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Bible Commentaries

Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Genesis 33

Events in Jacob’s Life Up To the Death of Isaac (Genesis 32:3 to Genesis 35:1 )

Jacob Meets With His Brother Esau (Genesis 32:3 to Genesis 33:17 ).

This section is built around two covenants. The covenant made with God at Peniel and the covenant of peace made between Esau and Jacob. It is probable that the covenant with God was the central one. But Jacob being a careful man (compare Genesis 25:33 and the passage built around it) would certainly want on record the details of his covenant of peace with Esau.

Even after so long a time Jacob is wary of his brother Esau. He does not know what fate Esau plans for him nor what will be his reaction to his return. But we note that he is aware of his brother’s whereabouts. He has clearly kept in touch with his family who have kept him informed.

For Esau, recognising that he now had no part in the rulership of the family tribe (27:39-40), had aligned himself by marriage with the confederate tribes of Ishmael (Genesis 28:9). He moved to the desert region and there built up his own tribe, no doubt with Ishmael’s assistance and had thus became a minor ruler over a band of warriors with whom he lived out the active life that he had always desired. With their assistance he was able to build up his wealth. Many rich caravans would pass near their territory on the King’s Highway (see Numbers 20:14-21) which by one means or another would contribute to their treasury (either by toll or by robbery) and they necessarily built up flocks and herds for their own survival.

Eventually they would gain ascendancy over neighbouring peoples until the land becomes known as the land of Edom (Genesis 36:16-17; Genesis 36:21; Genesis 36:31) i.e. of Esau (Genesis 25:30; Genesis 36:1; Genesis 36:19; Genesis 36:43), although originally called the land of Seir (here and Genesis 37:30). The latter name is connected with the Horites who originally lived there (Genesis 36:20) who were clearly absorbed into the clan or confederacy.

Verse 3

‘And he himself went before them and bowed himself to the ground seven times until he came near to his brother.’

Bowing seven times was reserved for extremely important people who demanded great subservience. The petty princes of Palestine ‘bowed seven times’ to Pharaoh in the Amarna letters (14th century BC). Usually a single bow would be given (Genesis 18:2; Genesis 19:1). Jacob was giving Esau royal treatment.

Verse 4

‘And Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.’

Esau had dismounted which must have been a great relief to Jacob. Esau is clearly genuinely pleased to see his brother and feels very emotionally about it. But we cannot doubt that Jacob’s tears had within them something of relief.

Esau’s pleasure appears to be real. He has long forgotten any falling out and is happy to see his brother. He runs to embrace him. He is quite satisfied with his life as it is and holds no grudges. This is one of the many things in Esau we must admire. Yet the fact that he cares so little about what he has lost demonstrates how little the covenant promises meant to him. He would not really have been suitable to carry on the succession.

Verse 5

‘And he lifted up his eyes and saw the women and the children and said, “Who are these with you?” And he said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.”

When Esau sees the women and children he is impressed. To have many children was a sign of someone’s importance. But even here Jacob is wary. The children are of course Esau’s nephews and nieces, blood relatives, while the wives are less meaningful for him. So it is to the children that he refers. We notice his continuing subservience. He is still being cautious.

Verses 6-7

‘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.’

The wives and children are now introduced. The sevenfold bowing is no longer felt to be necessary.

Verse 8

‘And he said, “What do you mean by all this company which I met?” And he said, “To find favour in the sight of my lord.” ’

Esau here refers to the droves which had been sent in front (Genesis 32:13-21), some of which at least he had come across. Jacob makes no pretence. They were as gifts to an important person in order to ensure favourable treatment. Note the use of ‘my lord.’ The watchful subservience is still there. Outwardly all is well but Jacob is well aware that what is on the surface is not necessarily the reality. He judges the straightforward Esau by his own standards.

Verse 9

‘And Esau said, “I have enough. My brother, let what you have remain yours.”

Esau does not want such favours from his brother. They are not necessary, for he is reasonably wealthy and has the means of obtaining more. This may have brought a chill to Jacob’s heart. The rejection of a gift was often followed by direct action. Notice Esau’s ‘my brother.’ He requires no formality between relatives.

Verses 10-11

‘And Jacob said, “No, I beg you. If now I have found favour in your sight then receive my present at my hand, because I have seen your face as one sees the face of God and you were pleased with me. Take, I beg you, my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have abundance.” And he urged him, and he took it.’

Jacob continues to urge Esau to accept his gift. He knows that if the gift is accepted graciously he will be that much safer. In the light of the customs of the time even Esau would not accept a gift and then indulge in hostility. But there is in it a sense of gratitude to God who has brought about this situation. He had seen God face to face and God had blessed him. Now he sees in this friendly meeting a part of that blessing, and he desires to pass some of the blessing on. Besides, he urges, he is very wealthy. The suggestion is that such a small gift means nothing to him. To his relief Esau accepts the gift.

“I have seen your face as one sees the face of God.” In context this can only have in mind his struggle at Penuel. Esau, who does not know what he is referring to, probably see is as a rather extreme compliment. He is like God to Jacob. But inwardly Jacob is full of praise to God and reflects it in these words. He remembers that significant meeting and sees it reflected here in his friendly reception. He had seen the face of God, and had been reassured of his safety, so now he can look on the face of Esau with equanimity.

“God has dealt graciously with me.” To Esau this indicates that his wealth has built up satisfactorily, thanks to God’s help. But Jacob is probably equally thinking of this present change in his fortunes, different from what he had expected.

Verse 12

‘And he said, “Let us take our journey, and let us go, and I will go before you.” ’

Esau is well meaning and offers his protection. He is unaware of his brother’s fears, although no doubt amused at his seeming subservience. But then, he thinks, that is Jacob. But his intentions are all good. They will go on together. He may well, however, have been secretly hoping that Jacob would not accept his offer. The laws of kinship demanded the offer. It was not necessarily intended to be accepted.

Verses 13-14

‘And he said to him, “My lord knows that the children are of tender age, and that the flocks and herds with me are feeding their young, and that if they overdrive them one day all the flocks will die. Let my lord, I beg you, pass on before his servant, and I will lead on slowly according to the pace of the cattle who are before me, and according to the pace of the children, until I come to my lord, to Seir.” ’

We may gather from this that Esau has invited Jacob to join him in Seir where he is at present residing. This would simply entail continuing South along the east side of the Jordan. But Jacob has no intention of going to Seir immediately. He shudders at the thought of what might happen to him there.

However, there is possibly more to it than this. It is all very well to move around protected by four hundred men, but the four hundred men have to be fed and he could hardly refuse the wherewithal, and besides, he must be aware that they have possibly sullied their reputation before the inhabitants of the land on their journey here. He would not want to be connected in men’s eyes with their doings.

Besides such men do not like to remain idle, and Esau least of all. He might soon regret his good intentions, and what then?

So he points out how slow the journey is going to be. (He had been a bit quicker when fleeing from Laban). He will not delay Esau who must surely have something better to do than journey at the pace of shepherds. Let him go on and he will join at some stage him in Seir.

Verse 15

‘And Esau said, “Let me now leave with you some of the folk who are with me.” And he said, “What is the need? Let me find grace in the sight of my lord.” So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir.’

Esau recognises the wisdom of what Jacob says, and is probably somewhat relieved. But at least he feels he can leave some of his people to help with the herding and provide further protection, although this may again have been a gesture between kinsfolk.

But Jacob certainly does not want to have Esau’s men there ensuring that they go to Seir. Nor is he certain what secret instructions they might be given. He is still all suspicion. He judges others by his own complicated make up. But the fact that he is able to make a case (‘what is the need’) demonstrates that he has a reasonably satisfactory band of men himself.

“Let me find favour in the sight of my lord.” A polite way of requesting that his wishes be honoured.

“So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir.” No doubt both were relieved. The one because he would not be tied down to a laborious and boring task and, having fulfilled his family obligations, was now free to go his way unhindered. The other because he was free from what he would have seen as a constant threat, and would not have to go to Seir after all.

Seir was a mountainous area South of the Dead Sea. It was well suited to Esau’s men who no doubt saw it as a good land. It was away from strong cities and larger groupings of peoples, provided a safe refuge when he had been on his raids, and yet provided sufficient reasonably fertile land for feeding herds and planting crops for the maintenance of the group. But this was not Jacob’s idea of the ideal land at all. He believed firmly in the promises of Yahweh and they did not relate to Seir. And he preferred to be peaceable rather than belligerent. And who could tell when Esau’s attitude might change? He could always provide some excuse in the distant future as to why he had not continued his journey southward.

(As mentioned previously, Esau spent part of his time with the family tribe, assisting the blind Isaac and overseeing the tending of his own herds and flocks at crucial times, and part of the time in Seir ‘in the time when men go forth to battle’ (2 Samuel 11:1), adventuring with his men. He was connected by marriage to the Hivites who dwelt there (Genesis 36:2). It is hardly conceivable that a doting son like Esau has shown himself to be would leave Isaac totally alone without assistance when Jacob was absent, and the fact that Esau’s whereabouts is known demonstrates that he keeps close connections with his family while enjoying his wilder life with his men).

Verse 17

‘And Jacob journeyed to Succoth and built himself a house and made booths for his cattle. That is why the name of the place is called Succoth (booths).’

Succoth was later a city in the territory assigned to the Gaddites, east of Jordan, in the Jordan valley not far from a water crossing (Joshua 13:27; Judges 8:4-5) and not far from Penuel (Judges 8:8).

Here he sets up a permanent residence. He has been through much, as have his family and herds and flocks, and this gives him the opportunity for recovery. He builds a house for himself and provides permanent accommodation for his flocks and herds. The ‘house’, permanent living quarters, may well have been fairly extensive needing to provide accommodation for his wives and family. His men could see to their own needs and would need to protect the herds. It is clear that he was in no hurry to join his father Isaac, and spent some years here while his family grew up. The name Succoth appears to have come from this period. Thus the event that follows at Shechem occurs some time after.

The position had the added advantage that if Esau came back he could always say that his herds and flocks, which had previously been pushed hard, needed recovery time.

Verses 18-20

Jacob Moves Into the Land of Promise - Revenge for Dinah (Genesis 33:18 to Genesis 34:31 )

Some years have passed and now Jacob feels the time has come to return to the land of the covenant. This particular record was made as a permanent record of the covenant between Hamor and Jacob which resulted in the establishment of a permanent altar to God and ownership of the land on which it was built. The episode that follows was seen as permanently connected with this arrangement. Alternately the central covenant may have been seen as the one between Hamor and Jacob in respect of Dinah (34:8-12). This may have been seen as necessary to establish Dinah’s innocence. The ancients would view the central theme of the passage as totally justified, and indeed required to purify the tribe. This was what Hamor and Shechem, as Canaanites, failed to realise to their cost.

Genesis 33:18-20

‘And Jacob came in peace to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan-aram, and encamped by the city. And he bought the parcel of land where he had pitched his tent, at the hand of the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for a hundred pieces of silver. And he erected there an altar and called it El-elohe-Israel (God the God of Israel).’

“The city of Shechem”. This may mean the city Shechem lived in, the city remaining unnamed, but Shechem was well known as a city elsewhere and it is therefore probable that the man Shechem was named after the city in which he dwelt as its potential ruler.

The stress that Jacob came in peace is never made elsewhere. The writer is preparing for what follows and stressing that in it all Jacob was guiltless. He had no intentions of belligerence. (The translation could, however, alternatively be ‘to Salem, a city of Shechem’).

“When he came from Paddan-aram.” This is a general note referring to the fact that this is Jacob’s first contact with the Promised Land after leaving Paddan-aram. It does not necessarily signify immediacy.

Jacob sets up camp by the city. He is so moved by the fact that he is now back in the land of God’s covenant that he determines to set up a permanent shrine there. Thus he buys a piece of land so that he can build a permanent memorial. The fact that Hamor is willing to sell him land is a sign of the good relations between the two, although the purpose for which it was bought would influence the situation. This may well have brought Jacob into a position of indebtedness to Hamor for land did not usually pass in this way without feudal obligations.

“A hundred pieces of silver.” Strictly ‘money’ is not correct as payment was made in quantities of silver. The uncommon Hebrew word probably indicates a weight measure.

“He built there an altar to El-elohe-Israel.” From this time on Shechem is a sacred place to the family tribe and later to Israel. It was in the neighbourhood of Mount Gerizim (Judges 9:7) in the hill country of Ephraim (Joshua 20:7). It was the place where God first revealed Himself to Abraham when he initially entered the land, and where he built his first altar to Yahweh (Genesis 12:6). That indeed may be why Jacob came there and why he was determined to establish a permanent altar to God. It was where Joshua would later renew the covenant and where the bones of Joseph would be buried (Joshua 24:0). By establishing this altar in the name of God the God of Israel Jacob is confirming his new name and applying it to the family tribe. From now on they will proudly call themselves ‘Israel’ (Genesis 34:7)

In order to put the following story in context it is necessary to appreciate the strong feelings aroused by the sexual misuse of a prominent member of a tribe. Such an act was looked on as a raping of the tribe itself. Probably the people of Shechem, more used to sexual misbehaviour (the Canaanite religion was sexually debased) and to the behaviour of petty princes, did not appreciate the intense feeling that Shechem’s act would arouse in a family tribe such as Jacob’s. But to Dinah’s two blood brothers, Simeon and Levi, there could be only one reply, justice and vengeance. Blood was required. By his cavalier behaviour Shechem brought deep shame on them, indeed sacrilege had been committed, and only his death could wipe it out.

We have already seen how careful the patriarchs were in finding wives for their sons. We need not doubt that they were as careful about their daughters. Thus what happened to Dinah was a dreadful blow to the family. Had it been a member of the covenant community some lesser penalty might have been possible as long as she was not betrothed to another (Deuteronomy 22:25-29). But they saw marriage to a Canaanite prince as out of the question. The only other possible penalty was death.

From the point of view of the story of the covenant, however, this was a moment of crisis. Absorption into the community at Shechem would have signalled the end of the covenant. The covenant people would have been absorbed into a community whose religious practises were debased. Thus the determination of the brothers to have justice done, and sacrilege dealt with, preserved the covenant community.

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Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 33". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/genesis-33.html. 2013.