Jacob and Esau
Our lesson today looks at the patriarch Jacob’s return journey to the Promised Land and his meeting with his brother Esau. This meeting with Esau was the event that Jacob most feared in his life. Their sibling rivalry had fostered serious hostility leading to a separation and now what could be a tragic ending loomed: at least in Jacob’s mind.
Jacob had twenty years earlier betrayed Esau and had manoeuvred Esau into selling him his “birthright” for a serving of red stew. Clearly Esau did not value the “birthright”, regarding it as a trifle. But when he thought about what he had done and realized what had happened and the fact that Jacob and his mother had deceived his father Isaac into “blessing” Jacob, he wanted to kill Jacob.
When Jacob and his mother realized Esau’s intention, Jacob had to flee for his life. He went to his mother's brother house in Mesopotamia, where he himself was manipulated and deceived by Laban his uncle. After twenty-one years of labour in his uncle’s house he ended up with two wives, one of which he did not really want, many children and a fractured and extremely competitive household. His uncle who was an arch-deceiver, changed his wages several times and robbed him ‘blind’ at every turn. Jacob eventually had to flee secretly with his family and possessions, for Laban never intended to let him escape with even a penny in his pocket.
It was only the protection of God that allowed Jacob to survive. Now on instructions from God, Jacob with his family and possessions headed toward the Promised Land to face his worst nightmare; a meeting with the brother that he and his mother had deceived and from whom he had “stolen” the blessing. Jacob expected the worst.
Jacob’s story to this point and following is very instructive for us. We have seen and will see that Jacob made good and bad choices and over the years did not show much sign of a true trust in God. But God would use Jacob’s difficult twenty-one years experience after he first fled from Esau to bring him to maturity and make him a powerful servant. Jacob had certainly received the “blessing” but he was far from being the man God wanted him to be.
Unfortunately we tend to think that once we become Christians, we will experience an immediate cure for every weakness and inadequacy. What is worse is that we teach that to people but this belief is not in accordance with Scripture.
We have seen how the Lord appeared to Jacob, told him that he would receive the ‘promise’ made to Abraham, promised to protect him all this life and bring him back into the Promised Land.
Jacob, who was quite a schemer and manipulator and a man full of fear, had a hard time believing that the Lord would protect and bless him completely and so he did things which showed that he preferred to rely on himself rather than on God.
Undoubtedly, he coveted the promise made to Abraham, but he did not for a long time realize that he had no innate ability to obtain it nor to guard this treasure that God would entrust to him. Even after the fearful experience that he would now face, we learn that Jacob became overconfident about what he would be able to do and so became careless, bringing himself again into very grave danger, physically and spiritually.
Jacob took one step forward and three steps backward. Subsequent chapters will show that after the horrible and questionable behaviour of his sons, it was only the providence of God that saved Jacob from being killed.
Jacob certainly faced grave difficulties, but when we look at his life we see that he was not a great leader either in his family, or for those around him in the society. He continued to show traces of deception and manipulation for much of his life. As a result of this, there are some who interpret our text as showing Jacob to be the same old devious manipulator. They regard Esau's behaviour as one of good will and of a much higher moral quality than the behaviour of Jacob.
Others however think that our text shows a changed Jacob who genuinely expressed his sorrow for how he had treated Esau in the past and behaved accordingly, acting to make restitution.
Bear in mind though that God blessed both Jacob and Esau. He intended to protect Jacob and had no intention of Jacob or his family taking over the land that Esau possessed.
God controlled the activities of both characters, so that they could be reconciled and learn to live in harmony. Maybe after studying the life of Jacob and Esau and meditating on the various manipulations and chicanery in those lives, the Apostle Paul had this in mind when he encouraged believers in Romans 12:18 “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.”
THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT
We read it chapter 31 that Laban had chased after the fleeing Jacob with fire in his eyes and God had to warn Laban to behave himself and not to even pretend that he would do any harm to Jacob.
After a hot meeting, Jacob and Laban parted with some cordiality but with the veiled threat that they should stay away from each other in future. We read the interesting oath:
“And Laban said to Jacob, Behold this heap, and behold this pillar, which I have cast betwixt me and thee; This heap be witness, and this pillar be witness, that I will not pass over this heap to thee, and that thou shall not pass over this heap and this pillar unto me, for harm. The God of Abraham, and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, Judge betwixt us. And Jacob sware by the fear of his father Isaac.” (vs. 51).
After sacrificing, Laban next morning kissed his sons and his daughters, blessed them, left and returned unto his own place. There was little contact if any with Mesopotamia subsequently.
In chapter 32 when Jacob journeyed toward the Promised Land we read that God sent some angels to accompany him. In spite of this vision that the messengers of God were with him, Jacob took no chances but sent messengers to tell “his Lord Esau” that “his servant Jacob” was on his way with great possessions to meet him. When his emissaries returned and told him that Esau was on his way to meet him with four hundred men Jacob as a precaution divided his family and company into two groups.
We note that Jacob’s standard reaction to trouble was based on the ‘flesh’. But now he faced Esau and four hundred men and he knew his natural ability to scheme and manipulate was not enough. He was scared, distressed and felt helpless. He thought he could very well be facing possible death. He seemed to have trouble with depending solely on God’s promises.
So we read Jacob’s first recorded prayer, for now he went to God for help. He prayed. In verses nine to twelve Jacob reminded God that he was the God of Abraham and Isaac and that He had promised to bring him back safely to his own country and to his family and indeed had commanded him to return home.
He confessed that he was unworthy of God's mercies and prayed that God would deliver him from the hand of his brother Esau. He admitted that he feared Esau. He wanted God's protection so that Esau would not smite him, his wives and his children. He again reminded God that He had promised to make his descendents as the sand of the sea and a great multitude. Jacob certainly claimed God's promises.
But immediately after this model prayer Jacob did not depend only on God's help, but in order to appease Esau, a generous gift of five hundred and eighty animals were assembled as a gift to Esau. Jacob gave detailed instructions to the servants on how to deal with Esau.
He sent his servants and his family and his flocks over the ford Jabbok and he was left alone. When Jacob had done everything he thought he could do to secure the safety of his family God appeared to him.
In a real event, this was not a vision or a dream; Jacob had to fight for his life when an unidentified man assaulted him. Note that this “man”, later identified as an angel of God, took the initiative in wrestling with Jacob and brought Jacob to the point where he realized that God was superior to him and he had to submit to God's leadership.
We see again that Jacob had a strong desire for blessing and when he realized that his assailant was not an ordinary man, he would not let the man go until he blessed him. As a result of Jacob's sincerity in asking for God's help and submission to God, Jacob's name was changed from Jacob which means “supplanter” to the name Israel, which meant “God's warrior”.
Jacob limped away from this wrestling match with God. This spiritual crisis in his life began a new phase in his life, for he was now a new man with a new name. One writer comments on the importance of this name:
“….the name Israel denoted a spiritual state determined by faith; and in Jacob's life the natural state, determined by flesh and blood, still continued to stand side-by-side with this. Jacobs new name was transmitted to his descendents, however, who were called Israel as the covenant nation. For as the blessing of their forefather’s conflict came down to them as a spiritual inheritance, so did they also enter upon the duty of preserving this inheritance by continuing in a similar conflict.”
So we note that Jacob had to give up self-sufficiency to become strong in faith, but as we stated before he was certainly not perfect at this or any other stage.
Verse 1. So Jacob is ready to sacrifice a part of his family if Esau attacks him. He ‘lifted up his eyes’, a phrase which is generally used to introduce something remarkable, which, when “behold” is added, heightens the drama even further.
We should also remember that he was in dangerous territory. Esau had had to fight to clean out the Horites from Mount Seir and so he would likely have assembled a decent sized army and would be traveling with that force to meet his brother. Esau would probably be anxious to let the neighbours know that he had powerful relatives coming to join him, but Jacob would not know whether or not Esau was coming to exact vengeance.
Note this was supposed to be the new Jacob who had just gone through his magnificent struggle at Peniel, and who had just been told by God that he had prevailed over men. Jacob would have thought, would he prevail this time?
So Jacob divided his family with Leah and her children in one group, Rachel in another group and the two handmaids or concubines with their children in another group.
Verse 2. That latter group was put in front, then Leah and her children and Rachel and Joseph bringing up the rear.
So clearly Jacob was arranging his family so that those that were most precious to him would have the best chance of survival, albeit a slim one, if Esau proved hostile. This appears like favouritism.
Some wonder if this ranking was painful to the family and whether or not it contributed to the hostility toward Joseph, which becomes so very important as the story of this family developed.
Some consider that Jacob was acting quite responsibly in what he did. Trusting God to work for us does not mean that we do not have to behave wisely.
Verse 3. Here we are told that instead of lurking in the back as we might expect, Jacob moves ahead of everybody, limping from his injury suffered the night before. Though fearful and weak, he was apparently showing that he was not completely overcome with fear and was now accepting personal responsibility. Jacob surprises us at this point.
Jacob even bows himself to the ground seven times as he approaches his brother Esau. In doing so he makes himself vulnerable for it would be easy for Esau to kill him when he was in that position.
In addition to this he is treating Esau as royalty, being very deferential to him. He had stolen the blessing from Esau and the blessing stated:
“May peoples serve you; And nations bow down to you; Be master of your brothers, And may your mother's son's bow down to you.”(Genesis 27:29 RSV)
Now in this strange reversal of roles, Jacob who possessed the blessing was bowing down to Esau and acting like Esau's servant. He was showing Esau that he did not want any power over him.
It is clear that if Jacob and Rebekah had not taken matters into their own hands this would never have happened. He should never have tried to help God, for God did not need his help to ensure the success of His plans. So the argument has always raged about the motivation for Jacob’s behaviour. Some are sympathetic and some are not.
Verse 4. Esau’s behaviour is magnificent. He is gracious and forgiving. He ran to meet Jacob in love, embraced him, fell on his neck and kissed him. But when Esau was running to him Jacob was probably terrified, figuring that he was surely going to die.
When Esau embraced and kissed him, twenty years of fear, hoping and wishing to turn back the clock exploded into joy and both brothers wept. Some believe, particularly on account they were twins, that Jacob had always wanted Isaac to embrace him and now he received it from the brother he had betrayed.
It is often the same in our lives. Sometimes we get love from those that we least expect and we get the hostility from those from which we want love.
Just remember that God provides what we need and be grateful for it. God gives us what is best.
It is clear that God controls the hearts of men and can turn their hearts however and whenever he pleases. God works with irresistible and often silent power and can turn enemies into friends.
Verse 5. After that shedding of the stress of twenty years, Esau now “lifted up his eyes” and saw the large group of women and children behind Jacob. He wondered at the size of the company and Jacob told him that God had “given” him children. Jacob was prepared to acknowledge God as the giver of all he had. Note that he also declared in this response that he was Esau's servant.
When Jacob informed Esau in his message recorded in chapter 32, that he had cattle and servants, he did not mention that he had children. So Esau had a right to ask who these children were. Maybe Jacob did not previously want to tell Esau that he had children just in case Esau's intentions had been to kill him and all his children.
Verse 6-7. Then the handmaidens or concubines approached the brothers with their children and bowed themselves to honor Esau. Then Leah and her children did the same and lastly Rachel and Joseph came and bowed themselves to Esau. In doing so they showed respect to the elder brother of the family. Jacob obviously wanted Esau to know that God had blessed him with a large family.
Jacob did not need to be afraid for Esau had undergone a personal transformation and no longer hated Jacob, but wanted a brotherly relation between them.
Verse 8. Esau had already been advised that Jacob had significant material possessions and so he wanted to know who owned the large group that approached. Jacob was obviously giving Esau a significant part of what he owned as a gift and he urged Esau to accept the gift.
This was Jacob's way of making reconciliation, to ask Esau for forgiveness, to tell him that he was sorry for what he had done and that he was hoping that he could be forgiven.
It has been pointed out that in that culture, one never would accept a gift from an enemy, but only from a friend. So if Esau could be persuaded to accept the gift it would indicate that he now regarded Jacob as a friend.
Verse 9. Esau modestly refused indicating that he was quite wealthy himself. In doing so he called Jacob my brother, a term that Jacob really wanted to hear.
In essence he was telling Jacob that even though he did not have the birthright and the chief blessing, he had still ended up with plenty. Jacob’s treachery didn't really put Esau in a bad position. So Esau could magnanimously show his soft heart toward Jacob and assure him that God had indeed blessed him also and he was satisfied.
God had promised Esau the fatness of the earth and wealth brought by his sword and the promise was honoured. He saw that he did not have the covenant blessings, but for him what he had achieved was enough to pacify him, so that he could be reconciled to Jacob.
Jacob had labelled himself as Esau's servant, but now Esau was calling Jacob “his brother” and treating him as such.
Verse 10. Jacob insisted that Esau accept the present. It has been pointed out that the word translated “present” is actually the word used in Leviticus 1:4, 7:18, and 19:7, of animals sacrifices connected with God's forgiveness. So for Jacob this was a significant and very meaningful offer.
Jacob paid Esau's the very highest compliment possible by equating this encounter with him with the encounter he had had with God the previous night.
Jacob felt that he had seen the face of God (32:30) and his life had been spared and now as he saw Esau's face he declared a similar benefit had been received. He stated his meeting Esau was like meeting God and being forgiven. “…For therefore I have seen thy face, as though I have seen the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me”.
Verse 11. Jacob again urged Esau to accept his “gift” and now used a different word translated “blessing”. He is implying that the gift he offers Isaac in some way represents the blessing that he had stolen from Esau. God he said, had been very gracious to him and he wanted to offer this present to Esau.
This is a remarkable position for Jacob to reach after all his struggles and leaning on his self-sufficiency ideas. He now constantly mentions God. He urged Esau to accept his gift and Esau finally accepted. For Jacob it meant all was forgiven. Everyone had plenty. God was gracious to all.
The dreaded meeting with Esau had turned out to be completely different than he had anticipated. Esau was not a threat. He did not have to hide as he had originally planned. He could have gone to meet Esau trusting in God for protection and he would have found an embrace instead of a dagger in his chest.
Following the scene of verse eleven it is interesting to note what did or did not develop between the brothers. Esau invited Jacob to have them travel together. This would have been quite safe for Jacob and his family. Jacob's refusal and his reasoning have led some to believe that Jacob was still afraid of being close to Esau. Jacob even promised to eventually visit Esau in Mount Seir, but there is no record he ever did.
Esau wanted the two brothers to be reunited, but Jacob did not seem to want that. We are told that he journeyed five miles down the Jordan toward Succoth, a place on the wrong side of the Jordan, outside Canaan. He had gone in the opposite direction from Esau.
He remained there for several years with no desire to enter the Promised Land. This was rather strange behavior. He delayed but eventually came to Shechem in the land of Canaan and put down roots there, instead of going to Bethel to build the promised altar. It was there that he encountered the terrible disaster of the rape of his young daughter Dinah.
After his sons committed the terrible act of revenge, God had to appear to Jacob to tell him to go up to Bethel and to put away the foreign gods that they had accumulated.
It is very likely that if Jacob had gone with Esau, lived near him, cemented his relationship with him, and then gone directly to Bethel, much of the pain he encountered would have been missed.
He would also have gotten rid of the idolatry in his household much sooner.
The Lord can bring about great reconciliation but wisdom is always called for. After the joy of reconciliation there is a danger of failing miserably, as Jacob did. Therefore there has to be a continual learning to follow God, to have God choose everything that we do and to have God bring us to maturity.
It makes no sense to be fearful, defensive, manipulative, or deceitful to achieve what we think God wants of us. We should not use deception to achieve reconciliation. When there is reconciliation we have to go straight to ‘Bethel’ as it were, to take new steps of faith, to honour our vows to God immediately and call the Lord our God. God is able to reconcile those that are estranged.
The people who have received the grace of God must trust in God's promise of protection when they seek reconciliation with others. That is undoubtedly a major lesson in this text.
Forgiveness can be achieved. People can be reconciled as long as they are prepared to listen to God. So let us carry this message to the world and trust God to do his work for he is the Mighty God.