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Deeper Commentary

Gen 33:1 Jacob lifted up his eyes, and looked, and, behold, Esau was coming, and with him four hundred men. He divided the children between Leah, Rachel, and the two handmaids- We should read this as reminding us that Jacob had already divided up his family. For he had sent them over the Jabbok whilst he wrestled alone with the Angel. Jacob had already been informed by the "messengers", who I suggested were Angels, that Esau was coming with 400 men. We imagine Jacob counting them and accepting that the Angel messenger had told the truth; although he perhaps hoped they had got it wrong.

Gen 33:2 He put the handmaids and their children in front, Leah and her children after, and Rachel and Joseph at the rear- We see here his favouritism; not only of Rachel and Joseph, but his consideration that the sons of the maids were somehow second class children. We again see how his wives' attempt to give him their maids 'as his wife' was mistaken and didn't work out happily in the end.


Gen 33:3 He himself passed over in front of them- Before wrestling the Angel, he had been behind them, having sent them in front of him; and I suggested his plan had been to try to return alone to Haran. But after his experience of grace with the Angel, he believed that if he had seen God's face, peering right into it close up as he [as it were] wrestled with God, and had been accepted by grace... so it was going to be with Esau. And so he changes plan, and instead of putting himself last, passes in front of them all. This explains the force of "he himself".

And bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother- Jacob's new appreciation of the blessing of forgiveness is reflected by the way in which he effectively tells Esau that he is handing back to him the birthright, the physical blessings. The way he bows down seven times to Esau is rejecting the blessing he had obtained by deceit from Isaac: "Be master over your brethren, and let your mother's sons bow down to you" (Gen. 27:29). His experience of the blessing of God's grace was sufficient for him, and he rejected all else. I noted on Gen. 32:16 that the seven bows were intended to be preceded by the six droves of gifts; but now, apparently, Jacob forgets that plan and himself goes to Esau. "Present" is the word more usually translated sacrifice or offering. So Jacob as it were makes the sacrifice but realizes that grace removes its power, and goes himself to the front.

Gen 33:4 Esau ran to meet him, embraced him, fell on his neck, kissed him, and they wept- Jacob's meeting with the Angels (Gen. 21:1) and then with the Angel was all predictive of his meeting with Esau. He feared God's judgment, as he feared Esau. But in a beautiful way, his fears are met. God runs to meet the sinner, meeting us in Christ, by grace; and Esau Jacob's rightful enemy meets him in tears, probably much to the shock of the 400 men with Esau. The primary audience of Genesis was Israel in the wilderness, who likewise were called to go and meet God and yet feared to do so because of their conscience of their sins and idolatry (Ex. 19:17 s.w.). The same word for "meet" is used of how Edom, which is Esau, came out to "meet" Israel with the sword (Num. 20:18,20), as did other formidable enemies of Israel as they travelled through the wilderness (Dt. 1:44; 2:32; 3:1). The encouragement was that what seemed impossible odds would somehow be overcome.

The Lord Jesus reflected the Father’s positive spirit in the way He framed the parable of the prodigal son to feature the Heavenly Father as running out to meet the returning son, falling on his neck and kissing him…in exactly the language of Gen. 33:4 about Esau doing this to Jacob. The connection can’t be denied; but what was the Lord’s point? Surely He was willing to see something positive in the otherwise fleshly Esau at that time, He as it were took a snapshot of Esau at that moment…and applied it to God Himself, in His extravagant grace towards an unworthy Jacob. This was how positive minded the Lord was in His reading of even the darkest characters.

At the end of Jacob's life, Joseph also falls on his neck and weeps for him, just as the Father does to the repentant prodigal (Gen. 46:29). Jacob's neck had once been covered with animal skin in the deceit of his father Isaac (Gen. 27:16), and Esau too wept on that same neck, the neck which had been used to deceive and rob Esau. And Joseph was to weep upon it too, after Jacob has again sent an ambassage ahead of him to Joseph as he did to Esau (see on Gen. 46:28). These otherwise strange connections with Jacob's neck would have served to show him that through his acceptance of the spiritual seniority of his great son Joseph, he had indeed been forgiven of all this miserable past.


Gen 33:5 He lifted up his eyes, and saw the women and the children; and said, Who are these with you? He said, The children whom God has graciously given your servant- As noted on :3, Jacob's original plan of sending droves of presents in front of him and then appearing last of all... had been changed by the wrestling experience. Knowing God's grace, Jacob had presented himself alone. But as the droves pulled up behind him, Esau naturally enquired about them.

Jacob called Esau his master by describing himself as Esau's servant, in evident rejection of the Divine promise they both knew: that Esau would serve Jacob (Gen. 25:23). And yet at this very point, Jacob speaks of "the children which God has graciously given your servant"; and this scene is cited in Is. 8:18 as a type of Christ and his spiritual children of promise. In similar vein, Is. 49:21 uses this scene as a picture of the faithful remnant among Jacob in the last days. Jacob was reflecting his experience of grace; he realized that his many children were a gift of grace. All the human devices used to produce them- marrying two sisters, sleeping with their maids, mandrakes etc.- he now realized were not the real source of them. This blessing was solely and totally of God's gracious gift.

Gen 33:6 Then the handmaids came near with their children, and they bowed themselves- The original plan had been that they would all meet Esau alone, and then Jacob would come. The wives were after all Esau's relatives. But as explained on :3, Jacob's encounter with grace the previous night had led to a radical change of plan. He came to Esau first, and the wives and children afterwards. They too bowed down, as if recognizing that they were inferior to Esau and he was master of all their clan.


Gen 33:7 Leah also and her children came near, and bowed themselves. After them, Joseph came near with Rachel, and they bowed themselves- The Hebrew for "came near" is used insistently and multiple times in the record of Jacob's coming near to Isaac and deceiving Esau out of the blessing (Gen. 27:21,22,25,26,27). The whole incident is an undoing of the sin, an attempted repentance.

 
Gen 33:8 Esau said, What do you mean by all this company which I met? Jacob said, To find grace in the sight of my lord- "Present" is the Hebrew word usually translated sacrifice or offering. Esau, like God, was saying that such sacrifice was not needed for reconciliation. Grace is found in the face of God and man not by sacrifice, but by a broken and contrite spirit. David had to learn the same.

 

Gen 33:9 Esau said, I have enough, my brother; let that which you have be yours- God likewise is not in need of presents / sacrifice. "Enough" is the same Hebrew word translated "elder" in the controversial promise that the elder would serve the younger (Gen. 25:23). Esau may be saying that he considers himself hugely blessed, and doesn't therefore need any more confirmation that he was in fact the elder; he felt Isaac's material blessing of the firstborn had come true for him in any case. Esau therefore also learnt something through this incident; he came against Jacob not to get the blessing, as he felt he already had received it; but for revenge. But he now realizes that having God's blessing means that revenge is not something that is necessary.


Gen 33:10 Jacob said, Please no, if I have now found grace in your sight, then receive my present at my hand, because I have seen your face, as one sees the face of God- Jacob recognizes that the second stage of his wrestling with the Angel, when his natural strength had been neutralized and he was close up face to face with God begging for grace, had effectively been seeing the face of Esau. "Present" is the Hebrew usually translated offering or sacrifice. Jacob had at the last minute reversed his plan of sending presents / sacrifice ahead of him to appease Esau; see on :3. He realized that sacrifice of itself would not enable sinful man to meet the face of God nor his offended brother. Only a desperate, face to face appeal for grace could do that. But having learnt that, he all the same wants to give the present / sacrifice. And this should be our motivation too for any offering we bring. Of itself, it cannot reconcile us to God and man. We offer it in gratitude for grace. And this would have been so relevant to the primary audience of Genesis, Israel in the wilderness who were hearing commandments about sacrifice.

And you were pleased with me- "Pleased" in Hebrew carries the idea of satisfying debt, and is often used of how God "accepted" sacrifice. So the purposeful paradox of ideas is: 'Because you accepted me without sacrifice, you accepted by broken and contrite heart as sacrifice, then please in any case accept my material sacrifice'. And this was exactly what David was brought to understand when forgiven regarding Bathsheba and Uriah.



The Angel commented that Jacob had struggled with both God and men, and had prevailed. Which men? Jacob recognized that the face of the Angel represented that of Esau, his brother with whom he had emotionally struggled all his life. The struggle in the womb had been lived out all their lives to this point. Perhaps the Angel's face appeared like that of Esau? Jacob saw the face of the Angel as it were the face of Esau- implying that the Angel he wrestled with was Esau's guardian Angel. He was being more obliquely shown the truth which New Testament passages like 1 Jn. 4:12,20,21 state plainly: that our relationship with our brother is our relationship with God. And Jacob was thus repenting of how badly he'd treated his brother.

The parable of the prodigal contains multiple allusions to the record of Jacob and Esau, their estrangement, and the anger of the older brother [Esau] against the younger brother. K.E. Bailey, Jacob And The Prodigal (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003) lists 51 points of contact between the Jacob / Esau record and the prodigal parable. There is a younger and an elder son, who both break their relationships with their father, and have an argument over the inheritance issue. Jacob like the prodigal son insults his father in order to get his inheritance. As Jacob joined himself to Laban in the far country, leaving his older brother Esau living at home, so the prodigal glued himself to a Gentile and worked for him by minding his flocks, whilst his older brother remained at home with the father. The fear of the prodigal as he returned home matches that of Jacob as he finally prepares to meet the angry Esau. Jacob's unexpected meeting with the Angel and clinging to him physically is matched by the prodigal being embraced and hugged by his father. Notice how Gen. 33:10 records how Jacob felt he saw the face of Esau as the face of an Angel. By being given the ring, the prodigal "has in effect now supplanted his older brother" (A.J. Hultgren, The Parables Of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) p. 79); just as Jacob did. As Esau was "in the field" (Gen. 27:5), so was the older brother.

What was the Lord Jesus getting at by framing His story in terms of Jacob and Esau? The Jews saw Jacob as an unblemished hero, and Esau / Edom as the epitome of wickedness and all that was anti-Jewish and anti-God. The Book of Jubilees has much to say about all this, as does the Genesis Rabbah (see e.g. Jacob Neusner, Genesis Rabbah: The Judaic Commentary To The Book Of Genesis (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1985) Vol. 3 p. 176). The Lord is radically and bravely re-interpreting all this. Jacob is the younger son, who went seriously wrong during his time with Laban. We have shown elsewhere how weak Jacob was at that time. Jacob was saved by grace, the grace shown in the end by the Angel with whom he wrestled, and yet who finally blessed him. As Hos. 12:4 had made clear, Jacob weeping in the Angel's arms and receiving the blessing of gracious forgiveness is all God speaking to us. The older brother who refused to eat with his sinful brother clearly represented, in the context of the parable, the Jewish religious leaders. They were equated with Esau- the very epitome of all that was anti-Jewish. And in any case, according to the parable, the hero of the story is the younger son, Jacob, who is extremely abusive and unspiritual towards his loving father, and is saved by sheer grace alone. This too was a radical challenge to the Jewish perception of their ancestral father Jacob.

The parable demonstrates that both the sons despised their father and their inheritance in the same way. They both wish him dead, treat him as if he isn't their father, abuse his gracious love, shame him to the world. Both finally come to their father from working in the fields. Jacob, the younger son, told Laban that "All these years I have served you... and you have not treated me justly" (Gen. 31:36-42). But these are exactly the words of the older son in the parable! The confusion is surely to demonstrate that both younger and elder son essentially held the same wrong attitudes. And the Father, clearly representing God, and God as He was manifested in Christ, sought so earnestly to reconcile both the younger and elder sons. The Lord Jesus so wished the hypocritical Scribes and Pharisees to fellowship with the repenting sinners that He wept over Jerusalem; He didn't shrug them off as self-righteous bigots, as we tend to do with such people. He wept for them, as the Father so passionately pours out His love to them. And perhaps on another level we see in all this the desperate desire of the Father and Son for Jewish-Arab unity in Christ. For the promises to Ishmael show that although Messiah's line was to come through Isaac, God still has an especial interest in and love for all the children of Abraham- and that includes the Arabs. Only a joint recognition of the Father's grace will bring about Jewish-Arab unity. But in the end, it will happen- for there will be a highway from Assyria to Judah to Egypt in the Kingdom. The anger of the elder brother was because the younger son had been reconciled to the Father without compensating for what he had done wrong. It's the same anger at God's grace which is shown by the workers who objected to those who had worked less receiving the same pay. And it's the same anger which is shown every time a believer storms out of an ecclesia because some sinner has been accepted back...

 

Gen 33:11 Please take away my blessing that I brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have all things. He urged him, and he took it- Jacob now saw God as the one who graciously gave physical blessings, not simply to fulfil Divine predictions for the sake of it, but in order to pour out His grace. And that grace was not so much gifts of material things as the God who gives spiritual grace / mercy to undeserving sinners like himself. Thus a growing appreciation of grace was a facet of Jacob's perception of God and spiritual growth.


It's a shame that the English translations often conceal Jacob's rejection of the physical blessing here. The Hebrew for "Take" is 51 times translated "take away". The only ultimately important thing is grace and right standing with God; that now for Jacob was having "all things". The Hebrew words translated "take (away)" and "blessing" are exactly the same as in Gen. 27:35,36 AV: "(Jacob) came with subtlety, and hath taken away thy blessing... Is not he rightly named Jacob? he took away my birthright, and now he hath taken away my blessing". Yet now Jacob is saying: 'I have experienced the true grace of God, I stand forgiven before Him, I see His face in His representative Angel, I therefore have all things, so I don't want that physical, material, temporal blessing I swindled you out of'. This is why Jacob pointedly calls Esau his “Lord” in the record. He was accepting Esau as the firstborn. And Paul, in his spiritual maturity, came to the same conclusion; he counted all the materialism of this world as dung, that he might win Christ and be found in him, clothed with his gracious righteousness. Because God had dealt graciously with him, he felt that he had “all things”. All he needed was God’s grace, and he had that. Rev. 21:7 appears to allude to Jacob by saying that he who overcomes [by wrestling?] shall inherit “all things”. We are all to pass through Jacob’s lesson; that material advantage is nothing, and God’s grace is everything. Truly could Jacob later say, after another gracious salvation, that there God had appeared to Him, had been revealed to him [RV] in the experience of grace (Gen. 35:7).  

Jacob had made "supplication" to God (Hos. 12:4) as he wrestled the Angel; and at that very same time, God dealt "graciously" (the same word translated "supplication") with Jacob. At that time, God "recompensed" to Jacob according to his sins in that the Angel like Esau came forth to slay him; and Jacob responded by "turning" (same word translated "recompensed" ) to his God (Hos. 12:2,8). It's too bad our translations disguise these things. By the end of his life, this spirit of mutuality between him and God had become perfected. And so with us; we too can live our lives thinking that if we do this, that and the other, God will do this and that for us. The idea of a two-way relationship with Him, of His Spirit, with all that implies, dwelling in us, until our will is His will; all this takes time to develop.

Gen 33:12 Esau said, Let us take our journey, and let us go, and I will go before you- This may simply be because Esau knew the route better than Jacob. But it may also reflect Esau's acceptance of the blessing that had been given back to him by Jacob; he was a man of this life, and he enjoyed that blessing of the firstborn, and made use of it by going in front of Jacob.

 
Gen 33:13 Jacob said to him, My lord knows 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- "My lord" reflects Jacob's genuine recognition that Esau in this life was to be as his master; the younger was to serve the elder. But Jacob's faith in the promises was undiminished; he now appreciated as never before their future dimension. This is a feature of our spiritual growth too. But Jacob's deceitfulness returns- he is making excuses here. He simply doesn't want to be with Esau. Esau's character comes out too, however; as a hunter, he had never had to bother with caring for animals and moving at their pace. He wanted to live life in the fast lane, and wouldn't move over to go at Jacob's pace. If the children were indeed "tender" and unable to move quickly, we would have to assume Jacob was with Laban 20 years and not 40 years, as suggested on Gen. 28; otherwise they couldn't have been described in this way.


Gen 33:14 Please let my lord pass over before his servant, and I will lead on gently, according to the pace of the livestock that are before me and according to the pace of the children, until I come to my lord to Seir- As noted on :13, "Lord" [stated twice] and "servant" reflect Jacob's genuine resignation of his stolen birthright blessings, and his recognition that Esau in this life was to be as his master. Jacob's deceit still had not been completely cured; he gave the impression that he would come to Esau's encampment at Seir, but it seems he never did.


Gen 33:15 Esau said, Let me now leave with you some of the folk who are with me. He said, Why? Let me find favour in the sight of my lord- He could be saying 'Don't, please, force me to come live with you. If indeed I have found grace in your eyes, then please let me go my own way'. And that is indeed an aspect of grace; to let the beloved go their way and not have to live with us in every way. Jacob, on a human level, compares unfavourably to Esau. He was deceitful of Esau even after this watershed time. When Esau had the chance to take vengeance on Jacob, he wonderfully forgave him. He never lied to Jacob. Mal. 1:4 makes the point that Edom (Esau) was zealous to return and rebuild the ravaged land which God had once given him, whereas Israel wasn’t. And yet despite this, God says He still chose to love Israel (Jacob) and hate Esau. His behaviour in this is an example of how He saves by pure grace and not works.

Gen 33:16 So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir- The differing destinations of Esau and Jacob are emphasized; Esau to "Seir", the place of wild goats, whilst Jacob went to the place of booths. The wandering, roaming nature of Esau is compared with the more stable lifestyle of Jacob, and in this sense the predictions of Isaac about the firstborn came strangely true, even though Jacob had handed that blessing back to Esau.


Gen 33:17 Jacob travelled to Succoth, built himself a house, and made shelters for his livestock. Therefore the name of the place is called Succoth- See on :16. The faithful seed were characterized by continual dwelling in tents and moving on. As noted on Gen. 26:22,23, whenever they tried to settle down, as Isaac had tried to at Rehoboth, they were moved on by the leading and work of the Spirit. So although Jacob was seeking for the stability of a house and permanent residence, he was to be moved on from that.


Gen 33:18 Jacob came in peace to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan Aram; and encamped before the city- As noted on :17, Jacob's attempt to settle permanently in Succoth was not to be. Even if we live in the same suburban house all our days, the way of Abraham's seed is to be moved on all their lives long. Jacob's 'coming in peace' is surely to connect with the promise at Bethel, which Jacob interpreted as meaning that Yahweh would bring him back to his father's house "in peace" (Gen. 28:21). And Jacob's bargain with God had been that in this case, Yahweh would be his God. "Paddan Aram" is maybe mentioned in order to positively strengthen the similarities with Rebekah coming from there to the land of promise to marry Isaac (Gen. 28:2).


Gen 33:19 He bought the parcel of ground where he had spread his tent, at the hand of the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for one hundred pieces of money- The New Testament emphasizes the paradox: that the patriarchs bought land in the land which was their eternal inheritance. They couldn't bury their dead nor pitch their tent without having to realize that the land wasn't theirs. The same paradox was taught in Jacob having to call Esau his "lord", the younger serving the elder; but in faith that things would not eternally be that way. Joseph's bones were buried here later (Josh. 24:32), which suggests that Jacob bought it with a view of it becoming a burial place and Israelite sanctuary. Yet Acts 7:16 says that Abraham bought this land as a burial place; perhaps the paradox deepens in that they were deceived out of their "own" land and had to pay for it twice, even though it was eternally theirs.


Gen 33:20 He erected an altar there, and called it El Elohe Israel- This seems to have been a flash of spiritual insight, a peak of faith which was not afterwards sustained; not only did Jacob accept the new name God had given him (although he needed reminding of this again in Gen. 35:9), he saw that 'God' was his God, the God behind the powerful ones (Angels) who looked after Jacob / Israel. He had come "in peace" (:18 cp. Gen. 28:21) and now wished to keep his bargain, to accept Yahweh as his God. But still he saw God as pre-eminently physically powerful, and manifested in many Angels. And still he had not fulfilled his promise to make Yahweh his God, for he doesn't use the term "Yahweh" here. Jacob hid behind the idea of God manifestation too long. This is not to say that there is no such thing; but we can take it to such a point where we lose sight of the glorious reality of the one true, real God, who is our God, and who is ultimately there, at the back of all the things and ways in which He may be manifested. Jacob saw God manifest in Angels to the point where he failed to see the God who was behind them. Building the altar 'El-elohe-Israel' was his first step towards rectifying this. As time went on, he saw God as one, not as multitudes of Angels, even though he knew from the vision of Bethel that they were all active for him; he saw the El behind the Elohe, and realized that this was Yahweh, his very own God.

Shechem was the spot where Abraham had built an altar upon entering Canaan, the promised land. Jacob progressively felt a sense of identity with Abraham and Isaac on a spiritual level.