Jacob and Esau - Round 2

After gathering his wives and children and leaving Laban behind, Jacob faces the dangerous confrontation with his brother Esau who had vowed to kill him because of his deception in the matter of the blessing from Isaac.
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I have described the episode in Jacob's life where he was leaving his father-in-law's home and returning to his own. He had arrived at Laban's home while on the run from his brother Esau who had threatened to kill him.

Laban had manipulated and cheated him for twenty years. Now he was escaping this situation with his wives and children to return to an uncertain situation at home.

He faced Laban who had been warned by God not to harm him, and confronted him about the past. They made a treaty of peace and Laban returned home without harming Jacob.

Now, Jacob would face his greatest enemy, his brother Esau, as he returned home to the Promised Land. He returns because God told him to go back, not out of nostalgia or homesickness. To go back was to risk death.

God's Protection Revealed

1Now as Jacob went on his way, the angels of God met him. 2Jacob said when he saw them, "This is God's camp." So he named that place Mahanaim.
- Genesis 32:1-2

Jacob is alone and rather helpless with his small group of women and children. His faith is demonstrated in his obedience in coming home. It was the Promised Land, his inheritance, but what good would it be if they were all killed?

God opens the eyes of his heart to see two angels (the name means "two hosts") that are there to protect him. He draws new courage for the journey once he sees, literally, who is going with him.

Notice how this new courage and confidence makes him act, not with bravado or pride, but with humility and meekness (those who are strong can afford to be meek).

Jacob Prepares to Meet Esau – vs. 3-23

3Then Jacob sent messengers before him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the]country of Edom. 4He also commanded them saying, "Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: 'Thus says your servant Jacob, "I have sojourned with Laban, and stayed until now; 5I have oxen and donkeys and flocks and male and female servants; and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find favor in your sight."'"

6The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, "We came to your brother Esau, and furthermore he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him." 7Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people who were with him, and the flocks and the herds and the camels, into two companies;

Jacob did not know what to expect so he sent messengers in advance of their meeting. If Esau felt threatened that Jacob was pressing his blessing promise to some political advantage over Esau, Jacob tried to ease this fear by having his servants address him as Lord.

He also wanted to reassure him that he had his own wealth and did not need or desire any of Esau's property. He accorded him the respect due an older brother and chief in the area by taking an inferior position. The servants found him sooner than they thought. Esau knew Jacob's caravan was heading in his direction and had already begun riding toward them. He heard the servants but may not have trusted his brother.

Jacob falters in his faith and devises a common tactic: to divide the caravan with the hope that part of it will make it through. In verses 9 to12, Jacob cries out to God for help in what seemed like an impossible situation.

  1. He could not go back to Laban.
  2. He could not remain where they were.
  3. Going forward to meet Esau could mean death.

Note the elements contained in the prayer of a desperate man: He calls on the true God.

  • ELOHIM = God of power
  • JEHOVAH = God of promise

He reviews the promise of God to protect him.

10I am unworthy of all the lovingkindness and of all the faithfulness which You have shown to Your servant; for with my staff only I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two companies.

He recognizes his own situation, that the reason he has received blessing and protection is because of God's kindness, not because of his own works or value.

11Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, that he will come and attack me and the mothers with the children.

He makes a specific request for safety and protection.

12For You said, 'I will surely prosper you and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which is too great to be numbered.'"

This verse summarizes the idea that the protection of God is necessary for the promise to be fulfilled.

(Vs. 13-23) After his prayer Jacob sets about to demonstrate in a concrete way what are the unseen intentions of his heart. He wants peace and reconciliation and the best way to show this is by sending a gift ahead to his brother.

He divides a large portion of his animals into five portions. Each servant is to walk behind each herd or flock. The idea is that as Esau approaches, wave after wave of animals and servants with messages of reconciliation and goodwill will meet him.

Jacob is assured that God will protect him but he is exemplifying God's gracious spirit in his attitude towards his brother. Some say it is a bribe but a bribe is given when no other leverage is available. Jacob had the two angels; he was giving a gift to try to win his brother back in the spirit of Christ.

Jacob Wrestles with God – vs. 24-32

Let's set the context for this scene. Jacob has sent his servants and flocks ahead. He has put his wives and children across the river in camp to prepare for the next day's meeting with Esau. He is left alone with his fears, doubts, and prayers. This passage describes his wrestling or conflict in prayer to God as he weighs two opposite forces: God's promise to protect and bless him and the appearance of his brother who has vowed to kill him.

24Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

It is unfortunate that "wrestle" today conjures up an image of sport or show business. Here, to wrestle is to grapple and in context, to cling. Jacob was clinging to God who was appearing as a man.

  • I do not believe it was an angel because he says "I have seen God face to face" (Vs. 30).
  • God appeared, in the past, as a man to Abraham when He came accompanied by two angels.
  • Before Jacob saw the two angels and now he grapples, clings and wrestles with the Lord in the form of a man.

The point is that he is praying for deliverance and he clings to God until he is sure that God will deliver him (Hosea 12:3-5).

25When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he touched the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob's thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him.

It is not that Jacob was stronger but that he clung tenaciously to God in prayer and God permitted it. His infirmity was not a punishment. It was a sign of his experience as well as a demonstration of God's power. God let him hang on, but had greater power.

26Then he said, "Let me go, for the dawn is breaking." But he said, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." 27So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." 28He said, "Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed." 29Then Jacob asked him and said, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And he blessed him there. 30So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, "I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved."

Jacob wants the blessing as well as the assurance that God will deliver him and bless him with the things He has promised. To show that he has received it, his name is changed from Jacob (the supplanter) to Israel (the prevailer). Israel means several things depending on which part of the word you emphasize:

  • A prince with God
  • One who fights victoriously with God
  • As a prince, thou has power.

Jacob asks His name but the man asks why he should ask – he should already know. He names the place Peniel which means, "the face of God", which demonstrates that he did know with whom he was struggling.

31Now the sun rose upon him just as he crossed over Penuel, and he was limping on his thigh. 32Therefore, to this day the sons of Israel do not eat the sinew of the hip which is on the socket of the thigh, because he touched the socket of Jacob's thigh in the sinew of the hip.

He was now ready (even though he was actually weaker because of his infirmity) to meet with his brother. There is also mention of a tradition begun by the Jews to honor Jacob in their food customs.

Jacob's Meeting with Esau – 33:1-20

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.

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.
- Genesis 33:1-7

As soon as daybreak comes, Jacob sees Esau approaching them in the distance. He places his family in order of importance and personal favoritism with the servants and their children first and Rachel with Joseph last.

It was custom in these times for one to bow seven times when approaching a king. Jacob does this to show proper respect to Esau who is the local chieftain. His spiritual vision is such that he can tell the difference between the spiritual significance of the promises and the immediate circumstances that he finds himself in. He can tell the difference and accepts them. He is the rightful inheritor, the one with the blessing, the one who has wrestled with God, but now he is the younger brother come home to face his older brother who is, for now, the local chief.

God's protection is demonstrated not in a mighty military victory but rather in the tender heart of Esau who upon seeing him welcomes him with joy and love. After this, Jacob introduces his family as the brothers unite.

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.

We see the final confirmation of their reconciliation as Esau accepts Jacob's gifts. The custom was that the acceptance of a gift demonstrated a true sign of peace.

In the Hebrew Esau says "I have much" and Jacob answers "I have everything" signifying his source of blessing from God. God had worked in both of their hearts to make each of them gracious to one another and thereby protect the promise which Jacob's family was to carry forward.

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."

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.

Now that the reconciliation was complete, Esau offers to travel with them to help and protect the family.

Jacob declines for several reasons:

  1. The fighting men would grow impatient with the slow progress of the women, children and animals in Jacob's group.
  2. Jacob probably did not want to begin living in association with Esau who had different values and lifestyle.
  3. He was confident that with Esau no longer a threat, he would face no other dangers. He was fully confident in God's protection.

He is traveling slowly and makes a semi-permanent camp in Succoth (which means booths), to rest his animals.

18Now Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan-aram, and camped before the city. 19He bought the piece of land where he had pitched his tent from the hand of the sons of Hamor, Shechem's father, for one hundred pieces of money. 20Then he erected there an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel.

The chapter ends with Jacob actually entering the land of Canaan, the land which the promise said would one day belong to his people. He purchases a plot of land from a local Canaanite chieftain.

  • The exact location where Abram had first entered the land long ago (Genesis 12:6).
  • The place where his son Joseph would be buried long after (Joshua 24:32).

He also builds an altar here and uses his new name for the first time by calling the altar "God is the God of Israel". It is a token that in a land of idolatry, Jacob establishes the first place where the land and the altar are owned by believers of the true God.


1. If God is with you, who can be against you?

Jacob learned from experience that no matter how long they tried or how strong they were, his enemies could not prevail against him because he was a child of God. Our shield is faith, our strength is righteous living, and our weapon is the Word of God.

In Jacob's world or in our present one, those who are on God's side have nothing to fear because as Jesus says, once they have taken the body there is nothing left to do. Our enemies, however, should be afraid of God who can destroy both the body and the soul (Matthew 10:28).

2. Pray with all your heart, work with all your might

You cannot substitute faith for work. Faith is the belief that God is true to His word, but there is nothing in His word to suggest that faith somehow substitutes for honest effort, courage, and perseverance. Jacob believed but he worked 20 years for his father-in-law and offered gifts to appease his brother.

Our spirit requires us to pray like everything depends on God; our human nature requires us to work like everything depends on us.

The combination of the two makes for a soul that honors God through a faith demonstrated in honest effort, not just talk.

3. When I am weak, I am strong

  • Jacob had to lose even his physical strength.
  • Gideon was reduced to 300 men to fight an army of thousands.
  • Paul was given a thorn in the flesh.
  • Jesus permitted Himself to be mocked and killed.

God's strength and our faith are sometimes better shown when we are stripped away of our glory, when it is obvious that what is being accomplished is beyond our strength and ability. We become strong, as witnesses for Christ, when it is His strength that is clearly seen operating in our lives. It is at this point that we let go pride and we are truly strong.

Discussion Questions

  1. Summarize Genesis 32:1-2 and discuss its significance.
  2. Why did Jacob send his servants before him to meet Esau?
  3. Summarize Genesis 30:24-32 and answer the following questions:
    • What is the context of Jacob's wrestling with God?
    • How was Jacob able to see God, "face to face" (verse 30)?
    • How do we see God, "face to face"?
  4. Summarize the meeting between Jacob and Esau from Genesis 33:1-20 and discuss its significance to us.
  5. How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?
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