Leave Your Gift At The Altar

And lifting is Jacob his eyes and seeing, and behold! Esau, his brother, is coming, and with him four hundred men. And dividing is Jacob the children to Leah and to Rachel and to the two maids. And placing is he the maids and their children first, and Leah and her children after them, and Rachel and Joseph last. And he passes before them and is prostrating himself to the earth seven times till he is close to his brother. And running is Esau to meet him. And embracing him is he, and falling on his neck and kissing him, and they are weeping. And lifting is he his eyes and seeing the women and the children. And saying is he, “What are these to you? And saying is he, “The children which the Elohim graciously gives your servant. And close are coming the maids, they and their children, and they are prostrating themselves. And, moreover, close are coming Leah and her children, and prostrating themselves. And, afterward, close come Joseph and Rachel, and they are prostrating themselves. And saying is he, “What is all this camp to you which I encountered? And saying is he, “To find grace [for your servant] in the eyes of my lord. And saying is Esau, “Forsooth, mine is much, my brother. Be yours what is yours. And saying is Jacob, “You must not, pray. Pray, if I find grace in your eyes, then take my present offering from my hand, for therefore I see your face, as if seeing the face of the Elohim, and accepting me are you. Take, pray, my blessing which I bring to you, for gracious to me is the Elohim in that it, forsooth, is all mine. And urging it on him is he, and he is taking it. (Genesis 33:1-11)

And Esau said, I have much, my brother, be to thee what is to thee. That this signifies tacit acceptance, in order that he might thus instill the affection of the good from truth, may be seen from this refusal, in that it involves assent; for he nevertheless accepted. In anyone’s refusing and at the same time accepting, the end sometimes is that affection may be instilled; and moreover this is thereby increased, and thus passes from thinking well into willing well. In spiritual life man is led by the Lord by things nearly like those by which a man leads others in civil life, in which it is usual to refuse to accept, to the end that the giver may act from affection; thus not from thinking only, but also from willing. For if the favour should not be accepted, the end in view would be lost; and therefore the end urges the giver to think of it still more intently, and thus to will it from the heart. (Arcana Coelestia 4366)

You hear that it was declared to the ancients, ‘You shall not murder.’ Yet whoever should be murdering shall be liable to the judging Yet I am saying to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to the judging. Yet whoever may be saying to his brother, ‘Raka!’ shall be liable to the Sanhedrin. Yet whoever may be saying, ‘Stupid!’ shall be liable to the Gehenna of fire. If, then, you should be offering your approach present on the altar, and there you should be reminded that your brother has anything against you, leave your approach present there, in front of the altar, and go away. First be placated toward your brother, and then, coming, be offering your approach present. (Matthew 5:21-24)

The story of Jacob and Esau is a story of separation and reconciliation. Their separation was the result of a series of incidents in which Jacob took advantage of Esau to wrest his birthright from him and secure it for himself. Then in a further twist, by an act of blatant deception, he stole the blessing reserved for Esau by coming to his father Isaac disguised as his brother. All this meant that Jacob had to flee from his home, which he did, to the house of Laban, his uncle on his mother’s side. There, in this state of self-imposed exile, he laboured for many years securing flocks and herds, the two daughters of Laban, Leah and Rachel, became his women and by them and their handmaids fathered 11 sons and a daughter. Due to Jacob’s increase in wealth and status, it became increasingly more difficult for him and Laban to dwell together, so he separated from Laban, with all that was his and began the journey home to his father’s house.

It is at this point that we pick up the story and find Jacob journeying home and in the process having to face his brother Esau, not knowing how he would be received.

What we are going to focus on specifically in this story is the spiritual applications of what’s represented by Esau’s initial refusal to accept Jacob’s gift, and Jacob’s pressing him to accept it. So when we speak of a thing’s spiritual application we mean its application to the regeneration of the human mind, specifically to the processes involved in how the Lord as the Word brings about changes in the forms of affections and thoughts that make up a person’s interior and exterior mental life.

So with that in mind, we leave behind Jacob and Esau as historical personages and focus on what they represent as the Word living within our minds as we seek to practice its truths as the basis for our spiritual life. The meaning of names given to places and people in the Word often can open a door into seeing beyond the literal meaning of the Text into its spiritual applications. And this is true of the meaning of the Hebrew names for Jacob and Esau. The root word from which the name Jacob is derived means, to restrain, whereas the root for Esau means, to do.

These meanings were clearly illustrated at their birth, where Esau was born first followed by his twin Jacob of whom we are told, “took hold of Esau’s heel” Gen 25:26, with the implicit meaning of restraining him. Now in the Word where there are two persons or things held in a relationship with each other one relates to what is good, or of love, and the other to what is true, or of wisdom. Truth is the form of good, or that by which good is made manifest, and as such we see that truth carries a quality of restraint in relation to good through providing it with a form by which the good can be intellectually apprehended. Truth as the form of good binds or limits it. So in the Arcana Coelestia 4205 it states that…

…the reception of good is not possible in any other way than according to truths, truths being that which good flows into; for good is the agent, and truth is the recipient; and therefore all truths are recipient vessels (n. 4166). As truths are that which good flows into, truths are what limit the inflow of good; and this is what is here meant by the limit that defines how much can flow in from good.

From this we can see that our understanding of truths limits what we are able to receive as to good because it is our understanding of truths that determines what we will accept as being good. It will also have a significant bearing on our response when good approaches. The root meaning of Esau’s name and other derivative words from that root point to his representation as good. At its most fundamental level the root means, to do, to work, to make, create, or form something, to develop, to press in. Thus we see it carries the idea of something active, hence his representation as good in this story. Jacob and all that belongs to him bows down before Esau, therefore he represents what is passive or subservient to good which is truth, this being the recipient vessel into which good as the active principle flows.

The meeting of the two brothers represents how the understanding of truths we have acquired through practicing them as the basis for our life, represented by Jacob, is brought into connection with the inflowing good from the Lord that enters into the natural mind via the inner path of the soul represented by Esau. Our understanding of truths is always limited, for we are finite, and so our progress toward a higher quality of good can only unfold step by step as a gradual process or journey from a more obscure state to a less obscure state as our understanding of truths develops through their practice.

If you read through this story in the Arcana you’ll find that the representation of Jacob changes. Earlier in the series, we find that he represents truth and then later, as at this point of the story, there is a shift so that he is now said to represent good. This can lead to some confusion so let’s try to clarify things.

In the earlier part of the story, Jacob is in the process of acquiring what will form the basis for his life. Essentially he is using his time with Laban as the means by which he can extract what he feels can be properly called his own. He then comes to acknowledge that all that he has acquired while in Laban’s house is from the Lord, and this is especially the case when challenged by Laban at the critical point of their separation. The point is that all these facets of the story are illustrative of our own experience of working with truths from the Word. In the initial stages of development, it is an affection for facts and the gathering memory-knowledges from the Word that predominates, this being a function of the intellectual faculty and so the representation of this in the story is that of Jacob in the house of Laban acquiring wealth and status.

When this state of acquiring has run its course, the situation changes and a process of separation begins and this is represented by Jacob separating from Laban. Internally this is a process involving the extraction of goods and truths in the natural that can support the further development of a person’s spiritual life from that which served as a means to acquiring those things but have now become superfluous, having served their use. This is represented by Jacob taking leave of Laban and undertaking a journey home. Because journeying involves movement through space it spiritually represents the psycho-spiritual journey that brings about changes in the state of the affections and thoughts of the mind.

To journey signifies to put into practice what one knows. And when truths are practiced they are elevated out of the memory and enter into the life where they become good or something now belonging to the will. In this way, they form the basis for a new will in the understanding, for which we have the phrase the good of truth. It is here that the representation of Jacob changes from truth to the good of truth, or the kind of good to which the Divine Good in the natural represented by Esau can be joined. There is an important principle here and it is this, the Lord can only be joined to the good of truth, i.e. to truths that have through practice have become one with the life. Salvation is not effected through the knowledge of truth, but only through its practice for to practice truths in an effort to identify and shun evils as sins is what is meant by the term charity. The Lord is effectively the new will and as we have seen there is no new will apart from the practice of truths for it is only through the practice of truths that they become the good of truth and so receptive of the Lord’s inflowing life.

We turn now to what’s involved in the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau. The spiritual life is largely one of coming to see that what the Word says is true regarding the human condition is actually how things are. All the struggles we face in coming to terms with this seeing of things, of accepting that the Word is, in fact, the Divine Truth, the Lord, is due to our dogged determination to remain identified with what resists the approach of the Lord’s love as the basis for our life. We may rail against the process, but the truth is, it only unfolds in our experience in the way it does because we are invested in proprial states of life that we claim as our self. The Divine Good approaches to free us from those things that bind us, but like Jacob we misunderstand the intentions of the approaching good (Esau) seeing it as a potential threat come to destroy us. And in one sense this is true, for to acquire a new basis for our life the old must first die.

The opening verse of Genesis 33 states,

And lifting is Jacob his eyes and seeing, and behold! Esau, his brother, is coming, and with him four hundred men. And dividing is Jacob the children to Leah and to Rachel and to the two maids.

Jacob represents the natural mind’s grasp of spiritual realities that have been acquired by external means through the senses. He represents what can be given by the Lord when a person engages with the Word as if of themselves. While nothing from the Lord can be acquired by a person as a result of their own effort, it remains a spiritual law that spiritual life can only be granted by the Lord when a person responds affirmatively to the Word in an effort to practice its truths. All effort is the product of an affection, and the affection for truth which generates a person’s interest in spiritual things is from the Lord but is given to them as if it were something arising from themselves. What this means is that what is drawn from Word that forms our more external understanding of spiritual things is laden with a sense of having merited what we have gained, or in other wor,ds whether we are conscious of it or not, at this stage of spiritual development the external man is in the belief that what it has acquired from the Word is a product of its own effort and intellectual power. It is a false belief of course but a powerful one, and every person engaged in the practice of the Word will have to confront this claiming what is the Lord’s as one’s own at some point in their spiritual development.

The real issue is that this belief becomes so core to a person’s sense of self that the prospect of having to give it up gives rise to feelings of fear and anxiety as they confront the possibility of their psychological dissolution or the death of their self and the associated doubt regarding the reality of a rebirth or resurrection. For while their proprium has been invested in the acquisition of spiritual truths for building up its sense of self those same truths will also prove to be this self’s undoing. And we can see this in the opening statement, “And lifting is Jacob his eyes and seeing, and behold! Esau, his brother, is coming, and with him four hundred men.” Now think about this from Jacob’s perspective. Here comes his brother with a force well capable of exacting his revenge for the wrongs Jacob had done to him. Jacob knows that Esau would be well within his rights to destroy him and all that he has for he took what was rightfully Esau’s for himself. And this is true of us all. We have claimed what is of the Lord for ourselves, both His birthright and blessing. It is a mark of the inherited proprial nature that it takes the appearance of life, that arises from the insensible inflow of Divine life into the our very soul, as proof positive that the feeling that we have life in ourselves is an immutable truth and not the appearance that Divine revelation clearly teaches it to be.

But despite the persuasive strength of the feeling that we have life in ourselves, we are aware that truths point to a deeper, alternative, source of life. They supply what’s needed to release the mind from the grip the appearances of the senses and lift it into the light of the spiritual sense of Word. Despite the risks, Jacob is compelled to return home and in the process must be reconciled to his brother which means being prepared to give up his life and have all that he has placed into the hands of Esau. This represents what is required of all who enter into the processes associated with the regeneration of the human mind by the Lord. For the light that comes from truths worked into the life points to the need to return what we have claimed from the Lord as our own back to Him.

So as the Gospel declares, if we are to find our life we must first give it up. This is no easy thing to do and it can’t be done without going through what amounts to a spiritual or existential crisis. Jacob’s fear and anxiety is that he will lose all that he has and that that could include his own life and the lives of those with him. What then is Jacob’s response? How does the human mind respond to the advancing Divine Good of the Natural represented by Esau, and the truths that come with this represented by the 400 men? It projects its anxieties and fears onto what is good and true, and sees that which is come to save as a threat to its life. There is a spiritual principle here and it is this, to the lower what is higher always appears to be a threat. This leads to the misattribution or projection of negative qualities onto the approaching good that will need to be rectified before a new state of life can be realised. This process of reconciliation between what is represented spiritually by these estranged brothers is captured in the Lord’s words from Matthew’s Gospel where he says…

You hear that it was declared to the ancients, ‘You shall not murder.’ Yet whoever should be murdering shall be liable to the judging Yet I am saying to you that everyone who is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judging… If, then, you should be offering your gift on the altar, and there you should be reminded that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there, in front of the altar, and go your way. First, be reconciled toward your brother, and then, coming, be offering your gift. (Matthew 5:21-24)

These words of the Lord provide us with insight into what’s going on in the story of the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau and it is infilled by the following teaching from the Apocalypse Explained 391{20 & 21}…

“To offer a gift upon the altar” means in the spiritual sense to worship God, and to worship God means worship both internal and external, namely, from love and from faith, and thus from the life; this is meant because in the Jewish Church worship consisted chiefly in offering sacrifices or gifts upon the altar, and the chief thing is taken for the whole. From this the meaning of these words of the Lord in the spiritual sense can be seen, namely, that Divine worship consists primarily in charity towards the neighbor, and not in piety without that; “to offer a gift upon the altar” means worship from piety, and “to be reconciled to a brother” means worship from charity, and this is truly worship, and such as this is such is the worship from piety.

That “If thou shalt offer thy gift upon the altar” signifies in all worship, is evident from the Lord’s words in Luke 17:4 [Matt. 18:22], where it is said that the brother or neighbour must be forgiven all the time, “seventy times seven” there signifying always.

And from the Doctrine of Life number 73…

To be “reconciled to one’s brother” is to shun enmity, hatred, and revenge; that it is to shun them as sin is evident.


  1. Ian Arnold

    Found sermon part 1 on the Jacob/Esau reconciliation absolutely absorbing. Very much appreciated, as well, being able to access comments and points made at Logopraxis Group meetings. Ian Arnold

    • David Millar

      Yes, seeing these stories in direct relation to the internal processes that unfold in our lives as we engage with the Text to practice it is compelling – thanks for sharing Ian.

  2. Janna King

    “All the struggles we face in coming to terms with this seeing of things, of accepting that the Word is, in fact, the Divine Truth, the Lord, is due to our dogged determination to remain identified with what resists the approach of the Lord’s love as the basis for our life.”
    Thanks for the term ‘dogged determination’ here!

  3. Gray Glenn

    Does the Part II of this series exist on the site?

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