Genesis 33: Meeting with Esau
It is twenty years since Jacob came alone to Haran and met Rachel at the well in the field. All this time he has been caring for Laban's flocks, and has gained himself large flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. He also has a family: his wives, Leah and Rachel, and eleven sons, children of Leah and Rachel and of their handmaids. It is now time for Jacob to go back to the land of Canaan, and it must be slow traveling with his family and with the sheep and cattle. Laban followed Jacob to the land of Gilead, east of Jordan; but Laban has now gone home and Jacob is ready to cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan.
Jacob was anxious about one thing, the meeting with his brother Esau. Why was he anxious? Remember things that had happened between the brothers before Jacob went to Haran. He was afraid that Esau would still be angry, and he was the more afraid when he heard that Esau was coming up on the eastern side of Jordan from the land of Edom, where he lived, with four hundred men. Jacob sent forward rich presents, one after another, of goats and sheep and camels and cattle and asses, to meet Esau, calling Esau "my lord," and himself his servant. He then went himself, and his family followed in three companies, Rachel and her son Joseph whom he loved so dearly, last of all. Each company as they met Esau bowed low to him. When Jacob met his brother, he bowed seven times to him and begged him to accept the presents. It was a friendly meeting. The two brothers embraced each other and wept. Esau went back to his home in the mountains of Edom, and Jacob crossed the Jordan to the place near Shechem where Abraham first camped. He bought here a beautiful meadow and dug a well for water for his cattle. So Jacob was safe back in the land of Canaan, after his journey and his long stay in Haran.
How long had Jacob been in Haran? (Gen. 31:41) He had gone alone to Haran. Now what family and what possessions had he, as he left Laban to go back to Canaan? Leah and Rachel were his wives; eleven sons had been born, and many of the best of Laban's flocks had become Jacob's as wages.
Who will learn and tell us about the parting from Laban? Jacob stole away without Laban's knowing it. (Gen. 31:20) When Laban overtook Jacob, he was already in the land of Gilead, east of Jordan and near to the brook Jabbok. They parted as friends, and Laban went home. We have here words which are often quoted: "The Lord watch between me and thee when we are absent one from another." (Gen. 31:49)
Will someone look up for us another thing - a night in which Jacob seemed to be wrestling with an angel, and he was given a new name, Israel, which means "prince of God." "El" means God; you find it in Bethel and many other Bible names. (Gen. 32:28) This new name for Jacob reminds us of the change in Abraham's name and Sarah's.
And one more incident still on the east side of Jordan, the chief incident of our lesson: Jacob's meeting with Esau. What were Jacob's feelings when he knew that Esau was coming with four hundred men? While Jacob had been gaining a family and great flocks and herds in Haran, Esau had become rich in the land of Edom and was the father of a tribe. We read about his family in Gen. 36. Esau and his men drew near and Jacob came forward to meet him, having sent flocks and droves before as a present, and putting his family behind. The meeting was friendly. Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept for joy. Jacob was forgiven, and the brothers were friends. Then Esau saw his brother's family and received his present. He wished Jacob to go back with him to Mount Seir, but Jacob made excuse that the children and flocks could not travel fast. Esau wished to leave men to escort them, but this was declined. Jacob said that he would follow to Mount Seir, but he did not. No doubt it was safer that the brothers with their large families and flocks and herds should live apart. (Gen. 36:6, 7) We do learn of Esau and Jacob's being together again when Isaac died and his two sons buried him in the cave in Hebron. (Gen. 35:27-29: compare Gen. 25:7-10.)
Isaac lived in Hebron in his last days, where Abraham had pitched his tent by the trees. There Isaac received Jacob after his long absence, and he died there.
Where had Jacob been between his meeting with his brother in the country east of Jordan and his coming to his old father in Hebron? After Esau went back to his home, Jacob did not at once cross the Jordan, but stayed for a time at a place in the Jordan valley north of the Jabbok, and built a house there and shelters for his cattle. The resting place was called Succoth, which means "booths." When they moved again, it was across the Jordan into the land of Canaan. Shalem may have been the name of a place near Shechem to which they came, but the word means "peace," and perhaps the meaning is that they came in peace to Shechem. They camped "before," that is, "to the east of" the city. See on the map how Shechem lies in the very middle of the land, in the valley between the two mountains Ebal and Gerizim. To the east of the city and the mountains there is a beautiful meadow. Here Jacob bought a piece of ground of the native people. "Pieces of money" are mentioned, while Abraham weighed the silver in payment for Machpelah. The word for pieces is "lambs," which perhaps means that they were in this shape or bore this stamp, as our "eagles." Jacob speaks in one place of taking the land by his sword and bow (Gen. 48:21, 22), and it may be that after buying it he had to protect his rights.
Abraham had moved from Shechem to Bethel, and then journeyed farther southward. Jacob did the same. (Gen. 12:8, 9; 35:1-16) First he gathered up all the idols that the people had and buried them under an oak in Shechem. He built an altar to the Lord in Bethel where he had the vision of the ladder when he set out on his journey. The Lord had kept him safe and brought him again in peace. From Bethel they went southward. As they came near Bethlehem, called in the old days Ephrath (Micah 5:2), Benjamin was born and Rachel died. Her grave is still marked by a little building by the roadside. So Jacob came to his old father Isaac in Hebron, and was there when Isaac died. We find him in the next lesson still in Hebron.
1. Who was coming to meet Jacob in the country east of Jordan? With what feelings did Jacob await him?
2. Was the meeting friendly? What did Esau do? What did he offer?
3. Where did Jacob rest before crossing the Jordan? Where was his first home in the land? Who else had lived in that place? What afterward happened there?
4. Where did Jacob go from Shechem? What had happened there?
5. Where was Benjamin born? Where did Isaac die?
We should have a definite thought as to the meaning in the Lord's life and in our regeneration of Jacob's long sojourn in Haran. Abraham represents celestial states of early childhood, Isaac more intellectual states of older childhood, and Esau and Jacob goodness and truth in conduct. For a time truth (Jacob) leads, and the working out of truth in the life of the world is represented by Jacob's years of toil in Haran. There is a similar thought in the Lord's years of work in Nazareth. Leah and Rachel represent affections for truth of life, Leah a more external affection and Rachel a more internal affection. Jacob's eleven sons, born in Haran, represent successive developments in good life; at first more external developments, represented by the sons of Leah and the handmaids, and a more interior development represented by Joseph, Rachel's son. (A. 3860-3862) Other gains in character by faithful life in the world are represented by the flocks received as wages by Jacob. The speckled and spotted goats and the black sheep mean in this case affections the more innocent because humble, conscious of imperfection and weakness. (A. 3993, 3994)
The birth of Joseph seems to be the signal for return to Canaan. (Gen. 30:35) Benjamin was born in Canaan, near to Bethlehem. The birth of Joseph marks a point in development when it is time to gather up all that has been gained from the world and to enter upon a life distinctly higher and more spiritual. (A. 3973) Several incidents are connected with this return to Canaan: leaving Laban, the wrestling, the new name, the friendly meeting with Esau.
The separation from Laban began with difficulties, but ended with a covenant of friendship, which pictures the helpful relation which should exist between internal and external life. It contains also beautiful thoughts about the Lord's relation with those of simple gentile character. (A. 4189, 4190)
Advance to a spiritual state involves temptation, represented by Jacob's wrestling. The wrestling may seem to be with the Lord; it is never really so, but with evil spirits and with evil in ourselves. (A. 4249, 4274)
We have spoken several times about the meaning of Jacob's stealing the birthright and the blessing from Esau. At first, truth, represented by Jacob, takes the leading place; we must know what is right before we can love it. The change, when the two elements of character are united and goodness takes the lead, was promised in Esau's blessing (Gen. 27:40), and is represented by the friendly meeting of Jacob and Esau. Remember how Jacob called Esau his "lord" and himself "servant." He made him rich presents and bowed himself seven times to the earth before him. Truth is the servant, and is valued for the sake of goodness. The coming of goodness into the heart from the Lord when the mind is ready to receive it is beautifully pictured by Esau's running to meet Jacob, and by his embracing him and kissing him, and by their weeping for joy. These things describe how goodness comes from the Lord, not all at once but step by step in order. We have almost the same picture of the coming of goodness to the soul when it is ready to receive it, in the story of the prodigal son, when the father had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. (Luke 15:20; A. 4347, 4350-4354)
Esau's meeting the children of Jacob not all at once but in companies, is another suggestion of the gradual, orderly steps by which goodness comes into all parts of the life. It comes first into more external things and afterward into more internal, which is suggested by the order in which Esau met the children: first those of the handmaids, then those of Leah, and lastly Joseph with Rachel. (A. 4345, 4360-4362)
Jacob's first home in the land was the same as Abraham's. Does it mean that life after years of effort is again at the same place, having made no progress? Notice the greater permanence of Jacob's possession, for he bought the land. He dwelt in the land of his father's sojournings. (Gen. 37:1, Revised Version) We can hardly reach more heavenly states than those of childhood, but by actual life they become permanently ours. It is beautiful to notice the name "peace" given to this home of Jacob's. It is expressive of the peacefulness of the soul when after learning what is right and faithfully doing it, the love of it is given from the Lord. (A. 4393, 4667)
Jacob's journey to Bethlehem and southward seems like a repetition of Abraham's experience. It often seems in life as if we came to the same place again and went through the same experience. Yet it is not the same; life does not move in a circle, but in a spiral. If we experience the same things, it is in a new and higher way. Several things suggest that this journey of Jacob's represents advance to holier states: the Lord told him to arise; he buried the idols; as he journeyed Benjamin was born. (A. 4551, 4552, 4585)
Did you ever stop to think why people bow to others? Men especially bow to women. Why? Why did Jacob bow down before Esau? Because Esau stood for what is good. Whenever we bow, it is to recognize goodness of some kind in others. From whom does the good in people come? Yes, the Lord. The Lord is the only source of goodness. He alone is really good, but He likes to share His goodness with people. He lets His goodness come into people, as the sun lets its warmth come into the earth and all things on the earth. Therefore we bow before the Lord more deeply than before anyone else. There are many people who bow their head or raise their hat whenever even the name of the Lord is mentioned, because they love to show that they believe that He is Goodness Itself.