There's a story in the bible about a pair of twins: Esau and Jacob.
Legend has it that Jacob, the younger, came out of the womb clinging to the heel of Esau. This being the beginning of their story, as well as it's inclusion within the Book of Genesis, one can gather that this will be quite a thrilling tale. There is manipulation: Jacob tricks his older brother into giving up his birthright for a bowl of soup - which Esau famished-ly seeks after a long hunt. There is deception: Jacob putting on goat-skin to fool his father into believing the younger is actually Esau, to gain his father's blessing and inheritance normally given to the eldest. There is rivalry: After Esau finds out, he threatens to kill Jacob, whom decides to get out of dodge with everything he now claims as his own.
It is strange to think that after all this we find that Jacob is actually the protagonist of the story. One starts to feel sorry for Esau, who is barely mentioned throughout the rest of the bible, and is controversially "hated" by God in half of those mentions.
Granted there is no evidence that Esau ever relied on God for much, or even turned to him for guidance throughout his life. However in our acceptance as an audience to dismiss Esau as the text surely does, I believe we have missed a valuable lesson still to be derived from these brothers.
The myth continues years later with Jacob's journey back to the promised land. He is now wealthy and a true leader, but still very much the manipulative boy we have come to know. On his return he realizes that Esau, the older brother who lasts words to Jacob were, "I will kill you." lives/rules the land in which Jacob must pass through. Jacob expects the worst, as he should, and tries to send peace offerings aplenty to his long forgotten brother. Messengers bring word back that Esau is coming to meet his younger brother with 400 soldiers behind him. Jacob must go out to meet him, and surely, he thinks, to his death.
In the wilderness Jacob and Esau meet, for the first time in decades, and having not received a word from Esau as to his intentions, Jacob only assumes the worst; therefore he pleads with his brother on his knees to accept his offerings for forgiveness.
"Nay." Says Esau. "I have enough." He says reassuringly, before embracing (possibly) his brother in peace.
Peace is the moral of the story I was to give the elementary aged kids at Sunday School. I'm sure that's how people have read this brief passage for years. A story of forgiveness. Letting go. This coincides with Jesus later on, so how else would one need to interpret it. In almost a flash it's gone, and Jacob moves on to the promised land.
But as an older brother with two siblings I somehow found a connection with Esau in his statement that day. Esau who was able to get past the hurt and the misgivings of the past in order to move on, start a new life, and build his own kingdom from scratch. Having lost his birthright and inheritance - left with nothing - Esau was rightfully angry, but after years of living with these consequences I think he finally came to a conclusion that many of us never come to, and this is why he was able to forgive Jacob so easily.
Esau didn't need the inheritance or birthright. Esau was strong. He was skilled. He was the older and therefore much more confident than his little brother. In the end, Esau was capable of more than he knew, and had no need of an inheritance to start a life of his own.
Others have often asked me why I decided to join the military. There were many reasons, to be sure, and I'm assuming people expected me to answer accordingly. Benefits and Travel. Skill sets and Discipline. Pride and Duty. However I never answered with those things. To me it was a simple decision that came from an unlikely source. I wanted to give my brother and sister a chance attend college, have a life of their own, and not have to worry about how they were going to afford it. Being the three children of a single mother, I had a choice to make. I could take my indecisiveness and mediocre grades to community college, freeload a bit, and probably use up all my mothers' resources in the process. Or I can forge a path of my own, commit myself to four years of military service, and allow my mother to help my brother and sister - whom I didn't want to have to resort to the military in order to attend college.
I was capable, and so I chose the latter.
This is Esau's conclusion, that in the end he really didn't need the help from his father, but Jacob did. Jacob needed the blessing, as the less confident and meeker sibling (we are told he was essentially a mama's boy), and he needed the inheritance to get him started. Esau was capable by his own will.
Sometimes we may have everything taken away from us. We might be done so wrong as to imagine that our life is completely over, in shambles, and beyond restoring. And yet the story of Esau shows us that is not true. We are capable. We can rebuild. The story isn't over.
Of course, pride got the better of Esau, and I believe this is what separates the two brothers apart in God's eyes. It is for this reason that we find Jacob learning a similar lesson only verses before their reunion.
Jacob has lost his will. Knowing full well that his brother promised to kill him many years before, there is no hope left within Jacob. He has just sent his very large family ahead of him, divided up all his belongings, and sent them in opposing directions so that he might not "lose everything." Except it is clear that Jacob has given up already. He is done. Forfeit. And he straggles behind in his mourning to be alone, and to possibly contemplate his death at his brother's hand.
This is where "the stranger" enters. Some say it is God. Some say it is a messenger of God (an angel?). And still some say it is Jesus.
Regardless it is the most famous account of a human physically wrestling with one not of this Earth, and winning. In the struggle Jacob specifically asks The Stranger to bless him. The Stranger refuses, until he is caught in a hold that he cannot escape. Even after injuring Jacob permanently he still manages to get the better of The Stranger. Jacob wants a blessing, and he will not stop until he gets it. He wants acceptance. He wants what he's wanted his entire life: to be free. To not have to resort to manipulation to get what he wants. To not have to rely on his father or others to have a life. It's as if he's pleading with God, in his last night on Earth, to forgive him of everything he's done up until now - forgoing his destiny, looking for acceptance in all the wrong places, searching for what he believed would make him happy despite the God that could provide true - lasting - desires.
Here in the desert we find a man who has potentially lost everything he has held so close to him, these material blessings that were nothing more than temporary, and he is begging God for a second chance.
"What is your name?" The Stranger asks. Seems like an odd request until we realize that Jacob must say it for himself; must believe in the words for his own sake. I imagine his thought process being very muddled at this point.
(I am deceiver. I am manipulator. I am self-conscience. I am insecure. I am no good. I am worthless. I am lower than dirt. I am not worthy of my father's name, inheritance, or destiny. I am a coward. I am weak. I am a failure. I am unwanted. I am a fool.)
It is easy to see why Jacob wants a blessing at this point. Anything to validate his humanity. Anything to show that he is accepted. This is the main difference between him and Esau however. As Esau relied on himself throughout the years with no remorse, Jacob finally learns to give in to what God has in store. Jacob sheds off his own will in favor of God's, as he goes to Him fully vulnerable and finally, for once in his life, authentic to who he truly is. This is the Jacob that God has wanted to emerge for quite some time. This is the man whom He has placed the covenant of Abraham. Jacob has learned to trust God. Believe in himself. To fight head-on, and not take the easy way out. He asks for a blessing but doesn't realize he has always had it from God himself.
"What is your name?!"
"No. Your name is Israel, because you wrestled with God, and you are capable of more than you know. You are blessed, as my creation, and I am with you."