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Genesis 33: 1-5 Notes


A. Esau's warm welcome.

  1. (Gen 33:1-2) Jacob's careful preparations.

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

  1. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maidservants: These preparations were not necessarily carnal. Often the LORD leads us to do very practical things when we follow Him. But the placement of the family shows Jacob was not shy about showing his favoritism to Rachel and Joseph.
  2. He put the maidservants and their children in front: At least Leah got more protection than the two maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah did.

2. (Gen 33:3) Jacob demonstrates his submission.

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

  1. He crossed over before them: The best thing about Jacob is now, after being conquered by God, he leads the procession coming to meet Esau.
  2. Bowed himself to the ground: Jacob already sent over gifts and showed he didn't want to take anything materially from Esau. But by bowing down, he showed he is submitted to his brother and wanted no social power over him.
    i. Of course, if Jacob didn't take things into his own hands more than 20 years ago this would not be necessary. Isaac's promise to Jacob, Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be master over your brethren (Genesis 27:29) would be more immediately fulfilled.
    ii. We often simply mess things up when we try to "help God out" in the flesh. God never needs us to sin to help Him further His plan in our life.

3. (Gen 33:4-7) Esau warmly greets Jacob and his family.

But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. 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." Then the servants drew near, they and their children, and bowed down. Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down. And last Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down.

  1. Esau ran to meet him: This probably terrified Jacob. Surely, he thought his life would soon end. Instead, God was working in Esau, and he only wanted to bless Jacob.
  2. Fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept: Esau and Jacob did not feel a need to "work out" the past. God worked in both their hearts and there was no need to dredge it all up again. What was past was past.

4. (Gen 33:8-11) Esau receives Jacob's gifts: and he took it.

Esau said, "What do you mean by all this company[a] that I met?" Jacob answered, "To find favor in the sight of my lord." But Esau said, "I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself." 10 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. 11 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.

  1. So he urged him, and he took it: This was as important to the reconciliation as Jacob's giving the gifts. When Jacob gave such generous gifts, it was his way of saying to Esau he was sorry and when Esau accepted the gifts, it was his way of accepting Jacob and saying he was forgiven.
    i. In that culture, you never accepted a gift from an enemy, only from a friend. To accept the gift was to accept the friendship.
  2. I have enough ... I have enough: Both Esau and Jacob have a blessed testimony: I have enough. Godliness with contentment is great gain (1 Timothy 6:6).

B. Jacob's travels in the Promised Land.

1. (Gen 33:12-15) Jacob and Esau part their ways; Jacob goes to Succoth.

12 Then Esau said, "Let us journey on our way, and I will go ahead of you." 13 But 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. 14 Let 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."

  1. Please let my lord go on ahead before his servant: Jacob was glad to be reconciled with his brother, but didn't want to be too close to him. He was still afraid of Esau.
  2. Jacob journeyed to Succoth: Unfortunately, Jacob still acts like "Jacob," because he said he will go far to the south with Esau to the area of Mount Seir. Instead, he allowed Esau to go a few days beyond him and then headed towards the north to Succoth.
    i. It's hard to try to be Jacob and Israel at the same time. We could have called him Jak-iel or Israe-ob.

Gen. 33 - Cole -     

Jacob gets a bit flustered as he finally meets Esau and his 400 men. He has just spent the night wrestling with the Lord, where God broke Jacob of his self‑dependence. He's walking with a limp as he approaches the dreaded meeting with his estranged brother. Under the pressure of the moment, he resorts to his old scheming ways and takes matters into his own hands, but it's mixed up with some positive aspects of his newly discovered trust in the Lord. So the result is a mixture of living by the flesh and of living by faith.

It's not surprising, therefore, that commentators and preachers have some different views of Jacob's actions in this chapter. Some extol him as a godly man who models how we ought to be reconciled to our enemies and live by faith. Others chide Jacob as a sorry example of the life of faith, using chapter 34, which shows the results of his actions in chapter 33, as their proof. Who is right?

I take the middle ground. I think there are some positive changes in Jacob, but they aren't complete. He's still the same old schemer in many ways, but God is working on him. He's changed as a result of Peniel, but he's still unchanged in many ways. The flesh still dominates much of him, but he's beginning to live by faith.

In this regard the Bible is realistic, because that's how it is with most of us. I don't know anyone who has been totally sanctified as the result of one dramatic spiritual experience. I know many who claim to be totally different, but you don't have to be around them very long before you realize that they've got the same basic problems. A spiritual experience is fine, but, we need to recognize that Christianity is a lifelong walk with God, not a flash in the pan. As A. W. Pink writes (Gleanings in Genesis [Moody Press], p. 295), "It is one thing to be privileged with a special visitation from or manifestation of God to us, but it is quite another to live in the power of it." So Jacob's experience in Genesis 33 teaches us that ...

Having begun to live by faith, we must be careful to continue.

Satan usually doesn't get us off track in one fell swoop, but by degrees. As with John Bunyan's pilgrim, we wander slightly off into Bypath Meadow, thinking that it's a pleasant route that will take us parallel with the road to the Celestial City. But it takes us farther and farther away, until we're caught by the Giant Despair and wonder how we ended up in his dungeon.

If you look ahead, Jacob's situation at the end of chapter 34 is terrible. His daughter has been raped by the prince of Shechem. In retaliation, Jacob's sons have treacherously promised the men of Shechem a peace treaty, only to murder them all after they complied with the terms of the treaty. And Jacob is afraid that the other people of the land will destroy him and everything he has.

How did he get into that mess? It began in chapter 33, with little instances of disobedience. The events in chapter 33 probably add up to eight to ten years. Over these years, the little instances of unbelief and disobedience are gradually taking Jacob off the path. These events led to the catastrophe of chapter 34. To explain the text, I want to trace Jacob's mixture of faith and the flesh in Genesis 33; then I'll conclude with some applications.

1. Jacob lived both by the flesh and by faith in his reconciliation with Esau (33:1‑16).

As the sun rises on Peniel, Jacob comes limping from his wrestling match with the Lord. He looks up and sees Esau and his 400 men coming toward him in the distance. I wish that Jacob would have said, "Lord, You've crippled me so I'm helpless unless You intervene. You've promised to bless me. I'm trusting You to work." But instead, the old Jacob takes over: He divides his children and wives, putting the least favorite in the front so that the more favored can possibly escape the massacre he still fears. Jacob is still relying on his own wits to get him out of another tight situation. If his trust had been completely in the Lord, he wouldn't have had to resort to his escape plan.

Several commentators point out that after God changed Abraham's name from Abram, the new name is used consistently. But after God gave Jacob his new name, Israel, the Holy Spirit, who superintended Moses's writing of Genesis, saw fit after this to use the name Jacob 45 times, while the name Israel is used of him only 23 times, and it even has to be reaffirmed in chapter 35. While we probably shouldn't put too much emphasis on this, it may hint that Jacob was not living up to his new position and privilege as a man who had prevailed with God.

Jacob's scheming and lack of trust in the Lord is further seen in his groveling approach to his brother. Some commentators commend Jacob for his humble courtesy, but I think that he goes beyond proper respect. His obsequious "my lord, your servant" language is manipulative, at best (33:5, 8, 13, 14 [twice], 15). He meets Esau by bowing seven times, a greeting normally reserved for kings. All the wives and children bow down. There is a place for proper respect, but Jacob is going overboard. Esau didn't expect that kind of stuff. He calls Jacob, "my brother" (33:9). He's real; Jacob is the phony.

Jacob's lack of trust in the Lord is seen also in his insistence that Esau accept his elaborate gift. It was a matter of custom that you didn't accept a gift from an enemy, so Jacob wanted to make sure that Esau was not still at odds with him. But he was really trusting the gift to appease Esau (33:8). Some commentators say that this is a model of reconciliation, that sometimes it is not wise to bring up old hurts or talk about the problems of the past. I don't agree. I think this was a superficial reconciliation at best, because Jacob never verbally confessed the wrongs he had committed against Esau, nor did he ask for forgiveness.

It's like when a husband wrongs his wife. To make peace, he brings home some flowers and a gift. That may be a way of waving a white flag, opening the door for peace talks. But if the gift is all that's done, there hasn't been adequate reconciliation. The husband needs to specify how he wronged his wife and ask forgiveness. They need to talk about what happened so that they understand each other. Otherwise, she's going to say to herself, "He thinks he can just run roughshod over me and then bring me a gift to make everything right. But he's not willing to deal with the real problem."

Jacob utters a truth beyond his understanding when he tells Esau, "I see your face as one sees the face of God" (33:10). What Jacob meant is that in Esau's favorable reception, Jacob saw God's favor. But beyond that, Jacob's words point out the truth that when you're at odds with your brother, he represents God to you. If you're not right with him, it's a pointed reminder that you're not right with God. As John puts it (1 John 4:20), "If someone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen."

Jacob's flesh also rears its head in his response to Esau's offer to travel together (33:12‑16). It would not have been right for Jacob to go with Esau, since God clearly had told Jacob to go to Canaan, not to Seir. So Jacob was right to refuse, but he was wrong in the way he refused. He makes up an excuse about his children and flocks being too weak to travel at Esau's pace. He pushed them hard to escape from Laban, but now he uses their weakness as an excuse to avoid going with Esau. He lies by telling Esau that he will follow him to Seir (33:14).

Some commentators come to Jacob's defense, saying that he intended to go to Seir, and maybe he did, since the text is not comprehensive. I find that an overly optimistic view of Jacob, because as soon as Esau is out of sight, Jacob turns around, goes back over the Jabbok, and heads a few miles north to Succoth, where he settles for a few years. We've all been in similar situations, where we were asked to join an activity which would compromise our faith. In an effort not to offend the person asking, it's easy to fall into deception. But the right thing to do is to be straightforward in a kind manner. Jacob could have said, "I appreciate your kind offer for me to go with you to Seir, but God has commanded me to go to Canaan."

With so much of Jacob that's of the flesh, you may be wondering if he did anything by faith. I see several things. First, Jacob goes out in front of his family to meet Esau (33:3). This represents a change from the night before, when he put his family across the Jabbok (toward Esau's approach), while he returned to the more safe side. But after wrestling with the Lord and being crippled, he hobbles out in front of his family, which reveals his faith, mingled as it was with his faithless schemes.

Also, Jacob's faith is seen in his witness to God's grace in his life. When Esau asks about the children, Jacob is careful to acknowledge the Lord when he says that they are "the children whom God has graciously given your servant" (33:5). In reference to his gift, Jacob says, "Please take my gift ... because God has dealt graciously with me" (33:11).

Jacob's faith is probably also seen in his refusal to accompany Esau, even though his method of refusal was wrong. I say "probably" because it may be argued that Jacob didn't trust his brother and was afraid that Esau would play along with the reconciliation for a while and then kill Jacob. But perhaps Jacob saw that since his brother was a secular man who had no concern for God's purpose concerning Canaan, there could be no true fellowship between them. So he refused to go with him.

So Jacob's reconciliation with Esau is a mixture of living by the flesh and of living by faith. In many ways, Esau is outwardly the better man. It's sad that often non‑Christians, who have no interest in the things of God, are much nicer people than those who claim to be following God. Esau probably brought along the 400 men to meet Jacob just in case his brother was up to his old tricks. But when he sees that Jacob isn't meeting him with an army, he leaps off his camel, runs to Jacob, hugs and kisses him and weeps. He doesn't hold a grudge in spite of Jacob's past treachery. And Esau isn't greedy. Although he finally accepts Jacob's gift, he says, "I have plenty, my brother. Let what you have be your own." The trouble is, Esau was not at all concerned for the things of God. Spurgeon pointedly observes, "It is an awful contentment when a man can be satisfied without God" (Spurgeon's Expository Encyclopedia [Baker], 5:354).


NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 33:1-3   1Then Jacob lifted 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 maids. 2He put the maids and their children in front, and Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. 3But he himself passed on ahead of them and bowed down to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.

33:2 Notice the distinction in the family. The lesser wives and children go first, his favorites go last (i.e., Rachel and Joseph). Things have changed in Jacob's heart, however, and he goes before them all (cf. v. 3). If they are to be killed, he will be killed first. He still strategizes, but he trusts in YHWH's presence and promised protection.

33:3 "bowed down" This verb (BDB 1005, KB 295, Hishtaphel imperfect) is repeated four times.

  1. Jacob bows before Esau, v. 3
  2. the maids and their children bow before Esau, v. 6
  3. Leah and her children bow before Esau, v. 7
  4. Rachel and her child bow before Esau, v. 7

 ▣ "seven times" This was a gesture of submission (i.e., El Amarna Letters, 14th century b.c.).

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 32:4-11   4Then Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. 5He lifted his eyes and saw the women and the children, and said, "Who are these with you?" So he said, "The children whom God has graciously given your servant." 6Then the maids came near with their children, and they bowed down. 7Leah likewise came near with her children, and they bowed down; and afterward Joseph came near with Rachel, and they bowed down. 8And he said, "What do you mean by all this company which I have met?" And he said, "To find favor in the sight of my lord." 9But Esau said, "I have plenty, my brother; let what you have be your own." 10Jacob said, "No, please, if now I have found favor in your sight, then take my present from my hand, for I see your face as one sees the face of God, and you have received me favorably. 11Please take my gift which has been brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me and because I have plenty." Thus he urged him and he took it.

33:4 "Esau ran. . .embraced. . .fell on his neck. . .kissed. . .wept" These are all signs of warm greetings.

  1. "ran," BDB 930, KB 1207, Qal imperfect
  2. "embraced," BDB 287, KB 287, Piel imperfect
  3. "fell on his neck," BDB 656, KB 709, Qal imperfect, cf. 45:14; 46:29
  4. "kissed," BDB 676, KB 730, Qal imperfect (this is missing in the LXX and marked in the MT as an addition), cf. 45:15; 48:10; 50:1
  5. "they wept," BDB 13, KB 129, Qal imperfect (the LXX and TEV, REB have "they both wept," but possibly, "he wept," cf. NJB, AB, p. 258)

33:5 Esau asks about the groups of women and their children who were all accompanying Jacob. It must have been unusual for a man to have two wives and two concubines and children with each or Esau would not have asked. Esau's reaction to this is not recorded.

33:8 Esau asks about all the presents (i.e., animals) that Jacob has sent before his family (cf. 32:13-21).

33:9 "my brother" The NASB Study Bible (p. 51) makes a good point in mentioning that Esau calls Jacob "my brother," but Jacob calls Esau "my lord." Jacob is either (1) being tactful or (2) fearful.

Gifts were common at special occasions. To refuse a gift in this culture implied a strained relationship (i.e., James M. Freeman, Manners and Customs of the Bible, p. 41). Esau's refusal would have supported Jacob's worst fears! Esau did not need these gifts, but accepted them as a sign of accepting his brother.

33:10 Jacob urges Esau to accept his gifts because Esau's acceptance of him (cf. v. 14) would parallel God's graciousness ("as one sees the face of God") toward him. This may be a veiled allusion to 25:23.

33:11 Jacob acknowledges the source of his physical wealth as the covenant God (i.e., "graciously," BDB 335, KB 334, Qal perfect, cf. v. 5; 43:29).

▣ "gift" This (BDB 139) is literally "blessing." It is the very term used to describe what Jacob cheated Esau of in chapter 27. It is not by accident that Jacob wants to bless his brother by giving a gift (lit. blessing). In a sense he was trying to make up for his earlier manipulations.

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 33:12-14   12Then Esau said, "Let us take our journey and go, and I will go before you." 13But he said to him, "My lord knows that the children are frail and that the flocks and herds which are nursing are a care to me. And if they are driven hard one day, all the flocks will die. 14Please let my lord pass on before his servant, and I will proceed at my leisure, according to the pace of the cattle that are before me and according to the pace of the children, until I come to my lord at Seir."

33:13 One wonders if this was another way for Jacob to make Esau feel superior, as well as an excuse for not traveling with him back to Seir immediately. His children were not "weak" and the flocks had already traveled a long way. Is Jacob still a manipulative liar?

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 33:15-17   15Esau said, "Please 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. 17Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built for himself a house and made booths for his livestock; therefore the place is named Succoth.

33:15 "people" This is the term goi (BDB 766 I), which usually has a negative connotation referring to Gentiles, but here it is used of Esau's men and in Exod. 33:13 it refers to the people of God. Context, context, context determines word meaning, not lexicons! Words have meaning only in sentences; sentences have meaning only in paragraphs/strophe or stanzas; and these have meaning only in larger literary units. Be careful of "set" or "technical" definitions!