Genesis 33: Jacob and Esau Reconcile
For 20 years, every time Jacob thought of his twin brother Esau, he also remembered Esau's intention to kill him. But God works and changes Esau's heart.
Have you ever sensed God testing your love for Him by calling you to repair a broken relationship?
Having learned in the previous chapter that Jacob had power with God, we now see in Genesis 33 that he has power with men. We are told how Jacob and Esau are reconciled before parting ways as Jacob settles in Shechem.
vv. 1–11 - Seeing Esau on the horizon, Jacob divides his family into three groups in a fashion that reflected the ongoing favoritism in his heart. However, it also has a practical side, helping to preserve life and uphold God’s plan for his family should Esau decide to attack. Like the Lord Jesus leaving Gethsemane only to walk purposefully into the presence of His enemies, Jacob now has the courage to lead the way towards Esau, which he does so with humility. The result is unexpected, as Esau runs to Jacob, embraces him and they both begin to weep. Can you picture the scene? Few moments are more powerful than those of reconciliation. The three bands of Jacob’s family then approach Esau one by one. The two men then discuss the large gift Jacob wanted to give the Esau. Such is the etiquette, if Esau rejects it, Jacob has reason to believe there is still trouble between them, so he urges its acceptance. Why does Jacob say, “I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God”? The sense is, in the smile of Esau, Jacob sees the smile of God’s providence. He cannot help but see God answering prayer in the warmth of Esau’s reception. We look with hope to the day when many of the unbelieving Jews will turn from their hostility to Christ and embrace him savingly.
vv. 12–17 - but where will Jacob settle? Esau tries to convince Jacob to return with him, making offers of assistance to help. First, he offers to lead Jacob’s family to his dwelling in Seir. However, everyone with Jacob has been traveling for days and they are exhausted already and need careful treatment. Second, Esau offers servants, but Jacob doesn’t need anymore than he has. Thus, Esau returns to Seir and Jacob sets up a temporary dwelling in Succoth (perhaps waiting for the Jordan to be crossable) before finally making his way into Canaan, the land of promise. Some criticize Jacob for saying he would go to Seir and not going. However, we do not know if Jacob perhaps made a brief visit himself to Esau and explained the circumstances. Because, the reality is, Seir was not in Canaan, and God had commanded him to return to Canaan.
vv. 18–20 - Jacob finally arrives in Canaan. I see two potential shortcomings here. First, I think he ought to have journeyed a little farther and returned to Bethel where he first met with God in Genesis 28. Second, although Abraham bought ground to bury Sarah, I’m not sure Jacob ought to have purchased land. The land had been promised, and faith is exercised by waiting for God to give it. Whatever the case, he proceeds to build his first altar and calls it, “God, the true God of Israel” to reflect that the true God was his God before all the idolators around him.
Men should take responsibility to lead in danger. Now that Jacob had met with God, it had helped him with his fear of Esau. “His heart is fixed, trusting in the LORD” (Ps. 112:7). Although he orders the family into three companies, he is willing to lead the way. Fathers, maintain this order, model it and teach it to your sons. Not that women must be fearful, but biologically, all things being equal, men are built to protect and women are built to nurture. Help cultivate these traits, and keep your daughters away from joining the military, police, or other positions. However, modern society romanticizes it, it is against the created order.
The gospel is the priority for all believers. The birthright conferred on Jacob a place of superiority in the family and greater inheritance, yet Jacob shows deference to Esau and gives him a tremendous gift to reflect his desire to put things right. For all his faults, having the hope of the Messiah through his line meant more to Jacob than anything else. Christian, learn the same truth. Everything is secondary to the gospel. Men must believe that Christ is the I AM, or they die in their sins (John 8:24).
A man’s words gives away the condition of his heart. In the brief exchange, Jacob repeatedly refers to God (vv. 5, 10, 11). However, Esau, despite his kind attitude, never refers to God. In addition, although the translation records both men in v. 9 and v. 11 saying, “I have enough” there is a slight difference in the Hebrew. Esau is saying that he has plenty material possessions. Jacob’s language indicates everything. In other words, Esau had plenty, but Jacob had all things (because he had God). Christian, your words reflect more about your heart than you realize. Jesus said, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (Matthew 12:34; Luke 6:45). Your words give you away as a Christian in love with your God, or as backslidden, or as an unbeliever.
Reconciliation can occur without rehearsing every hurt of the past. Jacob does not try to explain that it was their mother who put him up to the deception, or anything like that. He takes ownership of his own actions, and both men are willing to leave everything in the past and let bygones be bygones. There is wisdom in this. Some people are obsessed with going over the details of every event, who said what, etc, before they reconcile. In doing so, they reopen old wounds making the entire process counterproductive. Learn to bury grudges quickly and imperfectly. “Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself?” (Eccl. 7:16).
Repairing relationships is not the same as restoring fellowship. There is an insurmountable worldview barrier between Jacob and Esau. Jacob should seek to be friendly and warm to Esau, but they are not on the same path and they cannot live in the same community. Christian, love your unsaved family, but don’t be surprised when you can’t seem to have a close relationship. No family relationship is worth compromising what God calls you to.
Be content knowing that if you have Christ you have all. As noted, Jacob reflects the distinction between merely having the material and having everything. Like Asaph in Psalm 73, sometimes we can be frustrated by the prosperity of the wicked. However, never forget, as Paul writes to the Corinthians, “all are your’s; And ye are Christ’s” (1 Cor. 3:22–23). To the Colossians he states that Christ “is our life” (Col. 3:4). Dear Christian, live on the altar for Christ. Give Him everything. Model for your family, church, and community, the blessing of a life consecrated to Christ.
Make your commitment to Christ public. Matthew Henry said, “Where we have a tent God must have an altar.” Jacob, for the first time, builds an altar. This was a declaration of his rejection of heathen altars and places of worship, and a public monument of his love for the true and living God to his family and the community. Christian, if your faith isn’t public, your light isn’t shining.
“The rule is—first peace with man and then acceptance with God. The holy must be traversed to reach the Holiest of all. Peace being made with our brother, then let us conclude our service towards our Father—and we shall do so with lighter heart and truer zeal.” — Charles Spurgeon