Jacob And Esau Reconciled

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. 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.

12 Then Esau said, “Let us journey on our way, and I will go ahead of you.” 13 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. 14 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.”

15 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.” 16 So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir. 17 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.

18 And Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, on his way from Paddan-aram, and he camped before the city. 19 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. 20 There he erected an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel.

INTRODUCTION

Picture with me, if you would, your greatest relational conflict. I know that’s not a pleasant prospect, but bear with me for just a few moments. I’m sure that some of you don’t have anything major to recall. Others, I know, have really broken and painful relationships still looming over you. Either way, imagine God commanding you to do something that would force you to reengage that person directly. What would your response be? What would you think about? How would that make you feel? What’s the first thing you would do? Would any of those answers change if you thought there was a good chance they would attempt to kill you as soon as they saw you? Would any of those answers change if God had met with you and made specific and repeated promises to you to protect and bless you?

If you’re able to get your head around those things, then you’re rightly imagining the situation Jacob found himself in. Sort of overwhelming, isn’t it? Overwhelming or not, in light of where we’ve been, that’s where we are in our walk through Genesis. And that leaves us with the two critical questions: Did Esau still want to kill Jacob and had Jacob’s last encounter with God had truly changed him. We’ll find answers to both of those questions as this passage unfolds in three phases: the somber, prioritized approach, the unexpected, happy reunion, and the slow, slippery return.

And in finding the answers to these two questions we’re also confronted with one grand reality: reconciliation (horizontal and vertical) is never outside of God’s reach for God’s people.

Let’s pray that God would help us see all of this and whatever else He means us to have from this passage.

THE SOMBER, PRIORITIZED APPROACH (1-3)

As I mentioned in the introduction this passage unfolds in three scenes. The first is Jacob’s somber, prioritized approach to his homeland and brother.

Jacob was chosen by God. In spite of the fact that he was the younger brother, God promised that he would receive the blessings and covenant promises given to his father and grandfather. On more than one occasion God himself met with Jacob to confirm these things. And yet, rather than simply trust God and allow His plans to unfold in faithful patience, Jacob continually tried to “assist” God in accomplishing his purposes.

Among other ways, instead of trusting God, Jacob manipulated his brother out of his birthright. Instead of trusting God, Jacob tricked his father into blessing him instead of his brother (with his mother’s help and urging). And instead of trusting God, Jacob worked to manipulate his father-in-law’s flocks and herds (who was admittedly an even greater opportunist) to gain blessing for himself.

Well, once again, as Jacob headed back toward his brother, 20 years after he’d fled from him, we’re left with two critical questions: Did Esau still want to kill Jacob and had Jacob’s last encounter with God had truly changed him. We’ll see the answer to the first question in a few minutes. It is clear and obvious. As to the second question, though, that’s not quite as straightforward. Let’s look to vs.1-3 to find it.

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.

The time had finally come. After all these years, Jacob laid eyes on his brother once again.

Upon first reading the passage I questioned—as I have many times in the story of Jacob—whether or not God’s latest act of grace (wrestling with him the previous night) had truly changed Jacob in any significant way. Consequently, I wondered a familiar wondering about whether Jacob’s actions (described in vs.1-3) were rooted more in godly faith or worldly shrewdness.

There is a case to be made that Jacob was offering his animal-gifts and bowing repeatedly before Esau, and (as we will soon see) referring to Esau as his “lord” and himself as Esau’s “servant” as legitimate acts of repentance and restitution. He had sinned against his brother. He had stolen something from him (even though God had promised to give it to him anyway). Maybe this is what godly grief looks like in Jacob. Maybe this was his attempt to make right that which he had made wrong.

On the other hand, and the hand I think more likely, this might be yet another expression of Jacob fearfully taking matters into his own hands; another attempt to “assist” God. I believe this to be the more likely option for several reasons.

First, Jacob acted with a familiar favoritism in the way he approached Esau. He selfishly prioritized the people he was responsible for and made those least desirable to him lead the way. The servants came first, then the wife and kids he loved less, and then the wife and son he loved more. This wasn’t new to Jacob, we’ve seen it before in him, but it wasn’t good then or now. We can only assume that Jacob did this hoping that whatever bloodlust his brother might have would be satiated by the time he got to the second or third wave.

Second, he bowed repeatedly in a way that would have been understood as groveling rather than humility or trust in God. This “bowing himself to the ground seven times” was something a fearful, guilty servant would do, not a repentant brother who was convicted of his sin but confident in the promises of his God.

Third, as we’ll see in a minute, the titles he assigned to himself (“servant”) and his brother (“lord”) were not in keeping with God’s word to him. Do you remember the word of the Lord to Rebekah concerning Jacob (25:23)?

    “Two nations are in your womb,
        and two peoples from within you shall be divided;
    the one shall be stronger than the other,
        the older shall serve the younger.”

God had named Jacob as the master and Esau as the servant, but Jacob’s actions here communicated anything but that.

Finally, forth, as we’ll see in the final section, Jacob was up to his old deceitful, lying ways. He still couldn’t bring himself to speak plainly and honorably. He deceived when it was convenient. When Esau offered to accompany Jacob and his clan back to his hometown, Jacob lied and sent Esau on ahead with no intention of following.

As is always the case, Jacob’s motives were probably mixed to some degree. Like all of us, there was probably some measure of both faith and faithlessness in these actions. And yet, once again, for these reasons, we’ve likely found yet another example of Jacob being driven by his fear of man and desire for personal gain more than his holiness rooted in trust in God.

Grace, we are right to be frustrated by this behavior. It’s discouraging to watch a man of God continually act unlike a man of God. But we are wrong to be prideful. How often do we make choices motivated by sick selfishness (even when it comes to those we’re most charged to care for), godless groveling (in the face of those who might do us harm), faithless forgetting (of God’s promises and declarations of who we are), and fear-fueled folly (whenever we want to avoid uncomfortable consequences)? We may follow in Abraham’s faith, but we also follow in Jacob’s folly. And that is why it is such great news that Jacob’s hope and ours is nothing but the mercy and grace of God. If Jacob’s fate had been rooted in anything other than God’s pleasure, he would have been lost. That is our humbling story too and that which makes the grace of God so amazing.

THE UNEXPECTED, HAPPY REUNION (4-11)

That brings us to the second scene of the passage, the unexpected, happy reunion. What would happen when this sorry, somber, groveling train finally met up with Esau and his men? Probably not what we’d expect.

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.

Jacob, the one in possession of the promises of God, used his clan as human shields and gave himself to groveling before his brother to avoid harm. But Esau, the one rejected by God and robbed of his birthright and blessing, ran to his brother and hugged him in tears, kisses, and joy.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of what this passage portrays for both our earthly relationships and our heavenly one. As I said in the beginning, the grand truth of this passage is that the grace and power of God are such that reconciliation is never outside of reach for God’s people. Was there ever a relationship more likely to remain in conflict than this one? Whatever relational conflict you’ve known, it’s pretty unlikely that it was caused by choices as diabolical as the ones in this story.

In light of what he’d done and in light of how he’d left things, Jacob had no reason to believe he would ever know anything but (justified?) hostility from his brother. How many times have you looked at a broken earthly relationship, unable to imagine a path back to reconciliation? Again, that’s almost certainly what Jacob thought. And yet, in a way entirely beyond comprehension, with no reasonable expectation and no explanation given, just like that, the brothers embraced in happy reconciliation.

What is on display here, is taught explicitly elsewhere in the Bible (Matthew 18:15-18)—no matter how broken your friendship or relationship or marriage, it is never beyond repair. Rest in that, Grace. Praise God for that.

Even more importantly, though, is the fact that this is a hint at an even greater promise. Not only is it a picture of God’s power to heal any human relationship, it is also a glimpse into God’s power to restore any sinner to relationship with Himself. Again, we really need the rest of the Bible to understand this in fullness (2 Corinthians 5:20-21), but here God gives us a peak into His reconciling power to bring rebels back to Himself!

How awesome is that, Grace. Embedded in this largely convoluted story of God’s chosen, but wayward people, is this beautiful picture of the power of God to “reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20).

All of this also shows how hollow Jacob’s plan for reconciliation was. Ironically, it was Esau who saw the folly in Jacob’s ploy, not Jacob. That’s the essence of 8-11. And that leads to the final scene, the slow slippery return.

THE SLOW, SLIPPERY RETURN (12-20)

In light of all of this, the final scene, then, really is sad. The slow, slippery return is the story of Jacob delving right back into deceit.

12 Then Esau said, “Let us journey on our way, and I will go ahead of you.” 13 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. 14 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.”

Seemingly with good intentions, Esau offered to stay with Jacob for companionship and protection on their way back to their homeland. Jacob declined under the guise of the health of his family and flocks. Undeterred, when Jacob refused, Esau offered to at least leave behind a few of his men for protection, which Jacob also refused.

15 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.” 16 So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir. 17 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.

We know all of this was a deceitful act of Jacob because of two words: Seir and Succoth. Those were the names of two cities. The first (Seir, v.14) was the city in which Esau lived (v.16) and where Jacob promised to go as he sent Esau away (v.14). The second, is the name of the city to which Jacob actually went and built a house and pasture for his animals (v.17). For reasons we don’t totally understand, Jacob never went to see his brother and the text implies he never actually intended to.

Worse still, we know this was a deceitful act of Jacob before God. God had commanded Jacob to return to the promised land, but Succoth was just outside. He built houses and pens for his animals there, and as we’ll see in the next chapter, stayed for a number of years.

He duped his bother again and was slow to obey God again. I say “slow to obey” because the final verses in this passage let us know that he did eventually make it back to the Promised Land, but even then he seems to have stopped short of Bethel and full obedience to God.

18 And Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, on his way from Paddan-aram, and he camped before the city.

Somewhat counterintuitively (counterintuitive because Jacob seems to be primarily driven by his own will and wisdom), the scene and the passage ends with Jacob building an alter to the LORD.

19 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. 20 There he erected an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel [God, the God of Israel—a name only found in this verse].

In 28:20 Jacob made a vow saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God.” Jacob [now Israel], seems to be acknowledging that God had done His part and therefore Jacob called God his God.

We might be tempted, once again, to wonder how he could be so dense that he could wrestle with God and then be reconciled to his brother in spectacular fashion, and then immediately slip back into his old sinful habits of selfishness and deceit, and then back to building an altar to God, declaring Him to be Jacob’s God. We might be tempted to condescendingly scoff at the whiplash-like in and out of Jacob’s trust and obedience. But let us be careful of passing judgment too quickly. How often might we be described in exactly the same terms? How often do we bicker and fight on the way to church, come in smiling, and go back out in frustration? How often do we have a quiet time and follow it up with selfish, godless scrolling on the internet instead of with repentance and obedience? How often do we talk kindly to our friends and then talk trash to our spouse or siblings? How often do we… you fill in the blank?

In admitting our own Jacoblikeness, we are in a place to hear again the good news that although we are all like Jacob that his folly is our folly, even as we are like him in that his hope is our hope. The same God that reconciled Jacob with his brother and Himself is our God. The same mercy and grace that carried Jacob along even though he didn’t deserve it is ours in Jesus Christ as well. Let us look to Him, therefore, for reconciliation in all things, things in heaven and things on earth. He will surely grant it as we do. Amen.