A House Divided

What Presbyterians Might Learn From Jacob and Esau

That the Presbyterian family in America is a house divided is neither a new phenomenon nor a particularly original observation. For reasons that have seemed good (or at least sufficient) to us, we find ourselves broken into what are functionally separate clans, with all of the characteristically “clannish” behavior that one would expect in such a situation.

Whether we are PC(USA), EPC, ECO, PCA, OPC, or whatever else, it seems that we are increasingly apt to locate our ministries, our conversations, and even our confessional and theological identities strictly within the bounds of our chosen clan, mistrusting and avoiding those “outsiders,” along with their agencies, their officials, their seminaries, and their clearly inadequate understandings of how the Reformed and Presbyterian traditions ought to be embodied in our contemporary context.

This hardening of the boundaries (perhaps “ecclesial sclerosis”?) has been brought on, in many cases, by a perfectly understandable desire to preserve the integrity of the church’s teaching and theology, to protect church members and congregations who have suffered trauma in the “denominational wars,” or consciously to step away from an increasingly unpleasant and far-ranging conflict that is, to say the least, unseemly in a body purporting to serve the Prince of Peace. It has, however, not come without costs.

I claim no special expertise in ecclesiology, and will leave analysis of the consequences in the larger sphere to others, but on a strictly personal level, this increasingly strict segregation between the various “split P’s” has resulted in the rupture of valued friendships and ministry connections and the cutting off of what were once vibrant channels of conversation and communication with those who understood our shared heritage differently than I. I do not believe these experiences to be unique or even unusual, and I also do not believe that such consequences need be accepted as “just part of the cost of doing business.” I am, in fact, convinced that God has something better in mind for his Presbyterian children.

Why am I confident of this? Because in Scripture, to which our Reformed instincts impel us to turn for insight, it is made abundantly clear that this is not the first time God has dealt with family divisions among his people! To consider one example, in the stories of Jacob and Esau we find a number of similarities to the dynamics of the present situation of American Presbyterianism, and I suggest that a closer look at that story and particularly at the way it is resolved may offer some insight as to how we might faithfully navigate our own circumstances.

We need not tarry, I think, over the very interesting and legitimate questions of tradition history and textual transmission that dominate much scholarly discussion of the Jacob and Esau stories. Whatever else these texts may be, and however they may have come into their present form, there can be no doubt that they, along with the other stories of the patriarchs and their families, intend to express and explore aspects of the human condition and specifically of human life lived under the covenant auspices of the God of Israel that are timeless and, at least within that covenant context, universal. In other words, the account of the goings-on in Isaac’s household can certainly speak to and illuminate similar scenarios in other historical and cultural settings. Thus, the first order of business is to demonstrate that our own situation is indeed similar to that of the sons of Isaac.

I would first point out that Jacob and Esau, who as twin brothers shared a common heritage and background. Nonetheless, they ended up divided for some very compelling reasons. This part of the story is well-known, and so it should suffice to call to the reader’s mind that despite their family bond, Jacob and Esau grew up to have very different temperaments and habits (Gen. 25:27). They were each the favorite of one parent (25:28), and even though the settled custom of primogeniture favored Esau as the elder twin in matters of inheritance and legal priority, Rebekah’s tumultuous pregnancy and the divine oracle delivered to her before the birth of her sons (25:22–23) suggested from the first that the brothers’ relationship would be a conflicted one.

Moreover, by the time they finally separate, after the episodes of Jacob’s “purchase” of Esau’s birthright and the deceptive acquisition of Isaac’s patriarchal blessing, each had what doubtless seemed like good reason to consider himself (a) the rightful heir of Isaac and therefore of the covenant promises first given to Abraham, and (b) the aggrieved party in the dispute. Jacob could claim that Esau had valued this heritage less than a bowl of soup, and that his brother’s murderous intentions toward him were unjustified and even impious, while Esau could claim that he was the victim of fraud and sharp dealing at the hands of Jacob and Rebekah, and that his brother’s hoodwinking of Isaac rendered any blessing or status gained thereby illegitimate. On the other hand, each would also have been aware of his own less laudable actions in the matter, and so would have had room for doubt as well. All in all, Rebekah’s machinations to send Jacob far away, effecting a division in the house of Isaac, were doubtless the best available course of action under the circumstances, as the alternative was almost assuredly violent fratricide.

I am not suggesting that the story of Isaac’s sons serves as an allegory for the current travails of the Presbyterian family. It will not profit us to seek a perfect, one-to-one correspondence between the people and events of the story and our own recent history. Indeed, just as both Esau and Jacob could make a case for his own rightful inheritance of the mantle of Isaac, so also each of our sundered ecclesial clans could certainly convince themselves, if no one else, that they stood in the God-favored and ultimately vindicated role of Jacob, while “those others” were, at best, confused Esaus. Such a course will do nothing to illuminate or alleviate the tensions of the moment, nor will such a heavy-handed approach to the text stand up to careful reading.

It is, however, striking to observe the echoes between the two stories. We, to extend the familial metaphor, also dispute over a heritage that once was held in common throughout our extended family. We also believe—all of us—that we are the closest to holding this heritage rightfully and truly, and that the others have, in some important way or another, either misunderstood or inappropriately valued some aspects of it. Finally and sadly, we also have experienced growing recrimination, opposition, and even outright conflict within the household, to the point that separation has seemed to many to be the best available course of action under the circumstances.

Indeed, as the late flood of realigning congregations and individual church members begins to slow, it may well seem that we are entering an extended time in which each clan is called to pursue its own course and experience its own story. It may even be the case that, like Jacob in Haran, or presumably Esau back in Canaan, our endeavors apart will be blessed by God, and attended by success and increase. But I am convinced that, just as with Esau and Jacob, the story will not end with that separation.

It may have seemed so to the brothers as the next twenty years went by, with Jacob engaging in his long battle of wits with Laban up in Haran while Esau, offstage as far as Genesis is concerned, prospered back in Canaan to the point that he chose to establish his own household in neighboring Seir, rather than remaining in the tents of Isaac. But God would have it otherwise, and his dream-borne instructions to Jacob left no room for misunderstanding or delay: “Leave this land at once and return to the land of your birth” (31:3).

They may have been content to separate, but God ultimately forced them back together, strongly suggesting divine dissatisfaction with the ongoing schism. After a messy disentanglement from Laban, Jacob found himself, along with a significant establishment of wives, children, flocks, and herds for which he was now responsible, approaching the country of the brother from whom he had fled in fear of his life. It is not surprising that he would show some misgivings about the impending family reunion. His deployment of his household in widely separated groups is intended to mitigate the disaster if Esau chooses to meet him with violence. His prayer for God’s protection explicitly cites the same concern. Perhaps most telling is his sending forth of a costly bribe in hopes of mollifying Esau before they meet. Given the circumstances of parting, we might well expect this sort of behavior from Jacob, and Esau’s response to Jacob’s initial messengers—mustering 400 men and riding out to meet him—leaves open the possibility of renewed conflict, to say the least.  There is great potential for catastrophe and ruin as Jacob’s and Esau’s companies finally meet.

But, as the narrative has been at pains to point out, these events are not, in the final analysis, being driven by the brothers’ preexisting rancor, by Jacob’s politic gestures, or by Esau’s show of strength. This is the Lord’s show. His direct commands to Jacob to return to Canaan are followed up by the appearance of an angelic escort at Mahanaim (32:1–2), Jacob’s reminder of God’s promise to do him good (32:9), and most impressively in the nighttime theophany at the Jabbok (32:24–32), in which Jacob receives a divine blessing in the midst of his preparations to meet his brother. Taking all of the evidence together, there can be no question that Jacob’s reunion with Esau is part of the divine plan. Thus, the somewhat surprising outcome of their meeting can also be taken as congruent with God’s will.

This being the case, there are a few aspects of this encounter and its aftermath that are, for our purposes, worthy of specific note. First, the meeting between Jacob and Esau after years of separation ultimately comes down not to a negotiation between two powerful clan chiefs but rather to the reestablishment of a personal relationship between brothers. Their tearful embrace precedes and shapes all of the conversation and practical discussion that follow. Second, each brother approaches the other not from a perspective defined by past grievances, but rather from one shaped by their recognition of how God has blessed them in the time of their separation and by a consequent spirit of generosity and goodwill. Third, the reconciliation that takes place between Jacob and Esau does not result in the elimination of all differences between the two, nor in the merger of their respective households into “one big happy family.” Esau’s polite invitation to come and live with him in Seir is met by Jacob’s equally polite deferral to some undefined future date that neither man seriously expects to come. Jacob immediately establishes more or less permanent dwellings first at Succoth and then near Shechem, while Esau returns with all his host to his own stomping grounds.

Finally, while the family remains divided into distinct units, the brothers are now able to live peaceably with one another and to come together for matters of mutual concern and responsibility, specifically their joint exercise of the important filial obligation to properly bury Isaac upon his death (35:29). Indeed, the impact of this reestablished kinship between Jacob and Esau is felt for generations, as witnessed by the Lord’s explicit instructions to the Israelites that they must at all costs avoid conflict with the Edomites, understood to be the descendants of Esau, during their travels in the wilderness (Deut. 2). 

My fundamental contention is that the God who was not satisfied with a permanent and rancorous estrangement between Jacob’s and Esau’s branches of the covenant family is unlikely, to say the least, to be pleased with the current state of our Presbyterian churches. While the reasons for the current separations are, as noted above, felt by many to be good and sufficient, this does not mean that they must necessarily be or ought to be permanent, and the story of Isaac’s sons suggests strongly that a God-driven reconciliation may well come to our family as well. What is more, the story also offers some important hints as to the nature of such a restoration of ties and to the character of our own participation in it. To wit:

A restoration, if it happens, will happen by God’s design and on God’s timetable, not according to human strategizing and maneuvering. Had it been up to Jacob and Esau, it is hard to imagine that the house of Isaac would ever have reconciled, but the clear call of God set the ball rolling. It is, therefore, incumbent on all the members of the Presbyterian dispersion to be actively listening for the Lord’s prompting in our situation. When it comes, such prompting must be answered as Jacob did: with alacrity, obedience, planning, and prayer.

Any reconciliation between denominational bodies must begin with and be based upon the restoration and maintenance of individual personal friendships and cooperation between members of the various bodies. Like Esau and Jacob, we as individual Christian brothers and sisters must first look at one another face to face, recognize the other as, in the end, family, and embrace. Only having done so on a personal level can we hope faithfully to engage in dialogue and ministry together on a larger scale.

Jacob’s and Esau’s reunion involved considerable sacrifice on the part of both brothers. Jacob’s princely gift of livestock was, if anything, less challenging for him to give up than were the long-held grievances held by both parties to the separation. If we seek a similar result, we must also be prepared to sacrifice the grievance and righteous indignation that threaten to become cherished possessions for many of us in the aftermath of our experiences of denominational dislocation. This sacrifice must also entail recognition of and repentance for our own possible culpability for past injuries suffered by our sisters and brothers.

Our family history, much like church history in general, demonstrates that we have not succeeded in living into Jesus’s will for his Church as expressed in John 17, which is to say complete and visible unity. Though such unity remains God’s will and thus will be accomplished eventually, it is possible that, as was the case for Jacob and Esau, reconciliation in the Presbyterian family may not include complete institutional reunion in our time. Indeed, we may well continue to disagree until the Kingdom comes on precisely how to embody the visible church, as our knowledge and understanding are necessarily imperfect and provisional. For the time being, under the providence of God, it would represent a considerable step forward were we to acknowledge and embrace our kinship, seek truly to retire our grievances and recriminations, and cooperate on matters of mutual priority in service to the Kingdom. It was no small matter that Jacob and Esau joined together to perform one of the most solemn and important tasks of their generation in seeing to Isaac’s burial, and if we fractured and fragmented Presbyterians could be brought to similarly cooperate in the most urgent and foundational ministry needs of our time, it would be a mighty and welcome work of God, whether it happens under one ecclesial banner or many.

Our Lord Jesus’s declaration that a house divided against itself cannot stand was hardly breaking news. Trusting in the God of Jacob and Esau, the God whose will for reconciliation proved stronger than all the forces that led Isaac’s house to divide, let us pray and prepare for a day when our Presbyterian family will once more stand, if not as one then at least not against one another, the better to share our gospel heritage with a world that desperately needs it.


The Reverend D. Matthew Stith, Ph.D. (Princeton Theological Seminary), is pastor of the Round Hill Presbyterian Church (EPC), Elizabeth, Pennsylvania.  

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D. Matthew Stith
The Reverend D. Matthew Stith, Ph.D. (Princeton Theological Seminary), is pastor of the Round Hill Presbyterian Church (EPC), Elizabeth, Pennsylvania.

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