56. Genesis 32:1-21

III. C. continued

6.  Jacob Prepares to Meet Esau (Genesis 32:1-21)

Getting away from Laban was scary enough, but seeing Esau again after twenty years was worse. Laban had been cheating Jacob, but Jacob knew he was the guilty one in his own home. It is one thing to break free of a bad man who has been using you, but it is quite a different kind of fear, and a worse fear, to return to a man whom you have wronged and who can reasonably be expected to be violent. Jacob had apparently not received any word from home since he had left. Rebekah had said she would send for him when it was safe to return but she had not done it. What was he to think of that? Did it mean that Esau was continuing to hold a grudge after twenty years? It is almost certain that Rebekah had died, and perhaps not long after Jacob had left. There is mention only of her tomb but no mention of her death anywhere in Scripture. She disappeared from the narrative as soon as Jacob left for Haran. But Jacob had to assume the worst, that Esau still hated him and intended to kill him.

The first recorded event after Laban and Jacob parted company was the encounter with the company of angels near Mahanaim. Actually, Mahanaim means “two companies”, so it would seem that there were a large number of angels involved in this encounter, unless one of the companies is the company of his own household. The name could also refer to his dividing his household into two companies to meet Esau. It is interesting that until Jacob angels had always come individually, three together at the most. But Jacob’s first dream included many angels ascending and descending a ladder, and now he saw an army of angels. Because of their numbers, these angels cannot be easily understood as a pre-incarnation visit by the Messiah. Whatever angels are, they are not just some disguise that God assumes.

It would have been interesting if some detail had been included to indicate how Jacob knew they were angels rather than men. Wings? Radiance? Halos? More intriguing, as well as more importantly, is what the angels were doing there and why Jacob was permitted to see them. Angels are apparently not always visible when they are present, so God must have wanted him and the rest of his household to see these angels. It seems that these angels were there to reassure Jacob, that if there were hostilities between Jacob and Esau, God was prepared to intervene on Jacob’s behalf. Whether this was Jacob’s understanding or not, he continued to take all the precautions that he could think of for the coming reunion. Jacob was seriously afraid of Esau with or without angels as bodyguards.

By this time, Esau was living in the land of Seir, to the south of the Dead Sea and between seventy-five and a hundred miles south of where Jacob was camped.  During the two decades of Jacob’s absence Esau and Isaac had separated into two households, just as Isaac and Abraham had separated into two household even before Isaac was married. Perhaps when Esau moved to Seir, Isaac had also moved to Hebron, Abraham’s main home. Jacob would not have wanted to risk surprising Esau, so he decided to send a message to him from this comfortable distance. It might have been better to meet Esau at Isaac’s home, but there was no guarantee that Isaac would be a protection and there was no guarantee he could make it there without Esau hearing of it.

It was horrifying to hear that Esau’s immediate response to Jacob’s message was to begin assembling his men, four hundred of them, to come to him. These men were probably trained soldiers; Esau was more the type to follow Abraham’s military example than Jacob was. What else could such a response mean but hostility? Esau was coming with a great force to meet him and destroy him; even after twenty years, the anger was alive in Esau’s heart. Though Isaac was still alive (Jacob wouldn’t necessarily have known it), perhaps Esau was tired of waiting for his revenge and meant to get it immediately regardless of the consequences with his father. Something had to be done to mollify Esau. Jacob knew that his household could not fight and he knew that Esau had just cause to be angry.

So Jacob divided his household in the hope that one part of it might escape if the other was attacked. Jacob’s prayer in 32:9-12 is perhaps the main point of his long sojourn with Laban. His character had been transformed by his experiences there. The arrogant man who had run from Esau had become a humble man, a weak man who knew his weakness and knew the necessity of depending on God. What God might have tried to accomplish twenty years before by rebuke and punishment He had accomplished by letting the years and experience work through him. For those who see this account as revelation, the events of those decades had been designed exactly to produce such a change in Jacob’s character. This is the meaning of God’s discipline: that He brings people and circumstances into our lives to cause us to grow in certain ways. It is the way we are: we find it very difficult to learn anything by being told. Experience is the best teacher because it is usually the only teacher we will listen to.

What of Laban, then? Doubtless, Laban also learned much in those years with Jacob. For one thing, Laban learned something about the reality of God, that He was not just a family tradition but also a real presence who might interfere in earthly events in unexpected ways. Perhaps Laban was not changed in the same way nor to the same degree as Jacob, but in his own way he had been the recipient of a revelation as well. Laban was not called to be a bearer of the Covenant, but he was called along with all the rest of us to be blessed by the bearers of that Covenant, and blessed he was.

On the next day after receiving the news of Esau’s approach Jacob did the most sensible thing he could do: he sent Esau a present, a lavish present, to try to mollify his anger. There is nothing like receiving valuable gifts, especially from someone who has cheated you, to make you feel better. Even better, he divided the gift into smaller parcels, each lavish in itself. In this way, Esau would repeatedly encounter a gift from Jacob, each gift would go a little way to easing his anger, as well as slowing him down a bit. Jacob guessed wisely that an anger that had been nurtured over twenty long years could not be assuaged by a single gift in a single moment, but might be chipped away a little at a time.

Furthermore I suspect that this gift to Esau matched in value the share of the inheritance he had cheated Esau out of for the bowl of soup. God may choose the most unsavory of men for His covenant, and He may be very slow to address their unsavoriness, but He need not let them go uncorrected forever.  Esau was also loved by God, and He didn’t let His man cheat his own brother. If this gift to Esau was payback for the cheater, it is important to note that  God didn’t feel the need to point it out to Jacob. God’s priority was to compensate Esau; whether Jacob recognized the moral or not. God leaves His lessons hanging in the air, as it were, and if we don’t get the point, eventually someone will. He is patient.

The gift to Esau took a whole day to arrange, so it had been a day and a half, roughly, since Jacob had heard of Esau’s approach. At this point Jacob was still camped at Mahanaim on the northern side of the Jabbok, a river which runs west to the Jordan and which would form the future boundary between the kingdoms of Sihon and Og when the Israelites returned from Egypt. There was danger Esau might arrive that night before he got the gifts if he made all possible speed. Just as important, what route would he take? Esau knew Jacob was on the north of the Jabbok and would aim for that point. If he came along the eastern side of the Dead Sea, then he would arrive to the south of the Jabbok and have to cross  at Peniel; but if he came along the western side of the Dead Sea, then he would follow the western side of Jordan and cross it to the north of the Jabbok. Jacob apparently expected the western route, so in the evening he moved down to the ford at Peniel and put his wives and children on the southern side of the Jabbok where they would be somewhat hidden from Esau if he arrived in the night and attacked before he got the gift. Everything Jacob owned was on the south side of the Jabbok, but Jacob himself stayed alone on the northern side to be there to meet Esau if he arrived early. If Esau was early then perhaps killing Jacob would satisfy him and he would leave Jacob’s family alone. It was a dangerous situation, but it was about to get weird.


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