share. These interpretations are rather uneven, so if you see room for improvement, let me know.

*I’m using the word “story” here in the sense of “coherent narrative.” I do *not* mean that the Genesis narrative is just a story. Because Sacred Scripture is divinely inspired, I affirm that the story of Jacob and Esau is literally true as to its historical content. I’m just not concerned with the literal-historical sense here. My different interpretations above would fall into the allegorical, tropological, and anagogical senses of Scripture. To learn more about the four senses of Scripture, I refer you here.

**An antitype can mean either “a person or thing that represents the opposite of someone or something else,” or else, “something that is represented by a symbol.” Here, I mean the first meaning: Esau represents the opposite of Christ. Esau is a sinner, and sinfully throws away his birthright. Christ is sinless, and out of His grace and mercy He gives us a share in His birthright.

***Compare the Gospel parables of the master who returns to his house and demands an account from his servants.

****Of course, not all of us receive all seven sacraments. However, the number seven does prefigure the sacraments, as well as the seven spiritual and seven corporal works of mercy, the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, the seven petitions of the Our Father, etc.

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