In Genesis 32-36, we discover that after 20 years, now Jacob has to face his brother, Esau. Remember that he had deceived Esau, and when Esau plotted to kill Jacob, Jacob fled (with his mother’s help and his father’s blessing).
Reflections on the text
After dealing with the life of deception with Laban, Jacob now faces meeting his brother. Chapter 32 offers two perspectives on that preparation. From a human stand point, Jacob devises what he considers the best way to appease and approach his brother: lavish him with gifts.
But there is God’s perspective Jacob realizes where his real problem lies, whether he trusts God or not. He takes stock of his own life before God and his promises:
I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness You have shown Your servant. Indeed, I crossed over this Jordan with my staff, and now I have become two camps. Please rescue me from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid of him; otherwise, he may come and attack me, the mothers, and their children. (32:10-11)
The turning point for Jacob comes near.
“I want to appease Esau with the gift that is going ahead of me. After that, I can face him, and perhaps he will forgive me.” (32:20)
His plan is set. But now as he comes back to the land God promised, God encounters him again, this time in a wrestling match. It might initially appear as if Jacob has the upper hand. Jacob demands the name of his opponent and he demands a blessing. But the text clearly shows that God has the upper hand: God changes his name from Jacob (“he who grasps the heel” or “he who deceives”) to Israel (“he who strives with God”). Note how this is phrased:
“Your name will no longer be Jacob,” He said. “It will be Israelb because you have struggled with God and with men and have prevailed.” (32:28)
And then God blesses Israel. This is the same process (name changed and blessing) for his grandfather, Abraham.
Even with that, as Jacob draws near to Esau, Jacob has an interesting “stacking” of his people:
He put the female slaves and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. (33:2)
In essence, “let everyone perish if Esau is angry, but his beloved Rachel and Joseph be safe!” Esau surprises Jacob. Even as God had been working on Jacob’s heart for the past 20 years, so also with Esau. Jacob as the former deceiver approaches his brother in humility.
He himself went on ahead and bowed to the ground seven times until he approached his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, hugged him, threw his arms around him, and kissed him. Then they wept. (33:3-4)
What a heart warming reunion!
The contrast with chapter 34 could not be more stark. While Jacob and Esau are united, Dinah is left unprotected (in a sense). He is raped by Shechem. While Shechem desires her for his wife after this, notice Jacob’s reaction:
Jacob heard that Shechem had defiled his daughter Dinah, but since his sons were with his livestock in the field, he remained silent until they returned. (34:5)
As we progress through the Old Testament we will see examples of people of God who see/experience sin, but remain silent. In this case, Jacob is silent, but not his sons (34:7). The tension between Jacob and his sons reaches the climax after they kill Shechem and all the men associated with him and his father. Jacob looks at how he will appear before the inhabitants of the land. The brothers want vengeance for what Shechem did to Dinah.
Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious to the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites. We are few in number; if they unite against me and attack me, I and my household will be destroyed.”
But they answered, “Should he have treated our sister like a prostitute?” (34:30–31)
God then enters the picture again to direct Jacob to move to Bethel (28:19), the place where God met him before leaving the land. And Jacob builds an altar. There God reconfirms the name change for Jacob and the promise that was given to Abraham (35:10–12). At this point then the passing of the covenant torch is complete, and Rachel Jacob’s beloved wife, then Isaac, his father, die. With the narrative of Esau’s descendants, he now passes out of the scene as well. However, some of his descendants will cause problems in future generations: Edom.
Also, discover the switching between Jacob (35:14, 22) and Israel (35:21) from this point on. It might be an interesting study from this point forward to see when each of the names is used (whehter the man or the nation) and the context, i.e. blessing, promise or punishment.