In Genesis 32 we met Jacob on the eve of his return to the promised land. After twenty years slaving for his uncle, Laban, God came to Jacob and told him that his exile was over—it was finally time to return home to the promised land. As we now come to Chapter 33, it’s important to remember that God’s call to Jacob to return home came as a follow-up to the promises he had made to Jacob at Bethel: I will be with you during your exile and I will see you safely home. God was at work, but Jacob was largely blind to God’s work in his life. Jacob had spent his life trusting in himself; he was self-sufficient. And so, as we saw, even as Jacob obeyed God’s call and left Laban, he did it on his own terms. God’s timing was providential, which tells us that God was ready to take care of Jacob as he left Laban, but when it came to the actual leaving, Jacob trusted more in his own dishonest scheme than he did God’s providence.
But despite Jacob’s flawed faith, God intervened with Laban and kept Jacob and his family safe. In the process, God gave Jacob greater reason to trust him. And yet, as Jacob reached the borders of his homeland, he heard that his brother, Esau, was coming to meet him with four hundred men. Instead of trusting God, Jacob panicked. He came up with a scheme to keep himself safe. Only when he realised the flaws in his scheme did he turn to God in desperation. But even as he prayed, reminding God of the promises he had made to care for him, Jacob cooked up another scheme. Jacob trusted in himself; God was his backup plan should his self-sufficiency fail. And there, alone that night, having sent his family and his livestock ahead, God wrestled with Jacob in the dark. In the fight, God took Jacob from a position of fighting to a position of clinging. He brought Jacob to confess his life of self-sufficiency, he brought Jacob to the end of himself, and then he gave him a new name and with it a new life. As the sun rose, Jacob limped forward a new man. He had met God face to face and been delivered. As the all-night wrestling match with God was metaphorical for Jacob’s spiritual life up to that point, his limping forward in the light of the new day was metaphorical of his new life as Israel. As Waltke writes, “The limp is the posture of the saint, walking not in physical strength but in spiritual strength.” As the Lord said to St. Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). God’s people cling to God, not to themselves.
Jacob limps his way straight into Chapter 33. Look at verses 1-3:
And Jacob lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, Esau was coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two female servants. And he put the servants with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on before them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.
“Jacob lifted up his eyes and looked”. Those are words used over and over in Genesis to introduce God at work in his providence. Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the ram caught in the bushes; Isaac was out in the field meditating when he lifted up his eyes and saw Rachel, his new bride, coming to meet him; in his dream, Jacob lifted up his eyes and saw the striped and spotted goats of his flock mating. In each case, God was at work blessing and providing: a substitute sacrifice, a bride, and a blessing of material prosperity. So Jacob looks up and, behold, he sees Esau coming in the distance and this is the narrator’s way of telling us that it’s not just happenstance; God is standing in the shadows, his hand at work, as the story unfolds.
But what of Jacob’s response? As he sees Esau coming, Jacob gathers his family to meet him, with Zilpah and Bilhah and their children first, then Leah and her children, and finally Rachel and Joseph last. And as he meets his brother, Jacob bows down seven times. It’s interesting to me that most preachers and commentators seem to see Jacob’s actions in a negative light—as if this is just another one of Jacob’s schemes to try to save his skin as he bows and scrapes to his brother. I don’t see that here. The staging of his wives and children certainly reflects some of the dysfunction in his family and the unhealthy favouritism we’ve seen before, but there’s also certainly a cultural element to it that we can’t really fault Jacob for following.
Two things in particular stand out to show Jacob’s transformed character. First, Jacob takes the lead. The old Jacob would have been thinking about how to save his own skin. The old Jacob divided his people and livestock into two camps thinking that by sacrificing group, he might be spared himself. The old Jacob sent messengers to meet his brother instead of taking the risk of going himself. The new Israel puts himself in front of his family as a leader. He may fear that Esau still wants to kill him, but Israel is no coward. Second, Jacob isn’t just being obsequious with all his bowing. His humility gives every indication of being genuine. He really does want to make peace with his brother. We’ll see more of this as the meeting unfolds. Ancient literature from that time period describes bowing, seven times in particular, as typical court protocol when a man met his lord. What’s described here is Jacob prostrating himself and putting his nose and forehead to the dust, seven times over, and with his face in the dust, communicating his remorse to Esau. In the past he had manipulated and cheated his brother; now he comes in humility and submits himself to his brother as a servant to a lord. Jacob is still assuming that Esau wants him dead. He’s humbly putting his life in Esau’s hands here. And this is where I think we can see the dramatic change in his life. The old Jacob was always out for himself; he didn’t care whose fingers or toes he stepped on to get what he wanted. The new Israel is a peacemaker. In fact, he’s the kind of peacemaker Jesus talks about and exemplifies himself.
Charles Simeon missed the point of our text when he preached on it more than two centuries ago, but in the application he made to his congregation, he really does sum up very well what Jacob is about here: “Are there any who are involved in disputes and quarrels? Follow after peace: and be forbearing and forgiving to others, any who desire reconciliation with an offended friend? Be willing rather to make, than to exact, submission: and let generosity and kindness be exercised to the uttermost, to soften the resentments which have been harboured against you. And lastly, are there any who have an opportunity of promoting peace? Embrace it gladly, and exert yourselves with impartiality. And instead of widening the breach…endeavour to heal it by all possible offices of love. Let quarrels of brethren be regarded as a fire, which it is every one’s duty and desire to extinguish. Thus shall you yourselves have the blessing promised to peace-makers, and be numbered among the children of God.” Jacob was a son of the covenant and in giving him a new name, God gave him a tangible proof of his adoption. Israel was a child of God, and right here, the very next morning after that encounter with God, Israel shows whose son he is by seeking peace with Esau.
Again, Jacob does all this under the assumption that Esau is still angry. The wonderful part of the story comes next. Jacob has demonstrated his transformed character. He’s done the right and godly thing as his brother comes to him. Look now at verse 4:
But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.
Esau, to Jacob’s surprise, greets him as his long-lost brother. The storyteller doesn’t tell us what happened to change Esau’s feelings. It’s possible that he had a change of heart after receiving the enormous and generous gift that Jacob had sent and as he saw Jacob humbling himself before him. It’s also possible that Esau had let go of his anger twenty years before. We saw then that he was impetuous and ruled by his emotions. When Rachel sent Jacob away, she intended it to be for a short time so that Esau’s anger could blow over. Again, the text doesn’t tell us, but there’s a reason for that. Ultimately the real point is that God is at work here; he’s directing from the shadows, providing for Jacob and making good on his promises. God had promised to see him safely home and that’s exactly what he does.
The family reunion follows, with Esau asking Jacob about the crowd of children following:
And when Esau lifted up his eyes and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” Then the servants drew near, they and their children, and bowed down. Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down. And last Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down.(Genesis 33:5-7)
As Jacob introduces his family to Esau, he again shows his changed character. First, he gives God the credit for his family. Jacob tells him that it’s through God’s gracious favour that he has eleven sons. It’s worth noting that Jacob deliberately avoids describing them as God’s blessing, lest he remind Esau of what he stole all those years before. Second, Jacob shows the change God has made in him by describing himself as Esau’s servant. In verse 8 he addresses Esau as his Lord. Jacob’s doing his best to make amends for the ways in which he wronged Esau in the past.
In contrast to Jacob, Esau’s apparently forgotten all about the past. He’s overjoyed to meet his brother’s family for the first time and after meeting everyone he then turns to Jacob and asks in verse 8, “What do you mean by all this company that I met? What’s the deal with the slave and livestocks you sent ahead and why such elaborate orchestration to have them meet me in five companies?” Again, this certainly suggests that Esau wasn’t angry anymore and that he was simply coming to greet his brother. He doesn’t understand why Jacob would be sending him a gift, let alone such a costly one. And so Jacob explains:
Jacob answered, “To find favor in the sight of my lord.” But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” Jacob said, “No, please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand. For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me. Please accept my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough.” Thus he urged him, and he took it. (Genesis 32:8b-11)
The storyteller shows us more of the new Israel. The old Jacob was conniving, played his cards close to chest, and manipulated others to get what he wanted. The new Israel is honest and forthright. Esau asks him why he sent the gift and Jacob responds: “I thought you still wanted to kill me. I was hoping to find favour in your sight.” Jacob had stolen Esau’s birthright and blessing. While he was in exile God had blessed Jacob and Jacob now tries to give that blessing to Esau to replace the one he had stolen. Esau is flattered, but as it turns out, he’s prospered during the last twenty years too. He refuses Jacob’s gift, which goes to show just how much Esau has put Jacob’s offenses in the past. He’s not interested in being bought off; he simply wants to forgive his brother and be friends. But Jacob insists. As much as Esau addresses him as a brother, Jacob still humbly calls Esau his lord and insists that Esau take the gift. The language that Jacob uses is the language of sacrifice. Esau has forgiven him, but Jacob knows that forgiveness has a cost. In fact, Jacob draws a connection between his transforming encounter with God the night before and his encounter with Esau. And as he would bow down in humility and offer tribute to the God who was so gracious with him, he now does just that for Esau. And Jacob also makes his purpose plain: “please accept my blessing”. I stole the blessing our Father meant for you; now I want to give it back and to make things right between us.” In the end, Esau accepts Jacob’s gift, and that Esau does not offer a gift in exchange shows that he accepted the gift as payment for the blessing Jacob had stolen.
After greeting each other and after Jacob’s been able to settle his debt, Esau cheerfully invites Jacob to come home with him. He wants to spend some time with his long-lost brother:
Then Esau said, “Let us journey on our way, and I will go ahead of you.” But Jacob said to him, “My lord knows that the children are frail, and that the nursing flocks and herds are a care to me. If they are driven hard for one day, all the flocks will die. Let my lord pass on ahead of his servant, and I will lead on slowly, at the pace of the livestock that are ahead of me and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir. So Esau said, “Let me leave with you some of the people who are with me.” But he said, “What need is there? Let me find favor in the sight of my lord.” So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir.” (Genesis 33:12-16)
Jacob doesn’t have the same enthusiasm that Esau does. Jacob makes polite excuses: “You and your men will be moving quickly. My family and livestock need to move at a slower pace. You go on ahead.” He even turns down Esau’s offer to leave some men behind for his protection as he travels. As we’ll see in the following verses, Jacob has no intention of going to Seir and living with Esau. The storyteller doesn’t let us in on Jacob’s reasoning and motives. It’s possible that he’s still afraid of Esau. We already know that Esau was temperamental. Could he change his mind about all this later? Jacob might be thinking that Seir simply isn’t capable of sustaining all of their livestock together. But most likely, Jacob is trying to be obedient. God called him to return home to Canaan. Seir is not Canaan—it’s not “home”—and it’s not Bethel, where Jacob had promised to build an altar on his return.
This is again one of those places where a lot of commentators see the old scheming and dishonest Jacob: making excuses and being dishonest. And yet this doesn’t fit with the humility and honesty we’ve just seen on display in Jacob. It helps to give some perspective if we look back to Chapter 31, where the narrator told us very explicitly that Jacob deceived Laban. The narrator doesn’t make any evaluation of Jacob’s actions here. He could have—and if Jacob were being deceptive here we would expect the narrator to tell us, but he doesn’t.
What Jacob’s doing is politely disentangling himself from an enthusiastic Esau. Esau’s goals are not Jacob’s goals and Esau’s home is not Jacob’s home. And so, when Jacob says, “until I come to my lord in Seir”, he’s not being dishonest. He’s being politely indeterminate. And if he doesn’t understand now, Esau does seem to understand later. When Isaac dies in Chapter 35, the two brothers come together to bury him and Esau shows no indication of bearing a grudge.
And so while Esau travels to the south, Jacob travels to the west, first to Succoth and eventually to Shechem:
But Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built himself a house and made booths for his livestock. Therefore the name of the place is called Succoth.
And Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, on his way from Paddan-aram, and he camped before the city. And from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, he bought for a hundred pieces of money the piece of land on which he had pitched his tent. There he erected an altar and called it El-elohe-israel. (Genesis 33:17-20)
At this point we can fault Jacob. Succoth was not far from the place where he met Esau, near where the Jabbock meets the Jordan. We’re not told how long he lived there, but the fact that he built a house suggests he was there for a while. When he left Paddam-aram, Jacob’s children were young. When we catch up with them in the next Chapter they’ve grown into teens and young adults. The problem with Jacob settling at Succoth is that he was being disobedient. This not where God told him to go and it’s not Bethel, where Jacob had pledged to build an altar on his return to Canaan.
And Jacob’s obedience doesn’t improve when he eventually moves on. When he leaves Succoth he goes to Shechem, more than thirty kilometres from Bethel. Jacob delays fulfilling his vow and gets himself and his family into trouble. The next scene in the story is reminiscent of Lot. Jacob bought land and settled within sight of the city. The narrator tells us that this is Canaan, which reminds us of the depravity of the people with whom Jacob is living. He buys a plot of land, which suggests that he was on good relations with the Shechemites. The fact that they are willing to sell him land in their territory shows their desire to intermarry with Jacob’s children and to integrate his family into their society and culture. This is the setup for the ugly events that follow in Chapter 34.
The text tells us that Jacob does, in fact, build an altar at Shechem, but he had to know that this did not fulfil his vow to build that altar at Bethel. He dedicates his altar to “God, the God of Israel”, which does show a positive step of faith. He had vowed that if God made good on his promise to see him through his exile and safely home, the Lord would be his God. The problem is that Jacob isn’t honouring his vow completely and here we still see remnants of the old Jacob. He wants God’s blessings—and he now has ample evidence that God is the source of his blessings—but he wants those blessings on his own terms. Jacob’s given up his self-sufficiency—which is a good thing—but there’s still far too much of a “What’s in it for me?” element to his faith. And we see the old Jacob here as he makes a deal with God, substituting partial obedience for full.
Brothers and sisters, this should speak to us. If we look at our own lives, we can all see the transformation that God’s grace has made in us. We saw in the last lesson, how Jacob’s idol was his self-sufficiency and how God took that idol away and changed his life. And here in today’s lesson we see Jacob living out that change. But that wasn’t the only change needed. Faith is never meant to be a stagnant thing. It should always be growing and transforming and teaching us to meet God on his terms and not our own. Griffith Thomas writes: “[Jacob] thought to counteract his disobedience by consecration to God. He had no right to be there at all. Bethel, not Shechem, was the place for the altar. Worldliness in the week-days is not overcome by early Communions on Sundays. Unfaithfulness to God in daily duty is not set aside by having family prayers night and morning, and Bible readings for our neighbors. Meanness to employees is not obliterated by a large gift to the Hospital Sunday Fund or the cause of foreign Missions….The sin lay in being ‘near the city,’ and indeed in being there at all. And the results as we shall see were disastrous, as they always are when people try to blend worldliness and godliness, Society and Christ, Mammon and God. The world always wins; religion always recedes.”
Brothers and sisters, we need to examine what’s at the centre of our faith. Is God at the centre or is our faith centred on the good things God provides? Faith has to start somewhere. Many people come to faith in God because they desire the redemption and restoration he offers us through Jesus Christ, but God’s salvation can’t remain the centre of our faith forever. The same goes for the material prosperity, the physical and spiritual healing, and restored relationships that God often gives to his people. The good things God offers are not what we worship and not ultimately what we should be seeking. That place in our faith should be reserved for God. The good things he gives us—including our redemption—are not ends in themselves, God gives them that we might know him, live in fellowship with him, love him, and glorify him. Those things are means to an end and the end is God himself. When God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, he was asking Abraham to give up his covenant promises and testing him: Am I alone enough for you Abraham? Is your faith centred on me for who I am? Or are you only following me for the good things I’ve promised to give you? That’s the difference between an immature faith and a mature faith. And if we let our faith stagnate in an immature state, we’ll forever be living with one foot in the world and one in God’s kingdom, and left brokering deals with God and compromising the new life he’s given.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, you’ve called us out of the world and into your kingdom, and you’ve given us the gift of faith that we might follow after you. Teach us to nurture the faith you have given and teach us to keep you at its centre. Let us seek you first and above all things, we ask, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
S. E. Lowenstamm, “Prostration from Afar in Ugaritic, Accadian, and Hebrew,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 188 (1967), pp. 41-43. Also, The Amarna Letters, 137:1-4, 147:2-3, 234:5-10 in James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), pp. 483-485.