The meeting Jacob dreaded takes place. After spending a night face-to-face with God, he comes face-to-face with his brother, Esau. The timing is surely not coincidental. The life-changing wrestling match with God makes the meeting with Esau no longer nearly as frightening. And, true to His word, God paves the way such that the vindictive brother of 20 years ago is now the compassionate and tender brother of today. Just as Jacob is a changed man because of God’s work in his life, Esau is a changed man likely because of time and God’s intervention on Jacob’s behalf. The complete turnaround of Esau from the man who chased Jacob out of Canaan is a sign of God’s continued blessing and protection of the namesake of His chosen people.
The text doesn’t say if any time elapses between the all-night wrestling match with God and the appearance of Esau, but the implication is that Esau comes the following day. Jacob rejoins the camp in the morning and sees Esau coming with 400 men – just as the messengers said (32:6).
Since he still doesn’t know the intentions of his brother, he decides to divide his family into groups. It is hard to know how this correlates to the earlier division of his whole entourage (32:7). It could be that the earlier division was of everyone other than his family, who stayed with him. Now that danger is here, he acts to further protect the family by dividing them as well.
Jacob is never subtle about his favorites. He takes the maids – Bilhah and Zilpah – and their children, and puts them in the first group – the most dangerous spot. He then takes Leah and her children and puts them in the second group – the second most dangerous spot. In the last group – the safest position – he puts Rachel and Joseph. He makes it very clear who he values the most. It would be interesting to witness the reactions of the people as they line up. Perhaps this has been so obvious for so long that no one thinks anything of it (although it’s not hard to imagine that events like this are what cause the older brothers of Joseph to resent him so much in the future).
To Jacob’s credit, he takes the lead after assembling everyone. Before, he sent his servants and flocks ahead while he stayed back (32:18). Here – after the encounter with God – he leads the way. The maids and their children can at least take solace that if they die they’ll likely die with Jacob. [To Jacob’s credit, his strategy before was to soften up Esau with the gift of animals before facing him – it doesn’t necessarily mean he was a coward that he put himself in the rearmost position.]
When Jacob takes the lead he makes sure Esau knows he comes in peace and wants no trouble. He bows himself to the ground seven times as he approaches his brother. He makes it clear that he has no designs against Esau and comes very humbly, seeking his favor.
Esau’s response to Jacob is completely unexpected. He runs to Jacob – probably scaring Jacob and his family half to death – and embraces him and starts kissing him and weeping. As he weeps, Jacob starts weeping also. All the tension and fear goes away – the brothers reunite as if the events of 20 years ago never happened.
After they embrace and weep, Esau looks around and sees four women and twelve children and understandably asks, “Who are these with you?” Jacob – again taking a very deferential approach – tells him that they are the children whom God has graciously given your servant. Jacob takes no chances on angering Esau and continues to refer to himself as your servant. He also gives credit where it’s due. God is responsible for his wives, children, and wealth – not his own hand.
After Jacob identifies his wives and children, the four women with their kids take turns coming to Esau and bowing to him. It would be interesting to know Esau’s thoughts as he notices there’s a distinct order to the procession.
After he meets the family, Esau asks Jacob about all the droves of animals he came upon as he traveled to see Jacob. Remember that Jacob sent multiple droves one by one and told his servants who were with each drove to all say the same thing to Esau – “These belong to your servant Jacob; it is a present sent to my lord Esau. And behold, he is also behind us” (32:18). Esau now wonders what in the world that was all about – “What do you mean by all this company which I have met?” He obviously heard the same message several times and understood it, but he wonders what the point of it was? This likely means that he doesn’t realize Jacob feared the worst about his coming.
Jacob honestly tells him he sent the animals as a present to find favor with him. Esau tells him to keep the animals as he has plenty. Jacob urges him, however, and convinces him to keep the gift.
Jacob says two interesting things in convincing his brother to keep the gift. First, he tells Esau, “…for I see your face as one sees the face of God, and you have received me favorably. He says this after just declaring that the night he wrestled with God he saw God face to face (32:30). It is likely that he connects the two. By saying that he sees Esau’s face as the face of God he may mean that Esau’s reaction to him could only be God’s doing. In looking at Esau’s accepting and loving face he sees God’s face, because His hand is so clearly in all of this. The raging and vengeful brother of 20 years ago is completely gone, and the change can only be explained by God’s intervention.
In considering Jacob’s words, it’s interesting that the text never explains why Esau brings 400 men with him. If he simply comes to welcome and reunite with Jacob, what’s the purpose of such a large group? If it’s for security, surely he wouldn’t need so many just to protect him? Could it be that he wants to impress Jacob with the large show of force? Perhaps he didn’t know what to expect from Jacob (he certainly has lots of reasons to distrust him) or how many men were with him, so he brings enough men to make sure Jacob doesn’t have the advantage. Or – and this might go along with Jacob’s statement about the face of God – perhaps he did in fact intend to attack Jacob, but God intervened and changed his mind. Every explanation is conjecture, but the presence of the 400 men may influence how Jacob sees the hand of God in Esau’s actions toward him.
The second thing Jacob says to Esau regards the gift itself. The first time he refers to the gift he says, “…take my present.” The second time he says, “…take my blessing.” The difference in terms is telling. He may use the word blessing intentionally to make it clear that he wants to make amends for cheating Esau 20 years earlier. He doesn’t mean to give Isaac’s blessing back (since it includes God’s designation as the son of promise), but perhaps he wants Esau to know he understands what he did (especially in light of what Laban did to him) and now wants to make it right at least in material goods. If this is true, it makes the gift take on more significance than simply a goodwill gesture. It would also presumably impact Esau much more and perhaps explains why he finally agrees to accept it.
After accepting the gift, Esau offers to Jacob that they travel together – presumably to Esau’s home in Seir. Jacob declines by explaining that with the children and the flocks he can’t travel nearly as quickly as Esau, and he doesn’t want to slow Esau down. Esau then says that he will leave men with Jacob presumably to provide security. Jacob again declines and says there’s no need to leave men – he will be fine as he is. The brothers then part ways with Jacob promising to come to him in Seir. [In 36:6-8 the text says Esau moves to Seir because Canaan isn’t big enough to support both Jacob’s and his wealth (similar to Lot and Abram). However, 32:3 and this text make it sound like Esau lived in Seir before Jacob returned. It is hard to know how to reconcile the texts.]
These verses are interesting for what they tell us about Jacob. He clearly doesn’t want to spend a lot of time with his brother. He’s glad they made up and he’s certainly glad he no longer has to fear for his life, but that doesn’t mean he wants to be one big happy family again. It’s one thing to be on good terms – it’s another to live together. So he makes excuses to get Esau to leave him alone. And he tells him he’ll proceed to Seir but makes absolutely no effort to follow through. As a matter of fact, as soon as Esau leaves he goes to Succoth and settles there for a time.
Assuming we can understand the text at face value (and it may be that we can’t – it’s possible that Jacob doesn’t mean he will come to Seir immediately and his actions are entirely honorable – the text, however, reads as if Esau thinks Jacob is right behind him), it shows that Jacob isn’t an entirely different man. He’s still willing to stretch the truth for his own ends. And he’s still willing to be a little underhanded to get his way. God changed him at Peniel, but part of the old heart still exists. The fact that he does this so shortly after personally encountering God shows how the old man can still rear his ugly head even after he’s defeated. Jacob in this scene is a picture of all of us. We are desperately wicked apart from God and sometimes great spiritual highs are followed quickly by petty selfishness and deceit. Our heart is more than capable of seeing God and serving ourselves.
The other interesting part of this portion of the story is it shows people have been avoiding difficult family members for as long as there’s been family. Who hasn’t done what Jacob does here? “We’d love for you to come over, but the kids are all tired and cranky, and Bob’s job has been a huge drain on him lately, so you probably don’t want to be around us right now. But let’s get together some other time, OK?” “You see, my new job’s a hassle and the kid’s got the flu, but it’s sure nice talking to you, dad. It’s been sure nice talking to you.” There really is nothing new under the sun.
Jacob eventually leaves Succoth and travels to Shechem. There he buys land – this will be where Joseph is eventually buried when the Israelites bring his bones back from Egypt (Josh 24:32) – and builds an altar to God. He names the place El-Elohe-Israel, which means “God, the God of Israel.” In so doing, he fulfills the promise he made at Bethel that if God brought him back to Canaan then the Lord will be my God (28:21). After more than 20 years God has brought him home – and God will be Israel’s God. Israel is home and Yahweh is his God.
Jacob’s meeting with Esau shows why God chose the time and place He did to appear to Jacob and wrestle with him. God made Jacob understand that he couldn’t continue to rely on himself as he had done for most of his life. He wrestled with Jacob until Jacob yielded and asked for a blessing. In so doing, he acknowledged that God is greater than him and he could no longer live for just himself. And in that acknowledgement, he prepared to meet Esau. Coming face to face with Esau after coming face to face with God becomes an entirely different experience than what it could’ve been for two reasons. One, he knows he doesn’t face Esau alone. Two, he knows that everything in his life comes from and is about God (remember his statements to Esau – “The children whom God has graciously given your servant”; “I see your face as one sees the face of God, and you have received me favorably”; and “Please take my blessing which has been brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and I have plenty”). If it’s all about God he doesn’t have to worry. If it’s all about God, then whatever happens is about and from God too, and Esau is God’s problem more than Jacob’s. Jacob was a man weighed down by fear and doubt when he wrestled with God. By the time he meets Esau, he’s a man who’s free.
The same should be true of us. It is only when we acknowledge God’s authority and preeminence in our lives that we are free. When it’s all about us we’re miserable. When it’s all about God, we’re free. Have you ever seen an undisciplined six-year-old with his parents? The type of kid who’s apparently never heard the word ‘no’? Ever noticed how miserable he is? That’s because he’s six and he’s in control of a family. He’s living without boundaries and it’s a miserable responsibility for a six-year-old. If he had parents who loved him enough to be real authorities in his life, he’d be much happier. We’re the same way as God’s children. If we’re in charge of our lives and it’s all about us, it’s a miserable existence because so many things can and do go wrong – or don’t go the way we want them to. And when we have to bear the responsibility for the outcomes in our lives, we crack under the pressure. But when we acknowledge that it’s all about God and that HE’S responsible for the outcomes and the direction, then we’re free and content. It’s God’s worry and glory instead of ours. All of us have Esaus we have to face. The only way to face them successfully is to see them as God’s problem subject to God’s solution and in our lives for God’s honor and glory.
I have set the LORD continually before me;
Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad and my glory rejoices;
My flesh also will dwell securely.
For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol;
Nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.
You will make known to me the path of life;
In Your presence is fullness of joy;
In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.