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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 33

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


It seems incredible that critics would attempt to split this chapter as to its alleged sources, there being no rational basis whatever for it. If one should accept the theory that the names for God are determinative, then the chapter clearly belongs to the imaginary document “E”; but if one favors the dictum that “maid-servant” is a Jehovist word, then it belongs to so-called “J.” However, the chapter is clearly a unit, demanding the conclusion reached by Aalders that, “neither of those reasons for assigning a passage to a `source’ carries any weight.”(F1) (See our refutation of the whole documentary speculation in the Introduction.)

We have here the dramatic and beautiful reunion of the twin brothers Jacob and Esau, whose lives were to figure so prominently in the history of human redemption. The fears and apprehensions of Jacob had been somewhat allayed by the precious experience at Peniel, or Penuel (“The latter being nothing more than an old form of the same word”(F2)). However, there appeared to remain a certain degree of uncertainty as the meeting drew near.

Verse 1

“And Jacob lifted up his eyes, and looked, and, behold, Esau was coming, and with him four hundred men. And he divided the children unto Leah, and unto Rachel, and unto the two handmaids. And he put the handmaids and their children foremost, and Leah and her children after, and Rachel and Joseph hindermost.”

What was the reason for Jacob’s arrangement of these divisions in his family, divisions that surely separated them in the order of his love for them? Two reasons have been suggested: (1) he did this to provide greater safety for Rachel and Joseph, or (2) he had in mind the order of their being presented to Esau, intending to present them in ascending climactic order. Either reason, or both, might easily have motivated Jacob’s action.

“With him four hundred men” Previously, we referred to these men as “armed,” that being the almost unanimous opinion of scholars, but it should be pointed out that the text does NOT say that. And the widespread notion that Esau was approaching Jacob with a “small army,” intent on destroying him, is more consistent with the guilty fears of Jacob than with anything in the Bible.

There is no evidence of this alleged hostility. There is no proof that the four hundred men with Esau were armed. There is every proof that he acted toward his brother with all openness and candor, and with such a forgetfulness of past injuries as none but a great mind could have been capable of.(F3)

Despite this, the question persists that, “If they were not armed, what were they for?” They were not herdsmen, because the text makes it clear that they were capable of swifter travel than was Jacob with his flocks. They were not members of Esau’s family, or else they would have been introduced as were Jacob’s. Could they have been some kind of a “welcoming committee” gathered by Esau to welcome his long absent brother? We are left with the strong suspicion that, after all, they were soldiers.

Verses 3-7

“And he himself passed over before them, and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother. And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him: and they wept. And he lifted up his eyes, and saw the women and the children; and said, Who are these with thee? And he said, The children whom God hath graciously given thy servant. Then the handmaids came near, they and their children, and they bowed themselves. And Leah also and her children came near, and bowed themselves; and after came Joseph near and Rachel, and they bowed themselves.”

“Bowed … seven times” The manner of this was, “not in immediate succession, but bowing and advancing, until he came near his brother.”(F4) Willis summarizes the steps that each brother took in the reconciliation:

JACOB: (1) he bowed before him seven times (Genesis 33:3); (2) he called himself Esau’s servant twice (Genesis 33:5; Genesis 33:14); (3) referred to Esau as his “lord” four times (Genesis 33:8; Genesis 33:13-14); (4) dispatched ahead of time a most impressive present; (5) insisted that Esau keep it (Genesis 33:8-11); and (6) declared that seeing Esau’s face was like seeing the face of God (Genesis 33:10).

ESAU: (1) came with a company to welcome Jacob; (2) ran to meet him; (3) embraced him; (4) fell on his neck; (5) kissed him; (6) invited Jacob to keep the present; (7) offered to accompany him; (8) offered to leave a guard to protect him; (9) addressed him as “my brother” (Genesis 33:9); and (10) graciously accepted the present, which in the customs of the day amounted to a pact of friendship.(F5)

In view of the above, we cannot accept Skinner’s declaration that, “Esau’s intention was hostile, and Jacob gained a diplomatic victory over him.”(F6) It need not be thought that Jacob’s bowing to Esau, calling him “lord,” and referring to himself as “thy servant,” etc., was in any manner a renunciation on Jacob’s part of the preeminence that God had given him in the matter of the covenant people. Such effusive actions on Jacob’s part were merely in keeping with the customs of the day usually followed when one approached and addressed a powerful leader, or ruler. In thus recognizing Esau, we may be sure that Jacob pleased him. The Tel el-Amarna tablets, dated in the fourteenth century B.C., record that, “One approaching a king always bowed seven times in so doing.”(F7)

Aalders apparently gave the correct analysis of this meeting, writing that, “Esau’s hostility had vanished; that `army’ of four hundred men had no hostile intention; all that Esau had in mind was to provide a display of his own success.”(F8)

“And he kissed him” “In the Masoretic Bibles, each letter is noted with a point over it to make it emphatic.”(F9) So much for the fact. The conclusions that scholars draw from this fact, however, are amazingly opposed. Clarke thought that they thus emphasized this passage to “show the change that had taken place in Esau, and to stress the sincerity with which he greeted Jacob.”(F10) Keil interpreted the points as “marking the passage suspicious”!(F11) Our conclusion should be that it is precarious to formulate an interpretation based upon such a thing. That Esau really forgave Jacob seems too obvious to deny, and we agree with Francisco that, “Such forgiveness is hardly a possible virtue without the providence of God.”(F12) Thus, we must conclude that God had been working on Esau as well as upon Jacob during the intervening twenty years of their long separation.

Verses 8-11

“And He said, What meanest thou by all this company which I met? And he said, To find favor in the sight of my lord. And Esau said, I have enough, my brother; let that which thou hast be thine. And Jacob said, Nay, I pray thee, if now I have found favor in thy sight, then receive my present at my hand; forasmuch as I have seen thy face, as one seeth the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me. Take, I pray thee, my gift that is brought to thee; because God hath dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough. And he urged him, and he took it.”

“What meanest thou by all this company which I met” This is such an obvious reference to the present which Jacob had dispatched in three droves to Esau the day before that one may only marvel that Peake would refer it to one of the “two companies” into which Jacob had split his group (Genesis 32:7), also inferring that Esau extorted another half of all Jacob had, taking it away from him. He wrote:

“Esau inquires as to the meaning of the camp (one of the two companies) he had already met; and on the spur of the moment Jacob offered it (the half of all possessions). The question was a broad hint; and then there were the four hundred men … Of course he took it. Jacob paid a heavy price, but it was worth it. His brother was appeased; half his property was left, and he and his family were safe … Jacob had probably already in his mind written off the loss of half his property anyway.(F13)

“Take my gift … that is brought to thee” This makes it absolutely clear and certain that the gift under consideration in this passage has nothing to do with the “companies” into which Jacob split his people, but it is a reference to the droves, with the men driving them, who had brought the present to Esau the day before. Keil understood this: “The camp which Esau mentioned was the present of cattle that were sent to meet him.”(F14) As to why Esau referred to them as “a camp” merely indicated that the drivers of some 580 livestock, at least a day’s journey ahead of the meeting, had actually made camp, pending the arrival of Jacob and the meeting of the brothers. Of course, the drivers of the “present” had been commanded to tell Esau that they were a present for him; but Esau respected the fact that he needed to ask Jacob personally about such a gift.

“And he urged him, and he took it” The reason Jacob so urgently pressed his gift upon Esau was that, “If Esau had refused to accept it, Jacob would never have been in peace. The refusal to accept a gift means permanent enmity … The gift was a token of reconciliation and everlasting peace. It healed the wound and repaired the breach.”(F15) In the Orient until this day, the receiving of a gift is understood as a pledge of friendship.

“I have enough” (Genesis 33:9; Genesis 33:11). Our version thus translates the expression as having been made by both brothers. Actually, however, the words are different in the Hebrew. “Esau said, I have much ([~raab]); and Jacob said, I have everything ([~qowl]).”(F16) Thus, there may have been a difference in the attitude of the brothers toward their possessions.

“I have seen thy face as one seeth the face of God” “Jacob recognized through Esau’s reconciled countenance that the God of Peniel was making his face shine upon him.”(F17)

Verses 12-17

“And he said, Let us take our journey, and let us go, and I will go before thee. And he said unto him, My lord knoweth that the children are tender, and that the flocks and herds with me have their young; and if they overdrive them one day, all the flocks will die. Let my Lord, I pray thee, pass over before his servant; and I will lead gently, according to the pace of the cattle that are before me and according to the pace of the children, until I come unto my Lord unto Seir. And Esau said, Let me now leave with thee some of the folk that are with me. And he said, What needeth it? let me find favor in the sight of my lord. So Esau returned that day on his way unto Seir. And Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built him a house, and made booths for his cattle: therefore the name of the place is called Succoth.”

The brothers parted amicably in this scene. The offer of an escort by Esau was probably in good faith, but it would have been an embarrassment to Jacob. And, besides, there could have developed friction between his men and those of Esau. When Esau understood Jacob’s unwillingness to receive it, he left off suggestions and returned on the way to Seir.

“Until I come unto my lord unto Seir” The meaning of this, like that of many things in the passage, is disputed. Some credit Jacob with a deceptive falsehood here, alleging that he never had any intention of going to Seir. It is more likely that Esau had invited Jacob to visit him in Seir, and that this is Jacob’s promise to do so, a promise that he might very well have kept. “They could, and no doubt did, continue to see each other.”(F18) That Esau fully understood this is likely. After all, he had not invited him to bring his cattle and all his family to Seir, which would have been what Jacob did if he had followed Esau to Seir at this time. There is no justification for the judgment that, “Jacob here made a promise he had no intention of keeping.”(F19)

Verses 18-20

“And Jacob came in peace to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan-aram; and he encamped before the city. And he bought the parcel of ground, where he had spread his tent, at the hand of the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for a hundred pieces of money. And he erected there an altar, and called it El-Elohe-Israel.”

The last verses of the preceding paragraph recounted Jacob’s stopping in Succoth (meaning booths), and so named by Jacob after the shelters he erected there for his cattle. Whitelaw supposed that it was winter time, a fact also supported by the fact of the cattle having young calves. There, Jacob was still east of the Jordan, occupying an elevated plain affording a beautiful view of the whole area. His stay at Succoth was probably about two years.

These final verses of the chapter speak of the patriarch’s entry into Canaan, to the city of Shechem, where he purchased property, built a house, and apparently intended to stay a long time. However, misfortune that befell Dinah, and the bloody vengeance of her brothers (recounted in the next chapter) interfered with those plans.

The property which Jacob bought here was the first that he owned in the Promised Land. It later served as a burial plot; and Joseph’s bones were interred there (Joshua 24:32), when the children of Israel entered Canaan. “Thus the grave of Joseph, like that of Abraham at Machpelah, belonged to Israel by purchase.”(F20)

It is notable that Jacob built an altar here, thus following in the steps of Abraham who built an altar wherever he went. The name of it is also significant, for this is the first time that the name “Israel” was used after God gave it.

How long Jacob stayed in Shechem is not exactly known, but it was apparently a minimum of ten or twelve years. As Unger said, “However long it was; it was too long!”(F21) The entry of Jacob, however, into Canaan, was evidently considered by the inspired author of Genesis as an extremely important event. The repetition of the word Paddan-aram as the place of his previous residence indicates this. Jacob was then in the Promised Land, but as God had revealed prophetically to Abraham, some four hundred years of servitude lay ahead of Israel before God would bring the whole nation into Canaan. That period of bondage was destined to be in Egypt. And the Genesis account moves swiftly and dramatically to recount the events that set the stage for the posterity of Israel in the land of Egypt. The key figure in those events of destiny was Joseph, and a great deal of the remainder of Genesis will be concerned with him.

Before ringing down the curtain on Jacob in Shechem, we should remember that Jacob digged a well there, that the Christ himself sat on the edge of it and taught the Samaritan woman from Sychar. It is situated between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, and was located very near the future city of Samaria, which became the capital of the Northern Israel after the division of the kingdom. Oddly enough, the well of Jacob here was never mentioned in the O.T., but John 4:6 speaks of it. Samaria had not been built when Jacob resided there. This whole territory became, in time, the portion of the Promised Land occupied by Ephraim, the principal tribe of Northern Israel.

The peculiar word for altar in Genesis 33:20 is connected with a word sometimes used for pillar; and “because of this some scholars want to emend (change) the text here to make it read pillar. However, there is no support for this in the ancient versions.”(F22) One reason for this could lie in the rather peculiar manner in which Jacob built his altars, a fact we noted in the incident at Mizpeh. He first put up a pillar, and then built the altar around it and to the top of it. Of course, what the critical scholars are aiming at is some excuse for making a pagan out of Jacob.

“El-Elohe-Israel” This name, given by Jacob to the altar he built may be translated, “Mighty is the God of Israel, or God is the God of Israel.”(F23) Here, then, is another addition to the names of God found in the O.T.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Genesis 33". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/genesis-33.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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