How Attitudes are Changed:  The Story of Jacob and Esau

Genesis 32, 33
(c) Copyright 2000 Rev. Bill Versteeg

Message based on Genesis 32, 33 (NIV) below.

Where do attitudes start? How are they changed?

For these two men, Jacob and Esau, the attitudes which brought them to fight were with them before they were born. The punches, blows and bloody noses, the arguments and scheming were already being played out in Rebecca's womb.  Their attitudes were shaped by divine destiny, two nations destined to be at conflict were there together, one stronger, the other more deceptive, and as history would show, deception is stronger than brute force.

But divine destiny was also playing itself out in the family. Esau was Isaacs favourite. Jacob was Rebecca's favourite. Parental dynamics were acted out through the brothers, the boys fight was their fight.  Isaac was the son of promise who had simply received the promised blessing from Abraham, The struggles of faith mostly belonged to his Father Abraham, Isaac simply received. Now Esau expected to simply receive also, he took the promise for granted. Rebecca, daughter of a relative had not simply received the blessing, she hungered for it, her desires played out through her son Jacob. Esau and Jacobs attitudes were forged and fed by the driving forces hidden within the hearts of their parents. The day Jacob purchased Esau’s despised birthright for a bowl of lentil stew, he was in his mother’s kitchen cooking. The day that Jacob deceived Isaac and stole Esau’s blessing, the blessing of the favoured eldest, he was hatching his mother’s acquisitive and deceptive plot. When Esau came home, to receive only the leftovers of Isaac’s blessing, the anger and resentment, the deception and “me first” attitudes nurtured by “me first” manipulating parents became core themes of the plot for the next 20 years of Jacob’s and Esau’s lives.

Jacob always hungry for the best in the Lord and the best in life now had to flee for his life. He worked for Laban for 14 years just to have Rachel, Leah and her children would always play second fiddle in their family. In the process of another 6 years, he deceived, he tricked, he manipulated his way to riches breeding the sheep and cattle so that he would get the healthiest, in the process, effectively robbing the inheritance from Laban’s sons.

Esau, who had been consoling himself with thoughts and plans of murdering Jacob certainly nurtured these attitudes in his heart for a long time. When the time came for Jacob to leave Laban with Leah and Rachael and his children and flocks, Jacob could only think one thing:  "Esau still wants my life."  Jacob could only assume that Esau’s attitudes had not changed, like his own attitudes had not changed.

Twenty years of not talking to each other - that was the consequence of this dysfunctional parenting. Twenty years through which one brother’s character was shaped by hatred and anger, resentment and  violence, in time he surrounded himself with 400 men, a warrior force driven by attitudes learned, nurtured when they were young. Twenty years through which Jacob’s character was shaped by his early days, deception, manipulation, self preservation, themes which still characterized him at least to a degree even when much later his sons went off to Egypt to get food.

How could these attitudinal dispositions be changed, after all they had been rooted from before birth, nurtured by parents, their characters were permeated through and through with these well developed life strategies and attitudes.

Jacob had some ideas for Esau. Isn’t it interesting how we always know how to change someone else’s attitude. Knowing that Esau and his 400 warriors were approaching, Jacob the schemer had his plans all worked out. First he sent messengers asking for his favour. Then he divided his camp, his family, his animals, so that if Esau attacked, half of what was his might survive. Then he prayed, after all God had promised to bless him, and if Esau killed him, what kind of blessing would that be? Manipulate God just a bit. And then he sent gifts - two hundred female goats, 20 male goats, 200 ewes, 20 rams, thirty female camels with their young, forty cows, ten bulls , 20 female donkeys and 10 male donkeys, spaced apart in small groups led by his servants so that Esau would receive wave after wave of presents, all this to pacify Esau’s anger, to appease his anger with this propitiary gift. Anything to get Esau to calm down after 20 years of violent smouldering resentment. For his messages, his strategies, his prayers, his gifts, we are told they made no difference. (33:8) Whatever was in Esau’s heart, that was Esau’s responsibility. Jacob could do very little about it.

It took an entire day for Jacob to get his family, his children, his cattle and his possessions across the river Jabbok. Finally, he was there, left alone over night, all that belonged to him was on the other side of the river. And then we read a strange story. Throughout the night, while alone alongside the Jabbok, Jacob wrestled with a man - a man who obviously had divine powers. Throughout the night, Jacob fought.  He was good, he had fought and manipulated and schemed all of his life for what he had, the skills were well developed and the attitude was not about to change. In the art of fighting, he was more crafty than the man he was fighting against, a skill learned in many years of fighting with Esau, a man of strength. But this was still no match. When the man with divine abilities saw that he could not get the upper hand, he simply wrenched Jacob’s hip out of joint with a touch.

The blow hit Jacob at the very centre of his strength.  With a crippled hip, manoeuvring was out of the question, maintaining the foothold, the upper hand, a position of strength, all that disappeared. With a disabled hip you are vulnerable to your opponent. Quick moves, running, dodging - they are no longer possible. But Even though one of Jacobs strengths had been broken his attitude hadn’t. He held on like the weasel he was, refused to let go of his grip unless this divine wrestling opponent would bless him. The same hunger he learned from his mother, the attitude did not leave him.

The divine man asked his name. What a strange question to ask. If this divine man was God, he already knew Jacob’s name. Can two people wrestle an entire night without knowing each other’s name? There is usually some reason why people choose to tirelessly wrestle, it usually includes some knowledge about your opponent. The man asked for his name for a deeper reason.

Jacob answered simply:  “Jacob.” But the name had meaning, "heel grabber, trickster, deceiver, cheat, swindler, schemer, usurper,"  the name Jacob spoke of his character, his attitude, the driving forces in his life that shaped his behaviour. In the presence of God, Jacob’s name became an honest confession. “I am Jacob, I am a swindler, I am a deceiver, I am a heel grabber, I am a schemer.” Jacob’s name and his character, his attitudes - they were all the same. This was a confession and what an honest confession it was for Jacobs entire life could be summarized in that name. If breaking Jacobs strength was the first step to changing Jacobs attitude, self realization and confession was the 2nd step to changing Jacobs attitude.

But there was more to changing Jacob’s attitude - there was a third component - revelation. The man said to Jacob “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”
With this revelation, Jacob was invited to see himself differently, to see himself in relation to others differently, to see himself in relation to even Esau differently, to see himself in relation to God differently. The power of the old man, Jacob had been broken in a dislocated hip, the name confessed, now a new name was given to take its place, a new self identity, a new self image, "Israel, the one who wrestled with God and overcame," "Overcomer,"  that is who he became.

Jacob politely asked for his opponents name but the scriptures baffle us with an open ended question - “Why do you ask my name”

Jacob was changed by his encounter with God. God was not changed by his encounter with Jacob. God’s name, or changing it was never an issue. God, in his willingness to bless would not be changed. And so God blessed Israel there and by giving Jacob this new name, gave him a destiny that would shape world history, through his children and their descendants, especially the one who wrestled with God in the garden of Gethsemane, and there choose to submit to the Father’s will defeating once and for all, all those forces who stand opposed to the children of blessing.

Jacob went on to meet Esau after two decades of not speaking to each other, now seeing the brother he had spent his life fighting with or avoiding was like seeing God, privilege, beauty, joy, camaraderie, fellowship. Jacob’s attitude had been changed. And from the way the story continues, we know that these two brothers, who once lived as enemies became neighbours, good neighbours who loved each other.

Reviewing this story it strikes me how true it is about my attitudes and yours. What does it take to change our attitudes?
Three things

  1. The strength of the attitude has to be broken.

  2. The reality of the attitude has to be acknowledged.

  3. The change of the attitude has to be revealed.

Let me give you just one illustration. I am sure that many many illustrations can be thought of in this congregation alone. This illustration comes from a true illustration though most of the issues and characteristics of the story have been changed to uphold confidentiality.

There was a man whose language, who attitudes in absolutely every day were coloured by prejudice. If there was a visible minority he could tear down, he did, blacks, native Indians, Asians, they were all described with negative, demeaning terminology.  The worlds problems, his problems were caused by them. From his isolated Dutch chauvinistic chair he felt free to criticize anyone he wanted until the day his daughter brought home a young black man, and called this young black man her boy friend, a serious boy fiend.  For the man, the strength of his isolation had been taken away.  Now he must deal face to face with one of the people he loved to hate.

With time, as he was exposed to this young man, he started to see past the patterns of hatred he had so long hidden behind, and he found in the young man qualities he even admired, his daughters fiancée was obviously a good choice - just the wrong colour.  It didn’t take more than a year before he was confessing that he had judged wrong. And I don’t know what struggles that man went through in the silent hours of the night, struggles with God and himself, but I do know that his language is no longer coloured by prejudice, something in his attitude has changed.

Maybe you can relate.  Maybe you can see your own attitudes, where we could afford the attitude because of a strength and that strength was removed from us.  In the process, as we started to see now from weakness, we began to confess, see ourselves, and then see new possibilities in Christ...

The Scripture on which this message is based:

Jacob Prepares to Meet Esau

32 Jacob also went on his way, and the angels of God met him. 2 When Jacob saw them, he said, “This is the camp of God!” So he named that place Mahanaim.
3 Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. 4 He instructed them: “This is what you are to say to my master Esau: ‘Your servant Jacob says, I have been staying with Laban and have remained there till now. 5 I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, menservants and maidservants. Now I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favor in your eyes.’”
6 When the messengers returned to Jacob, they said, “We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.”
7 In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well. 8 He thought, “If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape.”
9 Then Jacob prayed, “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ 10 I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups. 11 Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. 12 But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.’”
13 He spent the night there, and from what he had with him he selected a gift for his brother Esau: 14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 15 thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. 16 He put them in the care of his servants, each herd by itself, and said to his servants, “Go ahead of me, and keep some space between the herds.”
17 He instructed the one in the lead: “When my brother Esau meets you and asks, ‘To whom do you belong, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?’ 18 then you are to say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us.’”
19 He also instructed the second, the third and all the others who followed the herds: “You are to say the same thing to Esau when you meet him. 20 And be sure to say, ‘Your servant Jacob is coming behind us.’” For he thought, “I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.” 21 So Jacob’s gifts went on ahead of him, but he himself spent the night in the camp.

Jacob Wrestles With God

22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”
29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.

Jacob Meets Esau

33 Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men; so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two maidservants. 2 He put the maidservants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. 3 He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother.
4 But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. 5 Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. “Who are these with you?” he asked.
Jacob answered, “They are the children God has graciously given your servant.”
6 Then the maidservants and their children approached and bowed down. 7 Next, Leah and her children came and bowed down. Last of all came Joseph and Rachel, and they too bowed down.
8 Esau asked, “What do you mean by all these droves I met?”
“To find favor in your eyes, my lord,” he said.
9 But Esau said, “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.”
10 “No, please!” said Jacob. “If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably. 11 Please accept the present that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have all I need.” And because Jacob insisted, Esau accepted it.
12 Then Esau said, “Let us be on our way; I’ll accompany you.”
13 But Jacob said to him, “My lord knows that the children are tender and that I must care for the ewes and cows that are nursing their young. If they are driven hard just one day, all the animals will die. 14 So let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I move along slowly at the pace of the droves before me and that of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.”
15 Esau said, “Then let me leave some of my men with you.”
“But why do that?” Jacob asked. “Just let me find favor in the eyes of my lord.”
16 So that day Esau started on his way back to Seir. 17 Jacob, however, went to Succoth, where he built a place for himself and made shelters for his livestock. That is why the place is called Succoth.
18 After Jacob came from Paddan Aram, he arrived safely at the city of Shechem in Canaan and camped within sight of the city. 19 For a hundred pieces of silver, he bought from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem, the plot of ground where he pitched his tent. 20 There he set up an altar and called it El Elohe Israel.


(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

Back to Sermon Index Page

Let me know if this message was helpful.