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4. Jacob: His Running and Returning: “God’s Grace In Reconciliation” (Gen. 33:1-20)

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A documentary series that my wife and I used to watch from time to time is called “The Locator”. In these documentaries, Troy Dunn (“the locator”) tracks down and attempts to reunite families – a missing sister or brother, children given up at birth etc. There are many tragic stories, many of which have happy endings.

One happy ending was the story of a woman in the military who had a relationship with another soldier. They broke up and shortly afterward she discovered she was pregnant. Feeling that the father was too young to take on this responsibility she decided to not notify him. Subsequently, she gave birth to a boy, whose questions about his father during his growing up years she never properly answered. Finally, when her son was about 25 years old, he contacted Troy Dunn to find his father for him, which Troy did.

Watching the initial meetings of many of these estranged family members is interesting and moving to watch. Some end in disaster, like a daughter who did not want to meet her father who had abandoned her. But this one was a very positive experience for all involved. By the time they meet, the young man’s father has a wife and 3 teenage children, none of whom knew of course that he had another son because he himself didn’t know. After finding out that he had another son, he discussed the situation with his wife and children, all of whom were excited about meeting him.

On the appointed day, they all met and welcomed him with open arms as one of their family – a happy reunion. I wondered why they could so quickly and willingly and lovingly accept him, as many families do not react that way in this type of situation. But then, as the camera panned around the room in their house where they were meeting, I noticed a plaque on the wall. That plaque gave me the clue to why this family was so accepting in their reconciliation with their new son, brother, and grandson. The plaque said: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” These were Christians who knew the truth and reality of the grace of God in reconciliation. That’s our subject in this message: God’s grace in reconciliation.

We learn in our passage that reconciliation is made possible through humility and love that are rooted in God’s grace. When Jacob was at Bethel in Genesis 28, God had promised that He would give him the land on which he was lying, that He would be with Jacob and keep him wherever he went, and that He would bring him back to this land (28:13, 15). Now God fulfills that promise, directing Jacob back to Canaan, to the land of his ancestors and his family relations (31:3). So, Jacob packs up all his possessions and family that he had acquired in Paddan-aram to go back to Canaan (31:17-18).

But the past has a way of catching up with you. It caught up with Jacob at the river Jabbok (32:22-32) and it catches up with him now in our chapter. So far, he had gotten what he wanted but at a great cost - he had lost contact with his mother and he had severed his relationship with his brother, Esau. Now he must face Esau for the first time in 20 years. He could have kept running as he had before, but he didn’t. Perhaps by this time he has finally reached the end of himself and his self-sufficient, self-improving, ambitious lifestyle. Perhaps he knows that he has run out of options. Or, perhaps he intends to be obedient to God’s call to go back home and face the music whatever that might be.

After wrestling with God all night, Jacob limps across the river Jabbok and, “lifting up his eyes” he saw Esau “coming with 400 men (33:1). Clearly this sight unnerves Jacob. It seems to him that Esau is bent on exacting the vengeance he had threatened before (27:41). But, in fact that was not the case at all. Instead, Jacob receives from Esau acceptance and affection. In this meeting we see that…

I. Reconciliation Is Initiated By Inward Renewal (33:1-4)

Reconciliation is a powerful force for most people. We don’t generally like living with fractured, distant relationships. We have this inner longing for restoration, unity, happiness. The last time they were together, Jacob was so determined to get the blessing from his father, Isaac, that he went to extraordinary lengths to deceive Isaac and defraud Esau out of his birthright. As a result, Esau hated Jacob so much that he threatened to kill him (27:41).

Now they are meeting for the first time after that episode. Jacob, the offender, is about to meet Esau, the offended. What we see here in this process of reconciliation is that…

1. Reconciliation is initiated by a renewed attitude (33:1-3). Up to now, Jacob hadn’t worried about meeting Esau again. He could patch things up - he could buy him off with presents. After all, he is wealthy now as 32:1-5 indicate. But when he sees Esau approaching with a small army, Jacob is clearly suspicious about what to expect. So, not knowing how this will turn out, in addition to the earlier division of his entire company (32:7), he now also divides up his family into four – (1) the two servants with their children in front; then (2) Leah with her children; and (3) Rachel (his favorite) and Joseph at the rear, the place of greatest safety; and (4) Jacob “himself went on before them” (33:3a). Notice that previously Jacob had stayed behind (32:16, 18), but now he takes the lead. He is living up to his new name, “Israel” – he is a leader now, leading the way and protecting his family.

Jacob didn’t know what was in Esau’s heart and Esau didn’t know what to expect from Jacob. But quickly it became apparent that both brothers longed for reconciliation – both the offender and the offended. We need to appreciate the enormity of this moment - two brothers meeting for the first time after 20 years of estrangement. This is a climactic moment! How will it turn out? What will happen? Thankfully, this time, Jacob is not out to defraud his bother. Rather, he takes the low place, “bowing himself to the ground seven times until he came near his brother” (33:3b).

While no words are exchanged at this point, the brothers’ actions speak louder than words. Taking the low place is the best attitude you can take in the process of reconciliation. “Bowing” here (and in vv. 6 and 7) is an act of contrition and repentance. Previously Jacob had taken the high place when he defrauded his older brother out of his birthright, but now Jacob takes the low place before Esau. Previously, Isaac had told Jacob that “nations would bow down to him” (27:29), but now Jacob bows down to Esau. He is not used to bowing down to others but he had to bow down to God - first at Bethel and then at the river Jabbok. And now, he bows before Esau as a slave to his master. This is a radically renewed attitude. This is humility, submission. More than that it’s contrition and repentance - the lesser bowing before the greater; the servant to his lord.

Jacob surely is a changed man. His encounter with God at the Jabbok seems to have changed him spiritually and physically. His permanent limp prevents him from ever running again. It reminds him that he has met God face to face. Now he is a changed man with a new identity – no longer Jacob but Israel (32:28). Accordingly, he takes a new posture before Esau, demonstrating inward renewal in a new attitude. A new of attitude is a prerequisite for reconciliation, changing from dominance to subservience, from taking away (his deceit) to giving back (in the gifts).

Words do not express what actions can and do. A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger (Prov. 15:1). While some people find regret and repentance hard to express in words, it is even harder to express in actions. To bow down literally or metaphorically before someone whom we have offended and take that low place is hard. It strikes hard against our pride and self-justification. The question in Jacob’s mind must surely have been: “How will Esau react? Will he now carry out his threat to kill me?”

First, then, reconciliation is initiated by a renewed attitude…

2. Reconciliation is initiated by a renewed heart (33:4). Jacob has no idea how Esau will react. Indeed he has every reason to think that this meeting is not going to go well. Perhaps Esau would try to exact revenge by harming Jacob’s family or taking his possessions as recompense for the birthright he had lost before. It sure looked that way to him. Perhaps Esau still wants to prove his entitlement to their father’s blessing as the older son. Perhaps 20 years had reinforced and exacerbated Esau’s hatred and desire for revenge. But, by God’s grace, such is not the case.

In fact, instead of evil intent, Esau expresses affection, an eagerness for reunion, unconditional acceptance, a spontaneous act of vulnerability in a renewed heart. Esau is not out for revenge and certainly not murder. Rather, he demonstrates unqualified affection for his long lost brother (33:4).

Notice the contrast between the greetings of these two brothers. Jacob greets Esau like a servant to his master, but Esau greets Jacob like a brother to his brother. First, he “ran to meet Jacob,” this in contrast to Jacob’s limp. There is an evident eagerness in Esau to meet Jacob. His running to Jacob contrasts with Jacob’s slow approach, bowing himself to the ground. Second, he “embraced Jacob,” in contrast Jacob just “came near” (33:3). Third, Esau “fell on his neck and kissed Jacob,” an ironical reminder of how Jacob had kissed Isaac (27:27). Lastly, “they wept.” This is genuine affection on display, a softness of heart, a demonstration of true reconciliation.

A changed attitude and a changed heart - both of which changes are necessary for reconciliation to take place. The heart is the centre of our emotions and Jesus said that “out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murder…” (Matt. 15:19). That’s where broken relationships start – in the heart. Violent emotions that go unchecked can lead to behavior as egregious as murder.

So, what about your heart? If you are a Christian and you hold bitter feelings against someone, then you need to examine your own heart first. Whenever we experience fractured relationships we need to ensure that we are not holding bitterness in our own hearts, because bitterness eats away like a cancer, which if untreated can kill you - spiritually and emotionally. “See that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble and by it many become defiled” (Heb. 12:15). Bitterness manifests itself in your attitude to others. Bitterness not only eats away at you on the inside but it affects everyone else around you as well. As believers we are united through the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit is grieved and his work among us is quenched when our relationships are severed or distant or bitter. I know that reconciliation with someone who has hurt you or whom you have hurt is not easy, because it’s not easy to take the low place. So, I’m not trivializing the process of reconciliation – it includes repentance, confession, forgiveness, and trust. But, what I’m saying is that the process starts with you – with your attitude and your heart.

Apparently Esau has a renewed heart. He has dealt with his bitter feelings against Jacob. His thoughts of murder have changed to feelings of affection. Instead of anger, he exudes warmth and love, embracing and kissing Jacob. The tension is released and “they wept” together. There is nothing quite like love and tears to bring down the walls of disagreement and separation. Tears are good for your own soul. They somehow ameliorate the hurt and sadness and bitterness.

First, then, reconciliation is initiated by inward renewal – renewal of one’s attitude and renewal of one’s heart. Second…

II. Reconciliation Is Expressed In Outward Actions (33:5-20)

1. Reconciliation is expressed by acknowledging God’s grace (33:5-7). Rarely is personal reconciliation limited to one-on-one. Usually it involves others, typically family members. Here Esau extends grace to the entire family. “When Esau lifted up his eyes and saw the women and children he said, ‘Who are these with you?’” (33:5a).

Esau takes the initiative to inquire about the rest of Jacob’s family in this act of reconciliation: “Who are these with you?” This is a very normal question when meeting family members for the first time, especially in the context of reconciliation. Jacob replies, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant” (33:5b). Jacob still does not address Esau as his brother, preferring to emphasize his subservience to him, retaining a formal master and servant relationship. Is this because he felt awkward, embarrassed? Or, is this because he wants to emphasize his change of attitude, no longer seeking to dominate but to serve. Importantly, he attributes his family to a gift of God’s grace. That is exactly what it was – a gift of God’s grace.

One by one the various parties in Jacob’s large family draw near to Esau (33:6-7). First, the servants, Bilhah and Zilpah with their children, then Leah with her children, and finally Rachel with her child, Joseph. They all “bowed down” before Esau (vv. 6, 7b) in an act of respect and family unity.

So, reconciliation is expressed in outward actions. First, reconciliation is expressed by acknowledging God’s grace. Second…

2. Reconciliation is expressed by making restitution (33:8-11). Everything that is happening seems to be overwhelming for Esau – he is flabbergasted. He can’t comprehend what’s going on: “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” (33:8a). He is dumbfounded by the extent of Jacob’s company and the massive quantity of gifts they brought from Jacob (32:13-21). It all appears to be over the top. He can’t comprehend it all. Jacob answers, “To find favor in the sight of my lord” (33:8b). “That’s what this is about, Esau - it’s about restitution. It’s about demonstrating to you that I am deeply sorry for what I did when I stole your birthright. It’s about showing you my repentance in action not just words. I want to find favor in your sight, Esau. That’s what this is about and as a show of goodwill I want to repay you.”

It appears that Jacob wants in some way to repay the blessing that he had stolen from Esau those many years ago. In a gracious response, Esau says: “I have enough, my brother, keep what you have for yourself” (33:9). Notice that Jacob calls Esau “lord” in v. 8, but Esau calls Jacob “brother” in v. 9. Esau clearly wants a closer relationship with Jacob than Jacob wants with him. “Despite what you stole from me, I am well-provided for; I don’t need or want your gifts. I have enough,” Esau replies. Esau evidently bears no revenge, wants no recompense, isn’t looking for financial reward. What he wants is a relationship with his brother.

Jacob insists: 10 No, please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand. For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God and you have accepted me. 11 Please accept my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough.” Thus he urged him (Esau), and he took it” (33:10-11). Meeting Esau is likened by Jacob to “seeing the face of God,” which he had seen before at Bethel (28:16-17) and which he had just seen again at the Jabbok (32:22-31). Thus, the blessing that he had received from God there he wants to extend now to his brother. Seeing Esau for the first time in 20 years, he sees a reflection of the grace of God in Esau’s face. Just as he sought a blessing from God at the Jabbok, so now he seeks Esau’s favor and blessing. So, in an act of pure grace, Esau accepts the gifts as a demonstration of his acceptance of his brother, as a token that all is restored between them, as a measure of goodwill. Jacob wants to find favor in Esau’s sight and to bless Esau and Esau accepts Jacob’s gifts on that basis.

Would it were so that all broken relationships were thus restored - that the offender would be so constrained to seek the favor of the offended one; that such brokenness would be manifested by all parties whose relationships have been broken; that such humility and subservience would be shown by all offenders. I appeal to any reader who has cut off someone else’s ear and heart by their behavior and words, bring it to an end now. Do what you have to do to restore the relationship. Start by showing your utter humility, shame, brokenness and your repentance for ever having caused the severance in the first place. Seek the forgiveness and favor of the other person. And pray for God’s grace to overflow into the lives of all the parties and extended families thus affected. It can be done! It has been done! It was done by Jacob and Esau. But it all starts with you - your heart and your attitude.

Reconciliation, then, is initiated by inward renewal and is expressed in outward actions. First, reconciliation is expressed by acknowledging God’s grace. Second, reconciliation is expressed by making restitution. And third…

3. Reconciliation is expressed by acting in kindness (33:12-20). Esau acts kindly in two ways. First, Esau offers to lead the way home: “Let’s journey on our way, and I will go ahead of you” (22:12). This seems to be a genuinely kind gesture by Esau - a desire to go home together, to make their reunion public to the rest of the family; his desire for togetherness, for fellowship with Jacob, a kind and practical expression of permanent reunion. But, in contrast, Jacob is not ready for this. Often there are some practical hesitations in reconciliations. Perhaps things were moving too fast for Jacob. So, he makes the excuse that the children and animals can’t walk at their pace (33:13). Jacob said to him, 14 Let my lord pass on ahead of his servant, and I will lead on slowly, at the pace of the livestock that are ahead of me and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir” (33:14). At face value this response seems perfectly logical but there is a hint of the old Jacob here. There is a hint of his suspicion of Esau. Mistrust is very common in those who themselves have been deceptive. Whatever the reason, Jacob refuses to accept Esau’s kindness.

Second, Esau offers to provide protection (33:15): So Esau said, ‘Let me leave with you some of the people who are with me.’” It seems that Esau brought these 400 men with him not to attack Jacob but to protect him on his homeward journey. But Jacob said, “What need is there? Let me find favor in the sight of my lord.” Jacob doesn’t even accept Esau’s offer to have some of his people travel with Jacob and his entourage. Again Esau concedes to Jacob’s resistance. In this dialogue between the two brothers Jacob is still showing the old personality and the old self-will. Even after meeting with God, some personality and behavioral characteristics don’t immediately or easily fall away.

It seems that all along Jacob had other plans (33:16-17). So, instead of keeping his word and following behind Esau and his men at a slower pace (33:14), Jacob doesn’t follow Esau at all. 16 So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir. 17 But Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built himself a house and made booths for his livestock. Therefore the name of the place is called Succoth (33:16-17). Instead of going south with Esau to Seir, Jacob goes north to Succoth where he settles down, building himself a house and shelters for his livestock.

The big question is why? Why didn’t Jacob follow Esau? And why didn’t Jacob tell Esau the truth about not following him? It seems a shame that after all that has happened - after his meeting with God, after his reconciliation with Esau, after Esau’s willingness to forgive and move on with their lives - that the two brothers now go their separate ways. There are some reasonable guesses as to why. Perhaps Jacob thought that some distance between them might be good for their future relationship. That would be reasonable since some relationships - even those that have been genuinely reconciled - are better with some distance between them. The option that I think is the most likely is that God had told him to go to Canaan, not Edom (cf. 31:3). Seir where Esau lived in Edom was not his home, Canaan was. So, to follow Esau would have led him away from Canaan, the land to which God had promised to bring him back. In fact, if you trace Jacob’s route, it seems that he is headed home to Beersheba but gets waylaid at Shechem. If this is the case, then Jacob was right to not go with Esau, but the excuse he gave was deceptive and wrong (33:14).

Now, before you condemn Jacob for this, let me ask you: Have you ever done the same? Have you ever skewed the truth rather than face further conflict? Or, not revealed your true reasons in order to preserve peace? Sometimes it’s wise to not reveal everything in our hearts, but lying is not the way to do it.

What is clear is that Jacob has his own agenda (33:18-20), for eventually he moves on from Succoth and settles in Shechem where he erects an altar and calls it El-Elohe-Israel (33:20). Shechem was the place where Abraham first heard God’s promise about the land (12:6-7). Now, Shechem is where Jacob settles, which, as chapter 34 reveals, turns out to be a bad move. Yes, he is back in Canaan, the land of his ancestors but not in Beersheba among his family as God had directed him (31:3).

Final Remarks

In this meeting between Jacob and Esau we see two dramatically changed men. In Jacob, humility replaces arrogance, submission replaces dominance, and giving replaces taking (as in the birthright and blessing). In Esau, compassion replaces murder, warmth replaces coldness, and acceptance replaces rejection. Wrestling with God at the Jabbok changed Jacob and Esau has changed as well. And by His grace, God can change us too - our character, our attitude, our hearts, and our actions. Jacob’s character was changed from a deceiver to a leader. Jacob’s attitude was changed from arrogance to dependence. Jacob’s heart was changed from self-ambition to submission. And Esau’s character was changed from murder to affection. Esau’s attitude was changed from coldness to warmth. Esau’s heart was changed from hardness to softness.

Has this happened in your life? Most importantly, have you been reconciled to God by the death of his Son? That’s the grace of God in action for sinners who believe (Rom. 5:10). We see this being lived out by Jacob who now attributes everything to God’s grace – his children (33:5) and his wealth (33:11). Note that just as he desperately sought and received God’s blessing so now he seeks and receives Esau’s blessing. By God’s grace, Jacob sees Esau now, not as a brother to be extorted but a brother who reflects the grace of God: “For I have seen your face which is like seeing the face of God” (33:10). Though traces of the old Jacob still remain, by God’s grace Jacob finds his way home to Canaan and settles there.

So, on the one hand, this episode leaves us on a high note - the twin brothers are reconciled and Jacob, the one who ran away, comes back to his homeland with a new identity and a new dependence on God. But on the other hand, this episode leaves us a little uneasy. Jacob has once more separated from Esau and the future in Shechem is not bright. In fact, it will be a massive low point in Jacob’s life.

On this note, we come to the end of the Paddan-aram episode in Jacob’s life. Notice that this episode is bookended by two altars. It started at Bethel where he set up an altar of stones to commemorate that wonderful meeting with God in a vision: “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it… How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (28:16-17). Now in Shechem, he builds another altar which he calls El-Elohe-Israel, the ever-faithful God of his fathers is Israel’s God. The God he had met at Bethel and again at the river Jabbok is indeed his God.

If you were asked to choose which of Esau and Jacob is the hero of this episode, who would it be? Jacob? Amazingly, I don’t think so. I think it is Esau! Who would have guessed how Esau would have received Jacob back into his life as he did, reunited with his twin brother after all those years and all that animosity. In this we see the grace of God in reconciliation…

I. Reconciliation is initiated by inward renewal (33:1-4)

1. Initiated by a renewed attitude (33:1-3)

2. Initiated by a renewed heart (33:4)

II. Reconciliation is expressed in outward actions (33:5-11)

1. … by acknowledging God’s grace (5-7)

2. … by making restitution (8-11)

3. … by acting in kindness (12-20)

Remember our thesis: Reconciliation is made possible through humility and love that are rooted in God’s grace. In this we also learn that God is sovereign. He works out his purposes regardless of our failures. He keeps his promises despite our foolishness.

Related Topics: Character Study, Christian Life

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