An ever-present issue in South African politics is land ownership. In the broader southern Africa region, the nation of Zimbabwe has become synonymous with one way of addressing the issue, namely, that of dispossession of the heirs of the privileges of colonialism from the land. South Africa so far has not gone that route, though there are strong voices within the country calling for it. Last week at our Tuesday evening Bible Study/fellowship group, we discussed land redistribution under the topic of reconciliation. Since I had recently prepared a lesson on reconciliation for Bethany Bible School, I led our group in an exploration of the story of Jacob and Esau from Genesis 33:1-11.
The story of Jacob and Esau is pertinent to the discussion of land redistribution because it is a story of reconciliation as restitution. It is a story of an offender, in this case Jacob, restoring to his brother, Esau, that which he took from him. Jacob, of course, gained the blessing of his father in place of Esau through dishonest means. That blessing entailed material wealth— “the fatness of the earth”, servants, etc. (Gen 27:28-29)—and was, according to the cultural perspective embodied by Isaac the father, due only to one of the two sons (Gen 27:33ff.). It was thus no matter that Isaac had wanted to give the blessing to Esau; when Jacob actually received it, albeit dishonestly, it was rightfully his. So said Isaac. Even so, it is precisely those physical gifts which Jacob attempts to give back to Esau at their first meeting in twenty years. He offers droves of flocks and herds, and himself bows down to his brother as though his servant. This latter action was, of course, the exact opposite of what the blessing entailed, namely, that he who received the blessing would be lord over his brother, and his brother would serve him. Jacob, the rightful lord according to the blessing, even goes so far as to address himself to Esau as “your servant” while calling his brother “my lord.” Whatever one might think of Jacob’s motivation for approaching Esau (to appease him, to buy him off), the text seemingly will not allow us to deny that Jacob truly humbled himself before his brother. The offender truly repented before the offended.
Esau, for his part, was utterly magnanimous. He, in fact, does not want Jacob’s restitution, for he, in the years that ensued from losing the blessing, has also become wealthy—blessed in spite of what amounted to his father’s curse. It is probably from that recognition of blessing, that acknowledgment that “I also have much, my brother”, that Esau finds the strength to embrace his brother. This, and not Jacob’s droves of gifts, is what brings Esau to accept Jacob when he sees him. Before Jacob can explain the meaning of the droves, Esau has gone to him, fell upon his neck, kissed him—and they embraced. Esau was already in a position of forgiveness for Jacob.
South Africans, too, are famous internationally for their magnanimity. Many victims of apartheid who went before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the mid-1990s showed astounding grace toward their perpetrators. Their example and their representation of the people of South Africa can never be erased. Even so, in South Africa much pain remains from the injustices of the past, and that pain seems to dominate headlines today. That pain is real; it is the sign that, unlike Esau, many people do not yet have “the much” that they need to embrace their “brothers”. It is also probably the sign that their “brothers” who have the blessing by dishonest means have not, en masse, given back what was taken.
South Africa’s problem is not as simple as Jacob and Esau’s. Jacob and Esau were together one generation—they had time to make amends for wrongs committed within a lifetime. The heirs of colonialism and apartheid live on land that their fathers took generations ago; they have grown up knowing no other life, no other home. Another dispossession would seem to amount only to a redirected injustice and therefore, an entrenchment of injustice pure and simple. Dispossession of current landowners would seem to create new hostilities, new bitterness.
There must be a way forward that involves creative ways of sharing the land. And wherever that will happen/is happening, there undoubtedly will be/is the Spirit that was in Jacob and in Esau on the day of reconciliation.