Esau and Jacob
After participating in this lesson, each student will be able to:
1. Describe the reunion of Jacob and Esau.
2. Identify the facts of Jacob’s humility in the reunion story.
3. Make a plan for reconciliation to one person estranged from him or her.
How to Say It
Daily Bible Readings
Monday, Oct. 22—Jacob’s Prayer (Genesis 32:3–12)
Tuesday, Oct. 23—Jacob’s Presents to Esau (Genesis 32:13–21)
Wednesday, Oct. 24—The Brothers Wept Together (Genesis 33:1–4)
Thursday, Oct. 25—The Gift of Reconciliation (Genesis 33:5–11)
Friday, Oct. 26—Their Separate Ways (Genesis 33:12–15)
Saturday, Oct. 27—An Altar to God (Genesis 33:16–20)
Sunday, Oct. 28—The Blessedness of Unity (Psalm 133)
Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.
Why Teach This Lesson?
I watched my neighbor guide her two small children following a dispute over a toy. She told the offender to go to the other child, speak directly to him and say, “I’m sorry.” The child obeyed. She then coached the offended child to say, “I forgive you.” How I marveled at the latter! For me, those words stick to the roof of my mouth even when sincere apologies flow.
Reconciliation is God’s way. Yet this hard truth accompanies reconciliation attempts: There are no guarantees when we try to repair relationships. Apologies and paybacks may be rejected. But in cases where the humility of the wrongdoer meets the grace of the one wronged, the results are priceless.
A. Stories of Estrangement
A man and his wife have not spoken in days. One too many times she embarrassed him in public, and one too many times he responded harshly. Even though they share the same bed, a cold gap remains between them.
Two coworkers communicate only indirectly through other employees. One too many times an idea was stolen, and one too many times others were recruited to take sides. Though they occupy adjacent offices, genuine collaboration is out of the question.
Tales of wounded pride are all too common. Each of us is familiar with a close relationship that was threatened by an unfortunate conflict caused by one party’s lapse of judgment and another party’s defensive retaliation. Scripture does not teach us that following Jesus means that Christians will live lives free of conflict. It does show us, however, a way to overcome.
Matthew 18 and other New Testament passages provide principles and procedures for seeking genuine reconciliation. The Old Testament furnishes stories of success and failure that bring these principles to life. Today we consider one such story.
B. Lesson Background
The feud between Jacob and Esau began at an early age. Even in the womb, these boys jockeyed for position. The struggle was so intense that their mother, Rebekah, thought it was necessary to ask God for an explanation.
God informed her that two “nations” were in her womb and that the older would serve the younger (Genesis 25:23). This jockeying for position continued at their birth. Although Esau emerged as the firstborn, Jacob was clutching at his heel even as he left the womb. This prenatal rivalry was later compounded by parental favoritism (Genesis 25:27-28).
As the boys grew older, the tension mounted. On one occasion, Jacob manipulated Esau into trading his birthright for stew (Genesis 25:29–34). On another, Jacob and Rebekah tricked Isaac into conferring his fatherly blessing on Jacob instead of Esau (Genesis 27:1–40). This was the breaking point in the brothers’ relationship. Having been tricked twice, Esau planned to kill Jacob after their father passed away (Genesis 27:41).
This prompted Jacob to flee northward. His relocation gave Esau the time and space he needed to cool off (Genesis 27:42–45). But the plan took much more time than Jacob had anticipated. Laban, his father-in-law, tricked him into staying twice as long as he had planned. Then Jacob stuck around for several more years to gain enough wealth to head back home. So after 20 years of self-exile (Genesis 31:38), Jacob finally began his perilous journey home.
The first obstacle he faced was Laban. The two of them had a falling out, and it took divine intervention to allow Jacob to leave in peace (Genesis 31:29). Then, upon reaching the border of the promised land, Jacob encountered a second obstacle: an angelic messenger who wrestled with him all night (32:22–32). Before leaving, this wrestling angel blessed Jacob by renaming him Israel, which means “one who struggles with God.” Surviving this heavenly opponent prepared Jacob for his most intimidating human foe: a potentially vengeful Esau.
I. Jacob Approaches Esau (Genesis 33:1–3)
A. Jacob Sees Esau (v. 1a)
1a. Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men;
By this point, Jacob has taken two precautionary measures to increase his chances of surviving the encounter with Esau. First, Jacob has sent messengers ahead with gifts of appeasement (Genesis 32:3–5). Second, he has divided his group into two camps (Genesis 32:7); should those in one camp die by the sword, the others might escape.
The sight Jacob now sees must be terrifying. He undoubtedly wonders why Esau is bringing along such a large escort. This is certainly not a typical homecoming party! Is Esau trying to protect himself, or is he planning to attack Jacob? As readers, we experience this episode much like Jacob: we have no clue what Esau will do next.
B. Jacob Prepares to Meet Esau (vv. 1b, 2)
1b, 2.… so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two maidservants. He put the maidservants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear.
Again Jacob divides his camp, this time according to preference. Those he loves least head the procession. In Genesis 29:30–35 we saw Jacob’s greater love for Rachel despite Leah’s status as first wife and mother of his first sons. This ranking, then, appears to be for protection, since it provides Jacob’s favored family members with a head start in case a battle breaks out (32:8). It can also, however, be a matter of protocol: as Jacob introduces his loved ones to Esau, perhaps he wishes “to save the best for last.”
What Do You Think?
What motives do people have for placing some things or certain family members at greater risk? How can we improve our motives and strengthen our faith in this regard?
C. Jacob Bows Before Esau (v. 3)
3. He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother.
Here we see that Jacob is no coward. He could remain with Rachel and Joseph at the end of the procession, but instead he places himself on the front line.
More importantly, however, Jacob bows before his brother, Esau. This action is doubly significant. On the one hand, it stands out as a model for those seeking to initiate reconciliation. Jacob has deeply wounded Esau in the past. Realizing this, Jacob comes humbly, begging forgiveness. Even though Jacob may feel justified in his past actions, and even though 20 years have elapsed, Jacob still comes humbly as if he had committed the offense only the day before. He sets aside pride to prostrate himself before Esau—not just once, but seven times. His bowing is not a superficial act, but is an act of complete contrition and submission.
Visual for Lesson 9
Point to this visual as you ask, “Why is unity important to the church?” Explore the difference between unity and uniformity.
On the other hand, Jacob’s bowing stands out in this story because the blessing Jacob stole from Esau seemed to indicate that Esau would be the one bowing before Jacob (Genesis 27:29). To be sure, the Edomites, who descend from Esau, will have to submit (bow) to the Israelites, who descend from Jacob. But between Esau and Jacob personally, this apparently doesn’t happen in their lifetimes. Only Jacob does the bowing.
This teaches Jacob (and us) an important lesson about divine promises: the promises God makes concerning his people are not always experienced firsthand by the initial recipients of the promise. Abraham was told that he would become a great nation, that he would inhabit the promised land, and that all nations of the earth would be blessed through him. Yet Abraham did not see this promise realized in his own lifetime.
God knows that Jacob’s descendants will become Israel, God’s special people. God also knows that Esau’s descendants will become Edom, a less powerful nation that will be made subject to Jacob’s descendants (especially David, 2 Samuel 8:14). So, in the long run, the blessing will come to fruition, as will the promise to Abraham. But Jacob “jumped the gun” and tried to force matters down a path of his own choosing. The result of his antics? Jacob bows before Esau.
God’s purposes will not be thwarted despite human shenanigans. After 20 difficult years, God brings Jacob and Esau’s relationship back into proper alignment. Now that Jacob is “at the bottom,” God can use him to do great things.
This verse teaches us three lessons. First, humility may be central to reconciliation. It’s not always about who is more right or wrong—it often is about swallowing our pride so God may bring peace. Second, it is dangerous to personalize God’s promises strictly. God has made many promises to the church, but not all of us will experience all of them in our lifetimes. Third, those who exalt themselves will be humbled by God (compare Luke 14:11; 18:14). We are to be patient and faithful until God elevates us in his own timing.
What Do You Think?
In what areas of your life do you need to come humbly before another, seeking forgiveness? What responsibility do offended parties have to express their hurt?
Folly of Pride, Wisdom of Humility
In 1980, Robert Graham created the Repository for Germinal Choice—what some came to call the Nobel Prize sperm bank. Graham, the inventor of shatterproof plastic eyeglasses, believed the repository could improve the human race. Women could choose the father of their babies from the genius-level contributors to the repository. However, not many women were interested. In 19 years, only 215 children were born through the repository’s efforts.
One outspoken donor and supporter was William Shockley, who had won a Nobel Prize in 1956 for his work on the transistor. He was reputed to be a racist who promoted the idea of tampering with genetics to accomplish his vision. His loud advocacy of both the repository and his racist views brought derision to the organization. It closed in 1999.
Pride—whether in one’s accomplishments, genes, or wealth—is evidence of misplaced values. Pride fosters arrogance. Humility is a much better way to relate to God and to others. After pride had forced Jacob and Esau apart, Jacob’s humble approach to his brother initiated the reconciliation process. Is there an area of your relationships where a humble approach could work in a similar way? —C. R. B.
II. Esau Receives Jacob (Genesis 33:4–7)
A. Brothers Embrace (v. 4)
4. But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.
Like the father in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32), Esau runs to embrace his “prodigal brother.” Jacob cannot imagine a warmer greeting. Emotions pour from them both. We see tears of joy and reconciliation.
But is it all too good to be true? The last man who ran out, embraced, and kissed Jacob was Laban (Genesis 29:13). Laban then proceeded to deal with Jacob in a less-than-honest fashion for 20 years. Jacob certainly appreciates this warm reception from Esau, but the reconciliation is not yet complete.
B. Jacob Introduces (v. 5)
5. Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. “Who are these with you?” he asked.
Jacob answered, “They are the children God has graciously given your servant.”
Esau is the first to speak. He is likely aware that these people are Jacob’s family, thus his question is rhetorical. The question gives Jacob an opportunity to introduce his family properly. Note that Jacob refers to himself as Esau’s servant. This reinforces his own humility.
C. Family Bows (vv. 6, 7)
6, 7. Then the maidservants and their children approached and bowed down. Next, Leah and her children came and bowed down. Last of all came Joseph and Rachel, and they too bowed down.
Not only does Jacob bow before Esau, the members of his entire entourage humble themselves in this manner. This reinforces the completeness of Jacob’s contrition.
III. Jacob and Esau Reconcile (Genesis 33:8–11)
A. Peace Offering Explained (v. 8)
8. Esau asked, “What do you mean by all these droves I met?”
“To find favor in your eyes, my lord,” he said.
Esau is still in the driver’s seat, thus he asks all the questions. Of course, he already knows why Jacob sent the gifts; the envoys Jacob sent ahead relayed that message previously (Genesis 32:4-5). But Esau also knows it is necessary that he and Jacob have this conversation—a conversation that must take place face to face. Jacob not only submits to this line of questioning, he also defers to Esau as my lord. Jacob’s intentions are clear: he seeks favor, which, in this case, means forgiveness of past wrongs.
What Do You Think?
Why do we sometimes fail to seek reconciliation? What benefits are there when we do?
B. Peace Offering Declined (v. 9)
9. But Esau said, “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.”
It is difficult to gauge Esau’s response. At face value, it appears that he declines the offering because he does not need it and prefers that Jacob use it to meet his own family’s needs. But for Jacob, it is crucial that Esau accept it. This is Jacob’s attempt to clear his conscience and set things right. He has stolen from Esau, and the two will not be reconciled fully until repayment is made. That being the case, Esau’s initial denial is either (1) an effort to keep the power he now holds over Jacob, or (2) a sincere act of generosity, or (3) a cultural practice somewhat along the lines of Genesis 23:7–16. Regardless, Esau’s initial response is not acceptable to Jacob.
C. Peace Offering Accepted (vv. 10, 11)
10. “No, please!” said Jacob. “If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably.
Jacob desperately needs Esau to accept the peace offering. So he begins to apply pressure. Esau has presented himself as the gracious older brother. He ran to Jacob, hugged him, and kissed him. But for his act of favor to be complete, he must set Jacob free from the debt. Esau must allow Jacob a concrete way to express his gratitude for the grace he has received.
What Do You Think?
What principle can we apply to modern life from Jacob’s insistence that Esau accept his gift? Or is that an ancient cultural practice that we can safely disregard? Explain.
To deny Jacob the means to do this will be to withhold forgiveness and subject Jacob to a different form of bondage. It is almost as if Jacob is saying, “If you are truly the gracious man I think you are, and if you are truly pleased with me, then you need to accept these gifts. If not, this is all just a sham and the real Esau is the bitter Esau I left behind who doesn’t know how to let go of a grudge.”
It is also important to discuss why Jacob compares seeing Esau’s face to seeing the face of God. There are a few ways we can understand this. One way highlights Esau’s graciousness. God is known for his grace, and in this encounter Esau’s response to Jacob rises to a level that is pleasing to God. Put differently, Esau receives Jacob so warmly that it is like Heaven smiling down.
Another interpretation highlights Esau’s position of judgment. Jacob could be acknowledging that Esau occupies the position of judge—and Esau knows that Jacob is guilty. Esau has heard Jacob’s pleas for mercy, and at this point Esau can either grant or withhold pardon for Jacob’s sin.
A third interpretation stresses language parallel to that of the previous chapter. Jacob spent all night wrestling with a mysterious, extraordinary man (Genesis 32:24); this man is identified in Hosea 12:4 as an angel. After surviving the fight, Jacob renamed the place Peniel, meaning “face of God,” because he believed he had seen God face-to-face and lived (Genesis 32:30). So Jacob simply may be comparing the experience he just had with the angel to the experience he is now having with Esau. As Jacob had doubts about surviving the encounter with the angel, so also he now has doubts about surviving the encounter with Esau (although in neither case did Jacob actually see God himself). Under this interpretation, it is almost as if Jacob is saying, “I have stared death in the face and have lived to talk about it” concerning both encounters.
It is difficult to tell which of these interpretations is right. It may be some combination of them.
11. “Please accept the present that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have all I need.” And because Jacob insisted, Esau accepted it.
Like the situation of Abraham’s purchase of a burial plot in Genesis 23, Jacob knows he has to pay. He cannot remain indebted to Esau, so he urges Esau until he complies. We see here that genuine reconciliation requires responsibility of both parties. Jacob has to be willing to humble himself, and Esau has to let go of a long-held grudge. This applies to Christians today. Christ has taught us to forgive others’ debts as we have been forgiven (Matthew 6:12; 18:21–35). Hanging on to resentment is unhealthy for both parties.
Sometimes reconciliation is a matter of verbal confession and verbal forgiveness. At other times, restitution may need to be made so both parties may truly experience closure. In such cases the party that was wronged must, with a sincere heart, imitate Esau’s willingness to accept an offer that has been made, even though he or she may prefer not to.
Notice also the language Jacob uses in this verse. Until this point in the conversation, he has not referred to himself as being a recipient of God’s gracious blessing, perhaps in order to avoid digging up painful memories of blessing theft (Genesis 27:35-36). But he approaches Esau and implores him to receive the present. It is almost as if Jacob is saying, “Take your blessing back. I don’t want it anymore. It wasn’t mine for the taking.”
If this is so, then the Jacob and Esau saga has come full circle. Jacob surrenders, as best he can, that which he had stolen. Thus he can move forward with only that which God provides for him. Jacob learns to trust in God alone, and that is sufficient to carry him the rest of his journey. He indeed has “overcome” in his struggle “with God and with men” (Genesis 32:28).
What Do You Think?
What does Esau’s acceptance of Jacob’s gift teach us?
Bringing Gifts for Peace … or Pieces?
On March 9, 2004, a psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College offered a “gift” of an unusual sort to her campus community. After speaking at a forum on racial tolerance, she filed a police report alleging that her car had been vandalized. It apparently was a hate crime, since racist epithets had been spray-painted on her car. What a perfect gift of an illustration concerning the subject the professor had addressed in her forum!
The next day, administrators gave a “gift” to the students by calling off classes for the day. Thousands of students gladly received the gift of a day free from classes in order to bring their own “gifts” to campus: demonstrations against such a terrible act of racial intolerance.
However, it was soon discovered that the professor had damaged her own car in order to call attention to the issue of racial prejudice. The court then had a “gift” for the manipulative professor: a one-year prison sentence. What the professor hoped to accomplish in terms of fostering racial peace ended up merely shredding her own reputation into pieces (www.sfgate.com).
Jacob had a history of being a manipulator. But when he brought gifts to Esau, they were offered in a genuine spirit. Too often what people bring to resolve relationship problems is not so much a peace offering as it is an attempt to prove themselves right. The frequent result is not peace, but relationships that are in pieces. —C. R. B.
Christians can learn valuable lessons from the account of Jacob and Esau. We may find ourselves in the shoes of one or the other at different points, sometimes the offender and sometimes the offended. Our culture encourages us to respond with extremes. At one extreme is inflicting payback. At the other extreme is a kind of quietism, meaning “just try to forget about it and move on with life.”
Our Savior, however, does not give us either of those options. He calls us to seek reconciliation actively with those who have offended us (see Matthew 5:23-24; 18:15; compare 2 Corinthians 5:18–21; Galatians 6:1-2; Colossians 3:13; and James 5:16).
Those of us who share the blame for being estranged from another person must humble ourselves like Jacob. Those of us who have held grudges against someone who has wronged us need to embrace the offending party, like Esau, as we accept genuine confession, forgiving truly as Christ Jesus has forgiven us.
Thought to Remember
Reconciliation requires humility and acceptance.
We thank you, Father, for reconciliation through Christ. It is tempting, Lord, to hoard reconciliation, to accept it for ourselves but fail to extend it to others. Prepare us to accept with joy the ministry of reconciliation that you have entrusted to us. In Jesus’ name, amen.
C. R. B. Charles R. Boatman
Nickelson, Ronald L. ; Underwood, Jonathan: New International Version Standard Lesson Commentary : 2007-2008. Cincinnati : Standard Publishing, 2007, S. 79