Genesis 33 – On Humility and Being the Bigger Man

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Today’s PassageGenesis 33

Okay, we are in chapter 33; we can give away the ending now. Esau does not kill Jacob! In fact, quite the opposite.

Esau is elated to be reunited with his brother after twenty years. We read: “Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (4). The slightly older, significantly hairier brother for all intents and purposes throws himself at the fraternal twin that he hasn’t seen in two decades. I can only guess why, as the text doesn’t give an explicit motive for his change of heart, but I can reasonably hypothesize that God was involved.

But Esau isn’t the only one who’s changed. This is a fantastic chapter for showcasing Jacob’s progression from cowardly con man to legit forthright human being. For starters, he puts himself on the line when going out to meet Esau, keeping his family well behind him so they can flee and save their lives if things go south. He does still play favorites, putting the maids and their children out front, while situating his beloved Rachel and Joseph securely in the furthest position (2). Not exactly A+ behavior, giving preferential treatment to one spouse and child over the rest of the nuclear family.

But, to his credit, he positions himself as first to kiss the dirt in the case that Esau turns hostile. This is the bare minimum decent thing to do, and in the past we’ve seen Jacob exhibit some decidedly un-decent behavior. Good on you, Jacob; this is progress.

Jacob also insists on allowing Esau to keep the gifts he previously sent on ahead. At this point, Esau is clearly not a threat to any of Jacob’s family’s lives. If Jacob had offered the gifts selfishly to save his own skin, he now has an opportunity to receive them back as his older brother deems them unnecessary. Instead, he gives them freely, and when Esau petitions him to keep the ten bojillion animals he offered, he insists: “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” (10). If whatever we have done for the least of these, we’ve done for Christ (Matthew 25:40), then perhaps whatever we have given to our estranged hairy twin brother who we thought was going to kill us but turned out to actually really miss us, we’ve given to God himself. In any event, Jacob has learned to give rather than take, to wrestle with God and himself rather than grab at other people’s heels, and to see the image of God in his fellow human beings.

Moreover, Jacob is relentlessly deferential. He refers to Esau as “my lord,” time and time again, as if Esau’s face actually were the face of the Lord himself. On the initial approach, before he even knows how the meeting will go down, he bows seven times before drawing near. Jacob is prostrating himself in word and deed, putting himself at Esau’s mercy, deferring pride and self-importance, conferring superiority to a brother who is older by mere moments.

Esau invites Jacob to travel together with him and his four hundred men, but Jacob declines. He’s got children with him, and even the healthiest child can’t march lock-step with a trained contingent of soldiers. So Jacob parts ways for the time being; it’s enough that he and his brother are back on good terms. He goes and buys some property from some guys in the city of Shechem, and he builds an altar there.

The chapter closes with the naming of the altar, so I will too. Jacob calls it “El-Elohe-Israel,” which means “God, the God of Israel.” Consider the meaning of the word “Israel,” though, and you get “God, the God of Striving-with-God.” That’s three repetitions of the word for “God” in the same name. Perhaps God himself intended the name to prefigure the Trinity in its own morphology? Or perhaps Jacob is repeating the word three times for emphasis, a common practice in ancient Hebrew writings. Whatever the case, the altar is dedicated to a whole lotta God.

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