Genesis 33 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Genesis 33
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And Jacob lifted up his eyes, and looked, and, behold, Esau came, and with him four hundred men. And he divided the children unto Leah, and unto Rachel, and unto the two handmaids.
And he put the handmaids and their children foremost, and Leah and her children after, and Rachel and Joseph hindermost.
And he passed over before them, and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.

(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.

And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him: and they wept.
(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.

And he lifted up his eyes, and saw the women and the children; and said, Who are those with thee? And he said, The children which God hath graciously given thy servant.
(5) Who are those with thee?—Heb., to thee, that is, Who are these belonging to thee? Esau noticed that they were Jacob’s family, and asked for fuller information concerning them.

Then the handmaidens came near, they and their children, and they bowed themselves.
And Leah also with her children came near, and bowed themselves: and after came Joseph near and Rachel, and they bowed themselves.
And he said, What meanest thou by all this drove which I met? And he said, These are to find grace in the sight of my lord.
(8) What meanest thou by all this drove . . .? Heb., What is all this camp of thine that I met? From the time of Jacob’s coming to Mahanaim, the word mahaneh, “camp,” is used in a very remarkable way. It is the word translated bands in Genesis 32:7, and company in Genesis 32:8; Genesis 32:21. It is the proper word for an encampment of pastoral people with their flocks, and might be used not unnaturally of the five droves; for they would remind Esau of the cattle driven in at evening to the place where they were to pass the night.

And Esau said, I have enough, my brother; keep that thou hast unto thyself.
And Jacob said, Nay, I pray thee, if now I have found grace in thy sight, then receive my present at my hand: for therefore I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me.
(10) For therefore I have seen thy face.—The latter half of the verse would more correctly be translated, inasmuch as I have seen thy face as one seeth the face of Elohim, and thou hast received me graciously. To the Hebrew the thought of God was not terrifying, and so the vision of God’s face was the sight of something good and glorious. There is much of Oriental hyperbole in comparing the sight of Esau to the beholding of the face of Deity, but it clearly conveyed the idea that Esau was using his power as generously and lovingly as is the wont of God; and God was so much nearer to the Hebrew in those simple days than he is to men now that science has revealed to them the immensity of His attributes, that there was no irreverence in the comparison.

The behaviour of Esau is very generous. He wished to spare his brother so large a present, and therefore leads the conversation to it, knowing, of course, what was the meaning of the five herds, as their drivers had delivered to him Jacob’s message. To have refused it, however, would have been a mark of hostility, especially as Jacob represented it as the gift of an inferior for the purpose of obtaining the favour of one from whom he had feared danger. But Esau expostulates with his brother. He too was rich, and Jacob should keep what was his own. But Jacob still urges its acceptance as the proof of goodwill, magnifies the value of Esau’s favour, and declares that by God’s goodness he has still abundance, even after giving his brother so princely a present. It is called “blessing” because it was considered lucky to receive a gift, and of all good-luck God was the giver. (Comp. 1 Samuel 25:27; 1 Samuel 30:26.)

Take, I pray thee, my blessing that is brought to thee; because God hath dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough. And he urged him, and he took it.
And he said, Let us take our journey, and let us go, and I will go before thee.
And he said unto him, My lord knoweth that the children are tender, and the flocks and herds with young are with me: and if men should overdrive them one day, all the flock will die.
(13) Flocks and herds with young.—Heb., that give such. Thompson (Land and Book, p. 205) infers from this that it was now winter, and thinks that this is confirmed by Jacob making folds for his cattle at Succoth. If so, more than six months would have elapsed since Jacob’s flight from Haran; but the conclusion is uncertain, and Jacob probably halted at Succoth because of his lameness.

Let my lord, I pray thee, pass over before his servant: and I will lead on softly, according as the cattle that goeth before me and the children be able to endure, until I come unto my lord unto Seir.
(14) According as the cattle . . . —Rather, according to the pace—Heb., footof the cattle that is before me, and according to the pace of the children. Joseph was only six or seven years old; and Leah’s two younger sons, and probably Zilpah’s, were too tender to endure much fatigue.

Unto Seir.—This implies a purpose of visiting Esau in his new acquisition, not carried out probably because Esau did not as yet settle there, but returned to Hebron to his father.

And Esau said, Let me now leave with thee some of the folk that are with me. And he said, What needeth it? let me find grace in the sight of my lord.
So Esau returned that day on his way unto Seir.
And Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built him an house, and made booths for his cattle: therefore the name of the place is called Succoth.

(17) Succoth.—That is, booths. There are two claimants for identification with Jacob’s Succoth, of which the one is in the tribe of Gad, on the east of the Jordan, in the corner formed by that river and the Jabbok; the other is the place still called Sakût, on the west of the Jordan, but as it lies ten miles to the north. of the junction of the Jordan and Jabbok, it is not likely that Jacob would go so far out of his way.

Jacob . . . built him an house, and made booths for his cattle.—This is something quite unusual, as the cattle in Palestine remain in the open air all the year round, and the fact that the place retained the name of the booths shows that it was noticed as remarkable. But the fact, coupled with the right translation of Genesis 33:18, is a strong but undesigned testimony to the truth of the narrative. Jacob had been pursued by Laban, and suffered much from anxiety and the labour attendant upon the hurried removal of so large a household. Delivered from danger in the rear, he has to face a greater danger in front, and passes many days and nights in terror. At last Esau is close at hand, and having done all that man could do, he stays behind to recover himself, and prepare for the dreaded meeting next day. But instead of a few calm restful hours he has to wrestle fiercely all night, and when at sunrise he moves. forward he finds that he has sprained his hip. He gets through the interview with Esan with much feeling, agitated alternately by fear, and hope, and joy, enduring all the while his bodily pain as best he can, and then, delivered from all danger, he breaks down. The word “journeyed” simply means that he broke up his camp from the high ground where he had met his brother, and went into the corner close by, where the two rivers would both protect him and provide his cattle with water and herbage. And there he not only put up some protection, probably wattled enclosures made with branches of trees, for his cattle, but built a house for himself—something, that is, more solid than a tent: and there he lay until he was healed of his lameness. The strained sinew would require some months of perfect rest before Jacob could move about; but it was healed, for “Jacob came whole and sound to the city of Shechem.” (See next verse.)

And Jacob came to Shalem, a city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Padanaram; and pitched his tent before the city.
(18) Jacob came to Shalem, a city of Shechem.—The Sam. Pent. has shalom,”safe”; but shalem is right, and means whole, sound. Onkelos, however, followed by most modern commentators, renders it in peace, but this too would not mean peaceably, but that his troubles were now at an end, and his lameness cured. Philippsohn’s rendering, however, is more exact, namely, wohlbehalten, in good condition. Rashi also, no mean authority, sees in it an allusion to the cure of Jacob’s lameness. As Shechem was a man, his city would not be Shalem, but that called after his own name. In Genesis 12:6 it is called “Sichern,” where see Note. Sichern was probably the old name, but after the cruel fate brought upon it by Shechem’s misconduct the spelling was modified to suit the history.

In the land of Canaan.—Jacob therefore had now crossed the river Jordan, and so far completed his homeward journey. Probably as soon as he had recovered from his lameness he visited his father, but as his possessions were large, and Esau was the chief at Hebron, there was no room at present for him to dwell there, nor in fact was this possible until Isaac’s death. But as we find Deborah with them soon afterwards, it is plain that he had gone to visit Isaac, and, finding his mother dead, had brought away with him her beloved nurse.

And he bought a parcel of a field, where he had spread his tent, at the hand of the children of Hamor, Shechem's father, for an hundred pieces of money.
(19) He bought . . . —Abraham had been obliged to buy land for a burial-place, and we find even then that the field he wanted had an owner who could give him a title to its possession. Jacob a century later finds it necessary to buy even the ground on which to pitch his tent, though his cattle might still roam freely about for pasture. This, however, would certainly not have been required except in the immediate neighbourhood of a town. As he had now recovered from his sprain, he returns to his habits as a nomad, and dwells in a tent. In this, the first parcel of ground possessed by Jacob, the embalmed body of Joseph was buried (Joshua 24:32; see also John 4:5); and it is remarkable that the possession of it was secure, even when the owners were far away in Egypt.

An hundred pieces of money.—Heb., a hundred hesitas. It is plain that the kesita was an ingot of metal of some considerable value, from what is said in the Book of Job (Genesis 42:11), that each of his friends gave the patriarch “one kesita and a nose-ring of gold.” The etymology of the word is uncertain, and apparently all knowledge of its meaning had at an early period passed away, inasmuch as Onkelos and some of the versions translate it lambs, for which rendering there is no support.

And he erected there an altar, and called it EleloheIsrael.
(20) He erected there an altar.—Abraham had already built an altar in this neighbourhood (Genesis 12:7), and Jacob now followed his example—partly as a thanksoffering for his safe return, partly also as taking possession of the country; but chiefly as a profession of faith, and public recognition of the new relation in which he stood to God. This especially appears in his calling the altar “El, the Elohim of Israel.” Of course the title of Jehovah could not be used here, as the altar had a special reference to the change of Jacob’s name, and was an acknowledgment on his own part of his now being Israel, a prince with El, that is. with God.

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