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

Rebekah had promised to call Jacob when his brother’s anger subsided (27:45), but he had never received such word from her. (Whether she has passed away in the meantime is not clear; some time after Jacob returns to the land, her nurse Deborah apparently is with Jacob’s family and passes away in 35:8.) Again, although Jacob strategizes as best as he can, ultimately he can trust only God’s call and promise of protection (31:3).

Jacob has reason to fear; Esau is coming with four hundred men (32:6), which is no ordinary welcoming party. This was larger than cities in the region often fielded as armies; it appears larger than Abram’s army that defeated hostile kings (14:14). (Abram did have other allies with him besides his 318 servants, so possibly Abram’s total force was larger, but if so, probably it was not much larger.) (Indeed, Esau’s army may even include descendants of Abram’s force, who were members of his household. Perhaps Esau, learning that Jacob had a great company with him (32:5), wanted to be prepared; they had not parted on ideal terms.


Jacob strategizes as best as he can to salvage as much as possible if things go badly (32:7-8; 33:1-2), as well as doing his best to ensure a happier outcome (32:13-21; 33:3). Preparing as well as praying is not unbelief; it is common sense. One may compare David taking five smooth stones (1 Sam 17:40); he knew that God would give Goliath into his hands (17:46), but he did not know if he would fell him on the first shot. Likewise David sent gifts to the elders of Judah in 1 Sam 30:26, while also waiting for God to exalt him (Prov 18:16; 21:14). Likewise, the apostles replaced Judas while waiting for the Spirit to come (Acts 1:15-26).

Jacob arranges his wives and children in the hope that if trouble does come, some, especially Rachel and Joseph, can escape (Gen 32:7-8, 22-23). Does Jacob have good reason to fear harm to his wives and children? Conquerors more often enslaved than killed women and children; slaves were considered part of the plunder. It seems likelier, therefore, that his wives and daughters would at most be enslaved, though in a worst case scenario slaughter was possible. Because Esau’s wives had been an issue with his parents, and a reason for Jacob being sent abroad, he might prefer to kill Jacob and seize his wives. As for Jacob and his sons, Jacob’s birthright would not outlive him if both he and his sons were dead.

The gifts Jacob plans to offer Esau are huge, and far more than what most people had. In the long run they were not worth as much as the blessing, but on a merely earthly level—what Esau seems to value—they might appear to be more than what Jacob had taken from Esau. Esau would not be likely to harm the gift-bearers in front, even if he was angry with Jacob; and the gifts were calculated to assuage his anger (Prov 21:14). The four hundred men could well be servants in Esau’s household. After twenty years (Gen 31:41), Esau probably de facto controls much of Isaac’s wealth at this point, something that Isaac himself might approve and that Jacob would not contest. But if the men are allies, they would want plunder from the expedition; the gifts would satisfy any obligations on Esau’s part, allowing him to repay, at no cost to himself, any who had joined him.

But Jacob knows that strategy alone is not enough; he must have the help of God. This is the subject of the next installment.

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