At the end of Gen 32, Jacob wrestled with God and prevailed. However, the circumstances still had not changed. Esau was still on the way to meet him with 400 of his men. It is under these circumstances that Gen 33 begins.
(A) Jacob’s fear: even Christians can be unsettled (Gen 33:1-3)
Jacob and his family still faced a dangerous situation -- meeting Esau. Jacob and Esau parted on very bad terms in Gen 27, with Esau threatening to hunt him down and kill him (Gen 27:41). Naturally, Jacob would be fearful, not only for his life, but for the lives of his family too. In Gen 32:7, we read of Jacob's great fear and distress. Gen 33 is an account of a man who was forced to confront the greatest fear of his life. Can you relate to that? Are you facing similar fearful situations today? Perhaps you are a student, worried about exams or assignments, or a graduating student worried about your job prospects? Or maybe you are a working adult, fretting about the next promotion? Could you be a single, worried about marriage? Whatever it is, Gen 33 has a timely word for us all.
In verses 2-3, we read once more of Jacob's pragmatism and level-headedness in distressing circumstances. He arranged his peoples -- servants first, then Leah and her children and lastly Rachel and Joseph. He placed his most treasured and important people (Rachel and Joseph) the furthest away from Esau. Jacob went ahead of every one, and displayed personal responsibility for his household. In an additional sign of humility, Jacob bows himself to the ground seven times as he came near his brother. What can we learn here? Jacob dealt with his fears and problems very practically. This was a man that encountered God in the previous chapter, but also went ahead and made preparations to deal with the real circumstances. Trusting God is not the same as a “what will be, will be” attitude, for trusting God is about knowing who God is and what He has promised us, and taking hope from that.
(B) Jacob’s peace: God acts graciously toward Jacob through Esau (Gen 33:4-11)
Finally, in verses 4, Jacob and Esau meet. However, unlike what we would expect, Esau did not kill Jacob at first sight. Instead, he ran towards his brother, embraced him, fell on Jacob's neck and kissed him (Gen 33:4). Esau proceeded to ask Jacob a series of questions in verses 5-11, about the livestock and people that he encountered in the procession. In verses 5-9, we see Jacob answering cautiously, with a hint of flattery, calling Esau his "lord" and calling himself Esau's "servant". Perhaps he was still unsure of the situation, and wanted to play it safe.
However, in verses 10-11, Jacob finally realises that God is behind all of his material blessings, and good things that have happened to him are from God. What would change if you realised that God is active and at work in your life today, giving you gifts, bringing you peace and helping you in every situation and that every blessing comes from His hand?
Beyond the material possession, Jacob sees clearly that Esau's acceptance and forgiveness of him is also from God. In verse 10, Jacob describes seeing Esau’s face as seeing God’s face. In Esau’s forgiveness, Jacob sees God’s hand on him. In Gen 32, Jacob saw God and lived, and this time, in Gen 33, he saw Esau and lived. Through the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, we learn that acceptance from God comes before acceptance from Man. Only when we get our vertical relationship with God right can we go on to right all our horizontal relationships. How is your relationship with God today?
Verse 10 is also remarkable, because Jacob realises that the Lord has "dealt graciously" with him -- a deceiver. Jacob did not get anything he deserved -- judgment, condemnation -- but instead, God gave him so much that he did not deserve -- family, material possessions, and now, deliverance from conflict with Esau. This is the covenantal, loving God that he wrestled with one chapter ago.
This is also a story of all Christians today. God has graciously dealt with us by giving us his Son Jesus Christ (Romans 8:32). This is God’s greatest gift to Man, salvation through Christ, because Jesus bore all the punishment and judgment and wrath we deserved as sinners, and now we have all spiritual blessings in and through Him. From John 16:31-33, we are reminded that this does not mean an easy, smooth, cushy life here on earth. Instead, we are warned to expect tribulations. But Christians have a peace which is beyond anything the world, and that is this Christ Jesus, the Son of God, that God himself graciously given us. These verses remind us that the only way to find true peace is to love the unchangeable God supremely. For this is a God who sent Christ to suffer on that cross, where he knew every single anxiety there is to know. Jesus was not a picture of perfect calm on the cross. Do you think he did not feel anything? No! The Bible records for us his cry on the cross -- “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Are you struggling today, fearful and anxious? Look to this unchangeable God, who is the same God that dealt graciously with Jacob in Genesis 33.
(C) Jacob’s mistakes: deceiving his brother again; breaking his promise to God – warnings for us (Gen 33:12-20)
In the remaining verses of Gen 33, despite the triumphs of Jacob in the previous verses, we see him making two critical errors. Esau offered his company and some of his people to travel with Jacob (Gen 33:14-15) but it was turned down. Jacob used his tired wives and children as an excuse for and assured Esau that he was in no need of extra help. He left Esau with an impression that he would meet him in Seir but finally settled in Succoth instead (Gen 33:17), building an altar there. Why was this problematic? Didn't Jacob worship God with the building of an altar anyway? In doing so, Jacob broke the vow he made to God at Bethel in Gen 28:20-22. There, he promised that if God delivered him, he would return to worship. Jacob obeyed, but not completely. Jacob displayed, what Ken Hughes calls a "faith mixed with partial obedience". This is a lesson for us. Like Jacob, we easily fall into the trap of half-way obedience. Tiny triumphs and success can also tempt us to withhold things from God. Let us not withhold anything from this God! Let us insist on full and total obedience to this God, who "did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all" (Rom 8:32).
Gen 33 shows us Jacob moving from fear to peace because of God's grace. It also shows us the fallen state of man, and how we constantly need the grace of God. Many of us will be (or are) like Jacob, where we experience God's gracious blessings, but respond with a halfway obedience. Gen 33 is an honest picture of our Christian life all the time.
But we have hope, because the narrative has not ended. In Gen 35, (spoiler alert!) we read of how God eventually brings Jacob back to Bethel. God's grace never runs out because of our disobedience, for in Christ, God has conquered our sins, and in Christ, our halfway obedience has been paid for with Christ's full obedience on the cross, where he perfectly obeyed God's will. God brings us to “Bethel” through Christ and that is where we must always look.