The Meeting of Jacob and Esau

And Jacob lifted up his eyes, (and looked, and, beheld, Esau came, and with him four hundred men . . ..

And he passed over before them, and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother. 

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

GENESIS 33:1,3,4 

As the glory of the morning sun broke forth in the dawn of another day, it was a new and different Jacob that reunited himself with his family. Much of his old strength was gone. Externally he was a cripple, destined henceforth to limp haltingly on a wounded thigh. Internally his old self-confidence was crushed; no longer did he feel capable of caring for himself; much less, did he think that somehow he had to help God in the realizing of the promise. The scheming Jacob was gone; in his place stood Israel, the prince who had struggled in faith with God and conquered. He had learned life’s most difficult lesson, the lesson of true humility and meekness. 

Lifting his eyes toward the distance, Jacob saw approaching him Esau, his alienated brother, with his four hundred armed men. As we might expect, there still lingered in the heart of Jacob that sinking feeling of fear as he thought on the great harm that the power of Esau could easily inflict; but now he was able to prepare for the coming of his brother with much more calmness than he had the day before. Quietly he arranged his family for the meeting. Still maintaining his old preference for Rachel and Joseph, he gave to them the safest position in the rear. Leah, the handmaids, and the other children, he arranged in order before them. He, alone and defenseless, went ahead to meet with Esau. 

As Esau approached, Jacob bowed himself seven times to the ground. This action of Jacob we must be careful to understand correctly. In the first place, it was a sign of Jacob’s newly acquired humility. There remained with Jacob a feeling of guilt concerning those former actions which he had perpetrated against Esau. Although basically he had a love for the promise of God, he had sought to obtain it in his own strength rather than in faith and reliance upon God. He had fought with Esau after the flesh. Now, by his bows, at a time when actions spoke louder than words, he was telling Esau that he was renouncing this former, carnal approach. It was not that he was renouncing the blessing of God which he had sought, that was assigned to him by God’s election and could not be reversed; but he was renouncing the carnal manner in which he had sought it. Thus he could stand before Esau, alone and without defense, for he trusted in God to care for him. In the second place, we should note that Jacob’s greeting was purely formal. After the fashion of oriental peoples, this approach was very elaborate; but in the terms of any land, there is no more cold and distant greeting than seven formal bows. Jacob was not yet ready to meet Esau with a friendly or brotherly greeting. Although he repented from his self-willed actions which had been so offensive to Esau in the past, there still remained between them a basic conflict. Jacob loved the covenant of God; Esau did not. Jacob sought the way of the Lord; Esau would have nothing of it. Jacob was a friend of God; Esau had always revealed himself an enemy. Until Esau too showed some sign of true repentance, Jacob could show no real warmth in his greeting. With seven formal bows Jacob greeted his brother. 

Equally interesting is the greeting with which Esau approached Jacob. A day or two before when he had met the messengers of Jacob, his attitude had been very doubtful. Their message had not been at all warlike, but he was not ready to accept this. With good reason he did not trust Jacob. Always in former years Jacob had been a schemer, plotting to gain the upper hand. Usually he had succeeded. Esau was not ready to let this happen again. He was ready to meet Jacob with whatever approach he took. If Jacob wanted to battle, he would battle too. If Jacob wanted to be crafty, he would be crafty too. He was ready to resume their former conflict, determined this time to gain the upper hand. Should it prove necessary, he was ready to carry out his oath of former years to slay his younger brother.

As Esau hastened to meet with Jacob, however, he came first to the gifts that Jacob had sent ahead. With the first flock of animals he began to wonder what the scheme behind them could be. But as there came another and another and still another, his attitude toward Jacob began to soften. What ulterior motive Jacob could have by placing all of these valuable cattle in his power he could not imagine. The message of the various servants, “They be thy servant Jacob’s: it is a present sent unto my lord Esau,” he found to be most flattering. Esau, of course, was unable to understand that Jacob intended to show humility and meekness in this way. Such things had no meaning for Esau. He could see only that Jacob was cowed and afraid. Jacob was afraid of his greater power and wanted to be friends. Impressed by Esau’s strength, Jacob was ready to renounce all conflict and even the goal of supremacy in their family. Partly accurate, yet basically erroneous, was Esau’s interpretation. He understood that Jacob wished to renounce their outward conflict in the flesh; but he could not understand that there would yet remain between them an inner conflict of the spirit. Nonetheless Esau was satisfied. When finally Jacob approached and bowed before him seven times, Esau was convinced that he intended no harm. 

Once he had come to this conclusion, Esau was more than willing to meet Jacob on a friendly basis. As though suddenly overcome with a wave of tender emotion, he threw himself upon his brother embracing him, kissing him and weeping. A few hours before he had felt very cold toward his brother, ready to meet him in battle and destroy him. Now in a moment it was changed, for it looked to him as if he would henceforth be able to dominate over Jacob completely. It looked to him like he was the victor, and it was flattering to his pride. It pleased him greatly to play the part of a patronizing lord condescending to be kind to an undeserving servant. As long as Jacob did not contest with him for the leadership but submitted to him in all things, Esau was more than willing that he should live. Impulsively he threw the whole of his emotional nature into welcoming his brother home. Should Jacob make one mistake those same emotions would change in a moment to bitter hatred. Until that time Esau was pleased to receive his brother back. 

In accord with the patronizing attitude which he had taken, Esau inquired into the identity of the family that followed Jacob. In this Jacob found an occasion to give testimony to Esau of his continued faith in Jehovah God. He told him that these were the children that had been graciously given to him by God. To this testimony, however, Esau was completely unresponsive. Although his emotions could respond so profusely to the greeting of a brother, they had absolutely no appreciation to talk about God. No sooner had Jacob’s family given their formal greetings, than Esau rapidly changed the subject. 

“What meanest thou,” asked Esau, “by the drove which I met?’ Those flocks which Jacob had sent ahead to meet him, still continued to perplex Esau. He could not imagine that anyone would sacrifice such a large and valuable gift freely. Neither did he feel free, in his newly acquired attitude of patronizing favor, to accept the gift as offered. Jacob, however, was quite determined that Esau should accept this gift. This transaction would serve as a testimony and seal to the fact that he had been received back by Esau with kindness. It would more or less obligate Esau to be kind to him and his family in the future. Upon the urging of Jacob, Esau finally consented to take the gift. 

Rather difficult to understand, in this connection is the statement of Jacob’s, “If now I have found grace in thy sight, then receive my present at my hand: for therefore I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me.” The difficulty is to understand how Jacob could say to Esau that he saw his face as though he had seen the face of God. This has been explained in two different ways. The one explanation is that in that day it was a common figure of speech to compare a pleasant meeting with seeing the face of God. This common figure Jacob made use of without expecting that it would be taken by anyone in its literal meaning. The second explanation is that Jacob saw very literally in the approach of Esau the work of the hand of God. It was the favor of God toward him, Jacob, which had worked in Esau to turn away his anger and to make him kindly disposed toward Jacob.

As soon as Jacob saw that Esau was no longer angry at him, he saw as it were also behind Esau’s change of heart, the favor of God turning away the wrath of his enemies. It is this latter view which we would feel must come closest to what was actually intended by Jacob. 

As soon as that was decided, Esau suggested that they proceed on their way. He was still of a restless nature, and to extend the formalities of greeting was not to his liking. His suggestion was that as Jacob continued to travel, he and his four hundred men would accompany them, protecting them thereby and guiding them. To this plan Jacob could not consent. He explained to Esau, “My lord knoweth that the children are tender, and the flocks and herds with young are with me: and if men should overdrive them one day, all the flock will die. Let my lord, I pray thee, pass over before his servant: and I will lead on softly, according as the cattle that goeth before me and the children be able to endure.” That the flocks and children of Jacob could not keep pace with his fighting men, Esau, of course, could not deny. Thus he acceded to the suggestion of Jacob. Underneath, however, Jacob had a far deeper reason for not wanting to follow Esau. He discerned in Esau a desire to remain on very friendly terms with Jacob but in such a manner that he could dominate Jacob’s life. To this Jacob could never consent. Esau was a Godless man and their ways of life could not be allowed to intermingle. There could be no real friendship between them. He pushed this point very strongly until Esau consented and made his way alone toward Sier. 

We could wish, of course, that Jacob would have been more bold and direct in testifying of his faith toward Esau. We cannot escape the impression that Esau was often allowed to come to conclusions different from those which lived in the heart of Jacob, but Jacob said nothing to correct him. We would like to read that Jacob laid very clearly before Esau exactly what was his true status before God. We should remember, however, that it was only the night before Jacob had been at Penuel. Not until then had he seen clearly the necessity of leaving behind his old way of life, the way of relying upon his own strength and ingenuity. Although we cannot excuse it, we can easily understand that he was at first hesitant to speak out concerning his new found understanding. In fact, how many are there not of us who although they understand full well, are still after many years hesitant to speak out concerning their convictions, and in far less trying circumstances than those of Jacob? 

– B.W.