The account of Cain and Abel is rather infamous because it records the first murder in the Bible, more so for the tragedy that a brother killed his younger brother. Jealous that God favoured Abel’s offering over Cain, he killed his brother over the matter. He questioned the Lord, “Am I my brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9)? Jacob and Esau were twins, and the Lord told their mother, Rebekah, that the older (Esau) would serve the younger (Jacob) (25:21-23). (Esau is the older twin in that he came out of the womb first.) How this came to be is that Jacob deceived his unwise brother into giving him his birthright (25:29-34); and later, Rebekah tricks their father, Isaac, into giving the blessing to Jacob rather than the older Esau (27:1-36).
Thus, from this moment on there is hatred and enmity between the brothers, “Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him” (27:41). It is for this reason that Jacob feared his brother Esau (32:1-21). He was afraid his brother would kill him. As we read Jacob’s story, that’s exactly what we expect to happen.
But something else entirely happens. Like the father who runs and embraces the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable (Luke 15:11-32), “Esau ran to meet [Jacob] and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (Genesis 33:4). Quite unexpectedly, brother embraces brother, they kiss each other according to the customs of their culture, and they weep.
This awesome display of brotherly love does not end there either. Earlier, in 32:13-21, Jacob sent a large flock to Esau as a gift in an attempt to appease Esau’s wrath toward him. So, Esau asks him about it, “What do you mean by all this company that I met” (33:8a)? Jacob tells him, “To find favour in the sight of my lord” (33:8b). Jacob calling Esau his lord is ironic considering God said Esau would be the servant, so Jacob is humbling himself immensely here. Initially, Esau refuses, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself” (33:9). Yet Jacob urges him to accept the gift and Esau eventually accepts it (33:10-11), as if to say, “Fine, I’ll take it!”
Esau did for his brother what Cain had failed to do for his. Cain was jealous of his brother and murdered him. Esau was forgiving of his brother and embraced him. Cain wanted more; he was envious of the Lord’s favour. Esau was content with what he had even though his brother had stolen his birthright and blessing. Abel received the Lord’s favour, and Cain killed him for it. Jacob desired Esau’s favour, and Esau forgave him despite the gift.
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asked. Yes, Cain, you were, and your vocation of being your younger brother’s keeper was a colossal failure. Esau, despite his younger brother’s mischief—and, indeed, despite the Lord’s favour for Jacob over Esau in that He chose Jacob for the continued promise of the Messiah—was successfully his brother’s keeper by forgiving him and embracing him as nothing else than his beloved younger brother.
Therefore, let Esau’s forgiveness of his brother be a lesson for all of us, according to the words we pray as the Lord has taught us, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jacob’s trespass against his brother was immense, yet Esau forgave him for it—not because of anything Jacob did to deserve it, and certainly not because of the large gift he sent him, but merely because of his love for his brother. Let us, therefore, do the same for our brothers and sisters, not just by blood, but also by the communion of saints in which we become holy siblings by Baptism.