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The First and Last in the Genre of ‘Lost Brother’ Reconcilement Narratives

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here are three narratives in the Pentateuch that are concerned with a son being lost due to conflict between brothers: Abel vs. Cain, Jacob vs. Esau, and Joseph vs. his eleven brothers. In all three stories, the older brother (or “brothers” in the case of Joseph) struggles with the emotions of anger, jealous, and resentment due to their younger brother being apparently more blessed or favored by God, and or their father.

In all three accounts there is some degree of failure on the part of the father to protect his son from the machinations of his brother(s).  In the case of Abel, Adam is completely absent; with Jacob, Rebekah demonstrates what Eve should have done by interceding for her son, but all Isaac can do is send Jacob away from his home with a blessing, and Jacob, as well, is unable to protect Joseph or restore him in his household.

While the meeting between Jacob and Esau in Genesis 33, is the first in the Biblical genre of reconcilement stories between brothers, what this paper intends to do is demonstrate how closely it is connected, through themes and key words, to the last story of this genre, which is found in Luke 15.

  1. Background of the Genesis 25 – 33

It is generally agreed that the final form we have a Genesis comes to us from the exilic period, and that it represents an editorial reworking of many individual stories brought together to create a unifying theme (e.g., the covenant promises).[1]  These individual stories that came to the editors may be loosely recognized through the lenses of the “documentary hypothesis” presented by Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918),[2] without having to conclude that the editors required actual ‘documents’ to produce their final work.  Perhaps these were oral traditions that had been handed down through the generations and were finally recorded in writing to serve an immediate need for the community.

According to the Toledoth (Heb., ‘generations’) division of Genesis according to genealogical notices (e.g. “These are the descendants of . . . “), the reconcilement between Jacob and Esau takes place within the eighth generation, which begins, “These are the descendants of Isaac, son of Abraham; Abraham begot Isaac . . .,” and goes on narrate their birth, upbringing, and Jacob leveraging Esau out of his birthright for a meal.[3]

Within the last four Toledoth this narrative is essential in helping us to resolve the question of ‘who are the Covenant People?’ – It is those who belong to the households of Abraham, Isaac (not Ishmael), and Jacob (not Esau).

The answer to “who was first included in the Covenant that God initiated with Abram?[4] is answered through a process of elimination by who was blessed (always the younger son) and who was not blessed as much or cursed in a sense (always the older son).  For, Isaac was blessed to receive the inheritance of Abraham, while his older brother Ishmael was cursed/blessed in other ways.[5]  Jacob colluded with his mother Rebekah to steal Esau’s rightful blessing, which left the older son relegated to being the younger’s servant.[6]

The patriarchal transition from Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob and how we arrive there is essential to Biblical theology.  No one says that they follow the God of Abraham, Ishmael, and Esau, or the God of Lot.  God is the God and deliverer of those who are descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  That Jacob is the last in that order, the narrative of elimination and brotherly reconciliation between he and Esau is very important as we move forward to encounter Joseph and Moses.

This story is also there to help us identify and find trust in the fact that God always keeps His promises in spite of us, and that He is always there when we call upon him.  The fragility of Jacob and the manner in which he depends upon God to keep him alive, is all resolved in a trustworthy God.

  1. Background of Luke 15:11-32

According to seven major, ancient witnesses about the Gospel of Luke,[7] it was written by an author whose name was Luke, who was a Syrian from Antioch.  This Luke was also a physician and a companion or collaborator of Paul.  Based upon textual considerations, such as Luke’s presumption that Jerusalem has been destroyed in 70 AD,[8] lack of knowledge of any Christian persecution under Domitian (81 – 96 AD), ignorance of any controversy between Church and synagogue after the Pharisaic reconstruction of Judaism at Jamnia (85 – 90 AD), we can arrive at the conclusion that Luke – Acts was composed between 80 – 85 AD.[9]

The ‘Lost Brother’, ‘Bitter Brother’, or ‘Prodigal Son’ narrative in Luke 15 is also pitched in with two other ‘Lost’ parables (‘Lost Sheep’ and ‘Lost Coin’) that are intending to demonstrate the depth of God’s particular care and mercy for humankind.

If the ‘Lost Brother’ parable in Luke 15 is an intentional allusion to the Jacob and Esau it would not to no surprise given Luke’s earlier foray in the Old Testament coming by the way of parallels between Mary the Mother of God and the Ark of the Covenant.[10]

  1. The ‘Lost Brother’, ‘Bitter Brother’, or ‘Prodigal Son’ in Luke 15

In the fifteenth chapter of Luke we encounter Jesus telling a parable that begins with the phrase, “A man had two sons . . .” The two sons of the man, of which Jesus spoke, ventured down two completely different paths. The younger son made a demand on his father to immediately bestow upon him his inheritance; to which, his father aptly acquiesced.  The text then informs us that after the young man had collected all of his belongings he “set off to a distant country where he squandered his in heritance on a life of dissipation.”[11]

Jesus makes a point in this parable to demonstrate how low the younger had fallen by saying, “. . . he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.” This is a clue that the boy was Jewish; otherwise tending to pigs would have been nothing more than a day’s fair labor.

The parable concludes with the young man coming to his senses and deciding to return home. With a repentant, contrite, and humble scripted plea, he planned to beg his father to take him back into his home as just a servant.  At this point a twist enters the story. The father was not in the least bitter or offended by his son’s return home. He didn’t even allow him to beg for his forgiveness. Rather, he ordered his servants to, “Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.”[12]

  1. A Good Reason to Leave Home

Luke leaves a great deal to be desired in regards to letting us know why the younger brother desired to have his father render to him his inheritance prior to his father’s death.[13]  Perhaps the elder brother helped to drive the younger away from home.[14]  We don’t for certain what prompted his need to abandon his father’s home, but at the outset of the story we notice striking similarity to Jacob.  The ‘lost son’ in Jesus’ parable is also the anti-Esau in that rather than having a disdain for his inheritance, he covets what is his.

After Rebekah had engineered her younger son’s theft of his brother’s blessing we read that Esau “bore a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him,”[15] and plotted to take his brother’s life.  We don’t know whether Esau completely forgot that he had sold his birthright for a meal,[16] but similar to the older brother in Jesus’ parable, he too seems to covet what the father has given his brother.

Rebekah feared for Jacob’s life because of Esau’s threat, and sent the former away to stay with her brother Laban in Paddam-aram, but only after she had Isaac bless him in response to her fear that Jacob might take a Cannanite wife. This second blessing from Isaac was intended specifically for Jacob and included very clear language according to covenant of which Isaac himself was blessed. He blessed Jacob to choose a wife for himself among Laban’s daughters, and to be fertile and multiply, “that you may become an assembly of peoples. May God extend to you and your descendants the blessing of Abraham, so that you may gain possession of the land where you are resident, which he assigned to Abraham.”[17] Not long after Jacob departed from Beer-sheba, he received a vision in a dream in which the Lord affirmed his covenant blessing. The Lord also told him, ‘I am with you and will protect you whoever you go, and bring you back to his land. I will never leave you until I have done what I promised.”[18]

While living in Paddam-aram Jacob would not only take one of his cousins for his wife (Leah), but also a second (Rachael), and between his two wives and two of their maidservants he would gain twelve sons and one daughter. After having served Laban seven years to earn Rachael’s hand, Laban gave him Rachael, because it was a custom in the country to give the younger daughter before the firstborn.  That Jacob may have felt deceived by Laban’s bait-and-switch must have also served as a dose of appreciative irony. Then after serving Laban for another seven years to earn Rachael, and then another six years to tend his flock, Jacob eventually made peace with him, and began his return home with his wives, children, and possessions.

The allusion here to Jesus’ parable is that both younger sons needed to leave home and went to live outside of their community.  Luke departs from this point briefly to connect his ‘lost son’ at later point in Jacob’s life when a famine is experienced, but in each case, the father doesn’t go in search of his son.  While, Jacob knows where his son has traveled, we are left unaware as to whether the father in Jesus’ parable has knowledge of his son’s whereabouts.

  1. The Journey of Repentance, Conversion, and Peace

Next, we read in chapter thirty-two that Jacob and his household had arrived in the land of Seir, the country of Edom, where his brother Esau was dwelling. Preemptively, he sent messengers to find his brother Esau. These emissaries were to update Esau concerning the whereabouts of Jacob; that is, where he had been for the last two decades and how abundantly the Lord had blessed him: “Thus says your servant Jacob: I have been residing with Laban and have been delayed until now. I own oxen, donkeys, and sheep, as well as male and female servants. I have sent my lord this message in hope of gaining your favor.”[19]  The tone of the messengers is meant to appease Esau. Jacob repeatedly lowers himself to the level of servant, so that he might elevate his brother to being his lord, as if the blessing he stole from him didn’t actually prophecy that Esau would be his servant.

Similar to Luke’s ‘lost son’, Jacob also had a sense of trepidation in anticipation of meeting his brother Esau after all of these years. The last thing that Jacob remembered is that his older brother wanted to kill him.  He began to stress over whether Esau’s anger been abated or festered over this course of three decades.   After Jacob’s messengers return to tell him that his brother was on his way to meet him, and was (by the way) being accompanied with four hundred me, all bets seemed to be off.  Jacob’s response to this news is to assert a defensive posture to protect his household from being slaughtered by Esau and his men.  He would also play a double-edged sword and make further attempts to preemptively assuage his brother’s anger as he travels along the way, by sending him three retinues of servants with presents of goats, ewes, rams, camels, cows, bulls, and donkeys; together with warm and humble platitudes.

Finally, Jacob’s fear also moves him to entreat God to honor his covenant and promise that he would protect him wherever he went. “You yourself said,” Jacob says, giving the Lord his own words to eat, “I will be very good to you, and I will make your descendants like the sands of the sea, which are too numerous to count.”[20]

Before Jacob entered Haran and found his blessing in Rachel, he received a confirming vision from God, and that place where he received it, he named Bethel (i.e. the house of God). Now, here he is again, on the night before he is to encounter Esau, which is for him is a moment of proof to determine whether God is truly with him or not, he twice crosses over a river named Jabbok (meaning; ‘to empty itself); first to deposit his wives, maidservants and children, and then to spend some time in solitude. It would be at place of solitude where he would be tested and wrestle with ‘a man’ all night. When daybreak came the man demanded the Jacob let him go, but Jacob refused until the man blessed him. “What is your name” the man asked. He answered, ‘Jacob,” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be named Jacob, but Israel, because you have contended with divine and human beings and have prevailed.”[21]  Thinking that one good turn deserves another, Jacob asked the man his name, and after refusing Jacob that answer he blessed him.  This place, where Jacob wrestled with ‘the man’ he named ‘Peniel’ (meaning ‘the face of God’).[22]

The ending to this story is very similar; albeit for one key difference – the object of reconcilement. For Genesis it is the brothers who are being reconciled, while, for Luke it is the father and son. Yet, in both narratives we see a younger brother and son go through a conversion experience that moves them to resolve an important fracture relationship in their life.  It is this journey toward peace that makes them afraid of losing it all, consumed with over thinking and rehearsing about what to do and what say (confess) at the reunion, anticipate rejection, and all the while, just hoping and praying that God will spare them just one more time. Even though Jacob hadn’t seen his brother after over two decades, and Luke’s ‘lost son’ was gone from home for an unspecified among of time their search for pardon ends with being warmly recognized from far off by the person whom they desire to be reunited with.

After Jacob saw his brother approaching with four hundred men he divided his children between his wives and their maidservants and went ahead of them. As he walked towards Esau he bowed seven times (which is not an insignificant number for the author(s) of this text), until he reached him. For his part, Esau, like the father in Jesus’ parable, ran to meet him, embraced him, and flung himself on his neck, as he kissed him and wept. After Jacob introduced his brother to his family, they jostled in humility over all the gifts that Jacob had offered Esau; to which the older brother finally acquiesced and accepted. Then, even after Esau’s warm affection for his formerly estranged brother, Jacob still spoke in a manner that put the needs of Esau first.

There is a final departure here for Luke as well.  The goal of the reunification of the ‘lost son’ is to move back into his father’s home, which seem to be happen. In contrast, Jacob rejects every attempt by Esau to combine their households. To the contrary, all that Jacob desires with his brother is peace.  He cannot merge household with Esau because he’s moving towards Canaan.  He is headed towards the land that God promised his fathers, while Esau is headed towards Seir.

  1. A Broader Meaning of the Flight and Taking/Stealing Possession Narrative

There is an interesting repetition about fleeing and taking possession/theft that takes place within the ‘lost brother’ narratives, and, indeed, throughout all of sacred Scripture, especially the Old Testament that demands a treatment here.

For whatever reason, the special or the protagonist brother must leave his home. Although he has won the favor or blessing or inheritance of his father, he must take flight from home and enter into a period of isolation away from all that he had previously known.  Joseph, who was special to Jacob, was sold away to some Ishmaelite traders by his brothers.[23]  In Luke’s two-brother narrative, the son who takes his inheritance, even before his father dies, leaves home to spend time in excess and isolation. Esau’s began to the plot the murder of brother for stealing his blessing, which caused Rebekah to arrange the latter’s aforementioned flight to Haran.[24]

Jacob then must flee again from the house of Laban, after he hears mumurs from Laban’s sons that he had taken everything that belonged to their father.  Yet, prior to him leaving, his wife Rachael steals some of her father’s “household images,”[25] which caused Laban to accuse Jacob of stealing.[26] He prepares for him and his household to take flight if the meeting with Esau doesn’t go well.

The Covenant with the chosen people of God began as thus, “The Lord said to Abraham: Go forth from our land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you: I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the families of the earth will find blessing in you.”

The Covenant began with one man and his household taking flight so that he might take possession of all that God promised him. What the ‘lost brother’ and other narratives and flight and taking passion/theft throughout Scripture tell us that any attempt to take what doesn’t belong to us; what God hasn’t deigned to bestow upon us,  will result in harmed relations between family and neighbor.

  1. A Practical Application of the ‘Lost Brother’ Narratives

This narrative is rich in theological meaning and real life praxis of the faith. There is a great deal to say here about the trustworthiness of God, the silliness of fear, and the benefits of showing humility before God and man.  There is also a great deal to consider about Esau and the father in Luke’s narrative being like an image of the Church.

Ever since I first read this story, I’ve liked to consider myself an ‘isrealite’, in that my fears have sometimes caused me to go to that place where I wrestle with God.  At this point in my Christian walk I’ve learned that when you wrestle with God, He always wins, but that struggle between God’s will and mine is sometimes necessary for me to learn how to stay on the narrow way, and to trust that all of my plans and efforts are but trifle things in light of His will and providence. Though difficult, I’ve found the much easier path is to cooperate with God, rather than struggle against him.



[1] Murphy, Roland E. “Introduction to the Pentateuch.” The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Ed. Brown, Raymond E., Joseph Fitzmyer, and Roland Murphy. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1990. 4. Print.

[2] Wellhaussen’s “documentary hypothesis” recognized four sequential documents: J (Yahwist 9th century), E (Elohist, 8th century), D (Deuteronomist, 7th century), and P (Priestly, postexilic).  While widely accepted at the time, modern scholarship has shown the weaknesses and deficiencies that are rooted in Wellhaussen’s presuppositions; namely, skepticism of historical accounts, assumption of evolution of culture and religion from primitive forms, a priori rejection of all supernatural events in the religion of Israel, and inability to prove that there were ever written documents prior to the exilic period.  (Suelzer, Alexa, Kselman, John S. “Modern Old Testament Criticism.” 1119.

[3] Gen. 25:19-34.

[4] Cf. Gen. 12:1-3, 6-7; 13:14-17; 17:1-14; and 22:15-18.

[5] Cf. Gen. 16:12; 21:18.

[6] Cf. Gen. 27:1-45.

[7] Muratorian Canon, Irenaeus, late 2nd century Prologue to the Gospel, Tertullian, Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome.

[8] Lk. 21:5-38.

[9] Karris, Robert J. “The Gospel According to Luke.” The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Ed. Brown, Raymond E., Joseph Fitzmyer, and Roland Murphy. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1990. 675 – 676. Print.

[10] Luke 1:35, 39, 43, 44, 46-55, 56; 2:7, seem to be allusions to 1 Kgs. 8:10-13, 2 Sam. 6:2, 9, 14; 1 Chr. 16:8-36, 2 Sam. 6:11; and 2 Macc. 2:5-8, respectively (see:

[11] Lk. 15:13.

[12] Lk. 15:22-24.

[13] Here Plummer notes that it was a custom in both Semitic and Aryan society that if a father’s powers were failing he could abdicate and surrender his property to his sons, but in such cases the sons were bound to give their father maintenance and the act of resignation was irrevocable. Plummer, Alfred “Gospel According to Luke.” The International Critical Commentary: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916. 372. Print.

[14] Buttrick, George, A. “The Gospel According to Luke.” The Interpreters Bible. Volume VIII. Ed. Buttrick, George A., Bowie, Walter R., Scherer Paul. New York: Abingdon Press, 1951. 271. Print.

[15] Gen. 27:41.

[16] Gen. 25:33.

[17] Gen. 28:1-4.

[18] Gen. 28:15.

[19] Gen. 32:5-6.

[20] Gen. 32:13.

[21] Gen. 32:29

[22] The naming of Bethel and Peniel by Jacob is a good example of Hieros logos (“Sacred words” or sacral tradition), which refer to the origin of a holy place in sacred Scripture.

[23] Cf. Gen. 37:28.

[24] Cf. Gen. 27:41-44.

[25] Cf. Gen. 31:19.

[26] Cf. Gen. 31:32.

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