“Sibling Rivalry Distress”
Hosea 11:7-12:12 (A)
Obadiah 1:1-21 (S)
by Mark Huey
By the time the Torah student arrives at V’yishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43), describing the return of Jacob to Canaan—after an estimated twenty years in Haran building a family and establishing a sizeable estate—the reminder that a sibling rivalry is still simmering with Esau comes as no surprise. When you recall the circumstances of Jacob’s surreptitious escape from the potential clutches of the swindled Esau, ill feelings understandably persisted (Genesis 27:41). The opening passages of this parashah demonstrate that Jacob is definitely not finished with what modern theologians label the “sanctification process”:
“Then Jacob sent messengers before him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. He also commanded them saying, ‘Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: “Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have sojourned with Laban, and stayed until now; I have oxen and donkeys and flocks and male and female servants; and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find favor in your sight’”’” (Genesis 32:3-5, NASU).
Fear of the justified retribution of Esau prompts Jacob to send waves of gifts, seemingly bribing his brother for mercy, knowing that he had threatened earlier to kill him when Isaac dies:
“Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people who were with him, and the flocks and the herds and the camels, into two companies; or he said, ‘If Esau comes to the one company and attacks it, then the company which is left will escape.’ Jacob said, ‘O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who said to me, “Return to your country and to your relatives, and I will prosper you,” I am unworthy of all the lovingkindness and of all the faithfulness which You have shown to Your servant; for with my staff only I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, that he will come and attack me and the mothers with the children. For You said, “I will surely prosper you and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which is too great to be numbered.”’ So he spent the night there. Then he selected from what he had with him a present for his brother Esau: two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milking camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. He delivered them into the hand of his servants, every drove by itself, and said to his servants, ‘Pass on before me, and put a space between droves.’ He commanded the one in front, saying, ‘When my brother Esau meets you and asks you, saying, “To whom do you belong, and where are you going, and to whom do these animals in front of you belong?” then you shall say, “These belong to your servant Jacob; it is a present sent to my lord Esau. And behold, he also is behind us.”’ Then he commanded also the second and the third, and all those who followed the droves, saying, ‘After this manner you shall speak to Esau when you find him; and you shall say, ‘Behold, your servant Jacob also is behind us.’” For he said, ‘I will appease him with the present that goes before me. Then afterward I will see his face; perhaps he will accept me’” (Genesis 32:7-20, NASU).
It is at this point, after Jacob has divided his camp and done everything humanly possible to manipulate the potential confrontation with his twin brother, that an incredible wrestling match with a supernatural being takes place (Genesis 32:24-32). It is from this stressful set of circumstances that Jacob is not only renamed Israel, but the crippling aftermath of a permanent limp will now remind him of his human frailty and encounter with God until his death. While the offerings of flocks might have moved Esau to forgiveness, it could have been the sight of his limping brother stooping to his knees that actually triggered a merciful exoneration for stealing Esau’s blessing as the eldest son.
Yet one problem remained: the prophetic word heard by Rebekah during her pregnancy was more than simply a message about two twins in a womb. It was also about two peoples which would come from the descendants of the two men who were Isaac and Rebekah’s only children:
“But the children struggled together within her; and she said, ‘If it is so, why then am I this way?’ So she went to inquire of the LORD. The LORD said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb; and two peoples will be separated from your body; and one people shall be stronger than the other; and the older shall serve the younger.’ When her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb” (Genesis 25:22-24, NASU).
It is possible that by the time this delicate reunion was to take place, both Jacob and Esau were very aware of what motivated Rebekah to take the actions she did to secure the blessing of Isaac for Jacob. But after some twenty years of separation, and the obvious differences in relative strength as Esau was commanding a band of 400 warriors, compared to Jacob’s much smaller company of family, livestock, and servants—the stronger Esau was in a position as the eldest to offer help to the younger. In fact, when you read through the rest of the parashah you discover that Jacob, after an unpleasant experience in Shechem, does make it to the encampment of his father Isaac. Then we find, in what had to be a somewhat similar scene to Ishmael and Isaac burying Abraham decades earlier, Esau and Jacob burying their father Isaac in the same cave at Machpelah that was the final resting place for Abraham. Some time after the burial, it is recorded that because of the relative overcrowded conditions of the livestock, that Esau chooses to leave Canaan and resettle in what becomes known as Edom, in the hills to the east:
“Then Esau took his wives and his sons and his daughters and all his household, and his livestock and all his cattle and all his goods which he had acquired in the land of Canaan, and went to another land away from his brother Jacob. For their property had become too great for them to live together, and the land where they sojourned could not sustain them because of their livestock. So Esau lived in the hill country of Seir; Esau is Edom” (Genesis 36:6-8, NASU).
We are beginning to see some of the fulfillment of Rebekah’s prophetic word taking root. The stronger budding nation of Esau’s descendants, as evidenced by all of the children and grandchildren listed in Genesis 36, is actually serving the younger nation by leaving the area they occupied and moving to the east. When reading the prophecy of Obadiah that the Sages chose to reflect upon as they considered the messages contained in this parashah, we can see how these passages can instruct us about the course of history that God has ordained for Israel (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:11).
As our Torah readings will later lead us to look at the sojourn of Ancient Israel from Egypt back to the Promised Land, we are told a number of times that Israel wanted to travel through Edom. This was a land occupied by their cousins, the offspring of Esau:
“From Kadesh Moses then sent messengers to the king of Edom: ‘Thus your brother Israel has said, “You know all the hardship that has befallen us; that our fathers went down to Egypt, and we stayed in Egypt a long time, and the Egyptians treated us and our fathers badly. But when we cried out to the LORD, He heard our voice and sent an angel and brought us out from Egypt; now behold, we are at Kadesh, a town on the edge of your territory. Please let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or through vineyard; we will not even drink water from a well. We will go along the king’s highway, not turning to the right or left, until we pass through your territory.’” Edom, however, said to him, ‘You shall not pass through us, or I will come out with the sword against you.’ Again, the sons of Israel said to him, ‘We will go up by the highway, and if I and my livestock do drink any of your water, then I will pay its price. Let me only pass through on my feet, nothing else.’ But he said, ‘You shall not pass through.’ And Edom came out against him with a heavy force and with a strong hand. Thus Edom refused to allow Israel to pass through his territory; so Israel turned away from him” (Numbers 20:14-21, NASU).
The animosity that was inbred into Edom from the womb of Rebekah takes on greater strength. Here in Numbers, the threat of warfare with Edom actually turns the fleeing Israel to many more years in the wilderness.
It is at this point of contention, that when you read the prophecy of Obadiah, you get a foreshadowing of not only what is going to happen at some time in the future—but also a reiteration of what the Edomites did to Israel when the Babylonians took away the Southern Kingdom exiles. Because the absolute date of when the prophecy was given is not possible to determine, you can discern that some of the admonitions to Edom from Obadiah concern how it is not to react in Judah’s days of distress:
“On the day that you stood aloof, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth, and foreigners entered his gate and cast lots for Jerusalem—you too were as one of them. Do not gloat over your brother’s day, the day of his misfortune. And do not rejoice over the sons of Judah in the day of their destruction; yes, do not boast in the day of their distress. Do not enter the gate of My people in the day of their disaster. Yes, you, do not gloat over their calamity in the day of their disaster. And do not loot their wealth in the day of their disaster. Do not stand at the fork of the road to cut down their fugitives; and do not imprison their survivors in the day of their distress. For the day of the LORD draws near on all the nations. As you have done, it will be done to you. Your dealings will return on your own head. Because just as you drank on My holy mountain, all the nations will drink continually. They will drink and swallow and become as if they had never existed. But on Mount Zion there will be those who escape, and it will be holy. And the house of Jacob will possess their possessions. Then the house of Jacob will be a fire and the house of Joseph a flame; but the house of Esau will be as stubble. And they will set them on fire and consume them, so that there will be no survivor of the house of Esau,’ for the LORD has spoken” (Obadiah 11-18, NASU).
When you consider this passage, you are reminded of not only the Babylonian exile of the Southern Kingdom and the destruction of the First Temple, but perhaps also the Roman siege that came in 70 C.E. when Jerusalem and the Second Temple were destroyed. Additionally, the significant references, to the day of destruction and day of distress, are possibly an indication of what Jeremiah refers to as Jacob’s distress (Jeremiah 30:7)—the Great Tribulation.
Obadiah’s references to the holiness of Mount Zion and the escape of the House of Jacob is reminiscent of some Tribulation scenarios. The description of the House of Jacob being a fire and the House of Joseph being a flame is somewhat indicative of all Israel coming back together, involving the considerable reduction of Edom to stubble. How this all manifests itself is up to conjecture and speculation, but it is interesting to note that the concluding verses indicate that this all transpires at the End of the Age when the Lord’s Kingdom prevails:
“Then those of the Negev will possess the mountain of Esau, and those of the Shephelah the Philistine plain; also, possess the territory of Ephraim and the territory of Samaria, And Benjamin will possess Gilead. And the exiles of this host of the sons of Israel, who are among the Canaanites as far as Zarephath, and the exiles of Jerusalem who are in Sepharad will possess the cities of the Negev. The deliverers will ascend Mount Zion to judge the mountain of Esau, and the kingdom will be the LORD’s” (Obadiah 19-21).
Here as the prophecy concludes, even specific people groups are declared the ultimate residents of various parts of Edom and Canaan. You may be reminded of some later words from the Apostle Paul, written to the Roman Believers as he was attempting to clarify how God sovereignly chooses certain peoples for certain destinies. In the case of the descendants of Esau or Jacob, the final choice is the Great Potter’s as He selects some vessels for glory and others for destruction:
“And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, ‘THE OLDER WILL SERVE THE YOUNGER [Genesis 25:23].’ Just as it is written, ‘JACOB I LOVED, BUT ESAU I HATED [Malachi 1:2-3].’ What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!…On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles” (Romans 9:10-14, 20-24, NASU).
The sibling rivalry established from the conception of Jacob and Esau is going to persist to the end-times. Why it is going to persist is a legitimate question. I believe the answer is only understood when you recognize your position before the Creator God. If you have to wrestle with Him for understanding what this means, then please start now! It is a good sign if you are concerned about whether you are going to ultimately be a vessel for His mercy and glory, or a vessel prepared for His wrath and destruction. As Jacob eventually discovered, going through life with a limp is far more desirable than separation from the Holy One.
Esau seems to have regretted his decisions about selling his birthright and despising the blessing. He weeps bitterly about this, and you get the distinct impression that there was genuine remorse from him:
“But Isaac replied to Esau, ‘Behold, I have made him your master, and all his relatives I have given to him as servants; and with grain and new wine I have sustained him. Now as for you then, what can I do, my son?’ Esau said to his father, ‘Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.’ So Esau lifted his voice and wept. Then Isaac his father answered and said to him, ‘Behold, away from the fertility of the earth shall be your dwelling, and away from the dew of heaven from above. By your sword you shall live, and your brother you shall serve; but it shall come about when you become restless, that you will break his yoke from your neck.’ So Esau bore a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him; and Esau said to himself, ‘The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob’” (Genesis 27:37-41, NASU).
Based on what transpires in the generations following Esau’s death, and even with what is depicted in Obadiah, there is every indication that this particular sibling rivalry persists through time as the inclination for evil remains in the human heart. The warning for Believers today is that if you find yourself in a position when you are ambivalent toward your inherited blessings—or the birthright of another Believer who has come to salvation via the shed blood of Messiah Yeshua—let me urge you with all my heart to cry out for mercy! The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob reminds us that His mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13). The problem is that you have to ask, plead, beg, implore, beseech, and entreat Him with all your heart to receive this mercy. Now is better than later, because we cannot be sure when later might turn into never!
 Meaning, “he contends with God” (J. Barton Payne, “yiśrā’ēl,” in R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament [Chicago: Moody Press, 1980], 2:883).