So now the day that Jacob was dreading had finally arrived. He was now about to meet his brother Esau, the same man that he had cheated 20 years earlier. But Esau was not only coming to meet Jacob; he was also bringing 400 other men to meet with him too. So this was a meeting that had the potential to turn into something really destructive and violent- and Jacob knew it.
So what kind of reception did Jacob receive? Let’s find out…
“Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men; so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two maidservants. He put the maidservants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear” (Genesis 33:1-2).
These verses tell us that Jacob took a few last minute precautions in positioning his family to meet with Esau. Notice that Jacob started by putting the two maidservants and their children out front. He then positioned Leah and her children behind them with Rachel and Joseph in the back. The idea behind this positioning seems to be this: if anything went wrong during his meeting with Esau, Rachel and Joseph would have the best chance to get away safely.
Of course this meant that everyone else could easily see which family members were most favored by Jacob. This favoritism must have been difficult for the others to accept, especially for those who were positioned nearest to the front After all, how would you feel if Jacob were your father and he deliberately placed you at the front of this potentially hostile confrontation? Perhaps this is one reason why the New Testament book of James says, “…how can you claim that you have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people more than others?” (James 2:1 NLT).
“He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother” (Genesis 33:3)
Now before we come down too hard on Jacob for the way that he positioned his family, we should at least notice the fact that he went out ahead of everyone else -by himself- to meet with his brother. This act represented a real change of attitude for Jacob. Instead of acting like the deceptive cheater that Esau once knew, Jacob had now decided to stand up and take responsibility for his actions. Jacob was out front and ready to face the consequences from his brother, whatever those consequences might be.
“Jacob went ahead of them and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother” (Genesis 33:3 GNB).
So Jacob bowed before his brother as he approached, an act that is still recognized today as a universal sign of respect. In fact, archaeological information tells us that it was traditional during that time to bow seven times before approaching a king. This seems to be the approach that Jacob took as he brought his upper body parallel to the ground, straightened up, took a few steps forward, bowed again, and continued that process seven times.
Its obvious that Jacob showed a tremendous amount of respect to his brother- but the question is, how would Esau respond? Well, happily for Jacob, the next verse says this…
“But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept” (Genesis 33:4).
It seems clear that God gave Esau a definite change of attitude towards Jacob. Why? Well, think about it: why would Esau drag 400 men out to the desert just to watch him hug and kiss his brother? While its possible that Esau brought these men to help protect him from any tricks that Jacob might have been planning, it seems more likely that God changed Esau’s feelings toward Jacob. Esau may have come looking for a fight, but God changed his internal attitude towards his brother and allowed a real reconciliation to take place.
But Jacob also did some things to demonstrate his change of attitude as well. Remember that one of the first things that Jacob did about this situation was to pray and ask for God’s help. That happened back in Genesis 32:11 where we are told that Jacob said to God, “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.” The fact that Jacob and Esau met as friends and not as enemies can certainly be traced back to God’s answer of that prayer.
Jacob also demonstrated his change of attitude by giving some tremendous gifts to his brother as well. You may remember that Jacob had earlier sent more than 500 animals to Esau. This represented a very expensive gift in that culture and it helped show Esau that Jacob really had changed. Unlike the Jacob of old who schemed to take away what Esau had, Jacob had now become someone who wanted to give and bless his brother.
“Then Esau ran to meet Jacob. Esau hugged him, threw his arms around him, and kissed him. They both cried” (Genesis 33:4 GW).
One essential thing to notice about this passage is that Jacob approached his brother with an attitude of humility. This is important because the Old Testament book of Proverbs tells us that,“Humility and reverence for the Lord will make you both wise and honored” (Proverbs 15:33 TLB). Later on, the New Testament book of James will go on to say, “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up” (James 4:10 NKJV). So the kind of humility that Jacob showed towards his brother here in Genesis chapter 33 helped lead to a reconciliation- and the same thing is possible for those who choose to show that same attitude today.
And now that Esau and Jacob have had their reunion, it was time to meet the rest of the family…
“Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. ‘Who are these with you?’ he asked. Jacob answered, ‘They are the children God has graciously given your servant.’ Then the maidservants and their children approached and bowed down. Next, Leah and her children came and bowed down. Last of all came Joseph and Rachel, and they too bowed down.
Esau asked, ‘What do you mean by all these droves I met?’ ‘To find favor in your eyes, my lord,’ he said. But Esau said, ‘I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.’
‘No, please!’ said Jacob. ‘If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably. Please accept the present that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have all I need.’ And because Jacob insisted, Esau accepted it” (Genesis 33:5-11).
Its possible to look at this interaction between Jacob and Esau and simply view it as two guys being polite to one another. But in reality, this exchange of gifts went far beyond that.
You see, a person in that culture would never accept a gift from someone who was thought to be an enemy. So when Jacob gave these generous gifts to his brother, it was his way of telling Esau that he was sorry. And when Esau accepted those gifts, it was his way of accepting Jacob and officially saying that Jacob was forgiven.
“‘Please take my gifts’ (Jacob said). “For God has been very generous to me and I have enough.” So Jacob insisted, and finally Esau accepted them” (Genesis 33:11 TLB).
Now before we leave this family reunion, there is something important that you should keep in mind for later. You see, all of Jacob’s children were present for this meeting but one person in this group was getting a particularly important lesson in how to be forgiving towards a family member who had done something wrong. That person will eventually have the opportunity to put the lessons of this family reunion into practice later on in the book of Genesis. (1)
“Then Esau said, ‘Let us be on our way; I’ll accompany you.’ But Jacob said to him, ‘My lord knows that the children are tender and that I must care for the ewes and cows that are nursing their young. If they are driven hard just one day, all the animals will die. So let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I move along slowly at the pace of the droves before me and that of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.”
Esau said, ‘Then let me leave some of my men with you.’ ‘But why do that?’ Jacob asked. ‘Just let me find favor in the eyes of my lord.’ So that day Esau started on his way back to Seir. Jacob, however, went to Succoth, where he built a place for himself and made shelters for his livestock. That is why the place is called Succoth.
After Jacob came from Paddan Aram, he arrived safely at the city of Shechem in Canaan and camped within sight of the city. For a hundred pieces of silver, he bought from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem, the plot of ground where he pitched his tent. There he set up an altar and called it El Elohe Israel” (Genesis 33:12-20).
So Esau finally said, “OK, let’s get going- I’ll ride with you.” But Jacob responded by saying, “No, that’s OK- you don’t have to do that.” So Esau said, “Well, at least let me send some of my bodyguards with you.” But Jacob apparently felt that wasn’t necessary- since God had already protected him throughout his journey up to this point, Jacob was confident that God would also protect him along the rest of the way as well.
However, there may be another reason to explain why Jacob declined Esau’s offer, and we’ll look at that possibility next.
(1) If you need a hint to help identify this person, try jumping ahead to Genesis chapter 37
‘Well, let’s be going,’ Esau said. ‘My men and I will stay with you and lead the way.’ But Jacob replied, ‘As you can see, some of the children are small, and the flocks and herds have their young, and if they are driven too hard, they will die. So you go on ahead of us and we’ll follow at our own pace and meet you at Seir.’
‘Well,’ Esau said, ‘at least let me leave you some of my men to assist you and be your guides.’ ‘No,’ Jacob insisted, ‘we’ll get along just fine. Please do as I suggest.’ So Esau started back to Seir that same day” (Genesis 33:12-16 TLB).
These verses give the impression that Esau wanted to stay with Jacob and continue their family reunion, at least for a little while. But it seems that Jacob wasn’t really interested in spending more time with Esau because he came up with a number of excuses that were sure to keep them apart. Those excuses included…
- The children are too small
- The livestock can’t be driven too hard
- We can find our way around without any help
So was Jacob deliberately trying to avoid Esau? Well, the biggest clue to indicate that Jacob was intentionally trying to stay away from Esau comes in Genesis 33:17. You see, Jacob told Esau that he would catch up with him later in the town of Seir in Genesis 33:14. So Esau started out on a journey towards Seir but Genesis 33:17 tells us that instead of following behind, Jacob instead headed to the area of Succoth, a place that was in another direction entirely.
So why would Jacob tell Esau one thing but then do something else? Well, we can’t justify the fact that Jacob wasn’t true to his word, but we can look at the possible reasoning behind his actions. For instance, Jacob may have realized that he needed to maintain his independence from his brother. Since Jacob and Esau were very different in both personality and appearance (see Genesis 25:24-27), Jacob may have come to the conclusion that the best way to maintain the peace was to keep some distance between them.
Another possible reason is that Esau was someone who didn’t care very much for the things of God. On the other hand, Jacob was someone who was growing in his relationship with God. Since the two brothers were going in opposite spiritual directions, this may have caused Jacob to change his mind and head off in the opposite physical direction as well.
So it seems that Jacob was willing to accept the fact that he had a peaceful reconciliation with his brother and then get on with his life. Although its possible that Jacob and Esau did maintain some contact in the years following their reunion, the two brothers will not actually meet each other again for quite some time. The next time we will see Jacob and Esau together again in the Scriptures is when they meet at the funeral of their father Isaac in Genesis 35:28-29.
“After Jacob came from Paddan Aram, he arrived safely at the city of Shechem in Canaan and camped within sight of the city. For a hundred pieces of silver, he bought from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem, the plot of ground where he pitched his tent. There he set up an altar and called it El Elohe Israel” (Gen 33:18-20).
After leaving the town of Succoth, Jacob and his family eventually made their way to the area of Shechem, a place that still exists today under the modern day name Nablus. Shechem was also about 20 miles (32 km) away from the town of Bethel, the place where Jacob had his first encounter with God in Genesis 28.
You may remember that after God appeared to Jacob during that first encounter, Jacob responded by saying, “If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God” (Genesis 28:20-21 NKJV). Well, God did enable Jacob to return in peace and now Jacob was ready to follow through on his promise. He did this by putting up an altar, or a place that was set apart to serve as a memorial or offer sacrifices. In Jacob’s time, these altars were usually made of earth or uncut stone and they served as a place where someone could meet with God.
In this case, Jacob gave this new altar a specific name: “El Elohe Israel” which translates as, “The mighty God of Israel.” So using the new name that God had given him -Israel- Jacob put up an altar that announced to everyone that the Lord was his God.
So that was the good news about this move to Shechem. Unfortunately, some really bad things are also going to happen in Shechem, and we’ll talk about those things when we get to chapter 34.