Summary: God can restore broken relationships with other people... and himself.
I want us to take a brief walk through this chapter in Genesis 33. Of course, in context it follows the three days covered in Genesis 32 in which Jacob finds out his brother is coming to meet him with 400 men. The rest of that chapter is wrapped up in Jacob’s human attempts and frailties to undo a lifetime of bad choices through his own power and with faltering hope and faith in God’s ability to deliver.
God has to literally break the man in order to make him. Jacob is forced to come to the end of himself; to exhaust every resource and still realize that God alone is his only chance. And just in time it seems, Jacob does precisely that.
So let’s read and walk through this chapter together.
Verse notes for Gen 33:1
The moment of truth!
Verse notes for Gen 33:2
Is this a case where the most expendable lead the way? It seems that way to my un-middle eastern eye. Clearly enough Jacob knows he has to introduce his family to Esau who may well be angry enough still to wholesale slaughter them. So again with hopes that the ones in the back can turn and make a break for it, he puts the most precious in the back and the most expendable at the front. This becomes important later and helps to display already the favoritism extended to Joseph and the problems that will lead to.
Verse notes for Gen 33:3
Finally he plays the man, where the last night he had sent them all ahead by making them cross the river - now here he rushes ahead of them to take whatever may be coming to him. Or then again there is the possibility that he is trusting in God to deliver him finally. Unfortunately there’s no way to discover that from the text itself.
But look at the way he bows down seven times in front of his brother. I think it’s authentic humility. Jacob now appears to be genuinely repentant for having mistreated his brother. Esau in turn displays a sharp contrast between the 400 warrior he’s bringing with him and the hug he gives to Jacob. We get to the fourth verse and there are no swords, no slings or spears - only hugs and tears.
So we get to see that miracles were worked both in Jacob and in Esau.
In Jacob, God brought about a spirit of humility and generosity.
Esau was changed from seeking revenge to desiring reconciliation. These changes were proof that God had delivered Jacob in answer to his prayer (32:11).1
When we finally get to the tenth verse, you ought to be a little startled at his declaration that seeing Esau’s face was like seeing God’s. But it’s an intentional phrase that points back to the last chapter’s events.
Remember the hushed awe that Jacob had responded with when he said, "I have seen the face of God and lived!" There it was a testimony of grace where Jacob knew he should have died and didn’t. Here again it’s a testimony of grace as Jacob is now just as surprised that he has seen Esau’s face and lived. This after spending 20 years in hiding for fear of his life from Esau whom he had tricked and deceived.
But moving from Genesis 33:13-ff it looks almost like Jacob is starting to lie again to his brother and maybe he is… but maybe again he isn’t. He starts making excuses as to why he can’t go with Essau but the excuses sound authentic enough. The children probably wouldn’t be able to handle a hard military march. And he tells Esau that he’s planning to meander his way down to him in Seir, (The verb means " to go by stages, to move from one place to the next on a journey."2 but there is never an instance in the Bible in which Jacob makes it to Seir.
So What’s going on here? Is he lying about Going to Sier? He doesn’t even move in that direction he actually goes north-west while Sier is straight south. Whatever did happen there, Jacob and Esau meet again as friends at their father’s funeral in Genesis 35:29. What is clear is that God had demanded that Jacob go to Canaan and Jacob obeys that demand.
As he moves deeper into the land, Jacob buys a plot of land, just as Abraham had done. And just like Abraham’s purchase it shows that Jacob, in reliance upon the promise of God, regarded Canaan as his own home and the home of his ofspring. 3
Finally at the end of the chapter as he had promised way back in chapter 28 Jacob fulfilles his promise to make God his God. He names the new altar God is the God of Israel.