Chapter 33

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Esau may have chosen to meet Jacob with 400 men to indicate that he had attained a position of great influence and power as a chieftain. Upon seeing his brother accompanied by 400 men, Jacob feared that he had come with hostile intent. Therefore, he divided up his children with their respective mothers, placing the two concubines with their children first or in the most vulnerable position. Leah and her children followed. Rachel and Joseph were last or in the safest location in relation to all the other members of Jacob’s family. (33:1, 2)

Jacob went ahead of his family and respectfully bowed to the ground to his older twin brother Esau, doing so seven times until he came near to him. Jacob was still limping because of his encounter with an angel, and Esau did not wait for him to make his approach but ran to meet him, embraced him, flung himself on Jacob’s neck, and kissed him. Both brothers then began to weep. (33:3, 4)

In response to Esau’s question upon seeing the women and the children, Jacob identified the children with the words, “The children whom God has graciously given to your servant.” Jacob’s concubines and their children approached and bowed down. Leah and her children likewise bowed down when they drew near. According to the Hebrew text, Joseph, who was then about six years old, is mentioned before his mother Rachel when approaching Esau and bowing down. Perhaps this is because Joseph came to have the most prominent role in the family in subsequent years. Another possibility is that he ran ahead of his mother to meet his uncle. Targum Jonathan indicates that Joseph came near and protectively stood in front of his mother. The Septuagint does not mention Joseph first but says that Rachel and Joseph drew near and bowed down. (33:5-7)

Although Jacob’s servants had informed Esau that the droves of domestic animals constituted a gift for him, he asked Jacob, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” Jacob replied, “To find favor in the eyes of my lord.” Esau inclined not to accept the gift, saying, “I have much, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.” Jacob, in respectful and deferential terms, urged Esau to accept the gift and persuaded him to do so. In the existing culture, refusal to accept a gift meant that a requested favor would not be granted. This explains why Jacob did not want to comply with Esau’s refusal of the gift but urged him to accept it. He, however, did not accept his brother’s offer to accompany him with his men on their journey, presenting as his reason the need for traveling at a slow pace because of the limitations of his young children and those of the domestic animals that were nursing or, according to the Septuagint, about to give birth. After Esau offered to leave some of the men with him, Jacob respectfully declined the offer. (33:8-15)

The interaction between Jacob and Esau suggests that the reconciliation was only partial. Jacob did what he could to assure that his brother would not be at enmity with him and his household. Esau appears to have made no effort to counter Jacob’s nonacceptance of any help from him and his men. After declining Esau’s offer, Jacob said that he would be traveling at the pace of his domestic animals and his children until he came to Esau, his “lord in Seir.” (33:14) There is no indication in the Genesis account that Jacob ever went to Seir or actually planned to do so. Nevertheless, the two brothers parted amicably.

Esau and the 400 men with him headed back to Seir, and Jacob came to a site that he afterward named Succoth (“booths” [“Tents” (LXX)]) because of the booths or stalls he built for his animals. At that location, he also built a home for his household. According to Targum Jonathan, Jacob stayed in Succoth for twelve months. Later he moved with his household to the vicinity of the “city of Shechem [a site about 30 miles (less than 50 kilometers) north of Jerusalem] in the land of Canaan,” possibly indicating that Succoth was not located within the actual boundaries of Canaan. Jacob purchased a piece of land for 100 silver pieces (100 lambs [LXX]) from the “sons of Hamor,” probably meaning from the descendants of Hamor. Shechem, one of the descendants of this Hamor, also had a father who was named Hamor. The Septuagint does not use the expression “sons of Hamor” but says that Jacob bought the land from Emmor (Hamor), the father of Sychem (Shechem). On the purchased land, Jacob pitched his tent and erected an altar that he called El-elohe-yisrael (“God, the God of Israel”). (33:16-20) Targum Jonathan says that Jacob gave tithes, probably meaning that he sacrificed a tenth of his sheep, goats, and cattle on the altar.