Genesis 33:1-20 “Jacob & Esau Reunited, Part 2”

Posted on March 11, 2012. Filed under: Genesis: Answers to Life's Crucial Questions |

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Bryan E. Walker

 Read Genesis 33:1-20


Introduction: This morning we are going to begin looking at our passage verse by verse and we will see the faith and humility with which Jacob responded to his meeting with his brother. We see a changed Esau, though there is no indication in Scripture that Esau was ever saved and brought into the covenant. The passage shows us how an old rift was healed, but it also shows us how Jacob breaks with his brother. We would call it a lie, but we must understand that there are also some cultural things there that we have a hard time understanding, and also, that “two cannot walk together unless they be agreed” Amos 3:3. This passage that we shall study the next two weeks has a lot to say about the covenant and how we as believers should behave in the world. In this text we see the gospel does bring about reconciliation but also division.


  1. I.                   Jacob and Esau Meet, vv.1-4
    1. A.     Behold, Esau was Coming, vs.1a
      1. 1.      Jacob lifted up his eyes and looked- v.1 this is a standard phrase that indicates God’sProvidence. See22:13; 24:63-64; 31:10; and vs.5.
      2. 2.      Esau was coming, and four-hundred men- the drama and tension are now at their highest level. Is Esau coming for good or for evil? The near panic that Jacob was in the previous day seems to have departed; he appears calm, at peace. But what were Esau’s motives? Why come to meet Jacob with his own private militia? It could be to honor his brother as a wealthy prince, or to protect him because there were bad guys about, or to outright threaten Jacob and do him harm. Hamilton writes, p.342, “Having already contended with one is (“man”), Jacob now has to face four-hundred of them.”
      3. 3.      As wealthy as Jacob was, it is nowhere indicated that he had nearly as many servants or men as either Laban or Esau. He seems to clearly have been the weaker of the three. He is facing a dangerous situation, but he has prayed, even wrestled with God, over this issue. 
    2. B.     Jacob Divides His Family, vss.1b-2
      1. 1.      He divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two female servants- this refines what he did the previous night for security, but now it seems to be to prepare for a formal introduction. This is a slightly different tone, much more positive and anticipatory.
      2. 2.      And he put the servants  with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all- keep in mind that Leah bore the first four boys in 29:31-35, and Rachel bore Joseph last, with the children of the servant girls and more children from Leah in between (30:1-24). This means that the arrangement of the wives and children is not based upon the age of the children but upon the status of the wives. I would tend to think that Leah’s servant, Zilpah, was first with her sons Gad and Asher. Zilpah would be followed by Rachel’s servant, Bilha, and her sons Dan and Naphtali. Leah would be third with Reuben, Simeon,Levi,Judah, Issachar, Zebulun and Dinah. Rachel would be last with little Joseph. This shows that there is still favoritism in Jacob’s family, but with polygamy that is pretty much what you get.
      3. 3.      Makes you wonder what Zilpah, Gad and Asher were thinking.
      4. 4.      Joseph is the only child actually mentioned by name in this story and likely is used by Moses to point forward to the prominence of Joseph in the rest of Genesis, where, again, favoritism would play a major role in creating family tension and threaten the covenant.
    3. C.     Jacob Approaches His Brother, vs.3
      1. 1.      He himself went on before them- In chapter 32 it seemed as if he was putting his wives and children in the front while he stayed safely across the Jabbok. Now, his attitude has been changed by his encounter with God and he acts on faith, not fear. Contrast with 32:18. Now,Israel is a leader.
      2. 2.      bowing…seven times- This is a humbling process of being on your hands and knees, face and nose in the dust, not a Barack Obama half bow to the King of the Saudis. This is clearly showing submission to a superior, and may illustrate a symbolic return of the birthright. At the least this shows Jacob is aware of reality and hopefully it shows his change of heart. Bowing 7 times was common protocol of a vassal meeting his lord in the orient. This was a serious point of contention between the Greek Soldiers and Alexander the Great after he conquered the Persians and began assuming the trappings of an oriental despot.
      3. 3.      bowing- could also point forward to Joseph’s dreams in 37.
      4. 4.      This illustrates the servant heart of Christ in Mark 10:45 “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”, and how we are to consider others to be more important than ourselves, 1Cor.9:19 “I have made myself a servant of all that I might win more of them.” 10:24 “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” Phil.2:3 “in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” See the Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 5:23-24 about leaving your offering on the altar and going to make amends with your brother before you worship. Jacob was doing whatever it took to make amends with Esau; he was not too good to bow down, as was the custom of the day.
    4. D.    Esau Runs to Jacob, v.4
      1. 1.      But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. Esau runs to the limping Jacob. Esau does not assume the role of lord, he treats Jacob as a long lost, beloved brother. Jacob must be totally surprised and he, too, weeps, along with his brother.
      2. 2.      The use of the words kissed and neck may refer back to 27:16, 27, 40 and the lying theft of the blessing by Jacob.
      3. 3.      In 25:34 Esau despised his birthright with 5 verbs, now he welcomes his brother back with 5 strong verbs; this is not a coincidence.
      4. 4.      There is a bit of a wordplay in Hebrew with Esau ran wayyaros and Jacob divided wayyahas. Another play on words is in the word for embraced which is the same root as wrestled in 32:24.
      5. 5.      We are reminded of the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 where the father ran to meet his son who came home.
      6. 6.      Is this a sign of God’s saving grace to Esau? We clearly see a man who had wanted to murder his brother now welcoming him home with joyful tears. Or, is this merely a sign of common grace? (See Romans9:13 above.)
      7. 7.      Probably the best way to understand Esau’s change of heart is accepting that God answered Jacob’s prayer in 32:11. We do not know when or how God changed Esau’s heart, but we can say it was an answer to prayer. God can certainly change the hearts of those who seek to harm us, without saving them. Notice the ambiguity of Esau approaching Jacob’s troop with 400 armed men yet the motive is never mentioned.
      8. 8.      If an unsaved Esau who was doubly wronged by his brother can forgive, surely we can forgive. How often do we hold on to grudges and stay angry at someone when we should follow Jesus’ example, “Father, forgive them…” as the Romans were nailing him to the cross and the Jews were mocking him?
      9. 9.      Hamilton points out, p.343, that Esau met Jacob after God attacked Jacob at night, and Moses’ brother, Aaron, met him after God attacked Moses  (Ex.4:24-27.)
      10. 10.  Calvin writes, p.207, “That Esau meets his brother with unexpected benevolence and kindness, is the effect of the special favour of God. Therefore, by this method, God proved that he has the hearts of men in his hand, to soften their hardness, and to mitigate their cruelty as often as he pleases: in short, that he tames them as wild beasts are wont to be tamed; and then, that he hearkened to the prayers of his servant Jacob. Wherefore, if at any times the threats of enemies alarm us, let us learn to resort to this sacred anchor.”


  1. II.                Jacob and Esau  Reconcile, vv.5-15
    1. A.     Jacob Introduces His Family to Esau, vv.5-7
      1. 1.      Esau lifted up his eyes and saw- see. Vs.1 notes.
      2. 2.      he (Esau) said, “Who are these with you?” The conversation is begun by Esau; Jacob is silent until spoken to as the weaker party.
      3. 3.      The children whom God has graciously given… here is another sign of how God has changed the heart of Jacob. He gives God the glory and thanks! I think Waltke is a bit cynical when he writes, p.454, “Does he silently sidestep the wives to avoid reference to the reason for his flight?” Most conversations in the Bible are likely telescoped and besides that the children, not the wives, are the key point in the story.
      4. 4.      God- Elohim NOT yhwh. Waltke says it is because he is talking to one outside the covenant- a key point in understanding this text. Graciously- hmn– favor- Waltke says that Jacob avoided using the word “blessed” here, but uses favor which implies forgiveness, subtly implying to Esau that he is seeking Esau’s favor.
      5. 5.      your servant- again, Jacob is using humbling language here, the diplomatic language of the day for when a vassal addresses his lord.
      6. 6.      the servants…and their children…bowed down-vss.6-8 first Jacob bowed 7 times, now each of the wives bows along with the children, to their uncle.
    2. B.     Jacob Offers the Blessing to Esau, vv. 8-11
      1. 1.      What do you mean by all this company (droves) that I met?- company- mahaneh means camp or army, see on 32:2, to which it subtly points. It also rhymes with “gift” minha and “graciously” hmn. Esau meets Jacob with his private army of 400 men, Jacob meets Esau with the droves “army” of gift animals.
      2. 2.      to find favor in the sight of my lord- he is honest about his motives, he DOES want to find favor with Esau. Again, he is using diplomatic language of “lord” and “servant”.
      3. 3.      Esau, however, uses “brother” in v.9- Is there more to Jacob rejecting the brotherly language and sticking with diplomatic language? Notice that in the end, he DOES NOT accompany Esau to Seir which is outside the Promised Land. Could this choice of language be more about the covenant?
      4. 4.      I have enough my brother- the blessing given to Esau by Isaac in 27:39-40 says, “away from the fatness of the earth shall your dwelling be…By your sword you shall live…” Clearly Esau is doing well if he can afford 400 men. Waltke suggests he may have gotten his riches through war or raiding. At any rate, he is comfortable and does not need, or even want Jacob’s gifts.
      5. 5.      “keep what you have for yourself”- as the stronger party, he must not appear too eager to receive the gift since that might indicate need. Possibly it could also be a subtle way of saying, “Keep the blessing little brother, life has turned out well for me, I don’t need it!”
      6. 6.      No, please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present- Jacob is earnest in giving this gift, and to withdraw the offer too quickly would indicate insincerity. He genuinely wants to bless his brother and gain atonement, acceptance, with him.
      7. 7.      like seeing the face of God- a reference back to the wrestling match in 32. Waltke writes, p.455, “As at Peniel, when Jacob saw God’s face and his life was graciously spared, so also he sees the dreaded face of Esau and is graciously received. Jacob treats Esau as one who stands in God’s stead. He bows down, pleads for grace, identifies Esau’s pacified face with the pacified face of God, and offers tribute when he finds favor.”
      8. 8.      “you have accepted me”- is language related to sacrifice and worship. Waltke, p.455, “Since Esau accepts guilty Jacob, he is now to accept Jacob’s tribute.”
      9. 9.      blessing-present-birkati– this is a different word from “gift-present” in vs.10. This is the same word used in 27:35-36, describing what Jacob had taken from Esau! Though they did not explicitly bring up Jacob’s dirty deed from twenty years ago, the language used here very subtly shows that they are discussing it.
      10. 10.  Application: when we seek to restore a broken relationship, or seek forgiveness from someone whom we have offended, is it ok to sometimes NOT bring up the details and rehash the events, but rather, to do what we see Jacob and Esau doing here? What did Jesus do for Peter in John 21:15-19? Did Jesus tell Peter, “Hey, you know those three times when you denied me…with all the gory details?” No. Also notice that Esau did not rub Jacob’s face in it. When we are owed forgiveness by someone who offended us, the gospel thing to do may be to accept an roundabout confession such as Jacob’s here, and give grace where it is not deserved…like how God gives us grace.
      11. 11.  because God has dealt graciously with me- Again, Jacob gives praise to God for his grace; another testimony of the change in Jacob’s heart and a sign that he is being genuine here. When we are changed by the power of the gospel we will behave differently.
      12. 12.  he urged him and he took it- While it would be normal protocol for Esau to at first decline the gift, then receive it, thus appearing gracious to his vassal, in this case it seems his love for his brother was really inclining him to refuse the gifts. But in the end, after Jacob’s insistence which is stressed here, he accepts. It breaks Middle Eastern protocol, however, when Esau does not offer a gift in return. This indicates that the gift from Jacob was NOT the usual gift from vassal to lord, but that it really was a restoration, an atonement, for a past sin. Keep in mind that this reconciliation is being done in front of the 400 men and Jacob’s household for all  to see.
    3. C.     Esau Offers to Travel with Jacob, vv.12-14
      1. 1.      Let us journey on our way- It seems that Esau assumed that Jacob would be going to his house for a visit. Keep in mind that Seir is several days journey from the Jabbok. Waltke, p.456, “Esau thinks Jacob came to visit him.”
      2. 2.      Apply- the world all too often assumes that we are fellow travelers with them, that we share their values, beliefs, goals, and dreams. Sometimes the world is correct!
      3. 3.      the children are frail…all the flocks will die- Esau’s band of merry men are not herdsmen here, but warriors. Jacob’s band cannot travel as fast. Jacob is looking after his flocks as the Good Shepherd does.
      4. 4.      until I come to my lord in Seir- here we see Jacob seemingly deliberately misleading Esau. Is this a sign of Jacob’s old nature? Or is God doing something else with Jacob?
      5. 5.      Calvin, p.211, “Although Esau was inclined to benevolence, Jacob still distrusts him: not that he fears to be ensnared, or that he suspects perfidy to lie hidden under the garb of friendship; but he cautiously avoids new occasions of offence: for a proud and ferocious man might easily be exasperated again by light causes. Now, though just reason for fear was not wanting to the holy man, yet I dare not deny that his anxiety was excessive. He suspected the liberality of Esau; but did he not know that a God was standing between them, who, as he was convinced by clear and undoubted experience, watched for his salvation? For, whence such an incredible change of mind in Esau, unless he had been divinely transformed from a wolf into a lamb? Let us then learn, from this example, to restrain our anxieties, lest when God has provided for us, we tremble, as in an affair of doubt.”
      6. 6.      Calvin continues, “The things which Jacob alleges, as grounds of excuse, are true; nevertheless he introduces them under false pretexts; except, perhaps, as regards the statement, that he was unwilling to be burdensome and troublesome to his brother. But since he afterwards turns his journey in another direction, it appears that he feigned something foreign to what was really in his mind….In these words he promises what he was not intending to do; for, leaving his brother, he journeyed to a different place. But truth is so precious to God, that he will not allow us to lie or deceive, even when no injury follows. Wherefore, we must take care, when any fear of danger occupies our minds,that we do not turn aside to these subterfuges.” (p.211-212).
      7. 7.      Is this a lie? Should Jacob have agreed to visit Esau and then not? This is a common lie that we have all most likely done: a guy asks you out and you make an excuse, a girl is interested in you and gives you her number, and you say you will call…but don’t. Your boss or client asks for something, to which you agree, with no intentions of fulfilling it.
      8. 8.      But here is something else to consider- SHOULD Jacob have gone with Esau to Seir, which lies outside of the Promised Land? Jacob is under the covenant, Esau is not. But should we lie about our goals to those outside the covenant? Islam teaches their people to lie to those outside of Islam.
  1. D.     Esau Offers to Leave Jacob an Armed Escort, v.15



  1. III.                Jacob and Esau Go Their Separate Ways, vv.16-17
    1. A.     Esau Returned to Seir, Outside the Covenant, v.16
    2. B.     But Jacob, In the Covenant, Journeyed to Succoth, v.17


      IV.       Jacob Returns to the Promised Land and Worships, vss.18-20


Boice, James Montgomery. Genesis: An Expositional Commentary, Volume 2, Genesis 12:1-36:43. Zondervan:Grand Rapids, MI. 1985 (pp.336-340).

Calvin, John. Genesis, in the Geneva Series of Commentaries, translated and edited by John King, two volumes in one. Banner of Truth Trust:Carlisle,PA 1847 (originally published in Latin 1554). Vol.2, pages 203-215.

Duguid, Iain M. Living In The Grip Of Relentless Grace: The Gospel In The Lives Of Isaac & Jacob. P&R Publishing:Phillipsburg, NJ 2002 (pp.119-130).

Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis Chapters 18-50. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company:Grand Rapids, MI.1995 (pp.316-339).

Keil, C.F. Commentary on the Old Testament, Volume 1 The Pentateuch. Hendrickson Publishers:Peabody,Mass. 2006 (pp.197-199). Original English translation published by T&T Clark,Edinburgh, 1866-91.

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.)

            Sailhamer, John H. “Genesis” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol.2, Frank E. Gaebelein, Editor. Regency Reference Library, Zondervan Publishing House:Grand Rapids,MI 1990 (pp.211-214).

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

Wenham, Gordon. Word Biblical Commentary vol.2 Genesis 16-50.Word Books:Dallas,TX. 1994 (pp.298-304).


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