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In Genesis 33:4 (NKJV): "But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept."

In Luke 15:20 (NKJV): "But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him."

Did Jesus intend to reference the Esau/Jacob reunion story, and if so why?

@Tammy noted in a comment in an answer this question Is "wept on his neck" a Hebrew idiom? that the phrase "fell on his neck" appears in Jesus' parable

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  • Esau was not Jacob's Father, so why would the parable of the Prodigal Son reference the relationship of Jacob & Esau? - Do you see Esau referenced as the older son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son? - Jacob returned with more wealth after leaving Isaac to give Esau. * Jacob was not the Prodigal Son. * Esau said, "I have plenty, my brother; let what you have remain yours." - This shows Esau was not an envious older brother like the person referenced in the later Prodigal Son parable. Jan 13, 2021 at 14:52
  • The parallel is not between Esau and Jacob but the southern kingdom of Judah (eldest brother) and the northern kingdom of Israel, Efraim (youngest brother). Jesus being the father in the story. Efraim was alienated from his inheritance, and contaminated himself with the Gentiles but later would return to God in the new covenant (new robes, shoes, ring, a feast) while Judah was still working for his father but refused to join in and welcome his lost brother back home. Even insulted his father for embarrassing himself in front of the world (death on a cross). Jan 13, 2021 at 15:44
  • I've been googling around & it seems like Kenneth Bailey / NT Wright think there are even more links between the (broader) story of Jacob and Jesus' parable. I'll try to read their stuff. In the meantime, would love to hear what people in this community think. amazon.com/Jacob-Prodigal-Jesus-Retold-Israels/dp/0830827277
    – whiskey92
    Jan 14, 2021 at 11:10

4 Answers 4

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Did Jesus intend to reference the Esau/Jacob reunion story, and if so why?

Jesus did not intend to reference the Esau / Jacob reunion story in His parable.
Every similarity is not a reference.

The Prodigal Son is better titled "The Love of the Father" because the whole point of the story is that the father (God) looks for and offers forgiveness beyond what the son (sinners) deserve.

The Esau / Jacob story is a reunion between brothers who are estranged. The point of this story is that God answered Jacobs prayer for protection (see passage below), God kept His promise to Abraham and God furthered His salvation plan through Jacob.

Genesis 32
9 Then Jacob prayed, “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, Lord, you 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 camps. 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.’”

The stories are similar in that there is a warm welcome where it was not expected.
The situations are different and the intent of the stories is different.
It is best to infer connections or references only when the Bible specifically makes the connection.

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There is indeed a parallel to Jacob and Esau in the parable of the Prodigal Son. However, in this case the reconciliation is between father and son, not between younger brother and the elder brother. Unlike in the case of Esau, the elder son's feelings are still raw and unresolved at the end of the story.

There is also a parallel here to the story of Abel and Cain, Isaac and Ishmael, and many other younger-elder pairs. What they all share is the theme of the younger son being specially blessed and the older son having to overcome feelings of rejection. Some examples of this theme:

  • Abel and Cain. The younger brother's offering is accepted, the older brother's is rejected. In jealousy and resentment, the older brother murders the younger.

  • Isaac and Ishmael. The older brother is sent into exile after taunting his younger brother (Genesis 21:9) and his descendants are not counted as belonging to Abraham.

  • Jacob and Esau. The older brother spends much time away from home and the younger brother receives his blessing. Esau plans to kill Jacob but the enmity is overcome when they re-unite after Jacob's 21 years in exile.

  • Ephraim and Manasseh. Their grandfather Jacob (Israel) crosses his hands in blessing them, (Gen. 48) conferring the primary blessing upon the younger grandson, whose descendants become the dominant tribe in the northern Israelite federation.

Other examples of this younger-elder dynamic include the patriarch Joseph and his elder brothers who have to submit to him in the end; Saul (the older king who is rejected and tries to kill his rival) and David (the younger, who is blessed); John the Baptist (the elder who must decrease) and Jesus (the younger who must increase); Paul and the earlier apostles; Jesus teaching "the first shall be last" (Matthew 19:30), etc.

The story of the Prodigal Son follows this pattern with one notable exception: it is the younger son who strays from the path and thus requires the father's special grace to restore himself. The elder son, however, follows the archetypal pattern of feeling jealousy toward his younger brother. We are not told if the brothers ever reconcile. Instead, Jesus emphasizes the father's unconditional love for his repentant son. Because of the embracing attitude toward both of his sons, we may rest assured of an ending closer to the story of Jacob and Esau than the story of Abel and Cain.

Conclusion: In this parable, Jesus probably did have in mind the story of Jacob and Esau as well as the numerous other biblical examples of elder brothers experiencing jealousy toward their younger siblings. But Jesus emphasized the crucial themes of the younger son's humble repentance and the father's mercy. The elder son's feelings remain unresolved. In that regard, the story serves as a lesson to anyone in the elder son's position to overcome feelings of jealousy toward those who receive the Father's blessing without seeming to deserve it.

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The father in Luke 15:20 represents the heavenly Father. Esau does not represent the heavenly Father. On the contrary, Esau and his descendants are punished in Malachi 1:3

but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his hill country into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals."

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  • The father doesn’t represent God the Father, it either represents the whole Godhead or it represent Jesus, God the Son. Jan 13, 2021 at 17:43
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There are definitely some beautiful parallels between the two stories.

  • Inheritance / misdeeds
  • Repentance
  • Returning home
  • Forgiveness
  • Mercy
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