Commentary on Genesis 33

Last updated: October 20, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1And Jacob lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, Esau was coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two female servants. 2And he put the servants with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. 3He himself went on before them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.

4But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. 5And when Esau lifted up his eyes and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” 6Then the servants drew near, they and their children, and bowed down. 7Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down. And last Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down. 8Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” Jacob answered, “To find favor in the sight of my lord.” 9But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” 10Jacob said, “No, please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand. For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me. 11Please accept my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough.” Thus he urged him, and he took it.

12Then Esau said, “Let us journey on our way, and I will go ahead of you.” 13But Jacob said to him, “My lord knows that the children are frail, and that the nursing flocks and herds are a care to me. If they are driven hard for one day, all the flocks will die. 14Let my lord pass on ahead of his servant, and I will lead on slowly, at the pace of the livestock that are ahead of me and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.”

15So Esau said, “Let me leave with you some of the people who are with me.” But he said, “What need is there? Let me find favor in the sight of my lord.” 16So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir. 17But Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built himself a house and made booths for his livestock. Therefore the name of the place is called Succoth.

18And Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, on his way from Paddan-aram, and he camped before the city. 19And from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, he bought for a hundred pieces of money the piece of land on which he had pitched his tent. 20There he erected an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel.

Notes

2 And he put the servants with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all.

The concubine wives and their children are put at the front of the group and are thus more vulnerable. Rachel and Joseph, Jacob’s favorite wife and child (29:30; 37:3-4), are put in the safest position.

3 He himself went on before them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.

According to the Amarna letters, bowing seven times was the proper act of respect of a vassal to his overlord.1 The language echoes the blessing that Isaac gave to Jacob but meant for Esau: “Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. ” (27:29). But this action is not a reversal of that blessing, it is a sign of humility.

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

Esau’s murderous bitterness (27:41-42) is gone. It is not stated what caused this change in Esau.

5 And when Esau lifted up his eyes and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.”

Note that Jacob avoids using the potentially offensive word “blessed” when speaking of the children God gave him, which would have recalled the origin of the conflict between the brothers (ch. 27).

8 Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” Jacob answered, “To find favor in the sight of my lord.”

Judging from Jacob’s response to Esau’s question, Esau was requesting further explanation for the herds that Jacob had sent ahead. That the messengers had already offered some explanation (32:4-5[5-6]) does not necessarily indicate the present verse is a variant tradition, as some believe. Esau probably was requesting clarification for the purpose of the herds since the number of animals was excessively generous. Or, since Jacob’s response did not differ from the earlier message, except by the deferential address “my lord” (cp. 32:6[7]), Esau may be initiating the customary show of refusal typical of negotiations.2

10-11 Jacob said, “No, please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand. For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me. Please accept my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough.” Thus he urged him, and he took it.

This rhetorical extravagance yields, perhaps intentionally, several possible meanings: encountering you, Esau, is like a pilgrimage to a shrine, which one does not make empty-handed; I have been admitted to your august presence; you have been graciously indulgent of me; my encounter with you is like that with a divine being.3

Jacob ties together his meeting with God in ch. 32 with his meeting with Esau in ch. 33 by just to see your face is like seeing God’s face. “Peni-el” (face of God”) has been followed by “Peni-esau” (face of Esau). Reconciliation with God is now capped off with reconciliation with a brother. For of vassal status (like Jacob) comparing a superior to a divine being cf. 1 Sam. 29:9; 2 Sam. 14:17, 20; 19:28 (Eng. 27). On a different level cf. Acts 6:15, “they saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.” Of course, Jacob is not saying that Esau has undergone a metamorphosis, or that he exudes a divine luminescence. The surprise of ch. 32 is that Jacob saw God, and yet his life was spared. The surprise in ch. 33 is that Jacob has seen Esau, and yet his life is spared. God’s mercy to Jacob is conveyed by the verb nasal (Gen. 32:31 [Eng. 30]); Esau’s mercy to Jacob is conveyed by the verb rasa (33:10).

Jacob is as insistent with Esau as he was with the man at Peniel. His “I will not let you go unless you bless me” now becomes, in effect, “I will not let you go unless you accept my gift.”4

Another telling remark made in Jacob’s argument is his choice of birkati (lit., “my blessing”) for describing this “present” (v. 11), which departs from the prevalent term minhati (“my gift”), occurring in v. 10 and in the prior narrative (32:13, 18, 20, 21[14, 19, 21, 22]). The word beraka may indicate generally a “gift” (e.g., Josh 15:19; 1 Sam 25:27; 2 Kgs 5:5) or a benefit (Isa 65:8). The suggestion my some commentators that Jacob by this allusion to Esau’s complaint (27:36) is returning the stolen “blessing,” in the sense of invalidating his father’s blessing, overstates Jacob’s intention. Neither is it a “slip of the tongue,” resulting from a guilty conscience. Structurally, minhati (v. 10) and birkati are parallel terms in this context, the latter nuancing the former as a gesture of goodwill. Jacob understood very well from his own losses to Laban (31:6-8, 31, 41-42) that Esau had suffered injury by his crime, desiring to make amends through this offering. The author indicates that the reason for acceptance of the gift was due to Jacob’s earnestness, “because Jacob insisted [wayyipsar],” not that Esau made a claim on Jacob’s possessions. The term rendered “insisted” (sapar) indicates passionate persuasion (19:3, 19; 2 Kgs 5:16), at one point even a fervent stubbornness or presumption likened to rebellion (1 Sam 15:23). Abraham’s displeasure at a stolen well illustrates the language of a complainant (23:25-26). We do not have claim and counterclaim here but congenial social conventions.5

16 So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir.

Esau’s descendants would live outside of the promised land.

17 But Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built himself a house and made booths for his livestock. Therefore the name of the place is called Succoth.

As to why Jacob did not proceed to Seir is unstated in the text. It is a “gap” in the story that the author may want the reader to fill from the earlier struggle between Jacob and Laban. In the Jacob-Laban experience, the Lord specifically directed Jacob to leave Laban’s house and return to the land of his father (31:3, 13, 30a; 32:9[10]), and perhaps we are to assume that the Lord directed Jacob again to Canaan, the land promised him twenty years earlier (cf. 28:13-22). The text has been candid heretofore about deception and obfuscation by Jacob, and its silence here implies that Jacob’s action is not a violation of the peaceful intention agreed upon by the brothers. Later we learn at the instigation of Esau that the two brothers chose not to reside together because their cumulative wealth prohibited it (36:6-7; cf. Abraham and Lot, 13:6). That the exchange between the men is mere social convention is another possible explanation for Jacob’s action.6

18 And Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, on his way from Paddan-aram, and he camped before the city.

Jacob has safely returned to the promised land (28:21). There is debate over whether the ESV translation of “safely” is correct. Wenham believes the Hebrew literally says Jacob came “to Salem, the city of Shechem,” meaning Jacob came to the city of Salem where a man by the name of Shechem lived.7 The next verse as well as chapter 34 indicate that Shechem is a personal name in this context.

19 And from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, he bought for a hundred pieces of money the piece of land on which he had pitched his tent.

Jacob’s objective is not stated. It can hardly have been for the purpose of building an altar, for none of the other patriarchal altars required purchase of the ground on which it stood. More likely, he intended settling there permanently, a plan thwarted by the development related in the next chapter. Like Abraham, he may have had in mind establishing a family burial ground. This suggestion is supported by Joshua 24:32, which records that Joseph was eventually buried on this plot.8

20 There he erected an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel.

In calling the altar “El, the God of Israel,” Jacob acknowledges that the creator God who had changed his name at the Yabbok to Israel was now his God, and by implication his descendants’ God too. He had vowed at Bethel that if the LORD brought him back to his father’s house in peace, “the LORD will be my God” (28:21). He has yet to reach Bethel, where he will fulfill the rest of the vow, but by naming this altar he is reaffirming his allegiance to El and declaring that El is Israel’s God.9

Bibliography

Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament 1B. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary Volume 1B. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

Sarna, Nahum M. JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989.

Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary 2. Thomas Nelson, 1994.

1Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 298.

2Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 569.

3Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 230.

4Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 345-346.

5Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 570-571.

6Ibid., 573.

7Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 300.

8Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 232.

9Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 301.

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