Exploring Humility


Biblical Truth: People of faith humble themselves before God and others.

Assess the Situation: Gen. 32:3-8.

[3]  Then Jacob sent messengers before him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. [4]  He also commanded them saying, “Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob, I have sojourned with Laban, and stayed until now; [5]  I have oxen and donkeys and flocks and male and female servants; and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find favor in your sight” [6]  The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and furthermore he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” [7]  Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people who were with him, and the flocks and the herds and the camels, into two companies; [8]  for he said, “If Esau comes to the one company and attacks it, then the company which is left will escape.”    [NASU]

[3-5]  By referring to Esau as my lord and to himself as your servant, Jacob expresses submissiveness to Esau, paving the way for a possible settlement. The language lord and servant may be diplomatic courtesy, but Jacob means more than extending formal pleasantries. His deference to Esau ironically reverses the roles that their father’s original blessing had anticipated. Jacob’s message explains his twenty-year absence. He indicates that with Laban, he was only a temporary resident who has now returned to his homeland. Furthermore, he describes the immense wealth acquired during this absence, referring to herds and servants. He then explains the purpose of his message, that I may find favor in your sight, an expression that typically features the request of a subordinate seeking acceptance. The picture of his enrichment that he paints is similar to Abraham and Isaac, who as sojourners also had gained great wealth. Particularly, the travel of Jacob, making the trek from Haran to Canaan, recalled the journey of Father Abraham.

[6-8]  The narrative’s silence regarding what transpired between the messengers and Esau heightens the suspense. The returning messengers delivered the dire news that Esau was already en route to Jacob’s camp. The verb used for coming indicates a rapid approach. A party of four hundred men was considerable, proving that Esau too had done well during the separation. Although Jacob cannot be sure that Esau comes with malicious intentions, Jacob assumes the worst. The string of verbs in close order heightens the urgency of Jacob’s reaction:  greatly afraid … distressed … divided. The mention of Jacob dividing people before his herds implies that his first concern was his family.

Humble Yourself Before God: Gen. 32:9-12.

[9]  Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord, who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your relatives, and I will prosper you,’ [10]  I am unworthy of all the lovingkindness and of all the faithfulness which You have shown to Your servant; for with my staff only I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two companies. [11]  Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, that he will come and attack me and the mothers with the children. [12]  For You said, ‘I will surely prosper you and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which is too great to be numbered.’”     [NASU]

[9-10]  Jacob’s fears prompt him to seek the Lord through prayer, expressed as a lament. Repeated use of divine epithets, O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord, emphasizes the relationship Jacob had with God by virtue of the fathers. This historic relationship of the Lord and Jacob’s family was vital to the divine command to return home [28:13,21; 31:3,13]. Jacob paraphrases the words of the command to return that were first heard in 31:3,13. The language return to your country further recalls the promise and vow made at Bethel pertaining to Jacob’s protection and ultimate restoration to his homeland [28:15-21]. I will prosper you paraphrases the earlier promises of divine presence, I will be with you [31:3; 28:15,20]. By appealing to the promises of the past, Jacob entrusts his present challenge to the Lord. He appears to sidestep his own culpability that had created the rift with Esau, but he implicates himself when discrediting his worthiness of God’s charity [10]. Jacob explains that the Lord fulfilled the pledge to enrich the patriarch [28:13-15], transforming his single staff into two mighty camps. Jacob recalls the poverty he suffered when leaving his homeland. Jacob hoped only for sustenance to survive [28:20-21], but God had graciously far exceeded the young man’s wishes [31:9-13; 33:5,11].

[11-12]  Jacob’s appeal for deliverance is language reminiscent of the psalmists’ laments. The word deliver is widely used of rescuing a victim, as when David snatched a sheep from the jaws of a wild animal [1 Sam. 17:35]. The repetition in the Hebrew, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, reinforces that Jacob is held firmly in the grasp of Esau. Only God can save him now. The explanation for his desperate appeal is familiar, for he was afraid for his family’s abduction by Laban [31:31]. Now, when facing the more formidable opponent Esau, he expected an all-out attack, involving an armed conflict. That he feared Esau’s unrequited revenge is shown by his fear of a massacre of the women and children. His subsequent work of confidence [12] relied solely upon the Lord’s former promise at Bethel of numerous descendants, which must mean the preservation of his children. At both the beginning and end of his prayer, Jacob quotes God, who said to me and for You said, relying on the Lord’s own promises. Jacob has no other avenue of escape. 

Humble Yourself Before Others:  Gen. 33:1-3.

[1]  Then Jacob lifted 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 maids. [2] He put the maids and their children in front, and Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. [3]  But he himself passed on ahead of them and bowed down to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.     [NASU]

[1-3]  After twenty years of separation the brothers at last meet. The passage describes their different actions in poignant terms: one bows in humility, the other embraces in love. The construction in Hebrew of verse 1 depicts vividly for the reader’s imagination the fast-approaching band: Jacob lifted his eyes and looked, and behold, Esau was coming. Whereas Jacob had responded in fear when the messengers told him about the coming of Esau with the four hundred men, here he will place himself at the head of his entourage. In each situation, however, Jacob divided his company into groups as a defensive measure against an attack. Here he organizes three groups according to wife and children. The concubine wives and their children are at the front, making them more vulnerable than his preferred wives, Leah and Rachel. Of the two, Leah and her children are next, and last is Rachel with her lone child, Joseph. Jacob’s preferential concern for Rachel and Joseph is consistent with the special love he had for Rachel, shielding Joseph and her at the back. Joseph is the only child of the twelve named by the author, anticipating the rivalry of the siblings created by Jacob’s special affection for Rachel’s child [37:3-4]. Then Jacob goes ahead of his family putting himself between them and Esau. Then Jacob bowed down to the ground seven times. That Jacob humbles himself before Esau is consistent with his conciliatory expressions of lowliness, that is, my lord Esau and your servant Jacob. This concession should not be taken as a signal of reversing the blessing that Jacob stole from Esau, but rather the response of humility. Jacob fully admits that his success derived from God’s grace alone, not by his superiority to Esau or any other.

Acknowledge God’s Role:  Gen. 33:4-5,8-11.

[4]  Then Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. [5]  He lifted his eyes and saw the women and the children, and said, “Who are these with you?” So he said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” [8]  And he said, “What do you mean by all this company which I have met?” And he said, “To find favor in the sight of my lord.” [9]  But Esau said, “I have plenty, my brother; let what you have be your own.” [10]  Jacob said, “No, please, if now I have found favor in your sight then take my present from my hand, for I see your face as one sees the face of God, and you have received me favorably. [11]  Please take my gift which has been brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me and because I have plenty.” Thus he urged him and he took it.     [NASU]

[4-5]  This verse piles up five verbs, virtually one after another, describing in quick order the surprising reaction of Esau. Outward emotions of embracing and kissing express strong family solidarity. Not only does Jacob undergo a change in heart but also Esau, whose hatred against his only brother had melted. When Jacob joins in weeping with Esau, the ice is broken; the brothers are reconciled, and verbal communication can begin. Esau opens the conversation by asking about Jacob’s wives and children. And despite the fact that they are brothers, Jacob maintains his deferential posture by constantly referring to himself as your servant and to Esau as my lord. To Esau’s inquiry about the members of his company, Jacob elevates the discussion by attributing his success to God’s favor. That the children and their mothers will survive this encounter with Esau is the answer to Jacob’s earnest prayer [32:11].

[8-9]  Judging from Jacob’s response to Esau’s question, Esau was requesting further explanation for the herds that Jacob had sent ahead. Esau probably was requesting clarification for the purpose of the herds since the number of animals was excessively generous. Or, since Jacob’s response did not differ from the earlier message, except by the deferential address my lord [8], Esau may be initiating the customary show of refusal typical of negotiations. Esau courteously rejected the offer, referring to Jacob only here as my brother. He insisted that Jacob should retain his possessions. Esau’s conciliatory spirit matches his earlier show of emotions, impressing the reader that Esau is not the archenemy Jacob had feared.

[10-11]  Jacob pressed forward, appealing to his brother on the grounds that Esau’s acceptance reflected his own acceptance with God. The acceptance of the gift was appropriate since Jacob already had been accepted by God and now by Esau. For Jacob the transformation of his moral character would be incomplete if he did not also experience reconciliation at the human dimension [cf. Matt. 5:23-24; 1 John 4:20]. The implication of Jacob’s plea is that he has found favor with the Lord. The occurrence of received me favorably (or “have accepted me”) is striking since it appears only here in Genesis and is a term which refers to the divine acceptance of sacrifice [e.g., Lev. 1:4; 7:18]. Jacob presses further by referring to the immense wealth God had bestowed. He echoes the prior exchange [9-10] in two ways when making this appeal. First, Jacob continues the comparison between Esau’s acceptance and God’s by referring to the favor the Lord had shown him. Second, Jacob counters Esau’s reason for declining the offer by repeating Esau’s own argument: Esau alleges, I have plenty, and Jacob answers, I have plenty. In the end Esau accepts the gift due to the urging of Jacob. What can we say about this persistence? Obviously, it was not all bad. Jacob had offered flocks and herds to Esau and wanted to stand by the offer. That was noble enough. But the clear purpose, acknowledged by Jacob, was to seal up Esau’s favor. Accepting a gift from one’s enemy was improper in that culture. So if Esau accepted a gift from Jacob, it was an acknowledgment that the feud was over and that he would stand by and support rather than attack his brother. Since Jacob insists that Esau take the gift, we are probably right in suspecting that he was not yet fully confident that God would protect him. He was still trusting in his own plans and resources.

Questions for Discussion:

1.          Put yourself in Jacob’s place. The last time Jacob saw Esau, his brother vowed that he would kill Jacob for stealing the family blessing as soon as their father, Isaac, died. Now Jacob returns to face his brother. What is Jacob trying to accomplish in verses 32:3-8? How does he react to the news the messengers bring to him?

2.          What do we learn about Jacob from his prayer in 32:9-12? What struggle do you see going on in Jacob? Do you face a similar struggle when confronted by life situations that cause great fear in you? What do you learn from Jacob’s prayer that can provide comfort and hope in these situations?

3.          How does God answer Jacob’s prayer?

4.          We are not told what motivated Jacob to offer Esau such an extravagant gift. What possible conflicting emotions so you see operating in Jacob here? Is this gift motivated by love or by fear?

5.          From these verses, what do we learn, both positively and negatively, about reconciling with someone we have wronged?


Genesis 12-36, James Boice, Baker.

Genesis 11:27-50:26, Kenneth Mathews, NAC, Broadman.

Genesis 16-50, Gordon Wenham, Nelson.

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