Over twenty years ago, before this account in Genesis 33, Jacob had fled to Harran because Esau was determined to kill him. Isaac had became old, his eyesight failed and his health began to deteriorate. Therefore Isaac thinking that his death was near, called for his son Esau to prepare a last meal for him. After the meal, Isaac would convey a blessing on the firstborn of his fraternal twin boys. Rebekah, having overheard their conversation, provoked her son Jacob to disguise himself as Esau and deceive his father into giving him the blessing instead.
When Esau discovered that Jacob had stolen his blessing, he wept loud and bitterly. Esau blamed Jacob for taking both his birthright and his blessing and planned to kill his brother. Rebekah, fearing for her son’s life, convinced Isaac to send Jacob to Harran to get a bride. Jacob fled to his uncle’s home in Harran, which was 500 miles away, with the clothes on his back and a staff in his hand.
Whereas Rebekah and her son Jacob had conspired to deceive Isaac by disguising Jacob as his brother Esau; Laban and his daughter Leah successfully deceived Jacob by disguising Leah as her sister Rachel. After twenty years of toil, unfair treatment and manipulation by Laban, The LORD commanded Jacob to return to the land of his fathers. Although the LORD had prospered Jacob with great wealth and a large family, Jacob lived with the memory of how he cheated his brother. For twenty years he wondered whether Esau still planned to kill him. Jacob hoped to win Esau’s favor by sending three of his servants ahead of him, one at a time. Each brought a generous gift consisting of a large number of domestic animals.
Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men; so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two female servants. He put the female servants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother. Genesis 33:1-3
Jacob arranged the processional by putting his concubines and their children first, Leah and her children next, and then finally Rachel, the wife he loved and his favorite child Joseph, last. If Esau and his men attacked, Rachel and Joseph would have the best chance of escaping.
Jacob went on ahead of his family, in a subservient manner. Regarding Esau as a superior, Jacob bowed with the upper part of his body brought parallel to the ground. Then he advanced a few steps and bowed again, and repeated his obeisance until, at the seventh time, he stood in the immediate presence of his brother. The members of his family did the same. This was a token of profound respect given to Esau. This was done in accordance to the custom of the East in which an elder brother is entitled to respectful treatment from his younger brother. It was also a demonstration of humility on the part of Jacob who was contrite before his brother that he had offended.
But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. Genesis 33:4
Jacob’s apprehension and fears were turned to tears of relief and joy at the embrace of Esau.
When a man’s ways please the LORD, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him. Proverbs 16:7
Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. “Who are these with you?” he asked.
Jacob answered, “They are the children God has graciously given your servant.”
Then the female servants and their children approached and bowed down. Next, Leah and her children came and bowed down. Last of all came Joseph and Rachel, and they too bowed down. Genesis 33:5-7
Jacob, who fled from his brother twenty years before alone, now returns with a family consisting of his maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah, his wives Leah and Rachel, eleven sons and a daughter. God indeed had been gracious to Jacob.
Esau asked, “What’s the meaning of all these flocks and herds I met?”
“To find favor in your eyes, my lord,” he said. Genesis 33:8
The first gift Jacob sent ahead to Esau was a total of 220 goats. Jacob’s second servant presented Esau with a gift of 220 sheep. The third gift brought to Esau was comprised of 30 camels and their calves, 50 head of cattle and 30 donkeys. In all, Jacob had presented Esau with a total of 580 animals.
The cash value of those gifts in today’s dollars would be:
200 female goats @ $163 = $32,600
20 male goats @ $177 = $3,540
200 ewes @ $340 = $68,000
20 rams @ $541 = $10,820
30 female camels with their young @ $10,000 = $450,000
40 cows @ $700 = $28,000
10 bulls @ $1700 = $17,000
20 female donkeys @ $1500 = $30,000
10 male donkeys @ $1500 = $15,000
But Esau said, “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.” Genesis 33:9
Esau also must have prospered a great deal during the previous twenty years. Esau turned down over $650,000 worth of gifts because he already had an abundance of wealth. By not accepting Jacob’s generous gift, Esau demonstrated that his reconciliation with Jacob was not based on being paid off by Jacob but because he truly forgave his brother.
“No, please!” said Jacob. “If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably. Genesis 33:10
The previous night, Jacob had wrestled with the angel of the LORD – the pre-incarnate manifestation of Yeshua (Jesus).
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” Genesis 32:30
When he came into Esau’s presence, Jacob experienced the same feelings of penitence as if he had been coming before God. Jacob had already seen the face of God and his life was preserved, so now he had seen the face of Esau and his life was again spared. Instead of being met with hostility, Esau greeted Jacob with love and acceptance. Therefore Jacob exclaimed to his brother, “For to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” Jacob in fear of death as the consequence of his sins had instead been graciously forgiven and received favorably.
Please accept the present that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have all I need.” And because Jacob insisted, Esau accepted it. Genesis 33:11
In the East the acceptance by a superior is a proof of friendship, and by an enemy, of reconciliation. It was on both accounts Jacob was so anxious that his brother should receive the herds and flocks that he had presented to him. Esau’s acceptance of Jacob’s generous present confirmed that they were now truly reconciled.
Then Esau said, “Let us be on our way; I’ll accompany you.”
But Jacob said to him, “My lord knows that the children are tender and that I must care for the ewes and cows that are nursing their young. If they are driven hard just one day, all the animals will die. So let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I move along slowly at the pace of the flocks and herds before me and the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.” Genesis 33:12-14
Esau proposed to accompany Jacob and his family, perhaps as a mark of friendship. But Jacob is reluctant to accept his offer. Jacob explains that Esau should move on ahead of him since his nursing animals and young children would be moving at a much slower pace than Esau would be traveling.
Esau said, “Then let me leave some of my men with you.”
“But why do that?” Jacob asked. “Just let me find favor in the eyes of my lord.”
So that day Esau started on his way back to Seir. Genesis 33:15-16
Esau offered to leave some of his men with Jacob and his family, perhaps to serve as an escort to protect them. But again, Jacob graciously refuses his brother’s offer. Esau accepts Jacob’s rejection of his offer and the brothers depart in peace.
Jacob, however, went to Sukkoth, where he built a place for himself and made shelters for his livestock. That is why the place is called Sukkoth. Genesis 33:17
Jacob had said that he would travel to Seir and meet up with his brother. The land of Seir was a mountainous region occupied by the Edomites, extending along the eastern side of the Arabah from the south-eastern extremity of the Dead Sea to near the eastern branch of the Red Sea. Jacob actually diverted himself to Sukkoth. Sukkoth lay between Peniel, near the ford of the torrent Jabbok and Shechem. While Esau returned to Seir heading south, Jacob headed in the opposite direction going north to Sukkoth. Jacob was not recorded as ever rejoining Esau in Seir. There is no account of the brothers seeing each other again until they met twenty three years later at Machpela to bury their father Isaac.
Jacob may have deceived Esau out of fear that once he and his family were in the mountains of Seir that they would be unable to return to the land that the LORD had promised to Abraham and Isaac. Perhaps Jacob avoided going to Seir because he did not want his family influenced by ungodly Esau who had defiantly married Hittite women.
After Jacob came from Paddan Aram, he arrived safely at the city of Shechem in Canaan and camped within sight of the city. For a hundred pieces of silver, he bought from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem, the plot of ground where he pitched his tent. There he set up an altar and called it El Elohe Israel. Genesis 33:19-20
Jacob desired both to own some of the land (as a token of his eventual possession of all of it) and to build an altar to his God. El Elohe Israel is a divine name meaning, “God, the God of Israel.”
After Jacob left Beersheba to escape from Esau, he reached a certain place and he stopped for the night. Jacob fell asleep with his head upon a stone. He had a dream of a stairway to heaven and there above it stood the LORD. Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel – the “House of God.”
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.” Genesis 28:20-22
Did God watch over Jacob on his journey? After twenty years in Harran, by divine revelation, God commanded Jacob to return to the Promised Land. Having received the assurance that his wives were in support of this move, Jacob hastily packed up all of their goods and left for home. On the third day Laban was told that Jacob had fled. Taking his relatives with him, he pursued Jacob for seven days and caught up with him in the hill country of Gilead. When confronted by Laban, Jacob who had quietly endured two decades of mistreatment is incensed and outraged and said the following:
“I have been with you for twenty years now. Your sheep and goats have not miscarried, nor have I eaten rams from your flocks. I did not bring you animals torn by wild beasts; I bore the loss myself. And you demanded payment from me for whatever was stolen by day or night. This was my situation: The heat consumed me in the daytime and the cold at night, and sleep fled from my eyes. It was like this for the twenty years I was in your household. I worked for you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flocks, and you changed my wages ten times. If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me, you would surely have sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands, and last night he rebuked you.” Genesis 31:38-42
Yes indeed, God not only watched over Jacob but prospered him abundantly. Jacob had vowed that if God will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the LORD will be my God. God did provide Jacob with food to eat and clothes to wear. In fact, Jacob who fled with only the clothes on his back and the staff in his hand returns with vast wealth and a large family. Jacob not only returns with physical blessings, but God used Jacob’s harsh circumstances to humble him and transform his character. Jacob’s name was changed to Israel. The LORD (Yehovah) became Jacob’s God and Jacob erected an altar to his God, the God of Israel.
At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, Titus 3:3-5
Many times we, like Jacob, who was a self-centered, foolish and disobedient, need to be humbled through life’s difficult circumstances in order to receive God’s gracious gift of salvation. Not only can we be forgiven because our God, who is rich in mercy, will pardon our sins; but as the spiritual seed of Abraham we partake in the covenantal promises and blessings of Israel.
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:26
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it. Revelation 2:17
When we are born-again, we receive a new heart and a new spirit and the trials of life serve to purify us and transform us into the image of God’s Son. Then one day, we like Jacob, will also receive a new name.