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Genesis 32:312; 33:15, 911comment (0)

April 24, 2008

By James R. Strange

Related Scripture: Genesis 32:312; 33:15, 911

Assistant Professor of Religion, Department of Religion, Samford University

Exploring Humility
Genesis 32:3–12; 33:1–5, 9–11

With today’s passage, we enter a story at its climax: Jacob prepares to meet his estranged twin, Esau, who vowed to kill him 20 years ago (Gen. 27:41). When they were together last, Jacob had just "stolen" the birthright that rightfully went to Esau as the firstborn (Gen. 25:29–34; 27:1–40). Enraged, Esau plotted murder and Jacob escaped through his mother’s wiles: she convinced Isaac that Jacob should marry from her family in Paddam-Aram (also Paddan Aram), far northeast and safe from Esau (Gen. 27:41–28:5).

The narrative operates on two levels. On one, the story seeks to explain the enmity between Israelites and Edomites, two Semitic peoples at odds during the reigns of David and Solomon (Gen. 25:19–23). On another level — the one that this lesson engages — the story highlights the disintegration of a family plagued by favoritism and scheming. The family’s self-interest also corrodes the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah, which elsewhere is described as loving (Gen. 24:67).

In the intervening years, Jacob had sojourned among his mother’s people and married sisters, Leah and Rachael (Gen. 29:1–30). He was tricked into that arrangement by his father-in-law, Laban, and through a double cross of his own, Jacob grew wealthy at Laban’s expense (Gen. 30:25–43).

The story of Jacob in Haran works on many levels as well. First, readers learn that chicanery runs in Jacob’s family; he comes by it honestly through his uncle and mother. Second, the episode delays the inevitable reunion of the twins and so the tension increases, for the narrator has said nothing about Esau and no one knows if his hatred still festers.

Until now, Jacob’s habit has been to cheat and run, but in this passage, we find him heading straight into trouble. Still all he knows is the art of manipulation. He has traveled south, where he learns that Esau is coming with 400 men. Not knowing his brother plans, he divides his household and flocks, hoping that if Esau murders one group, he will think that he has destroyed Jacob and all that is his.

There is no reason to take Jacob’s anxiety as a sham. On the other hand, he is hedging his bets. God has told him to return home and promised to be with him (Gen. 31:3), but instead of trusting God, Jacob seeks to trick Esau. Furthermore Jacob devises a scheme to appease Esau: the lavish gifts he sends ahead are no marks of Jacob’s generosity or brotherly love but are designed to manipulate Esau into sparing Jacob’s life (Gen. 32:13–21). Between these acts of emotion-engineering, Jacob prays, apparently as a stopgap measure in case his stratagems fail.

This week’s lesson does not cover the wrestling bout between Jacob and "a man." We could study it for weeks. Here it is important to say that the narrative presents the match as a divine encounter that changes Jacob. The story, in fact, hints that Jacob’s real struggle is not with his brother at all but with God. He leaves the place limping but with a new name that signifies his new status as one who has wrestled with God ("Israel") and won.

In spite of this, Jacob still fears his brother, and in the morning, he remains frantic to save at least some of his household. So he places the women and children dearest to him at the rear and farthest from Esau. Yet we find one hint of Jacob’s transformation: he walks at the front, making himself the final barrier between his family and his nemesis.

(33:4–5, 9–11)
All the elaborate plans are for naught. Esau has long since forgiven his brother, for he runs to meet Jacob, and the text treats readers to the sight of two men, tangled up in the joy of mutual forgiving (compare Luke 15:20).

At the close of the story, it is unclear whether Jacob has fully grasped the lesson his grandparents and parents were taught: complete reliance on God. Nevertheless readers themselves can learn it, for ultimately Jacob’s scheming accomplishes nothing. Rather God was with Jacob as promised.

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