Genesis (Part 148)

Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

Genesis 33: 1-5

33 And Jacob lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, Esau was coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two female servants. And he put the servants with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on before them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.

But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. And when Esau lifted up his eyes and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” 


The picture of Esau in Genesis is a bit mercurial. He’s the sort of man who makes food for his aging and dying father. He’s the sort of man who runs to, embraces, weeps over, and kisses his estranged brother. He’s also the sort of man whose anger is such that Jacob fled his home and stayed away for decades.

One wonders whether Jacob and Rebekah judged Esau’s character unfairly.

From The Pulpit Commentaries at verses 1 and 2:

Genesis 33:1Genesis 33:2

And Jacob, having the day before dispatched his conciliatory gift to Esau, turned his back upon the Jabbok, having crossed to the south bank, if the previous night had been spent upon its north side, passed over the rising ground of Peniel, and advanced to meet his brother, richly laden with the heavenly blessing he had won in his mysterious conflict with Elohim, and to all appearance free from those paralyzing fears which, previous to the midnight struggle, the prospect of meeting Esau had inspired. Having already prevailed with God, he had an inward assurance, begotten by the words of his celestial antagonist, that he would likewise prevail with man, and so he lifted up his eyes (vide on Genesis 13:10), and looked, and, behold, Esau came, and with him four hundred men (vide Genesis 32:6). And he (i.e. Jacob) divided the children unto Leah, and unto Rachel, and unto the two handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah, thus omitting no wise precaution to insure safety for at least a portion of his household, in case Esau should be still incensed and resolved on a hostile attack. And he put the handmaids and their children foremost, and Leah and her children after, and Rachel and Joseph hindermost, as being most beloved (Kalisch, Murphy, Lange, and others) or most beautiful (Bush)

Jacob groups his family by their degree of importance – with his favorite wife and offspring the farthest back and most protected. Is it likely that Joseph’s brothers will remember this favoritism and perhaps hold it against Joseph? (Yes.)

Jacob did put himself in the most potential danger by going ahead of his party and meeting with Esau first. From Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:

(3) He passed over before them.—While providing some small chance of escape for his wives and children, arranged according to their rank, Jacob manfully went first and placed himself entirely in Esau’s power. He endeavoured, nevertheless, by his sevenfold obeisance in acknowledgment of Esau’s superiority, to propitiate him; for the cause of the quarrel had been Jacob’s usurpation of Esau’s right of precedence as the first born. This bowing in the East is made by bending the body forward with the arms crossed, and the right hand held over the heart.

(4) Esau ran to meet him.—Whatever may have been Esau’s intention when he started, no sooner does he see his brother than the old times of their childhood return to his heart, and he is overcome with love; nor does he ever seem afterwards to have wavered in his fraternal affection. We have had a proof before (in Genesis 27:38) of Esau being a man of warm feelings, and similarly now he is again overmastered by his loving impulses. It is curious that the Hebrew word for “he kissed him” has had what are called extraordinary vowels attached to it, and the Masorites are supposed to signify thereby that Esau’s kiss was not a sign of genuine love. For such an ill-natured supposition there is no warrant whatsoever.

Jacob bows to his brother seven times in acknowledgment of his brother’s superiority. That’s interesting and awkward inasmuch as God and Isaac both placed Jacob ahead of Esau. Perhaps we might surmise that Esau’s reaction to Jacob – in addition to apparently joy over being reunited with his long lost twin brother – might also be from a desire to be on the good side of someone God and his father have placed over him.

Returning to The Pulpit Commentaries, we can look at verse 5:

Genesis 33:5

And he (i.e. Esau) lifted up his eyes,—corresponding to the act of Jacob (Genesis 33:1), and expressive of surprise—and saw the women and the children; and said, Who art those with thee? (literally, to thee, i.e. whom thou hast). And he (Jacob) said, The children which God (Elohim; vide infra on Genesis 33:10hath graciously given—the verb חָנַן being construed with a double accusative, as in Judges 21:22; Psa 19:1-14 :29—thy servant.

You see the note allude to the two uses of “lifted up his eyes” in this section. The original language is, and should be read as, a literary work, as well as a history and a religious work. Sometimes the translations obscure that – but not here.

Esau has been estranged from his brother for decades and you get a sense in this verse, as he asks about Jacob’s family, that he regrets having missed out on so much of Jacob’s life.

The note above, for verse 4, mentions a controversy over Esau’s kiss. Yossi Ives, at, writes an article about this issue titled What’s Up with Esau’s Kiss? – excerpts from which are included below:

The Questionable Kiss

Then Rashi notes that there are dots above the word “he kissed him” (in Hebrew it is a single word), something extremely unusual that has a diminishing effect, similar to how we sometimes put quotation marks around words that are not to be taken too seriously.

Rashi then offers two opinions as to the meaning of Esau’s kiss:

Some interpret the dots to mean that he did not kiss him wholeheartedly. However, Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai said: It is an established fact that Esau hated Jacob, but his compassion was moved at that time, and he kissed him wholeheartedly.

So Rashi is undecided as to whether Esau was sincere in his affection towards Jacob. In fact, the first opinion he brings – which normally implies he gives it greater weight – is that the kiss was merely for show.

But when it came to Esau’s hug, Rashi just said that he did feel compassion for Jacob and that it was sincere! Rashi did not sit on the fence about whether it was a real hug. He did not bring two competing views, but gave only a single opinion, namely that it was a genuine embrace. So, is there one opinion or competing opinions about Esau’s intentions? Does Rashi think it is clear that Esau was sincere, or does he regard this as a matter of dispute?


Now that two brothers are reunited. The story in Genesis from here forward is largely about Jacob’s sons – Joseph in particular.

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