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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 33

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes


13. Jacob’s meeting with Esau and his return to Canaan ch. 33

Jacob was ready to sacrifice part of his family, expecting Esau to attack him, and he approached his brother as though Esau was his lord. In contrast, Esau welcomed Jacob magnanimously, reluctantly received his gift, and offered to host him in Seir. Jacob declined Esau’s offer and traveled instead to Succoth, four miles west of Peniel, where he settled next.

"As Jacob had won God’s blessing by capitulating to Him, so now he was to win reconciliation to Esau by capitulating to him . . . ." [Note: H. Vos, p. 125.]

Verses 1-17

Jacob arranged his family to preserve those who were most precious to him if his brother proved to be violently hostile (Genesis 33:1-3).

"This kind of ranking according to favoritism no doubt fed the jealousy over Joseph that later becomes an important element in the narrative. It must have been painful to the family to see that they were expendable." [Note: The NET Bible note on 33:2.]

His going ahead of them to meet Esau shows the new Israel overcoming the fear that had formerly dominated the old Jacob. His plan does not seem to me to reflect lack of trust in God as much as carefulness and personal responsibility. However, Jacob was obviously fearful and weak as he anticipated meeting his brother. Faith does not mean trusting God to work for us in spite of our irresponsibility; that is presumption. Faith means trusting God to work for us when we have acted responsibly realizing that without His help we will fail. His insistence on giving presents to Esau may have been an attempt to return to him the blessing that should have been his, to undo his sins of earlier years (cf. Genesis 33:11). [Note: Wenham, Genesis 16-50, pp. 298-99.]

Jacob gave God the glory for giving him his family; he confessed that his family was a gift from God (Genesis 33:4-5). This attitude is evidence of a basic change in Jacob’s approach to life. [Note: For some interesting insights into eastern behavior as reflected in Genesis 33:4, see Imad Shehadeh, "Contrasts between Eastern and Western Cultures," Exegesis and Exposition 2:1 (Summer 1987):3-12.] Whereas he had previously been dishonest and devious, now he was honest and forthright about his intentions (Genesis 33:10).

"Now that they are reunited, Esau desires a fraternal relationship, but Jacob is unable to move beyond a formal relationship.

"Only the restraining intervention of God kept Laban from retaliation against Jacob (Genesis 31:24; Genesis 31:29). Esau is apparently in no need of a similar divine check. His own good nature acts as a check on him. Since his rage and hate of ch. 27, Esau himself has undergone his own transformation. No longer is he controlled by vile passions." [Note: Hamilton, The Book . . . Chapters 18-50, p. 345.]

"I see your face as one sees the face of God," means "I see in your face, as expressive of your whole attitude toward me, the friendliness of God. I see this friendliness demonstrated in His making you friendly toward me" (Genesis 33:10; cf. 1 Samuel 29:9; 2 Samuel 14:17). Jacob had seen God’s gracious face and had been spared at Peniel, and he now saw Esau’s gracious face and was spared.

Jacob’s "language shows that he saw the two encounters with his Lord and his brother, as two levels of a single event: cf. 10b with Genesis 32:30." [Note: Kidner, p. 171. Cf. von Rad, pp. 327-28.]

Jacob’s reasons for declining Esau’s offer of an escort evidently did not spring from fear (Genesis 33:14-15). He gave a legitimate explanation of why it would be better for him to travel separately: the condition of his animals. Jacob may have been counting on God’s protection and therefore felt no need of Esau’s men. Alternatively Jacob may have mistrusted Esau having been deceived himself and having been deceptive. [Note: von Rad, p. 328.] Still another view is that Jacob was returning to the Promised Land on God’s orders, and that did not include going to Seir. [Note: Wenham, Genesis 16-50, p. 299.]

His reference to visiting Esau in Seir (Genesis 33:14) does not mean that Jacob planned to go directly to Seir, where he did not go immediately. He could have been deceiving his brother again. Perhaps Jacob meant that he would visit his brother in his own land in the future. Scripture does not record whether Jacob ever made such a trip.

Jacob and his family settled first at Succoth ("Booths") east of the Jordan River (Genesis 33:17). Evidently he lived there for some time since he built a house and huts for his livestock.

This incident illustrates the truth of Proverbs 16:7, "When a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him."

"At almost every point in this story, Esau emerges as the more appealing, more humane, and more virtuous of the two brothers." [Note: Hamilton, The Book . . . Chapters 18-50, p. 347.]

"This is only the second-and it is the last-conversation between Esau and Jacob mentioned in Genesis. On the first occasion (Genesis 25:29-34) Esau failed to perceive Jacob’s capacity for exploitation. On the second occasion he fails to perceive Jacob’s hesitancy and lack of excitement about going to Seir. In both cases, Jacob succeeds in deceiving Esau." [Note: Ibid., p. 348.]

Verses 18-20

Jacob then crossed the Jordan River and moved his family into the land of Canaan. He chose Shechem ("peaceful") as his home. By purchasing land there he showed that he regarded Canaan as his permanent home and the home of his seed. The Israelites eventually buried Joseph at Shechem (Joshua 24:32). Shechem was only about a mile from the Sychar of Jesus’ day (cf. John 4:5; John 4:12).

God had granted Jacob’s request by bringing him safely back into the Promised Land (cf. Genesis 28:20-21). As he had vowed, Jacob worshipped the God of his father as his God. He called Yahweh "El-Elohe-Israel" meaning, "The mighty God is the God of Israel." Jacob used his own new name, Israel (Genesis 32:29). He built an altar, Jacob’s first, to worship God as Abraham had done at Shechem when he had first entered Canaan (Genesis 12:6-7). The altar would have served the double purpose of providing a table for Jacob’s sacrifice and serving as a memorial for Jacob’s descendants in the years to come.

What were Jacob’s motivation and relationship to God when he met Esau? This question rises often in the study of this chapter. The answer is not obvious. Some commentators have felt that Jacob completely backslid and returned to his former lifestyle of self-reliance and deceit. [Note: E.g., Thomas, pp. 309-16.] Most interpreters attribute good motives to Jacob. [Note: E.g., Keil and Delitzsch, 1:307-11; Aalders, pp. 148-53.] I believe the truth probably lies somewhere between these extremes. It seems to me that Jacob’s experience at Peniel had a life-changing impact on him. Jacob seems to be referring to it in Genesis 33:10. Nevertheless his former lifestyle had become so ingrained-Jacob was over 90 years old at this time-that he easily slipped back into his former habits. I believe we have a clue to this in the use of his name "Jacob" in the text rather than "Israel." In short, Jacob seems to have had a genuine experience of coming to grips with himself and yielding his life to God at Peniel. Nevertheless from then on, his motives and attitudes vacillated. At times he trusted God as he should have, but at others, many others, he failed to trust God.

The divine Author’s main concern in this section was not Jacob’s motivation, however; He could have clarified that for us. Rather it seems to have been the faithfulness of God in sparing Jacob’s life and returning him to the Promised Land as He had promised (Genesis 28:13-15). The Jacob narrative also contains evidence that God was faithful to bless others through Abraham’s descendants (Genesis 12:3), including Laban (cf. Genesis 30:27) and Esau (cf. Genesis 33:11).

A major lesson of this chapter is that those who have received God’s grace may trust in God’s promise of protection when they seek reconciliation with others.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Genesis 33". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/genesis-33.html. 2012.
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