Redeemed From Broken Relationships


The Point:  Showing humility is critical to restoring relationships.

Jacob and Esau:  Genesis 27:41; 33:1-11..

[27:41]  Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, "The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob."  [33:1]  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. [2]  And he put the servants with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. [3]  He himself went on before them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother. [4]  But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. [5]  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." [6]  Then the servants drew near, they and their children, and bowed down. [7]  Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down. And last Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down. [8]  Esau said, "What do you mean by all this company that I met?" Jacob answered, "To find favor in the sight of my lord." [9]  But Esau said, "I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself." [10]  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. [11]  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.  [ESV]

[27:41]  Introduction.  Esau’s anger fomented into a plan to murder his brother once his father had passed away. Hated is a deep-seated anger that results in violent retaliation. At the death of Jacob, the same term describes the hatred that Joseph’s brothers fear he might hold against them [50:15]. That Esau felt free to act only at the death of his father exhibited reverence for his father, a respect that Jacob does not yet possess.

[33:1-11]  The Jacob-Esau conflict comes to a happy resolution in this final episode of their lifelong wrestling match. Jacob’s exclamation, For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God [10], links his nocturnal struggle at Peniel [32:22-32] and his reunion with Esau across the Jabbok. Jacob implies that the pugilistic encounter with God substituted for the fisticuffs Jacob feared would occur when meeting Esau. Jacob had received God’s grace [5,11] and thus Esau’s favor [8,10,15]. Although the tug-of-war began physically in the womb [25:26], their battle as adults was one of wits and words by which Jacob the trickster gained advantage [chap. 27]. Esau had sworn that he would get his revenge against his conniving brother [27:41], but after twenty years of separation the men had undergone change. We do not learn from the text explicitly why Esau’s hatred succumbed to a rekindled love for his brother. The passage, however, hints at what incited Jacob’s change of heart. That his moral transformation occurred in conjunction with his brutal treatment by Laban and with the encounter by God is implied at several points in the account. First, whereas Jacob had sent his servants and family ahead in chapter 32, now he takes the lead, subjecting himself to danger first [3]. Second, he acknowledges that his prosperity in Paddan-Aram was the benevolent favor of God [5,11], refusing to boast in his hard work and sleight of hand [30:37-43; 31:20,26,38-41]. Third, he provided a gift that exhibited his repentance, alluding to the blessing he had stolen [10-11] and evidencing humble submission to the elder (my lord [8,13,14,15]; your servant [5,14]). His remorse over his actions indicated that the man had changed his moral condition. Since this account provides the conclusion to the Jacob-Esau narrative, it is instructive that the chapter ends with Jacob back in the land and at worship [20]. The narrative tension created by the self-imposed exile of the patriarch finds satisfaction in his successful return as God had promised [28:13-15]. His attention to worship at entering the land expresses symbolically his commitment to fulfilling the vow he made at Bethel [28:21-22]. By Jacob’s return and worship, the passage depicts “Abraham revived,” pointing to Jacob as the successor to the promises whose trek from Paddan-Aram and arrival in Canaan led to the same act of worship [12:6-8]. Jacob’s testimony to Esau is that God has graciously sustained him during his journey, returning him and favoring him. Although the divine name occurs but three times in the chapter [5,10,11], the author implies that the remarkable outcome, so vastly different from one expected, was the outcome of God’s doing. The same God who wrestled with Jacob was the One who had superintended his days from the beginning promise at Bethel to the present moment. Jacob exhibits a mood of peaceful resignation, accepting whatever God has in store for him [11]. He is not the grasping young man he once was whose avarice had torn his family asunder. His naming the altar El-Elohe-Israel, referring both to himself and his descendants, confirmed the patriarch’s trust, who had pledged, The Lord shall be my God [28:21]. This pleasant account that recalls the high spiritual moment in the patriarch’s life, however, paves the way for the troubled life Jacob must continue to endure. The trouble he had perpetrated upon his father and brother would have its further recompense by his own sons Levi and Simeon, whose dastardly murder of the Shechemites impugn his good reputation among his neighbors [34:30]. The mere mention of Shechem in 33:18-19 brings to mind the trials that yet await him. He suffers further consequences instigated by treacherous sons, including Reuben’s incest [35:22; 49:4] and the kidnapping of Joseph [37:23-28]. Chapter 33 then is a conclusion but one that has no end for Jacob’s woes.

Structure.  The structure of the narrative is threefold. The centerpiece is a prolonged dialogue between the brothers [5-15], which consists of three rounds of speeches. Two narrative paragraphs frame the dialogue unit [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 … [1,5]. In the first case Jacob sees Esau approaching [1] and the remainder of the unit describes their respective responses to their meeting [1-4]. The second use of the idiom initiates the dialogue unit [5], and the exchanges of Esau’s inquiries and Jacob’s answers complete the unit [5-15]. Additional repetitions of language provide for the cohesion of the two units. The repeated word bowed in the two greetings by Jacob and by his family [3,6-7] encircles the description of Esau’s welcoming embrace [4-5]. Each of the three units shows that the twins reach a peaceful acceptance of their destinies. In the first unit [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 [chapter 27]. In the second unit [5-15] the dialogue ends in Esau’s acceptance of Jacob’s gift and Jacob’s special request to travel unaccompanied. The final unit [16-20] describes the peaceful departure to their respective settlements, Seir and Shechem. [1-4]  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. Verses 1-3 narrate Jacob’s caution and courage, and verse 4 depicts Esau’s clemency. Reference to four hundred men accompanying Esau recalls the messengers’ initial report [32:6]. Whereas there Jacob had responded in fear, here he will place himself at the head of his entourage [3]. 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 [29:30], 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]. So as to convey the moral change in Jacob’s character, the author contrasts Jacob, who takes the lead, with his family that follows. Earlier his messengers and family had taken the lead, but now he escorts the troupe by going ahead [3]. Jacob’s actions of bowing himself seven times is a remarkable reversal in our expectations, if measured by Isaac’s blessing [27:29]. That Jacob humbles himself before Esau is consistent, however, within the context of Jacob’s conciliatory expressions of lowliness, that is, my lord Esau and your servant Jacob [32:4,18,20]. This concession should not be taken as a signal of reversing the blessing 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 [10]. Bowing may be a mark of hospitality and service [e.g., 18:2; 19:1], humble entreaty [e.g., 23:7, 1 Kings 1:16], or worship [e.g., 24:26; Deut. 4:19]. Here the excessive act of bowing seven times, indicating completion and wholeness, reinforces Jacob’s voluntary posture as Esau’s subordinate [e.g., 42:6; Ruth 2:10, 2 Sam. 15:5]. Perhaps the act of prostration expresses a double meaning for the narrative, including an act of obeisance toward God, since Jacob admits that in Esau’s face he recognizes the face of God [10]. Sibling submission often appears in formal, patriarchal blessings in Genesis [9:25-27; 49:8-10]. Joseph’s dreams involving the submissive bowing of family members create the fraternal contention that dominates the account [37:7-10]. Verse 4 piles up five verbs, virtually one after another, describing in quick order the surprising reaction of Esau. A similar description recounts Laban’s enthusiastic reception of his nephew Jacob [29:13], but here the hatred that Esau once had for his brother makes this reaction dumbfounding. 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. What precipitated the change in Esau is even more oblique than the forces that transformed Jacob. We must surmise that there was some correlation between the nocturnal struggle of Jacob’s assailant and the change Esau underwent the same night. The affection of Esau betrays a genuine outpouring of forgiveness, not a begrudging admission. [5-11]  Esau dominated this unit by controlling the dialogue with Jacob, making two inquiries and a proposal. Yet it is Jacob’s crafted responses that provide insight into the purpose of the narrative. The unit begins with their renewed brotherhood but ends with their agreement to part [5,15]. Esau lifted up his eyes as had Jacob when they first met [1]. He first asks Jacob about the identity of his family members [5-7] and then the purpose of the groups of animals that Jacob had sent ahead by messengers [8-11]. In both cases the Jacob clan responds submissively, the women and children bowing [6-7] and Jacob presenting the herds and flocks as gifts, even a blessing [11]. Multiple references to Esau as my lord [8,13,14,15] and Jacob’s conciliatory expressions his/my servant [5,14] characterize the gentle tone of Jacob’s responses. Only at the insistence of Jacob, Esau accepted the gifts and then generously offered to accompany Jacob’s clan, thinking of protection. Jacob refused, however, explaining that the young, both children and flocks, required a slower pace and that Esau’s offer was too charitable. He proposes alternatively a later meeting at Seir [12-15]. To what degree the “give and take” between the two was social courtesy is difficult to assess. [5-7]  Esau’s First Inquiry. To Esau’s inquiry about the members of his company, Jacob elevates the discussion by attributing his success to God’s favor. Jacob’s answer presupposes the birth narratives of his family [29:31-30:24], which include the etymologies acknowledging the children as a divine gift. That the children and their mothers will survive this encounter with Esau is the answer to Jacob’s earnest prayer [32:11]. At this early yet heartening juncture in their meeting, Jacob studiously avoids the potentially offensive term “blessed” which recalls the original conflict in their house. In succession the two concubines and their children, Leah and her children, and last Joseph and Rachel bowed before Esau. The order of the family members’ approach to Esau recalls the manner in which Jacob divided the family [2], but here verse 7 has the reverse order of Joseph and Rachel, creating a chiasmus of the names Rachel and Joseph [2]. The text again points up especially Joseph by name, the sole offspring of Rachel at this time. [8-9]  Esau’s Second Inquiry. 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 [32:4-5], except by the deferential address my lord, 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 [9]. 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. If anything, his magnanimous attitude made Jacob’s past wrongs appear more insidious. [10-11]  Face of God. Jacob pressed forward (No, please), appealing to his brother on the grounds that Esau’s acceptance reflected his own acceptance with God. The sign of acceptance with God was Esau’s reception of his gift. 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. The implication of Jacob’s plea is that he has found favor with the Lord. Jacob presses further by referring to the immense wealth God had bestowed, leaving him no want. 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. Jacob acknowledges that he has received kindness from both Esau (favor in your sight [10]) and God (God has dealt graciously with me [11]). Second, Jacob counters Esau’s reason for declining the offer by improvising on Esau’s own argument: Esau alleges, I have enough [9] and Jacob answers, I have enough [11]. Another telling remark made in Jacob’s argument is his choice of my blessing [11], which departs from the prevalent term my present [32:13,18,20,21; 33:10]. Jacob understood very well from his own losses to Laban [31:6-8,31,41-42] that Esau had suffered injury by his crime, desiring to make amends through this offering. The author indicates that the reason for acceptance of the gift was due to Jacob’s earnestness, he urged Esau, not that Esau made a claim on Jacob’s possessions. The word rendered urged indicates passionate persuasion.”  [Matthews, pp. 437, 561-571]. 

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Here in chapter 33, we find Jacob returning to Esau after twenty years. Note the change that has taken place in both brothers. Compare 27:41 and 33:4 for the change in Esau. Note the two verbs in 27:41 (hated, will kill) and the five verbs in 33:4 (ran, embraced, fell, kissed, wept). What do you think caused this change in both brothers?

2.         Describe how Jacob sought to be reconciled to his brother, Esau. Note Jacob’s words and actions. Both are necessary in any true reconciliation.

3.         What do you learn from this passage concerning how to be reconciled to another person?


Genesis, volume 2, James Boice, Baker.

Genesis, volume 2, Kenneth Mathews, NAC, Broadman.

Genesis, John Sailhamer, EBC, Zondervan.

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