Saturday, December 3, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 33

In this chapter, Jacob meets with Esau and things go favorably.  Then Jacob lies to Esau again and settles away from him.

The first thing we see in this chapter is Jacob's prioritization of his family, the most important being last because that way they're the furthest away if something goes wrong.

But it turns out that all of Jacob's fear had been for naught: Esau had forgiven everything and they are now at peace.

One thing I found really cool in this chapter is how Jacob says that seeing the face of Esau is like seeing the face of God.  This amused me when I first realized that, while many of us might say something like that as a form of hyperbole, to Jacob he actually had just seen the face of God just last night, in the prior chapter.  So to him, this was a very real thing, and he is in a real sense drawing an equivocation between the (peaceful, kind) face of Esau and what one can infer, the peaceful face of God as well.  Not to say that Esau is God, but to say that their appearances to him were similar, because he had expected .... hostility? from both, but from both he was met with peace.

After that, Jacob lies to Esau about traveling to Seir, which is to the southeast and outside of the promised land.  To my recollection, this is the first time it's mentioned that Esau is now living in Seir, what would become the kingdom of Edom, and outside of the promised land.

Superficially, what everyone who reads this story latches onto is that Jacob is lying again.  This is true, but it seems incomplete.  I think there's more going on than just "Jacob starts acting bad again."

I have to admit, I find this story a bit confusing.  From Jacob's perspective, he just met his brother again for the first time in 20 years and was received well.  But perhaps he still has some lingering fear?  Is that why he would lie to Esau?  We don't know why Esau moved out of the promised land, but clearly Jacob is supposed to move back there, because he is the holder of Abraham's promise and the inheritor of the promised land.  His covenant with God, and God's command to him, is to return to "the land of your fathers and to your relatives" (chapter 31), which is a fascinating reversal since this is now referring to Canaan, rather than Haran.  Jacob is actually in Haran when he is given this command, which is the opposite of what it meant when Abraham was told to *leave* the land of his fathers and his relatives back in chapter 12.  This shows a clear reversal in terms of cultural identity ("home" is now Canaan) and in a larger sense, the cultural mission of Jacob vs. Abraham.  Abraham, being a pioneer, was told to leave his home and go to a new land.  Now that his family has lived in this new land for several generations, the mission is to stay and to cultivate the land.  I don't think any value judgment is necessary to observe these differences and say that while Abraham and Jacob have different roles, they are both operating towards the same goal.

So it's clear that Jacob was supposed to return to Canaan, which is exactly what he does.  But still, why did he feel like he had to lie to Esau, rather than simply tell him, "I have to go to Canaan, I cannot return with you to Seir"?  Maybe the best explanation is that Esau still has the 400 men with him and Jacob didn't think that Esau would take "no" for an answer.  Jacob's obsequiousness shows that he definitely still perceives a threat from Esau, even though Esau is being ostensibly kind.  At the end of the day, I'm not really sure.  I do think that Jacob's resorting to deception shows he's falling into the same sin pattern, even though he is growing out of it.  His personality has changed a lot, but he's still struggling with the same issue 20 years after he stole Esau's blessing.  Yet, I don't think the issue is as simple as "Jacob is a perpetual liar".  Esau is definitely threatening with his 400 men, and Jacob cannot go to Seir.  So I think the situation is somewhat complex, but I nevertheless recognize Jacob's culpability in this.  He should have depended on God for his protection, but to be fair, I think any of us would feel pretty insecure if we were surrounded by 400 armed men in the middle of a desert where there is no police force or social structure to protect us.

After Jacob moves back to Canaan, he builds an altar to God, which I see as a partial fulfillment of his vow from chapter 28.  I think this is a genuine act from Jacob, and shows once again his growing faith in the Lord.

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