Exposition of Genesis: Volumes 1 and 2
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9. Reconcilation with Esau; Settlement in Canaan (33:1-20)

The chapter as a whole furnishes an outstanding example as to how God turns the hearts of men "withersoever he will" (Prov. 21:1). A delightful reconciliation takes place between brothers long estranged, but this reconciliation comes from God as an answer to earnest prayer.

1-3. And Jacob raised his eyes, and looked, and there was Esau coming, and with him were four hundred men. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two handmaidens. And he put the handmaidens and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. But he himself went on ahead of them, and bowed low seven times until he had come close to Esau.

The preparations recorded in the previous chapter are apparently just completed, and at daybreak Jacob had just crossed the stream when he looked ahead "and there was Esau coming." One glance suffices to show that the men in attendance are the four hundred that had been reported. One last precautionary measure can yet be taken. To put himself first in the way of danger, if there really be any, induces Jacob to come to the forefront and to arrange his wives and his children in climactic order so that the most beautiful and best beloved come last and so may be spared if none else will. Each mother stands with her own children and Rachel last with Joseph, who, as some seem to compute with a fair measure of accuracy, was now a lad of perhaps six years. Ri’shonah is an adverb. ’Acharonim as an adjective agrees with its nearest noun.

3. ’Abhar does not here mean "cross over," for the stream had been crossed, but "went on ahead." "He bows," ’artsah, i. e., "to the earth," but we have not translated the phrase thus because there is another expression which signifies the deepest bow in which the face actually touches the earth. "Low" seems strong enough here. Jacob bowed, advanced a few steps, and bowed again, until seven obeisances were made. Such tokens of respect to the number of seven were the customary homage tendered to kings according to the el-Amarna tablets. Jacob indicates only his deep respect and courtesy toward his brother. Jacob’s deceit in the matter of the blessing had made an unceremonious fraternal greeting impossible. Yet Jacob does not indicate Esau to be ruler over him, but he does strongly indicate his willingness to show Esau all due respect and consideration. We have no reason for questioning the sincerity of Jacob’s courteous approach. The spirit of cunning which had often dominated Jacob in the past had been put aside in the experience of the previous night. Gishto is infinitive of naghash (G. K. 66 b). The words from the el-Amarna tablets referred to above run thus: "At the feet of the king, my lord, seven times and seven times do I fall." The expression is found on these tablets more than fifty times.

4-7. And Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. And he lifted up his eyes and saw the women and the children, and said: What relation are they to thee? And he said: The children whom God hath graciously bestowed upon thy servant. And the handmaidens approached—they and their children— and bowed. Leah also drew near and her children and bowed; and then Joseph and Rachel drew near and bowed.

The much dreaded encounter resolves itself into as friendly a meeting as Jacob could ever have wished. Esau was impulsive. All rancor and bitterness are forgotten at the sight of his only brother. If Esau had himself not been clear in his own mind at first as to the attitude he would take, now all thoughts of vengeance evaporate. That was God’s doing. Esau makes the first move: he "runs" and "embraces" Jacob and "falls upon his neck" and "kisses" him. These many verbs are by no means indications of the smelting together of two original accounts but a historically correct record of what actually transpired in the excess of strong feeling at the moment of meeting. We can hardly determine now what prompted the Masoretes to put the "extraordinary points" over the verb "kissed." Later rabbinical commentators believed the word was a mistake for "bit." But the sincerity of Esau’s approach need not be doubted; nothing casts suspicion on his attitude. He is frank and straightforward. The word tsawwa’raw should, apparently, have the ending ro rather than raw, being a word that may be regarded as a singular (ro) or as a plural.

5. Esau’s eyes fall upon the women and the children immediately before him—the handmaidens and their offspring. He may well inquire as to whose they all are, for when Jacob had left home he was still unmarried. Esau asks: "What relation are these to thee?" literally: "What these to thee?" Oriental custom does not suggest that a man take much interest in another man’s wife; so Jacob replies only in reference to the children, that they have been "graciously bestowed" upon him by God. Chanan, written with double n because active (G. K. 67 a). "God" is referred to as ’Elohim, it seems, because Jacob desires to avoid reference to Yahweh, whose blessing he secured at his brother’s expense.

6, 7. Then the handmaidens and their children approach, bowing respectfully as Jacob had done. Then comes Leah and her children; lastly, Joseph and Rachel. How it happened that Joseph came before his mother we do not know. Niggash is the Nifal of naghash, used for the Kal (G. K. 78).

8-11. And he said: What about all this host that I met? And he said: To find favor in the sight of my lord. And Esau said: I have much, my brother; keep what thou hast. And Jacob said: Please, no. If only I might find favor in thy sight and thou wouldest accept my gift at my hands! For on that account have I beheld thy face, as one sees the face of God; and thou hast graciously received me. Accept, I pray, my gift of welcome which I have offered thee, for God hath dealt graciously with me, and also because I have everything. So he urged him, and he accepted.

Some commentators confuse the whole story at this point by claiming that the "host" referred to is one-half of Jacob’s train. This they claim, because "host" (machaneh) in 32:8, 9 is used in reference to one-half of Jacob’s goods but nowhere in reference to Jacobs "present" to Esau. But is not the case as simple as it can be? Is not the present so substantial as to be naturally described as a "host"? Making "host" here refer to half of Jacob’s train lets the story lose sight of Jacob’s "present" entirely; and, besides, it makes Jacob lie smoothly to the effect that he had intended to give one half of his goods to Esau. This type of exegesis presses words at the expense of common sense, no matter how inadequate the account as such becomes. K. C. perhaps did well to ignore the whole issue as too trivial to mention. Esau’s question really has a lekha ("to thee") in it: "What to thee is all this host?" We felt that our form of the question might come fairly close to the original: "What about all this host that I met?" But it was Jacob’s present, had not Jacob’s servants told Esau what Jacob intended by it? Naturally, but Esau, by ignoring what they have said, implies that he could not be the recipient of so great a gift. But Jacob plainly states his purpose: "to find favor in the sight of my lord."

9. Esau could hardly receive so generous a gift without protestations of his unwillingness to do so, if his meeting with his brother just before had actually been a meeting in brotherly love. He seems to have been quite rich himself. He does not say: "I have enough" (A.V. and Luther), but: "I have much" (rabh). He actually does not want anything from Jacob.

10. Jacob pleads urgently. His offer was sincere. Esau’s acceptance would be the surest token of his having been reconciled to his brother. If the customs of the Orient of our day are an index of the attitude of bygone days, then the acceptance of the gift of the person seeking reconciliation would have been the surest proof that all was well. The two perfects after ’im matsathi and laqachti are the expression of a wish, although the wish takes the form of conditional sentences (K. S. 355 w): "if I might find favour—if thou wouldest accept." The expression "for on that account" (ki’al-ken) —namely, that thou mightest accept my gift—introduces again in a loose popular style a result just mentioned. The statement: "I beheld thy face as one sees the face of God," is not fulsome flattery meant as if Jacob had been as glad to see Esau as one would be to see the Lord Himself. Such excessive compliments would be obnoxious. Strong but sincere courtesy rules all these utterances. What Jacob means is that in the friendliness beaming from Esau’s face he saw a reflection of divine favour, because he knew that it was God Himself who had changed Esau’s heart to make it friendly. Passages like 1 Sam. 29:9 and 2 Sam. 14:17 are analogous. Skinner runs to extremes when he makes the expression mean, "with the feelings of joy and reverence with which one engages in the worship of God." Since the expression is plainly figurative, Procksch introduces too literal a thought when he draws a parallel between the relief experienced at the danger of death which Esau’s presence threatened, even as God’s countenance would normally be death to the beholder; but from the one a man is delivered with the same feelings as from the other. K. C. overstates the case when he calls Esau’s countenance as "worshipful and comforting" as would be the Lord’s. "Thou hast graciously received me" is tirtseni from ratsah, "to accept favorably." The infinitive re’oth has no subject expressed—which allows for the indefinite subject "one"; yet "I" might well be supplied from the context.

11. The urgency of Jacob’s plea that his gift be accepted is further reflected by the enclitic na’ after "accept." Berakhah, "blessing," also means "gift," but in this case a "gift of welcome" (K. W.). Two further reasons for the acceptance of this gift are added: the first, "God hath dealt graciously with me," therefore a generous gift will not impoverish; and the second is like unto the first, "I have everything." It has often been remarked that Jacob, sure of having the Lord on his side, can boldly claim that he has everything. Esau, not resting his confidence in the Lord, can only say, "I have much" (v. 9). Esau recognized the propriety of the motive behind Jacob’s gift and saw that acceptance of it would be the strongest proof of thorough reconciliation, so "he accepted" when thus "urged."

12-16. And he said: Let us depart and be on our way, and I shall go along parallel with thee. But he said: My lord knoweth that the children are of tender age, and that flocks and herds that are giving suck are upon my hands. If they be overdriven but one day, they will die—all the flock. Let my lord, I pray, pass on ahead of thy servant, and I shall drive along at my leisure at a gait suited to the cattle before me and at a gait suited to the children, until I come to my lord to Seir. And Esau said: Then let me leave with thee as guard some of the men I have with me. And he said: Why then? Only let me find favor in my master’s sight. So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir.

Esau anticipates that Jacob will at once proceed at least down to Hebron. As an expression of his friendly disposition he suggests that both companies advance together, his four hundred men moving along parallel with Jacob’s flocks—"parallel with," leneghdekha ="as over against thee" not "before thee" (A.V.). Meek says: "alongside." Jacob suggests that this be not done, not because he mistrusts Esau’s sincerity or expects the brotherly goodwill to be of short duration, but exactly for the reason that he assigns, which reason, therefore, is not a pretext. The cattle have actually been driven to the limit in Jacob’s escape from Laban, and caution must be used lest they be overdriven. On the other hand, the slow progress of Jacob’s cattle would have proved irksome to Esau’s unencumbered soldiery. Nor were Jacob’s children equal to a strenuous journey, for Reuben, the eldest, could not have been more than twelve years old. Many of the cattle were with young, ’aloth ="giving suck"; ’alay ="upon me" or, as we should say, "upon my hands." Debhaqum ="they overdrive them," indefinite subject, conveniently rendered as a passive.

Jacob seems to have had another reason for refusing Esau’s company and protection, though out of delicacy he does not tell it before his brother: Jacob like Abraham (14:23) was conscious that he owed his entire wealth and success to God’s blessing and, therefore, he felt the necessity of maintaining his independence, lest it might seem as though others had contributed to his wealth. The masculine suffix on debhaqum refers to the feminine ’aloth —an irregularity (K. S. 15).

14. Jacob suggests that each proceed at the pace best suited to his condition, Esau "passing on ahead." Throughout these discussions Jacob maintains the respectful address that he had used upon the first approach—"my lord" —"thy servant." At is really "gentleness"; but "to my gentleness"="at my leisure." So réghel, "foot,"‘ here means "gait." Mela’khah, "work," means "the product of one’s work" here Jacob’s "cattle." The statement that so by easy stages Jacob would finally come to the point where he could come to Esau "to Seir" is not pretense. This evidently was Jacob’s sincere purpose. Though it may have been delayed, why should we doubt that Jacob did visit his brother, perhaps even repeatedly? The Scriptures cannot report every major and every minor incident.

15. Esau at least would leave a guard with Jacob. For the reason assigned above under v. 12 Jacob feels that this kind offer cannot be accepted. Yatsagh, Hifil, means "to set up"; here it must mean "leave a guard." Jacob sincerely means: your goodwill is quite sufficient for me. Jacob really dominates the entire interview, and Esau goes on his way. Lammah zeh, "why then," can, of course, also be construed: "what needeth it?" (A.V.). The imperfect following is optative. Min-ha’am, "from the people," presupposes some such indefinite pronoun as "a few of the people" (K. S. 81).

16. This verse does not say that Esau was also permanently established in Seir. He may have been busied about the task of subduing the land. But he may also still have had a part of his establishment somewhere in the vicinity of Hebron or Beersheba. Without a doubt, he recognized that his ultimate domain had to be Seir.

As to the question of Esau’s spiritual status we can hardly agree with Luther, who with great charity assumes that Esau was by this time a man who had come to the faith and was ultimately saved. Of course, the personal salvation of Esau need not be ruled out. But one thing surely stands in the way of regarding Esau as a man who has come to the true faith. Had his faith accepted what the Lord had ordained, he would have held to Jacob as the possessor of the divine promise. His failure to do this seems to indicate that the true spiritual values were not grasped nor understood by him. This prevents his being classed as a man of faith, though in the end the spiritual truth communicated by Isaac may have turned his heart to the Lord.

17. Jacob started out for Succoth and built himself a house, and for the cattle he made booths (succoth); therefore the name of the place was called Succoth.

Succoth is now usually identified with Tell Deir ‘Alla, a short distance east of the Jordan and north of the Jabbok, i. e., near the point of confluence of the two rivers. To reach this place Jacob naturally had to ford the Jabbok again. The fact that he built "a house" indicates a residence of several years, as does the fact that, according to chapter 34, when Dinah comes to Shechem she is already quite mature. After Esau’s departure Jacob may have become aware of the fact that the cattle required more extensive care. This may have necessitated the postponement of his journey to Seir. Thereafter other circumstances may have made a continued stay at Succoth desirable. The name "Succoth" (feminine plural of sukkah, "booth") was derived from the peculiar type of hut or booth, built for the shelter of cattle. These booths are described by travelers as something still occupied by the Bedouin of the Jordan valley, and as being "rude huts of reeds, sometimes covered with long grass, and sometimes with a piece of tent" (Whitelaw).

18-20. And Jacob arrived safe and sound at the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, upon his return from Paddan-Aram, and he encamped in front of the city. And he acquired the portion of the field where he pitched his tent from the hand of the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem, for a hundred kesitas. There he erected an altar and called it: El-Elohe-Israel (i. e. A Mighty God is the God of Israel).

How long the interval was between v. 17 and v. 18 we are unable to determine; cf. on v. 17. But in reality the land of Canaan was not reached till the Jordan was crossed. But a special significance attaches to the entrance into the land proper, for 28:15 had specially promised this to Jacob. So the fulfillment of this promise is being recorded when it is said that "he arrived safe and sound" and that the city of Shechem to which he came was "in the land of Canaan." Shalem is hardly a proper name (A.V. and Luther) but means "safe and sound" (unversehrt). The remark that this was the case "upon his return (literally: ‘in his coming’) from Paddan-Aram" helps to remind us that the fulfillment of the above promise was involved. He encamps "in front of (literally, ’eth peney, ‘by the face’) the city," an expression which here definitely means "to the east of."

19. As a testimony to the fact that he expects permanent possession of all the land, because it had been promised to him, he purchases the portion where he encamped from the sons of one Hamor, who by way of anticipation of the events of the next chapter, is described as the father of Shechem. It would hardly seem as though the name Shechem already belonged to the city at that time. The following events may have attached the name to the city in years to come. So the writer uses this name proleptically. We do not know the value of a "kesita" (qesitah). K. C. is a bit too positive when he simply asserts that it was "of the value of ten shekels." This is the only place where the coin is mentioned. This parcel of ground was remembered by Jacob’s descendants. There Joseph’s bones were buried (Josh. 24:32).

20. After the example of Abraham (12:8) as he entered the land Jacob also builds an altar unto the Lord. The name of the altar embodies the sum of Jacob’s spiritual experience, which he sought to transfer to coming generations. So he gives the altar a name which is in itself a statement to the effect that "the God of Israel" is an ’el, i. e., "a Strong One," i. e., "a mighty God." Jacob is remembering God’s promise, and God has in an outstanding way proved Himself a God well able to keep His promises. The common name for God, ’el, covers this thought. By the use of his own new name, "Israel," Jacob indicates that the restored, new man within him was the one that understood this newly acquired truth concerning God. We believe those to be in the wrong who assume that while Jacob was in Paddan-Aram he lapsed into the idolatrous ways of men like Laban and so practically forsook the God of his fathers. Nothing points in that direction. The meagre evidence available rather points to a fidelity on Jacob’s part, which, though it was not of the strong ethical fibre as was that of Abraham, yet kept him from apostasy. Since it stood in need also of some measure of purification, God took Jacob in hand, especially at Peniel, and raised his faith-life to a higher level.


If the account of v. 17 is used as text, the treatment of it must center around the thought of the reconciliation of the two brothers. Some very practical thoughts are offered by this text. In the first place, the emphasis is very clearly on the fact that a true change of heart in the relation of man to man must originate with the good Lord, who can change even the most stubborn of hearts and make them to be inclined to peace and amity. In the second place, this is a Scripture that offers a significant silence: the two brothers do not discuss either at length or in brief the issues that had set them at variance with one another. There are persons who believe that the all-essential thing is discussions. However, there may be a perfect and a satisfactory harmony between men who had failed to agree, and the basis of such harmony may be the tacit agreement to let bygones be bygones. The last part of the chapter, v. 18-20, could be used to furnish a theme that embodies the idea of Jacob’s Manly Confession.

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