GENESIS - CHAPTER 33
A Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough
Copyright 2000 James Melough
33:1. “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.”
At last the moment he dreaded had come. In this meeting of Jacob and Esau we learn the truth that the old nature must be met on its own ground if we ever hope to walk as “Israel” instead of as “Jacob.”
As has been noted already, the strength of that old nature is portrayed in the four hundred men who accompanied Esau; and there being four hundred (number of testing) reminds us that it is by the strength of the old nature working through the flesh that the strength of our faith is often tested. The man who walks with God will neither tremble nor retreat though “Esau” have four hundred times four hundred men with him, for that man walks in the assurance of God’s promise that since God is for him none can be against him.
Jacob, however, didn’t have that assurance, for had he been walking with God he would have been in Canaan rather than on his way to Seir. He must therefore, resort to the use of human expedient, and that expedient was to divide his family among his wives and handmaids, in the hope that “if Esau come to the one company, and smite it, then the other company ... shall escape” (Ge 32:8). Human expedient resulted in the division, and therefore weakening, of his company. Human expedient and spiritual strength are never found together.
The order of Jacob’s division of his family is interesting and instructive. Leah is mentioned first, Rachel second, and the two handmaids last. (For a discussion of what these four women represent, see notes on chapter 29:16-30). Leah represents submission to law-keeping, so that the mention of her and her children first speak of the fact, that believer though he is, Jacob still gives first place to the observance of legalistic ritual. When we remember that this division of the children was occasioned by his fear of Esau, the spiritual lesson becomes clear: law-keeping, as a means of justification, is dictated by the old nature.
Since Rachel represents the expression of Jacob’s new spiritual life, her being in the second place would point to the truth that though he was indeed a believer, he hadn’t yet learned to give faith its proper place. Faith comes first. Obedience follows, not as a means of being justified, but of expressing love and gratitude to God for “His unspeakable gift.” Obedience is the only proper way of expressing that thanksgiving.
Since Zilpah represents mere lip service to God; and Bilhah, occupation with legalistic ordinances, the lesson of their being in the third and last place is that in Jacob’s life there was still much that was mere lip service, and much that was mere outward form. This is what we might expect from one under the dominion of the old nature.
33:2. “And he put the handmaids and their children foremost, and Leah and her children after, and Rachel and Joseph hindmost.”
Here the order is different from that of the preceding verse. The order in which they were to meet Esau was first the hand maids, then Leah, and finally Rachel. As has been noted in earlier studies, God doesn’t compile his lists capriciously: there is as much instruction in the order as in the lists themselves.
Since the handmaids represent mere lip service to God, and occupation with legal ordinances, the lesson of their being placed so as to be the first to meet Esau is that it represents concession to the old nature. That old nature won’t be offended by these things, nor will it be offended by what Leah represents, submission to legalistic ordinances. Rachel and Joseph were to be the last to meet Esau. Rachel represents the expression of Jacob’s new spiritual life; and Joseph, the fruit resulting from the activity of his will in relation to that new life. They represent the reality of his faith, and these things would offend the old nature. Their coming last may be the symbolic revelation of a deceit we all practice more often than even we ourselves may be aware of. Fear of the old nature causes us to defer to it, and act as though our new spiritual life were of least importance, and the activity of our will in relation to that new life, a thing of little consequence.
But there is another thought connected with the order in which they were to meet Esau. As is clear from Ge 32:8, Jacob was well aware of the danger involved in this meeting, and he arranged the order of approach so that if his fear proved to be justified, then those most likely to escape would be those he loved most, Rachel and Joseph. In this we learn that no matter what the outward form may have indicated to the contrary, Jacob’s faith may have been weak, but it was real. He was willing to lose everything except that which represented the expression his new spiritual life and that which belonged to it.
Finally, we can’t consider this verse without being reminded of its antithesis in our redemption. At Calvary God sent His only and well-loved Son to meet the foe first, and it wasn’t to face the prospect, but the certainty of death. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son...” (Jn 3:16). “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” (Ro 8:32). By that death the foe has been vanquished, so that we can employ the words of Paul, “Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died.... Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?.... For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro 8:34-39).
33:3. “And he passed over before them, and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.”
In Jacob’s being the first to meet Esau we learn the lesson that there is no way for a believer to avoid this meeting with the old nature. No matter how long we may seek to postpone it, no matter how we may scheme to place something between us and it, the old nature must be met and overcome, not in our strength, but in God’s. It was a lamed Jacob, weak, and totally dependent on God, who met Esau, and who, without striking a blow, went from that encounter, delivered completely from fear of his elder brother. We never read again that Jacob had any fear of Esau.
Seven is the number of perfection and completeness, and while at first glance it might appear that his bowing seven times represents a believer’s total submission to the control of the old nature, it would seem rather in Jacob’s case to mark the end of that submission. We never read of their being together again, except briefly at Isaac’s burial, chapter 35:29. Having regard to all that had transpired in his wrestling with the angel, Jacob’s bowing seven times in the presence of Esau, may also be indicative of his acknowledgement of his own helplessness, and a total casting of himself upon God for deliverance from this foe whom he couldn’t overcome in his own strength. It would seem to picture a believer’s acknowledgement of the power of the old nature, and of his own helplessness against it without God’s greater power put forth on his behalf. We can scarcely doubt that as God kept Laban from hurting Jacob, so did He also keep Esau. Esau’s coming with four hundred men would indicate that his intentions toward Jacob were no different from those of Laban. That he did Jacob no harm is very likely to have been because God prevented him.
33:4. “And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him: and they wept.”
While Esau’s running to meet Jacob, his kissing him, and their weeping together, are all what might be expected of brothers who hadn’t seen each other in over twenty years, we shouldn’t allow these things to blind us to the spiritual lesson. For all Esau’s apparent goodwill, he still represents the old man, just as Jacob does the new. Esau is flesh, Jacob is spirit, and the declaration of Scripture is, “The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other....” (Ga 5:17).
Esau’s pleasure at meeting Jacob portrays the pleasure of the old nature when the new bows down to take the place of submission. This submission of the new to the old eliminates the hostility, but as the old nature is pleased with that submission, God is displeased. He has declared that it is the old that is to bow in submission to the new. The believer who buys peace with the old nature pays too high a price: he forfeits his peace with God.
Jacob’s weeping may well have been of joy that none of his company would perish at Esau’s hand. The sequel reveals, however, that this wasn’t a true reconciliation, but rather an encounter from which each was to turn and walk a separate path. It seems to represent that moment when a believer, not in his own strength, but in God’s, comes face to face with his own old nature, and realizes that as long as he walks in the separate path marked out by God, that old nature is powerless to harm him. The impossibility of there being any true reconciliation between them is easily comprehended when we remember what each represents.
33:5. “And he lifted up his eyes, and saw the women and the children; and said, Who are these with thee? And he said, The children which God hath graciously given thy servant.”
Esau’s ignorance of the identity of Jacob’s wives and children reflects the inability of the old nature to discern spiritual things. “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Co 2:14).
33:6. “Then the handmaidens came near, they and their children, and they bowed themselves.”
That part of Jacob’s life consisting of what the handmaids represent (mere lip service, and occupation with legal ordinances) bows to acknowledge the power of the old nature.
33:7. “And Leah also with her children came near, and bowed themselves: and after came Joseph near and Rachel, and they bowed themselves.”
That part of the believer’s life involved with submission to law-keeping (which Leah represents), must also acknowledge the power of the old nature.
The order in which Rachel and Joseph are presented is different from that of Leah and the handmaids. With them the mother is placed before the children, but in the case of Rachel and Joseph, he precedes his mother. Rachel represents the expression of Jacob’s new spiritual life, but in the present context Joseph represents more than the activity of Jacob’s will: he is a type of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in his bowing to the enemy, God would have us see the Lord’s submission to death at Calvary, a submission which resulted in the defeat of Death.
Rachel’s bowing to Esau is the symbolic revelation of the truth that even the believer’s new life acknowledges the power for evil inherent in the old nature, which expresses itself through the activity of the flesh. This acknowledgement of its power, however, should not be construed as the submission of the new nature to the old. It is rather the warning to the believer, who has ultimate control over the activity of both natures, to exercise constant vigilance in restraining every activity of the flesh.
33:8. “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.”
Since the servant in charge of each drove had been instructed to tell Esau that the animals had been sent as a present by Jacob, we can only construe Esau’s question as being more an expression of incredulity than interrogation. Apparently he couldn’t believe that Jacob was giving him all these cattle. The lesson in this may be that submission of any part of the new life to the control of the old nature comes, not as an expectation of the old nature, but as a surprise to it. This should make us all the more reluctant to yield anything to its control.
As has been noted already, it was to Jacob’s shame that he used what God had given him, to enrich the man who is set before us as God’s enemy. It is a greater shame when we take what belongs to God and place it at the disposal of the old nature.
33:9. “And Esau said, I have enough, my brother; keep that thou hast unto thyself.”
Esau’s initial refusal to accept the present may point to the fact that sometimes the old nature has a greater awareness of our folly than we do ourselves. While the old nature delights in sin, and has no pleasure in righteousness, it is nevertheless governed by an intelligence, which though only earthly, recognizes that in the final analysis, its best interests are served by the activity of the new nature rather than by its own. Even the natural man knows that drinking and gambling, for example, don’t serve his best interests. The old nature, while it doesn’t enjoy righteousness, recognizes that even from a natural stand point, the moral life is better than the immoral. Just as a man may have an inclination to squander all his money, but is restrained by prudence, so may the old nature not only accept, but even desire to have at least some of its affairs under the restraint of the new nature.
33:10. “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.”
Jacob’s insistence that Esau accept the present confirms that in some things the old nature can see better than we the folly of surrendering control of our lives to it, and will accept that control reluctantly only when we insist on it. For example, the lusts of the old nature may impel a man to commit an immoral act which even natural intelligence knows will be attended by very serious consequences: but in the heat of passion, the voice of even natural wisdom goes unheeded.
“...as though I had seen the face of God” is literally “... of a God.” Obsequious though he was, and anxious to win Esau’s favor, Jacob was not in any sense equating Esau with God.
33:11. “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.”
Jacob continued to assure Esau that he hadn’t come back to be enriched at his brother’s expense. On the contrary, out of the riches he had received from God, he would enrich his brother. The type here continues to emphasize that fear sometimes impels the believer to submit to the dominion of the old nature; but inasmuch as Esau profited by what he received from Jacob, a further lesson is that even that which pertains to the body benefits by its association with what pertains to the spiritual activity of the believer.
33:12. “And he (Esau) said, Let us take our journey, and let us go, and I will go before thee.”
This portrays the amity that is possible between the believer’s two natures only when the new is submissive to the old. “... I will go before thee.” There can be harmony only when the old nature is “leading the way.” When there is peace between our two natures we can be sure that “Esau is leading the way” rather than God.
33:13. “And he (Jacob) 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.”
While fear had induced Jacob to submit to Esau, he was clearly unwilling to continue under that control beyond what he deemed necessary to save his life. Having appeased his brother’s wrath, he was now anxious to go his own way, while Esau went his.
One lesson to be learned from this is that while fear may lead a believer to submit to the old nature’s control, spiritual wisdom teaches him that that control is a dangerous thing that must not be allowed to continue. The old nature and the new can’t walk together for long.
While there may have been a measure of truth in the reasons offered by Jacob, it is obvious that the real reason was that he was afraid to remain long in Esau’s company with Esau leading the way. We also should be afraid when the old nature is “leading the way.” The believer will have peace only as long as the old nature is in subjection to the new, and God is leading the way.
The children and the flocks and herds represent the believer’s spiritual possessions; the children representing the fruits produced in his life by the Holy Spirit; and the flocks and herds, his worship and service. Jacob’s emphasizing that they were young reminds us that in his case their spiritual counterparts were indeed “young.” It was but lately that Jacob had manifested any willingness to obey God.
”... if men should overdrive them ... all of the flock will die.” Spiritual growth and spiritual service can’t be forced by human effort. Both must be allowed to develop at God’s pace. Man’s attempts to hasten that growth all too often result in the “death” of what man has sought to bring to maturity before God’s time. It has happened sometimes that well-meaning, but unscriptural attempts to encourage a young man to develop his spiritual gift have resulted instead in the death of that gift. A young man’s being encouraged to exercise, prematurely, his gift of preaching or teaching, or of sharing in the oversight of the church, may result in what God warns against in 1 Tim 3:6 “... not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil.” It is easy to mistake natural ability for spiritual. We should be careful not to push young men into spiritual work for which they may have no spiritual gift; or, if they have, not to push them into that work before the Holy Spirit has had time to develop their gift. One slain Egyptian, and an Israel left in bondage, were the only results of Moses’ attempt to begin his work before God’s time. His preparation was only half complete. He had another forty years to spend in the desert. There is a growing tendency today to bypass the “forty years in the desert,” and the results are disastrous. The more public gifts, by their very nature, must be exercised in a sphere that is all too conducive to the development of pride, but pride and spiritual growth are mutually exclusive. Both those giving, and those receiving encouragement in this realm should be careful to make sure that it isn’t “Esau” who is “leading the way and “overdriving the young.”
There is a lesson also in connection with Jacob’s statement that “all the flocks will die.” When those who minister to the “flocks” are men with natural talent, but not spiritual gift, or are men lifted up with the pride produced by their having been encouraged to exercise a spiritual gift before the Holy Spirit’s time, then there is the very real danger that “all the flocks will die.” Where the Holy Spirit is left to work unhindered (either by the man possessed of spiritual gift, or by those who would encourage him) He will bring that man forth at the right time, to a sphere of service prepared, not by man, but by God. Then, and only then, will God’s work be done, and “the flocks” will flourish. We tend to forget that it is the man already in possession of the gift who is admonished, “Neglect not the gift that is in thee” (1 Tim 4:14), and “Stir up the gift of God which is in thee” (2 Tim 1:6). Well-meant but misguided encouragement may result in the attempt to exercise the gift when there has been neglect of it, and a failure to stir it up. If the individual himself is faithful in obeying the divine injunction, then his gift, like a cork, will “bob to the surface” in spite of every hindrance.
33:14. “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.”
This appears to have been a deliberate lie, for instead of continuing southward towards Seir, Jacob went to Succoth which was directly westward. It was also on the north bank of the Jabbok, indicating that after Esau’s departure, Jacob must have taken his company back across the river, thus putting it between him and Esau. This seems to portray the struggle of the believer who is torn between a desire to please God, and to obey the lusts of the old nature impelling him to sin.
Had Jacob followed Esau he would have ended up in Seir, the territory ruled over by Esau. As has been noted already, Seir means shaggy: hairy: goat-like, and it clearly speaks of sin. The spiritual lesson isn’t difficult to read. When we accept the dominion of the old nature the result must always be sin.
Jacob’s lie reveals his weakness, but the fact that he didn’t follow Esau, reveals that his fear of God was greater than his fear of his brother. There is hope for the man whose fear of God is stronger than the pull of his own old nature.
33:15. “And Esau said, Let me now leave with thee some of the folk that are with me. And he (Jacob) said, What needeth it? let me find grace in the sight of my lord.”
If Esau can’t personally lead Jacob, then he will at least have some of his men left with Jacob’s company so that they may bring him to Seir. In this we learn the truth that when the old nature can’t exercise direct control, it will seek to do so by indirect means.
The fact that the offer was refused, and that none of Esau’s men were left against Jacob’s wishes, would teach us that the old nature can have no more control of our lives than we ourselves are willing to permit.
33:16. “So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir.”
This appears to have been the final parting of the ways for Esau and Jacob, for the only other mention of their being together again is in chapter 35:29 at the burial of Isaac. In this we learn that the flesh and faith can’t walk together in harmony, at least as long as faith is obedient to God. Esau’s going to Seir reminds us that the old nature makes its home in sin.
33:17. “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.”
Succoth was on the north bank of the Jabbok, and it was directly west of Peniel. This would indicate that Jacob did a complete turn-around. Instead of continuing south towards Seir he must have returned over the Jabbok and then gone west towards Canaan. This, together with his parting from Esau, is the portrait of a believer who has finally thrown off the yoke of the old nature, and who has at least begun to walk with God, though his obedience was still incomplete, for Succoth was on the eastern side of Jordan, and outside of Canaan, but it was a beginning.
Succoth means booths, taking its name apparently from the booths which Jacob built there for his cattle.
The tent is always indicative of pilgrim character, so that Jacob’s building a house at Succoth, rather than pitching his tent, implies that for the present at least, he had abandoned his pilgrim walk. His time at Succoth therefore, becomes a type of the experience of the believer who has also abandoned his pilgrim walk, and who has settled down in the world. His building booths for his cattle would speak of a believer’s becoming occupied with this world’s business to the neglect of God’s.
There is the temptation to be critical of Jacob, and in our occupation with his failures, to lose sight of his progress. It shouldn’t be forgotten that he had separated completely from Laban (self-righteous pride). He had separated himself from Esau (the old nature no longer controlled his life). He had been lamed (he had learned that he couldn’t put confidence in himself or his schemes). He had abandoned what seems to have been an intention to go to Seir, and though not yet in Canaan, he had at least moved closer to it. His westward journey from Peniel to Succoth speaks of approach to God. In Jacob’s faltering obedience we may see all too clearly a picture of our own. His striving towards a more complete obedience a striving which is but the mirror of our own - recalls the words of the poet:
They on the heights, are not the souls,
Who never erred nor went astray;
Who trod unswerving toward their goals,
Along a smooth rose-bordered way.
Nay, those who stand where first comes dawn,
Are they who stumbled, but went on.
Jacob’s path may have been circuitous, but he was drawing nearer to Canaan.
33:18. “And Jacob came to Shalem, a city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Padan-Aram; and pitched his tent before the city.”
With regard to Shalem, we quote from the New Bible Dictionary: “SHALEM. A word treated by AV as the name of a place near Shechem, which was visited by Jacob (Gn 33:18). RV (‘in peace’) and RSV (‘safely’), however, prefer to take it in an adverbial sense, from the verb Salem, ‘to be complete, sound’, and this appears to make better sense. The word Salem, identical in form, does occur as a place-name in connection with Melchizedek, but is given as Salem.” The Amplified Old Testament and the New English Bible also give similar renderings: “When Jacob came from Padan-Aram he arrived safely and in peace at the town of Shechem....” AOT. “On his journey from Padan-Aram, Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem....” NEB.
At last he is back in Canaan, and it is worth noting that Shechem was the first-named camping place of Abraham when he came from Padan-Aram into Canaan. Shechem means shoulder, and its spiritual significance has been discussed in detail in the notes on chapter 12:6.
“... when he came from Padan-Aram,” indicates that in God’s sight he wasn’t out of Padan-Aram until he was in Canaan, and in this we are reminded that in the matter of divine things there is no room for compromise. With God there are no “gray areas.” Everything is black or white. We are obedient or we are disobedient. We are saved or lost: we have spiritual life or we are spiritually dead. We are on God’s side or we are against Him. “He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad” (Mt 12:30).
In the spiritual realm compromise is simply accommodation of sin.
”... and pitched his tent.” The house in Succoth has been exchanged for the tent in Canaan. Jacob is back, not as an earthdweller, but as a pilgrim passing through this earth on his way to heaven. The man who would enjoy fellowship with God doesn’t build himself “a house in Succoth”: he passes through this world as a pilgrim and stranger, dwelling in “a tent,” looking for “a (the) city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb 11:10).
33:19. “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.”
33:20. “And he erected there an altar, and called it El-elohe-Israel.”
In Scripture the field represents the world, but here Jacob buys “a parcel (portion) of a field,” and on it he built an altar. While we are here in the world we are to “buy” a portion of it as a place on which to “build an altar,” that is, we are to ensure that our occupation with the things of this world is no more than is necessary. Many a believer has made shipwreck of his spiritual life by giving to his job or family, for example, time that should have been given to the strengthening of his own spiritual life and the service of God.
Jacob bought the portion from the children of Hamor, the father of Shechem. Hamor means an ass, and since the ass represents the body as the servant of the old nature, Jacob’s buying this portion of the field from Hamor’s control, speaks of a believer’s imposing upon his body that control which will prevent it from gratifying fleshly lust, that control thus enabling him to worship God. The lesson isn’t difficult to read. The price is what we are willing to give up in order to obey God, for obedience, God says, “is better than sacrifice” (1 Sa 15:22). That price we are willing to give up may take many forms - time, money, pleasure, fame, ease, the world’s approval or promotion, etc. The price Jacob paid was a hundred pieces of money (some translations render this ‘an hundred sheep’). The emphasis is on the number one hundred, which is simply ten multiplied by ten, the number of divine government. If we would “erect an altar” to God down here in the world, then we must be obedient under His government.
Hamor was the father of Shechem, the Hivite prince who defiled Jacob’s daughter Dinah. The personal name has the same meaning as the place-name Shechem, that is shoulder, the symbol of strength, but here it represents the strength of the old nature expressed in the lusts of the flesh. This would teach that in order to “build an altar to God” we must assume control of our bodies so as to prevent gratification of the lusts of the flesh, as Paul exhorts, “I beseech you therefore, brethren by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service (spiritual worship). And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Ro 12:1-2).
A further lesson we may learn from Jacob’s having paid a hundred pieces of money for this portion of the field on which he built his altar is that worship costs something. There is much in Christendom that may look like worship, but unless it costs us something, it will be to the reality what Rehoboam’s brazen shields were to the golden ones carried away by Shishak, (2 Ch 12:10) - a mere travesty. When David went to the threshing floor of Araunah to build an altar, he refused Araunah’s gift of the place, saying, “Nay, but I will surely buy it of thee at a price: neither will I offer burnt offerings unto the Lord my God of that which doth cost me nothing” (2 Sa 24:24). Since worship is the presentation to God of our occupation with Christ, its value must be in direct proportion to the time we are willing to give to that occupation.
The name El-elohe-Israel means God, the God of Israel. This appears to be the first instance of Jacob’s having appropriated his new name, and it is significant that it is in the context that speaks of obedience. It is not that God was not also the God of Jacob: He was, but the character of the relationship between God and Jacob, up to this point, had been one in which worship was conspicuously absent. As has been noted in previous studies, Israel means he shall be prince of God. The lesson we may learn therefore, from this altar is that obedience is a prerequisite of worship.