Genesis 33:1-20 “Jacob & Esau Reunited…or are they?”

Posted on March 4, 2012. Filed under: Genesis: Answers to Life's Crucial Questions |

Sunday, March 4th, 2012

Bryan E. Walker

Read Genesis 33

            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.

            But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. 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. Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” 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.

            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. 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 ofShechem, which is in thelandofCanaan, 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 ESV)


Introduction: In chapter 33 we reach thehigh point of the tension between Jacob and Esau which began in the womb (25:22). Throughout the accounts of God’s dealings with the patriarchs we have seen tension within this family and obstacles to trusting in God’s covenant which promised land, descendants, and blessings. I the text which we will be studying the next couple of lessons we will see Jacob and Esau reconciled, Jacob taking appropriate actions of repentance even to the point of symbolically giving the birthright and blessing back to Esau, and Jacob’s return to the Promised land at Shecham. There are points in this story which point back to previous chapters, and several points which point forward to what is coming in the following chapters.

Today we are going to do the basic work of Bible study to see what is in the text, then next week we will seek more understanding and application of the text. The Main Idea however, is that God did a work of grace in the hearts of Jacob and Esau so that they could be reconciled with each other. The Gospel point is that the gospel changes lives.

Literary Analysis:


Moses’ formal outline using the toledoths

  1. a.      Prologue, 1:1-2:3
  2. b.      The Generations of the Heavens and the Earth 2:3-4:26
  3. c.       The Generations of Adam 5:1-6:8
  4. d.      The Generations of Noah 6:9-9:29
  5. e.      The Generations of the Sons of Noah 10:1-11:9
  6. f.        The Generations of Shem 11:10-26
  7. g.      The Generations of Terah 11:27-25:11
  8. h.      The Generations of Ishmael 25:12-18
  9. i.        The Generations of Isaac 25:19-35:29 ***
  10. j.        The Generations of Esau 36:1-37:1
  11. k.      The Generations of Jacob 37:2-50:26


This Chiastic structure, slightly modified by me, comes from Waltke, p.352, 385.

A-Births and genealogy 25:19-24

  B-Digression: Rebekah in Foreign Palace, Foreigners 26:1-33

    C-Jacob steals Esau’s blessing 26:34-28:9

      D-Jacob receives the blessing but is in exile 28:10-32:32

        1-Encounter with God at Bethel28:10-22

          2-Conflict with Laban inHaran29:1-30

            3-Birth of the 12 Tribes 29:31-30:24 (Moses’ main point!)

          2’-Jacob prospers but flees Laban 30:25-31:55

        1’-Encounters with God 32:1-32 (Jacob Becomes Israel, Moses’ other key point)

    C’-Reconciliation with Esau 33:1-17 (We are here, the climax of Esau v. Jacob)

  B’-Digression: Dinah in Foreign Palace, Foreigners 33:18-34:31

A’-Births and Deaths 35:1-29

As I have mentioned before, one of the reasons I believe in Moses as the author of Genesis and not some gradual compilation by committee, is the beautiful complexity of this book. There are outlines within outlines, chiastic structures within chiastic structures. Another way of looking at the toledoth of Isaac and the story of Jacob has three parts according to Waltke:

  1. Ch. 25:19-28:9 Family Conflicts
  2. Ch. 28:10-33:17 Covenant Blessings on Jacob and His Exile in Paddan Aram
  3. Ch. 33:18-35:29 Transition to Jacob (toledoth 10)

This outline has a geographical framework with parts 1 and 3 taking place in Canaan but the middle part taking place in the trans-Jordan and Paddan-Aram (technically 28:10-22 takes place at Bethel, inside Canaan, but it is Jacob’s departure point from Canaan on his way to Haran.)

Waltke divides up part 2, Ch.28:10-33:17 into 8 sub-sections:

  1. Angels Meet Jacob atBethel(28:10-22)
  2. Jacob Meets Rachel at the Well (29:1-14a)
  3. Laban Outwits Jacob-Leah for Rachel (29:14b-30)
  4. The Birth of Jacob’s Children (29:31-30:24)
  5. Jacob Outwits Laban (30:25-43)
  6. Jacob Flees Laban (31:1-55)
  7. Angels Meet Jacob at Mahanaim and Peniel- Preparation of Jacob to Meet Esau (32:1-32)
  8. Esau’s Reconciliation with Homeward-Bound Jacob (33:1-17)

I am going to include vss.18-20 in this section because a case can be made that they serve as a transition passage and that they bring to a conclusion to his exile, began in 28:10, while pointing to what comes in chapters 34-35.

We have covered this material since August in about 17 lessons so far (a few more since I missed about 3 weeks due to illness and had a bit of a review, and some of the lessons took two Sundays). I am pretty confident that we can finish the Isaac toledoth, through 35:29 by the end of May and our break for summer.


While clearly for Moses’ big purpose of giving Israel the history of how they became a people, 29:31-30:24 is the high point (the births of Jacob’s children), and 32:1-32 gave them the origin of their name, Israel, chapter 33 now gives the high point for the drama between Esau and Jacob begun in 25:22-34 with the struggle in Rebekah’s womb and the birth with Jacob grasping Esau’s heel and then the selling of the birthright to Jacob for a pot of red stew by Esau. The story of God’s redemption in the lives of the patriarchs is full of tension and obstacles, threats to the covenant from within and without. This chapter resolves the biggest tension and threat in the story of Jacob with the reconciliation between Esau and Jacob.

There are two parts to this chapter, 33:1-11 tells us of the meeting and reconciliation of Esau with Jacob and vv.12-17 tell of the amicable separation of the twins. This event ends with Jacob settling on the border ofCanaanin Succoth, in the Trans-Jordan. His re-entry intoCanaanawaits vss.18-20 which belong with ch.34.

There is a strange comparison going on between Esau and God relating back to ch.32:30 “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered”, that shows up in  chiastic structure in vss. 9-11 (Waltke, p.452).

A “I already have plenty”

  B “If I have found favor (Heb. hen)

    C “Accept this gift (minha) from me”

      D “For to see your face”

      D` “Like seeing the face of God”

    C` “Accept the blessing (beraka) that was brought to you”

  B` “God has been gracious (hnn) to me”

A` “I have all I need”

The point is that Jacob was afraid for his life in facing his brother but he was delivered upon meeting him face to face just as he was threatened by God who wrestled him, but was delivered even though he saw the face of God.


In chapter 32 the key actors were Esau and his 400 men, God, and Jacob, now it is Jacob and Esau. We see a transformation is both. When last we heard from Esau (27:41f) he hated Jacob and was planning on killing his brother, and (28:6-9) Esau, who had married Canaanite women, now married Ishmael’s daughter, Mahalath, further confirming he was outside the covenant. The mentions of Esau in 32 sounded ominous and threatening. Now we see Esau approaching with his 400 men yet, when he arrives, runs to Jacob, embraces him and weeps. This is a remarkable transformation that is left mysterious by Moses who gives us no intervening details of his life.

We do not see the old Jacob-deceiver in this chapter, we see the new Jacob, though he does not go by the new nameIsrael. This Jacob has been touched by God, and though he limps in his flesh, he boldly-humbly goes to the front of his family to meet Esau. He speaks and acts with humility, calling his brother lord and himself “your servant”. He has instructed his wives and children to do obeisance before Esau, to bow down low as they approach him. He insists that Esau keep the gifts offered, yet he himself does not expect, nor receive, gifts from Esau, thus, truly being in the role of the inferior. Jacob even says, “Please accept my blessing that is brought to you…” subtly offering the blessing back which he had stolen 20 years prior. Gone is the cunning, plotting, heel-grasping schemer; here is a humbled man, broken by God.


The action begins just across the Jabbok but Esau had traveled from much further south, in Seir. In vs.17 we see that Jacob settles in Succoth, just across theJordan Riveron the east side, near where the Jabbok joins theJordan. So technically, he is welcomed home by his brother, but doesn’t cross intoCanaanuntil vs.18, when Shechem is mentioned.

Key Words

Bowing-vss.3, 6, 7 (2x) means to touch your forehead and nose to the ground, much as you see muslims in their prayer position.

Divided- v.1 (see 32:7)

Esau “ran”, “embraced”, “fell”, “kissed”, and “wept” five verbs of joyfully greeting; but also see 25:34 (Waltke, p.454) for five verbs despising his birthright- “ate”, “drank”, “rose”, “went”, and “despised”.

embraced- vs.4  (see 32:24 “wrestled”).

favor-  hen vss.8, 10.

Graciously- hanan vv5,11

present- v.10 minha– gift

face- vs. 10 (2x; see 32:30).

accepted – v.10, 11.

blessing-v.11(32:26, 29).

lord- vv.8, 13, 14, 15.

servant- v.2, 6.

journey- vv.12, 17.

children- vv.1, 2, 5 (2x), 6, 7, 13, 14.

Joseph, v.7. the only one of Jacob’s children named, thus pointing to the Joseph stories soon to come (chapters 37-50.)

Succoth- v.17 (2x).

I think that because the word “children” is mentioned the most, and because of the perceived danger of Esau’s approach, hinting at the possible destruction of Jacob’s family and the end of the covenant, that this word is the Key Word for the passage. The children, henceIsrael, are preserved, and God’s word is shown to be true and powerful.

Doctrinal/Ethical teachings

God is much more in the background in this part of Jacob’s story, but we see him doing an amazing work in the lives of these twins. We are not given much in the way of an explanation as to how or why Esau changed, so we must look at the actual story. We find that perhaps God used Jacob’s gifts and attitude change to appease his brother. Jacob has learned humility and generosity. Repentance and forgiveness are lived out in this passage. Jacob gives God credit for his success in v.5,10,11, but Esau remains outside of the covenant by not giving thanks to God.


The Gospel point is that genuine believers will follow their Lord into servanthood and live a life of humility, thankfulness, and submission.



Here is one possible outline of the text which focuses on the themes that we encounter in the text. This is somewhat similar to Ross’ outline (pp.562f):

  1. I.                   Esau and Jacob are Reconciled, the Covenant Preserved, vv.1-11
    1. A.     Jacob’s Faith and Repentance Demonstrated, vv.1-3
    2. B.     The Reconciliation, vv.4-11
    3. II.                Jacob and Esau Go Their Separate Ways Peacefully, vv.12-17
      1. A.     The Offer To Journey Together Politely Declined, vv.12-15
      2. B.     Jacob and Esau Separate, vv.16-17
    4. III.             Jacob Returns to Canaan and Worships, vv.18-20
      1. A.     Jacob and Shechem, vv.18-19
      2. B.     El-Elohe-Israel, v.20


Here is another possible outline focusing on the divisions between narrative and dialog which Moses built into the text (Mathews, pp.563-564):

  1. I.                   Jacob and Esau Meet, vv.1-4
  2. II.                Jacob and Esau  Reconcile, vv.5-15
  3. III.             Jacob and Esau Part, vv.16-20

Mathews explains his division of the text here (p.563, 565): “The structure of the narrative is threefold. The centerpiece is a prolonged dialogue between the brothers (vv.5-15), which consists of three rounds of speeches. Two narrative paragraphs frame the dialogue unit (vv.1-4; 16-20), the first introducing the dialogue and the second describing the outcome. Repetition of language distinguishes the parts of the composition. The beginning narrative and dialogue units each begins with the same idiom: ‘Jacob/Esau lifted up his eyes and saw…’ (vv.1a, 5a)….Each of the three units shows that the twins reach a peaceful acceptance of their destinies. In the first unit (vv.1-4) the actions of Jacob (bowing) and Esau (embracing) exhibit the striking change in their behavior from what we know of them at Jacob’s departure (chap.27). In the second unit (v.5-15) the dialogue ends in Esau’s acceptance of Jacob’s gifts and Jacob’s special request to travel unaccompanied. The final unit (vv.16-20) describes the peaceful departure to their respective settlements, Seir and Shechem.”

Conclusion: Next week we will begin the verse by verse exposition and seek to understand more about what God is doing here and what Moses is telling his people, and along the way we will certainly find ways to apply the gospel to our lives in the areas of repentance and reconciliation. I want to leave you with a question that comes from the text and is seen in my choice of title for this study. Are Jacob and Esau genuinely re-united here? The text gives us a little bit of ambiguity once again, and that is not a bad thing. If Jacob is in the covenant with God, and Esau is not, how united can they be?


Mathews, Kenneth A. The New American Commentary, Volume 1B, Genesis 11:27-50:26. Broadman & Holman Publishers:Nashville, TN. 2005. (pp.561-576).

Ross, Allen P. Creation & Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis. Baker Academic:Grand Rapids,MI 1998 (pp.560-567.)

Waltke, Bruce. Genesis: A Commentary, Zondervan:Grand Rapids, MI. 2001 (pp.349-479.)



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