What does Genesis chapter 33 mean?Jacob made extensive preparations to meet his estranged brother, Esau, as recorded in the prior chapter. After all the waiting and wondering, the moment has finally arrived. Esau has come. Will he bring violence or peace?
Jacob makes one last-minute strategic choice before approaching his brother. He arranges his family into at least three distinct groups with some space between them. He places his two servant wives and their children at the front of the line. Next he places Leah and her children. Finally, he places his beloved Rachel and Joseph. Given that Jacob is going to approach Esau first, this is not a cowardly act, at all. It does, however, show Jacob's open favoritism, since Rachel and Joseph will have the easiest path of escape in case Esau becomes aggressive (Genesis 33:1–2).
Jacob then moves to the front of this procession and begins heading toward Esau, but slowly. He stops seven times to bow low to the ground on the way. Finally the moment comes. Esau does not draw a sword. Instead, he runs to Jacob, throws his arms around his brother and kisses him. Both men weep at the reunion. They are reconciled, at last, despite all Jacob did to Esau 20 years ago (Genesis 33:3–4).
Then Esau notices and asks about Jacob's wives and children. They approach, each group in turn, and themselves bow before Esau, treating him as a prince or lord. They make for an impressive group. As arranged before, Jacob would have introduced them in the order of preference, saving his favored wife and son for last (Genesis 33:5–7).
Esau asks Jacob about all the company that came before, referring to Jacob's massive gift of goats, sheep, camels, cows, and donkeys—550 animals in total. Jacob replies that these were given to find favor in Esau's sight. Perhaps using customary politeness, Esau tries to refuse them, saying he has enough. Jacob insists, however, that Esau take them as evidence that he truly favors Jacob. Jacob declares that Esau's acceptance of him warrants the gift. Seeing Esau's face, he asserts, is like seeing the face of God (Genesis 33:8–10).
Esau finally agrees to accept the gift and invites Jacob to travel with him back to his home in Seir. As later verses will show, Jacob doesn't want to go that way. Here, however, he doesn't say so. Instead, he tells Esau that his company will travel too slowly to keep up; the children are frail and the nursing animals can't be pushed. He refuses escort, and says he will come along at his own pace (Genesis 33:11–16).
Once Esau leaves, heading south towards Seir, Jacob travels in the opposite direction. He heads north, building permanent structures at Succoth and then eventually west, setting up camp outside of the city of Shechem. In fact, Jacob purchases the land he is camped on from the people of Shechem and builds an altar to the Lord there, just as Abraham had done many years before (Genesis 33:17–20).
Jacob's presence near Shechem will not be peaceful, however. Chapter 34 describes a terrible story of violation and revenge, which will shape the destiny of the tribes of Israel.