After sending gifts ahead to Esau (and a sleepless night wrestling with God), Jacob awoke to see Esau approaching with 400 men. Jacob divided the children between Leah, Rachel, and two female servants. He placed the female servants and their children in front followed by Leah and her children. Rachel and her children brought up the rear. As Esau advanced, Jacob went ahead and bowed seven times to his approaching brother.
Esau looked up and saw the women and children. He asked, “Who are these people with you?”
Jacob answered, “They are the children God blessed me with.”
The female servants and children approached Esau and bowed. Leah, Rachel, and the other children approached and bowed too. Esau asked, “What’s the meaning of all these flocks and herds I met along the way?”
Jacob said, “I hoped to find favor in your eyes.”
Esau responded, “But I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what is yours for yourself.”
Jacob insisted that Esau accept the gifts saying, “No, please, if you can find it in your heart to welcome me, accept these gifts. Seeing your face again is like seeing the face of God. Please, accept my presents for God has treated me well and provided all that I need.”
Because Jacob insisted, Esau accepted the gifts. Esau said, “Let us be on our way. I will lead.”
But Jacob said, “My children are young and the flocks and herds are nursing their young. If I drive them too hard, they will die. Go ahead of me and I will stay with them and travel more slowly. I will catch up with you in Seir.”
Esau said, “Then why don’t I leave some of my men with you.”
Jacob responded, “Why do that? You have already been kind enough to me.”
Esau left Jacob and made his way back to Seir. Jacob however, went to Sukkoth (aka Succoth) where he built a home and shelters for the livestock. This is why the place came to be called Succoth, meaning sheds.
Jacob made his way to the city of Shechem in Canaan. He camped within sight of Shechem. For 100 pieces of silver, he bought a plot of land from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem, and pitched his tent. He sat up an altar and called it El Elohe Israel meaning “Mighty is the God of Israel”.
What the story means to us today
The answers to life’s hurdles come from God
Jacob has stolen his father’s blessing and his brother’s birthright and the consequences of his deceitful actions force him to flee again and again. First Jacob fled an angry Esau, from whom he stole his father’s blessing, to Rebekah’s brother, Laban. Now Jacob finds himself forced to flee Laban and per God’s directions, he is to “go back to the land of his fathers and relatives.” Jacob’s predicament was of his own making. We still find remnants of the old Jacob, devious and deceitful, but when Jacob follows God’s instructions, his situation improves.
After reconciling with Laban and wrestling with God, Jacob finally does as he was instructed – he goes to meet his brother and finds that his sibling has forgiven his trespasses and welcomes him with open arms. Christians today often find themselves in similar circumstances. God can use crises to humble and teach. When a situation such as Jacob’s presents itself, do as Jacob did – pray.
Additional thoughts and considerations
Jacob’s division of family members into groups
As Jacob watched Esau approaching with 400 men, he divided his family into groups. The children were split up and sent in groups with Leah, Rachel, and two female servants. The two female servants led one group of children followed by Leah and her children, then Rachel and Joseph in the rear. There is no doubt – the grouping of children was strategic.
Many read this story and find it odd that Jacob sent his family before him. After all, a man grouping his family to confront a dangerous foe seems cowardly. But the Bible indicates Jacob was the first to “approach” Esau – ahead of his family.
Still, it is obvious that Jacob ranked the family members according to favoritism, yet another shrewd move by Jacob.
Jacob’s gift to Esau
Jacob’s offer of flocks and herds to Esau is initially refused. Only after Jacob insists that Esau accept the gifts does Esau reluctantly accept. The gifts Jacob offers Esau are obviously intended to solicit forgiveness for the wrongs Jacob imparted on Esau. It is as if Jacob is attempting to repay what he previously stole from his brother. In fact, the word the Bible uses to describe Jacob’s tribute to Esau means “blessing”. This suggests that Jacob indeed viewed the gifts as reparation for the theft of Esau’s blessing many years earlier.
After agreeing to meet Esau in Seir, Jacob goes to Sukkoth instead
Esau offers to accompany Jacob to Seir. Jacob declines the offer, arguing that the children and herds will only slow them down. When Esau offers to leave some of his men with Jacob, Jacob again refuses, contending that Esau had done enough already. Jacob tells Esau to go head, he will meet him in Seir. Esau turns south and heads back to Seir alone while Jacob turns north and heads to Sukkoth instead.
Jacob is changing but some of the old self remains (and the Bible makes no attempt to gloss over the participants’ shortcomings). Most readers unfamiliar with Jacob’s story may be shocked to hear someone say he was so far from perfect. Jacob has deceived his brother on many occasion and here he does again. Jacob tells Esau he will meet him in Seir – then turns around and heads in the other direction!
We are not told why Jacob does not go to Seir. Indeed, he may have gone to Seir at a later time. However, it does appear that Jacob had no intention to meet his brother in Seir and if so, he again did not deal truthfully with Esau. In this case, it is likely that Jacob, who is still growing and learning God’s way, feared Esau.
Finally, we must consider the possibility that Jacob did meet his brother in Seir. Only a single word, “however”, indicates Jacob went to Sukkoth instead. It is possible that Jacob went to Sukkoth and then Shechem at a later date and the Bible simply does not record the interceding time. We do know that at a later time, the two brothers will meet again, apparently on friendly terms, at their father’s funeral.
The naming of the El Elohe Israel altar
When Jacob and Esau part ways, Jacob goes to Sukooth, then to the city of Shechem in Canaan where he “camped within sight of the city.” Jacob then buys a plot of land from the sons of Hamor for 100 pieces of silver. This is the same place Abram camped when he first arrived in Canaan. Ironically, this is a better deal than Abram received which again reflects Jacob’s shrewdness.
At this place, Jacob builds an altar he names El Elohe Israel. The construction of an altar at the location is significant. Buying land and settling down is a momentous step for Jacob, one that he commemorates with the building and naming of the altar – “God – the God of Israel”. Building the altar is Jacob’s way of acknowledging that God led him back to Canaan.
The science and history behind the story
Bowing as a sign of respect
Various texts illustrate the process of bowing as a profound token of respect. When bowing, Jacob would have looked towards his superior and bowed with a deep, oriental-type bow, the upperpart of the body brought parallel to the ground. He would then advance a few steps towards Esau and bow again. Jacob did this seven times with the seventh bow bringing him directly before his brother.
The original Hebrew scribes left an unusual notation in the text, one that could potentially change the entire meaning of the story. The verb used to indicate Esau’s kiss are marked with small dots above the words. This punctuation, round or diamond-shaped dots called puncta extaordinaria, are often used by scribes to draw attention to a specific word or phrase. In this case, some believe the scribes were indicating that Esau’s kiss was suspicious, or insecure. If this is the case, Jacob may have sensed the insincerity and recognized a hidden danger, thus influencing his decision to avoid meeting his brother in Seir.
Notes on Biblical translation
“100 pieces of silver”
Most translations indicate Jacob paid “100 pieces of silver” for the plot of ground in Shechem. The monetary unit mentioned in the Hebrew text is unknown. It is called Qesitah or Kesitah. Early translations render the word as “lamb” or “sheep” hinting that the monetary unit represe4nted the value of a single sheep in silver. The word is only used three times in the Bible.
Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men; so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two female servants. 2 He put the female servants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. 3 He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother.
4 But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. 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.”
6 Then the female servants and their children approached and bowed down. 7 Next, Leah and her children came and bowed down. Last of all came Joseph and Rachel, and they too bowed down.
8 Esau asked, “What’s the meaning of all these flocks and herds I met?”
“To find favor in your eyes, my lord,” he said.
9 But Esau said, “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.”
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. 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.
12 Then Esau said, “Let us be on our way; I’ll accompany you.”
13 But Jacob said to him, “My lord knows that the children are tender and that I must care for the ewes and cows that are nursing their young. If they are driven hard just one day, all the animals will die. 14 So let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I move along slowly at the pace of the flocks and herds before me and the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.”
15 Esau said, “Then let me leave some of my men with you.”
“But why do that?” Jacob asked. “Just let me find favor in the eyes of my lord.”
16 So that day Esau started on his way back to Seir. 17 Jacob, however, went to Sukkoth, where he built a place for himself and made shelters for his livestock. That is why the place is called Sukkoth.
18 After Jacob came from Paddan-Aram, z he arrived safely at the city of Shechem in Canaan and camped within sight of the city. 19 For a hundred pieces of silver, he bought from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem, the plot of ground where he pitched his tent. 20 There he set up an altar and called it El Elohe Israel.
The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
4 33 Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming with his four hundred men. He divided the children between Leah and Rachel and the two maidservants. He put the maidservants out in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. He led the way and, as he approached his brother, bowed seven times, honoring his brother. But Esau ran up and embraced him, held him tight and kissed him. And they both wept.
5 Then Esau looked around and saw the women and children: “And who are these with you?”
Jacob said, “The children that God saw fit to bless me with.”
6–7 Then the maidservants came up with their children and bowed; then Leah and her children, also bowing; and finally, Joseph and Rachel came up and bowed to Esau.
8 Esau then asked, “And what was the meaning of all those herds that I met?”
“I was hoping that they would pave the way for my master to welcome me.”
9 Esau said, “Oh, brother. I have plenty of everything—keep what is yours for yourself.”
10–11 Jacob said, “Please. If you can find it in your heart to welcome me, accept these gifts. When I saw your face, it was as the face of God smiling on me. Accept the gifts I have brought for you. God has been good to me and I have more than enough.” Jacob urged the gifts on him and Esau accepted.
12 Then Esau said, “Let’s start out on our way; I’ll take the lead.”
13–14 But Jacob said, “My master can see that the children are frail. And the flocks and herds are nursing, making for slow going. If I push them too hard, even for a day, I’d lose them all. So, master, you go on ahead of your servant, while I take it easy at the pace of my flocks and children. I’ll catch up with you in Seir.”
15 Esau said, “Let me at least lend you some of my men.”
“There’s no need,” said Jacob. “Your generous welcome is all I need or want.”
16 So Esau set out that day and made his way back to Seir.
17 And Jacob left for Succoth. He built a shelter for himself and sheds for his livestock. That’s how the place came to be called Succoth (Sheds).
18–20 And that’s how it happened that Jacob arrived all in one piece in Shechem in the land of Canaan—all the way from Paddan-Aram. He camped near the city. He bought the land where he pitched his tent from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem. He paid a hundred silver coins for it. Then he built an altar there and named it El-Elohe-Israel (Mighty Is the God of Israel).
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.
33:1 Jacob looked up and saw that Esau was coming along with four hundred men. So he divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two female servants. 33:2 He put the servants and their children in front, with Leah and her children behind them, and Rachel and Joseph behind them. 33:3 But Jacob himself went on ahead of them, and he bowed toward the ground seven times as he approached his brother. 33:4 But Esau ran to meet him, embraced him, hugged his neck, and kissed him. Then they both wept. 33:5 When Esau looked up and saw the women and the children, he asked, “Who are these people with you?” Jacob replied, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” 33:6 The female servants came forward with their children and bowed down. 33:7 Then Leah came forward with her children and they bowed down. Finally Joseph and Rachel came forward and bowed down.
33:8 Esau then asked, “What did you intend by sending all these herds to meet me?” Jacob replied, “To find favor in your sight, my lord.” 33:9 But Esau said, “I have plenty, my brother. Keep what belongs to you.” 33:10 “No, please take them,” Jacob said. “If I have found favor in your sight, accept my gift from my hand. Now that I have seen your face and you have accepted me, it is as if I have seen the face of God. 33:11 Please take my present that was brought to you, for God has been generous to me and I have all I need.” When Jacob urged him, he took it.
33:12 Then Esau said, “Let’s be on our way! I will go in front of you.” 33:13 But Jacob said to him, “My lord knows that the children are young, and that I have to look after the sheep and cattle that are nursing their young. If they are driven too hard for even a single day, all the animals will die. 33:14 Let my lord go on ahead of his servant. I will travel more slowly, at the pace of the herds and the children, until I come to my lord at Seir.”
33:15 So Esau said, “Let me leave some of my men with you.” “Why do that?” Jacob replied. “My lord has already been kind enough to me.”
33:16 So that same day Esau made his way back to Seir. 33:17 But Jacob traveled to Succoth where he built himself a house and made shelters for his livestock. That is why the place was called Succoth.
33:18 After he left Paddan-Aram, Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem in the land of Canaan, and he camped near the city. 33:19 Then he purchased the portion of the field where he had pitched his tent; he bought it from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for a hundred pieces of money. 33:20 There he set up an altar and called it “The God of Israel is God.”
Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.
King James Version
33 And Jacob lifted up his eyes, and looked, and, behold, Esau came, and with him four hundred men. And he divided the children unto Leah, and unto Rachel, and unto the two handmaids. 2 And he put the handmaids and their children foremost, and Leah and her children after, and Rachel and Joseph hindermost. 3 And he passed over before them, and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother. 4 And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him: and they wept. 5 And he lifted up his eyes, and saw the women and the children; and said, Who are those with thee? And he said, The children which God hath graciously given thy servant. 6 Then the handmaidens came near, they and their children, and they bowed themselves. 7 And Leah also with her children came near, and bowed themselves: and after came Joseph near and Rachel, and they bowed themselves. 8 And he said, What meanest thou by all this drove which I met? And he said, These are to find grace in the sight of my lord. 9 And Esau said, I have enough, my brother; keep that thou hast unto thyself. 10 And Jacob said, Nay, I pray thee, if now I have found grace in thy sight, then receive my present at my hand: for therefore I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me. 11 Take, I pray thee, my blessing that is brought to thee; because God hath dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough. And he urged him, and he took it. 12 And he said, Let us take our journey, and let us go, and I will go before thee. 13 And he said unto him, My lord knoweth that the children are tender, and the flocks and herds with young are with me: and if men should overdrive them one day, all the flock will die. 14 Let my lord, I pray thee, pass over before his servant: and I will lead on softly, according as the cattle that goeth before me and the children be able to endure, until I come unto my lord unto Seir. 15 And Esau said, Let me now leave with thee some of the folk that are with me. And he said, What needeth it? let me find grace in the sight of my lord. 16 So Esau returned that day on his way unto Seir. 17 And Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built him an house, and made booths for his cattle: therefore the name of the place is called Succoth. 18 And Jacob came to Shalem, a city of qShechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Padan-aram; and pitched his tent before the city. 19 And he bought a parcel of a field, where he had spread his tent, at the hand of the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for an hundred pieces of money. 20 And he erected there an altar, and called it El-elohe-Israel.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.