Genesis 33


Way back in the beginning, after God created Adam, he commissioned Adam to fill the earth and to subdue it. In other words, the Lord wanted Adam to fill the earth with people who would bear his image and who would be able, therefore, to reflect his glory on the earth. And the Lord wanted Adam to subdue the earth by making it a place where God’s people would worship the Lord. In other words, the Lord’s commission to Adam in the beginning was about making a people and making a place for them to live in where they would worship the Lord.

However Adam — instead of carrying out the Lord’s commission — sinned against the Lord. But that wasn’t the end, was it? We’ve seen, as we’ve studied this book together, that what Adam failed to do because of his sin, God promised to do. What Adam failed to do, God promised to do. And so, we’ve seen how, when the time was right, the Lord spoke to Abraham and promised to make him into a great nation. So, there’s the promise of a people. And the Lord promised to give Abraham and his descendants a land to live in. So, there’s the promise of a place. Adam failed to do what the Lord commanded. But instead of abandoning his plan the Lord promised that he would do it himself through Abraham, first of all; and then through Isaac; and then through Isaac’s younger son, Jacob. Do you remember? The Lord appeared to Jacob at Bethel, where he saw the stairway leading up to heaven, with the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And the Lord said to Jacob:

I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of your father Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south.

So, there was the promise of a place:

I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying.

And there was the promise of a people:

Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth.

Adam was to fill the earth with people; and he was to subdue the earth and make it the kind of place where all those people could worship the Lord. But what he failed to do, God promised to do. And he made that promise to Abraham, and then to Isaac and then also to Jacob.

And, of course, I’ve said repeatedly that God’s promises to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob were going to be fulfilled in two ways: in an earthly, ordinary and provisional way; and in a spiritual, greater and eternal way. The promise of a people was going to be fulfilled in an earthly way in the nation of Israel. And the promise of a place was going to be fulfilled in an earthly way in the land of Israel.

But then, the promises were also going to be fulfilled in a spiritual way. God’s promise of a people is fulfilled in the church, because the members of the church are the spiritual descendants of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and we’re being renewed in the image of God so that more and more we reflect the glory of God. And God’s promise of a place will be fulfilled in the new heavens and the new earth which we read about in the last book of the Bible where all of God’s believing people will live for ever and ever.

So, there was God’s original commission to Adam about a people and a place. And, because Adam sinned, God stepped in and revealed to Abraham and then to Isaac and then to Jacob that what Adam failed to do, he would do himself. And so, today, in our time, the Lord is making a people for himself, because through the preaching of the gospel, he’s calling men and women and boys and girls out of the world to belong to him and to his Son, Jesus Christ. And he’s renewing them in his image, so that they are able to reflect his glory on the earth.

And today, in our time, the Lord Jesus Christ, our Risen and Exalted Saviour, is preparing a place for all of God’s people, where we will worship him for ever and for ever. God is still working out his plan, the plan he revealed to Abraham and to Isaac and also to Jacob.

We’ve seen how Jacob’s family has increased. He already has eleven sons and one daughter. And from all his sons will come the Twelve Tribes of the nation of Israel. There’s the people again. And in today’s passage, we see how Jacob returns to the land of Canaan. There’s the place again. And so, what does Jacob do whenever he arrives with all these people to the place God promised to give him? Well, look at the last verse of this chapter. There we read that he built an altar. He built an altar so that he could worship the Lord. And that’s what every believer will do whenever, at last, we enter the Promised Land of Eternal Life, because whenever all of God’s people come into the place he has prepared for us, we’ll worship him for ever and for ever.


And so, let’s turn now to this chapter. And remember? In chapter 31 we read how Jacob left Paddan Aram. It was time to leave Laban, his father-in-law, and return to the land of Canaan. And then, in chapter 32, we read about the preparations he made in order to meet his brother. And who knows? Who knows? His brother might still be angry with him and may still want to kill him. And certainly that seemed to be the case when he heard that his brother was coming out with an army of 400 men. And so, he divided up his possessions into two camps, so that, should Esau attack one camp, the other could escape. And then he sent his brother one generous gift after another. Do you remember? There were 550 animals in total. And he sent them to his brother to try to make up for what he’d done to his brother before. He was trying to avoid a fight with his brother. But we also read how he came face to face with the Lord during the night. And all night long, he fought the Lord until finally the Lord not only wounded him, but the Lord blessed him.

But the question still remains: What would his brother do? Would his brother welcome him home or would Esau want to get revenge for all that Esau had once taken from him? What would Esau do? That’s what chapter 33 is about. And really the chapter can be divided into two parts. In the first part, the brothers meet. And it all goes well. And in the second part, the brothers separate. But it’s all for the best. And we’ll look at those two parts now.

Verses 1 to 11

And so we read in verse 1 that Jacob looked up. And there was Esau, coming towards him. And he had his 400 men with him. He’d brought an army with him. And we can perhaps imagine Jacob, gulping in fear, and perhaps there were butterflies in his stomach, as he braced himself for the possibility that his brother was about to attack him and his family. Think of that scene in the movie, Zulu, when all the English soldiers look up at the hillside, and all around them, wherever you looked, there are Zulu warriors, banging their shields and spears together to make a noise. And they’re about to attack.

Just as the soldiers in Zulu tried their best to set up defences for themselves, so Jacob does the best he can. Already, the day before, he divided up all his possessions into two camps. Now, he divides up his family into three groups. There are the maidservants with their children at the front. Then there’s Leah and her children next. Then, at the back, there’s Rachel and Joseph. Rachel is still Jacob’s favourite wife and Joseph is his favourite son. So, they’re put at the rear, as far away as possible from any potential harm.

But perhaps we can note a change in Jacob. Whereas he was very afraid the day before — and in verse 7 of chapter 32 we read about his fear and great distress — now though he leads the way. He’s not at the back of the camp, but he’s out at the front, leading the way, and he’s prepared to face his brother. Who knows? Perhaps seeing the angels of the Lord in the previous chapter, and meeting the Lord himself and receiving the Lord’s blessing has given Jacob courage and made him fearless. After all, what did the Lord say about him? That he struggled with God and with men and had overcome. Well, perhaps that word from the Lord about overcoming has given him confidence. And, of course, the meeting with the Lord will have reminded him and re-assured him concerning the Lord’s promises to him. The Lord had promised to give him a people: so they won’t be wiped out. And the Lord had promised to give him a place: so he won’t be ejected from the land. In any case, Jacob leads the way.

And I mentioned last week, Jacob’s humility. Do you remember? He first sent some messengers to Esau. And in the message they were to give to Esau, Jacob referred to himself as Esau’s servant; and he referred to Esau as ‘my master’. Jacob hadn’t come to lord it over his brother. Instead he came with humility. He came in submission even. And we see the same thing here. Look at verse 3. As he approached his brother, he bowed down to the ground seven times. And this isn’t one of those bows we see people give the queen from time to time, when they bend slightly at the waist and lower their head a little. No, Jacob would have fallen flat on his face, so that his nose and forehead were touching the ground. And he did this seven times. He’s showing his brother that he has come in peace and he has no intention of ruling over his brother now.

John Calvin suggests that the next verse proves for us that the hearts of men and women are in the hands of the Lord, because when Esau saw his brother, he didn’t hurt him or harm him, but he hugged his brother. All the bitter hatred had gone from his heart and he now embraced his brother and he kissed him. Back in verse 11 of chapter 32, Jacob had prayed to the Lord to save him from his brother. And as well as praying, he sent all those gifts to placate his brother. And the Lord, who holds our hearts in his hand, heard Jacob’s prayer, and he blessed his peace-making efforts, so that Esau was prepared to welcome his brother warmly. Well, here’s a reminder to us that the Lord is able to change a person’s heart and he’s able to change their attitude towards us. We meet people who are against us. They can’t say anything good about us; and they’re always picking on us; and they do everything they can to upset us. Or perhaps there’s a person in your life who is always a bit nasty towards you. And you despair, because it seems that they will always be that way towards you. Well, as John Calvin says, the Lord works in various ways. He does not always incline cruel hearts to humanity; but if it seems right to him, if it seems good to him, then he can so very easily change their hearts so that they will want to live at peace with us. And so, we ought to do as Jacob did, and pray to the Lord for his help, looking to him to turn an enemy into a friend.

The brothers meet. They embrace. They kiss one another. And they wept, for joy no doubt. And then, verse 5, Esau looks behind his brother and sees all these women and children. ‘Who are they?’ he asks. And Jacob explains.

Now, I said, when we were studying chapter 31, that Jacob had changed in different ways. Once he was a deceiver, but he had become an honest man. And he had become a man who listened to and obeyed God’s word. And he had become a man who trusted God and his promises. But we also said he had become a man who wanted to glorify the Lord and worship him.

And we see that trait in him now, because he doesn’t just mention his children. He adds that these are the children God had graciously given to him. He gives the glory to God for his kindness to him. You know, we meet people from time to time who boast about all they have and all their achievements. But the Lord’s people know that every good thing we have has come to us from the Lord. He is the fountain of all that is good and the source of every blessing in our lives. What did James say about him?

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights who does not change like shifting shadows.

The Lord’s people know this. And since we know this, then we should always remember to give thanks to him and to praise him for his good gifts to us.

Jacob presents before Esau his maidservants and their children; and then there’s Leah and her children; and last of all, there’s Rachel and her children. That’s what we do, whenever an old friend or an old relative comes to the house:

Here’s my wife. You’ve never met her before. And here are my children. You didn’t know I had children, did you? Well, here they are.

And then Esau asks about all the animals he’d seen — the 550 goats and sheep and camels and cows and donkeys too. What did you mean by sending all of them? And Jacob is completely open and honest, isn’t he? He makes clear his intentions in verse 8. He said to his brother:

[I sent them] to find favour in your eyes, my lord. I sent them as a gift to appease you so that you won’t hate me.

Well, in verse 9, Esau says to him:

I already have plenty.

And that must be true. If he’s able to gather an army of 400 men, then he must have become a powerful and wealthy man. As another preacher has pointed out, 400 men at his command implies there are 400 wives and lots and lots and lots of children as well. And all of them would be depending on Esau for their livelihood. So, Esau has become a rich man. And so, he says to his brother:

I have enough already. Keep what you have for yourself. I don’t need it.

But Jacob insists. And do you see how Jacob describes what he gave his brother in verses 10 and 11? In verse 10 he refers to the animals as ‘this gift’. But in verse 11 he refers to ‘the present’. The word translated ‘present’ by the NIV can also be translated as ‘blessing’. Now remember? The reason Esau once hated his brother was because Jacob had stolen Esau’s blessing. And here’s Jacob, trying to make amends. Trying to make up for his past. And he’s saying to his brother:

Listen. Take this blessing from me.

And, I’m sure Esau was able to read between the lines and understand the message behind the message. Jacob was saying to him:

I once stole your blessing. I’m sorry. Please now, take back what is really yours.

And so we read that because Jacob insisted, Esau accepted the gift. He got it. He understood. The 500 animals were to make up for the past.

And look: Once again Jacob acknowledged the Lord’s goodness to him:

God has been gracious to me.

And he had. Jacob had been a schemer and a deceiver. He had been thoroughly unpleasant. But the Lord graciously chose him to inherit all of the promises he’d given to Abraham and Isaac of a people and a place. The Lord had chosen him. And the Lord had also changed him. The man standing in front of Esau would have looked pretty much the same, I’m sure. Yes, he was 20 years older. But he would have looked much the same. But he was really a very different person from the person he once was when he left 20 years ago. He was now an honest man. He was now a humble man. And he was now a man who wanted to worship the Lord. And that leads us to the second part of today’s chapter.

Verses 12 to 20

If the first part of the chapter is about how the brothers met up again, the second part of the chapter is about how the brothers split up again. In verse 12, Esau said to his brother:

Let us be on our way; I’ll accompany you.

He thinks his brother has come to stay with him. And so, he’s saying to his brother:

Come on, I’ll take you to my home.

However, look at Jacob’s response in verse 13. He mentions his children and how small they are. And he mentions his livestock and how he needs to take care of them. And do you know what he’s doing? You’ve probably done the same from time to time. He’s making excuses. He doesn’t want to go with his brother, but he doesn’t want to say so in case he offend his brother. So, he makes excuses and he says to his brother in verse 14:

You go on ahead. We’ll follow behind.

Esau doesn’t get it yet. And in verse 15 he offered to leave some men behind to accompany Jacob. You know, Esau was the hunter. The warrior. The man with an army of 400 men. Jacob was the one with children and animals to look after. So, Esau the warrior offers to lend Jacob some men to protect him on the way. But Jacob turns him down again.

Perhaps Esau finally understands what’s going on here, because he stops trying to press Jacob and instead he turned away and set off to return to Seir where he lived. And Jacob? Well, he went to Succoth first of all which was on the east side of the Jordan and north of Seir. And he built a place for himself there. However, he didn’t stay there for long, because soon he crossed the Jordan and came to Shechem which is at the heart of Canaan. In other words, it was at the heart of the Promised Land.

The Lord had promised to give to Jacob and his descendants the land of Canaan. And so, he couldn’t go with his brother to Seir. Seir was the wrong place for him. It wasn’t the home God intended for him. And so, in faith, Jacob had to say ‘no’ to his brother. He did it as gently and as politely as he could. But although he did it gently and politely, he nevertheless was also very firm about it. His resolve did not waver one little bit. When his brother asked him to come with him to Seir, he did not waver, because he knew that Seir was not the right place for him.

And, of course, there’s a lesson in that for us. The Lord has called us to belong to him and to his people. And he’s promised to bring us at last to the place he is even now preparing for us. But from time to time, people will invite us to follow them. Friends will say to us:

Come on. This way. Come and join us.

And, of course, they’re only trying to be friendly, just as Esau was only trying to be friendly towards his brother. And you know: Very often, it doesn’t matter, because what they’re suggesting is fine. It’s perfectly innocent. But on other occasions, we know that to follow them would be unwise, because to follow them would be to go in the opposite direction to the way we really ought to go. On some occasions, to follow them would lead us far, far, far away from the Lord, and far, far, far way from the Lord’s people, and far, far, far away from the Promised Land of Eternal Life. And so, sometimes we need to be like Jacob; and we need to say to well-meaning, but unbelieving friends as gently, but as firmly as possible:

No. I can’t go in that direction.

The Altar

I’ve already said that when Jacob arrived in Shechem he built an altar to the Lord. Do you see that in verses 19 and 20? He bought a plot of land from the sons of Hamor and there, he built an altar to the Lord.

Here’s a picture for us to think about. Here’s a picture for us to think about later this evening and all through the week. Here’s Jacob — one of God’s people — and he’s living there, in that place, in the land of Canaan. And he’s worshipping the Lord there.

That’s a picture of God’s promise to all his people, isn’t it? It’s a picture of God’s people, living in the place he has prepared for us.

We believe that even now, Jesus Christ, our Risen and Exalted Saviour, is preparing a place for us and for all his believing people. We believe that right now, he’s getting everything ready for us. And we believe that one day, he’ll appear on the earth again, and just as Jacob arrived in Shechem in the Promised Land of Canaan, so we’ll arrive in the place which the Lord Jesus has prepared for us.

And that place which he has prepared for us is far, far, far better than the land of Canaan, even though the land of Canaan was a land flowing with milk and honey. You see, the Lord is preparing for us something even better than that, because what he’s preparing for us is a heavenly and a glorious and an eternal home.

And here’s the thing: When he brings us there, we’ll do what? We’ll worship him for ever and ever. We’ll worship him there just as Jacob worshipped him there in Shechem.

So, there’s a picture for us to think about. Jacob — one of God’s people — and he’s living in the land of Canaan. And he’s worshipping the Lord there. And that picture speaks to us of all that the Lord has in store for us, and of the glorious future which is waiting for us, when the Lord will bring us into the new heavens and the new earth where we’ll join with all of his believing people to worship him for ever and for ever and for ever.