Facing the past: preparing for Esau’s wrath—Genesis 32-33

Jacob’s departure from (Gen 28:12) and return to (32:1) the promised land is framed by angelic revelations. The angelic camps (32:2) will prove particularly important because, having just escaped Laban, Jacob must now face Esau—who is coming with 400 men (32:7). Before Jacob can face Esau, he needs spiritual help; he reminds God of his promise (32:12).

A desperate prayer

Reminding God of the promise to make Jacob’s descendants innumerable, like sand on the seashore (32:12), invokes the promise to Abraham via Isaac’s line (22:17), to which he is heir (27:29; 28:4). But it also evokes God’s promise to him years earlier at Bethel, when God said that his descendants would be like the dust of the earth (28:14), again evoking the promise to Abram (13:16).

Although God had not forgotten, Jacob’s desperate prayer is right to note that Jacob has returned at the Lord’s command and in light of the Lord’s promise (Gen 32:9, 12). God’s words provide the basis for our faith. He also reminds God that God has been the God of his father Abraham and Isaac (32:9). (Analogously but far more fully, we depend on the God who is the God of our elder brother and Lord, Jesus Christ. Thus we pray in the name of Jesus, on the basis of being his.)

A divine encounter

Jacob understands that the spiritual battle must come first; he cannot face Esau, whom he cheated from a blessing, without being sure of God’s blessing. Jacob struggles with a figure all night; Jacob needs blessing, and tenaciously perseveres in seeking it (32:26); whereas he used his physical prowess in 29:10 to impress Rachel, he uses it here to prevail with God (32:24-26).

Many features of this narrative appear obscure today. Why does this figure have to leave when dawn comes (32:24-26)? Perhaps some angels were sent mainly as messengers in dreams (cf. 28:12), active only when people would not see them in daylight? Further, why does the figure disable Jacob’s thigh only when he needs to depart (32:25), since he presumably had the power to do it earlier? Possibly the disabling of Jacob’s thigh in 32:25 demonstrates the greater power the figure had all along; possibly it also might imply the certainty of the promise to Jacob (cf. this custom for swearing oaths in 24:2, 9; 47:29).

Somewhat less obscure is the identity of his fellow wrestler. Given the context of angelic camps, this is undoubtedly an angel (so Hos 12:4). In this case, however, it is not merely any angel but the angel of the Lord (Gen 32:28-30). That is why the angel can speak of him as having persisted with God (32:28; the term means not that he defeated God but that he exerted himself and did not give up). That the angel will not give his name (32:29) convinces Jacob that he has seen God (32:30).

When Jacob had gotten the blessing that his father intended for Esau, he lied about his name (27:18-19, 24). Here, when asked his name, he tells the truth, and the angel of the Lord gives him a new name and a new blessing (32:27-28). Often God makes us face our past before we can be ready for our future, and that was also the case for Jacob.

Jacob names the place “Peniel,” he says, “because I saw God face to face” (32:30). Elohim, the term translated here as “God,” sometimes could apply to angels, but Jacob means more than that, referring to the angel who represents the divine presence (cf. Judg 6:21-23; 13:21-23). Jacob has seen the Lord face to face and lived, just as Moses will in Exod 33:11; Deut 34:10.

The outcome

Jacob sees Esau’s face like the face of God (33:10); Jacob had just seen God’s face in some sense (32:30), and now he experiences the result of that encounter in seeing Esau’s favor (cf. 1 Sam 29:9; 2 Sam 19:27; Gal 4:14).

Esau runs to meet Jacob (33:4), an action that often connotes eagerness (18:2; 24:28-29; 29:12-13). He also falls on Jacob’s neck and weeps (33:4), behavior that also could signal special affection (46:29; cf. 50:1), as at a reunion after many years (45:14; cf. also kissing and weeping in 45:15; 48:10).

Jacob wants Esau to take his gift (33:8-11). This may be partly because he has taken something more important from Esau and wants to make some restitution for reconciliation. It may also be partly because Esau cannot receive a gift from him and afterward mistreat him; giving and receiving gifts, like eating together, could presumably establish covenant relations. What Jacob gives Esau is a significant portion of his wealth (32:14-15), but the Lord who had prospered him despite Laban cheating him (31:6-9) would supply for him again.

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