Did Jacob and Esau Reconcile?
Jacob’s Fear of Esau
The possibility of Jacob and Esau reconciling upon their reunion in Genesis 33 is at first encouraging, but what actually happens on the ground turns out to be disheartening. The account begins when, nervous because of the bad blood between them from the past, Jacob sends a message of greeting to Esau (32:4–6), and his messengers return with the news that Esau is coming to meet him with a contingent of 400 men (v. 7)—a number elsewhere associated with a fighting force in the Bible.
Terrified, Jacob devises plan after plan to try to manage this threat: First a defensive strategy to divide his camp in two to protect his children from Esau (32:8–9). Next, Jacob makes a direct appeal to God (32:10–13), after which he sends multiple gifts or bribes to placate his brother (32:14–21). Even so, Jacob wakes up in the middle of the night, crossing his family over the stream (32:25) in a panicked last-minute attempt at flight, stopped only by the divine messenger who wrestles with him until dawn.
When Jacob finally encounters Esau the next morning, he divides his family into three groups and approaches his brother, the extent of his anxiety reflected in his effusive bowing.
Esau’s Positive Response
The initial phase of his meeting with Esau goes much better than Jacob had expected. Judging from the chain of verbs emphasizing his eagerness, Esau is more than enthusiastic:
בראשית לב:ד וַיָּ֨רָץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַֽיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖ו וַיִּשָּׁקֵ֑הוּ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ:
Gen 32:4 Esau ran toward his brother, embraced him, fell on his neck and kissed him.
All these actions are related in the singular with Esau as the subject and Jacob as the passive object.
Running—Esau is the most emotionally demonstrative of all the characters in the Jacob story. As we saw him in pain in 27:34, pleading with his father for a blessing, here we see the buoyant side of this expressiveness. Esau’s running towards his brother to greet him recalls other positive receptions, such as Abraham’s welcome to his anonymous guests in 18:2, and his servant’s acknowledgment of Rebecca in 24:17. In most cases it is a sign of a most eager greeting.
Embracing—As it is meant here, Esau’s embrace of Jacob is indicative of the warm reception of a family member.
Falling on the neck—This expression occurs twice elsewhere in Genesis, both in the context of Joseph’s reunion with his family: with Benjamin (45:14) and with Jacob (46:29).
Kissing—The kiss too is most often bestowed in familial contexts, including the reunion of brothers (Exod 4:27). In addition to its affective sense, the kiss recalls and reverses the deceptive kiss Jacob gave his father in 27:27.
Crying—Only at the end of this outpouring of affection does Jacob respond as well. All the other verbs were in the singular, but here, וַיִּבְכּוּ “and they cried.”
The exceptional concentration of expressions for welcoming and warmth in this verse bespeaks Esau’s desire for something more than formal reconciliation with his brother. But this sentiment seems to flow primarily in one direction.
Jacob’s Reserved Reaction
Despite his tears, Jacob responds with reserve and restraint. First, he adopts the bearing of a servant before his master. When Esau notices the women and children, he asks Jacob who they are to him, and Jacob responds:
בראשית לג:ה הַיְלָדִ֕ים אֲשֶׁר־חָנַ֥ן אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־עַבְדֶּֽךָ
Gen 33:5 The children with which God has graced your servant.
He then proceeds to formally present his family for Esau's approval according to their status in his eyes—first the children of the concubines, then Leah’s offspring, and finally Rachel and Joseph (33:6-7).
Esau then asks why Jacob sent him all those gifts, to which Jacob responds:
בראשית לג:ח לִמְצֹא־חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֵ֥י אֲדֹנִֽי
Gen 33:8 to find favor in the eyes of my lord.
Jacob has prepared an outsized gift to impress Esau, but to his dismay Esau rejects it:
בראשית לג:ט וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו יֶשׁ לִי רָב אָחִי יְהִי לְךָ אֲשֶׁר לָךְ.
Gen 33:9 Esau said, “I have a great deal, my brother; let what you have remain yours.”
Esau’s statement that he has “a great deal” triggers the reappearance of fraternal competition from the past. Perhaps Jacob hears an echo of the blessing he stole from Esau,
בראשית כז:כח וְיִתֶּן לְךָ הָאֱלֹהִים מִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם וּמִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ וְרֹב דָּגָן וְתִירֹשׁ.
Gen 27:28 May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, a great deal of new grain and wine.
Brotherly Competition and the Stolen Blessing
While Jacob responds with the most obsequious language of his entire career, in what sounds like desperation borne of panic, he cannot help but add a level of one-upmanship to the end of his response, to avoid being outdone:
בראשית לג:י וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אַל נָא אִם נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ וְלָקַחְתָּ מִנְחָתִי מִיָּדִי כִּי עַל כֵּן רָאִיתִי פָנֶיךָ כִּרְאֹת פְּנֵי אֱלֹהִים וַתִּרְצֵנִי. לג:יא קַח נָא אֶת בִּרְכָתִי אֲשֶׁר הֻבָאת לָךְ כִּי חַנַּנִי אֱלֹהִים וְכִי יֶשׁ לִי כֹל וַיִּפְצַר בּוֹ וַיִּקָּח.
Gen 33:10 But Jacob said, “No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably. 33:11 Please accept my present/blessing which has been brought to you, for God has favored me and I have everything.” And when he urged him, he accepted.
Jacob’s main point is implied in the key word here ברכה, literally “blessing,” a word used six times in Genesis 27, when Jacob steals Esau’s blessing—all told, the chapter uses the root ב.ר.כ, “to bless,” over twenty times! While in the context of Genesis 33:11 it refers to the gifts, the term is so charged with meaning for the brothers that one can’t help but hear Jacob pleading with his brother “take back the blessing which I stole from you” in Genesis 27.
This, combined with the expression of flattery “to see your face is like seeing the face of God,” which has no equal in the Bible, carries the day, and Esau accepts the gifts, implicitly declaring a truce with his brother.
Esau’s Offer and Jacob’s Rebuff
Once Esau decides to accept his brother’s gift, he seeks to draw Jacob closer by proceeding to a common destination, and thus Esau offers to accompany him:
בראשית לג:יב וַיֹּאמֶר נִסְעָה וְנֵלֵכָה וְאֵלְכָה לְנֶגְדֶּךָ.
Gen 33:12 Let us travel together – I will go before you.
Esau phrases his request in the plural, “let us travel together,” displaying his hospitality in implying that the two of them should head to Esau’s home in Seir; the mutuality in the request reflects Esau’s desire for parity with his brother.
The phrase וְאֵלְכָה לְנֶגְדֶּךָ can mean either “I will go in front” or “I will proceed at your pace” and reflects Esau’s desire to protect his brother; the sense is best captured by Radak (R. David Kimchi, ca. 1160–1235; ad loc.):
ואף על פי שפעמים אלך לפניך לא ארחק ממך אלא לנגדך בקרוב אליך.
Even though sometimes I will go in front, I will not go far but always be close by.
Jacob offers a realistic excuse for rejecting Esau’s offer:
בראשית לג:יג וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲדֹנִי יֹדֵעַ כִּי הַיְלָדִים רַכִּים וְהַצֹּאן וְהַבָּקָר עָלוֹת עָלָי וּדְפָקוּם יוֹם אֶחָד וָמֵתוּ כָּל הַצֹּאן.
Gen 33:13 But he said to him: “My lord knows that the children are frail and that the flocks and herds, which are nursing, are a care to me; if they are driven hard a single day, all the flocks will die.”
The burden of young children dictates proceeding at a more measured pace. Jacob emphasizes the vulnerability of his company (and by inference his own defenselessness before Esau) and suggests they will meet up further on:
בראשית לג:יד יַעֲבָר נָא אֲדֹנִי לִפְנֵי עַבְדּוֹ וַאֲנִי אֶתְנָהֲלָה לְאִטִּי לְרֶגֶל הַמְּלָאכָה אֲשֶׁר לְפָנַי וּלְרֶגֶל הַיְלָדִים עַד אֲשֶׁר אָבֹא אֶל אֲדֹנִי שֵׂעִירָה.
Gen 33:14 “Let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I travel slowly, at the pace of the cattle before me and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.”
Esau then makes another offer:
בראשית לג:טוa וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו אַצִּיגָה נָּא עִמְּךָ מִן הָעָם אֲשֶׁר אִתִּי.
Gen 33:15a Esau said: “Let me send some of my people with you.”
Esau here is depicted as reacting to Jacob’s professed vulnerability, extending help to him in the form of guides or chaperones. Nevertheless, the offer seems to revive Jacob’s anxiety.
בראשית לג:טוb וַיֹּאמֶר לָמָּה זֶּה אֶמְצָא חֵן בְּעֵינֵי אֲדֹנִי.
Gen 33:15b He said: “What need is there? Let me find favor in the sight of my lord.”
Jacob’s response is difficult to parse, as “let me find favor in the sight of my lord” is not a direct response yea or nay. In context, it seems to be a respectful refusal, saying that Esau shouldn’t put himself out on his behalf. Having, to his mind, amply paid his brother back with his oversized gift, Jacob may feel confident enough at this point to rebuff Esau’s offer. But the ambiguity of the response means that it can be understood in other ways.
Not Wanting to Owe Esau Anything (Rashi)
Rashi (R. Solomon Yitzhaki, 1040–1105) senses some concern that accepting this favor may unbalance the scales:
אמצא חן בעיני אדני - ולא תשלם לי עתה שום גמול:
“Let me find favor in the sight of my lord”—you should not do me any favors.
It is as if Jacob is saying to Esau, “Don't do me any favors; you don’t owe me anything.” If Jacob’s hope with his gifts was to wipe the slate clean, the last thing he wants is to owe Esau a favor.
Not Trusting Esau (Abravanel)
Don Isaac Abravanel (1437–1508) sees fear in Jacob’s response, suggesting that Jacob still doesn’t trust Esau, despite the warm welcome he received:
אבל יעקב חשש שמא ישתנה רצונו ויהפך לו לאויב
Jacob was worried that [Esau’s] intentions might shift, and he may become hostile.
Indeed, Jacob’s self-abasing posture throughout reflects his lack of confidence in his brother’s overtures, despite his enthusiastic welcome in 33:4. If Jacob has truly “found favor in the eyes of my lord,” why does Esau want to send some of his men along with him? To Jacob, even Esau’s (reluctant) acceptance of his gift is no guarantee that Esau has truly forgiven him.
Doesn’t Like Esau or His People (Ramban)
Ramban (R. Moses Nahmanides, 1194–1270) suggests that Jacob simply doesn’t want Esau's interlopers travelling with them.
הכונה ביעקב כי לא היה חפץ בהם ובחבורתם כלל, וכל שכן שהיה בדעתו ללכת דרך אחרת:
Jacob’s [unspoken] meaning is that he does not like them or desire their company at all, and certainly he intended to go a different way.
Despite Esau’s welcoming behavior, Jacob can’t wait to distance himself from his company.
Though these suggestions have some merit, the text reveals a concrete reason for Jacob’s refusal in the next verses.
Jacob Is Tricking Esau… Again
If Jacob allows his brother’s men to accompany with him, he would have no choice but to proceed to Seir and accept his brother’s hospitality, but he has no intention of doing so:
בראשית לג:טז וַיָּשָׁב בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא עֵשָׂו לְדַרְכּוֹ שֵׂעִירָה. לג:יז וְיַעֲקֹב נָסַע סֻכֹּתָה וַיִּבֶן לוֹ בָּיִת וּלְמִקְנֵהוּ עָשָׂה סֻכֹּת עַל כֵּן קָרָא שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם סֻכּוֹת.
Gen 33:16 So Esau started back that day on his way to Seir. 33:17 But Jacob journeyed on to Sukkot, and built a house for himself and made stalls for his cattle; that is why the place was called Sukkot.
Here Jacob shows his devious side, known to the reader from the past, recalling his dubious behavior towards his brother when they were younger. In Genesis 25, Jacob maneuvers Esau into a concession contrary to his own self-interest: instead of sharing food with his starving brother, he forces a trade of some lentil porridge for the birthright. Later, Jacob pretends to be his brother, tricking their father into giving him (Jacob) the blessing that had just been promised to Esau.
Deceit but not for Gain
While it is true that Jacob is making use of his old tricks here, the circumstances are very different. Jacob is not trying to squeeze something out of Esau as he did when they were young. Instead, either Jacob can’t get over his fear of Esau, or he is simply uninterested in a relationship with his brother.
While Esau’s gestures here indicate that he would go beyond mere reconciliation, Jacob is unable or unwilling to break away from the hierarchical language of lord and servant, which reflects his mistrust of his brother. Thus, the scene ends with a frustrated opportunity for reconciliation.
Why is Jacob unable or unwilling to respond positively to his brother’s initiative?
Option 1: The Emergence of His New Identity as Israel
One possibility is that Jacob’s turning away from Esau is the result of his newly won identity as Israel, a name the divine messenger gives him after Jacob defeats him in the all-night wrestling bout:
בראשית לב:כח וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו מַה שְּׁמֶךָ וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב. לב:כט וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ כִּי אִם יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי שָׂרִיתָ עִם אֱלֹהִים וְעִם אֲנָשִׁים וַתּוּכָל.
Gen 32:28 Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” 32:29 Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”
Jacob is the father of the people called Israel, whose his sons will become the eponymous ancestors of the tribes; the term the “children of Israel” (Benei Yisraʾel) appears for the first time in Genesis a few verses later (Gen 32:32). As such, Jacob begins to distance himself from other groups who will become Israel’s competitors or enemies in the future.
We can see the beginnings of this already in Genesis 31, in Jacob’s negotiations with Laban, in which Jacob’s national identity comes to the fore in distinct ways. Like Israel and Aram, Jacob and Laban speak different languages, as reflected in the different ways they each name the stone of witness:
בראשית לא:מז וַיִּקְרָא־ל֣וֹ לָבָ֔ן יְגַ֖ר שָׂהֲדוּתָ֑א וְיַֽעֲקֹ֔ב קָ֥רָא ל֖וֹ גַּלְעֵֽד.
Gen 31:47 Laban named it Yegar-sahadutha, but Jacob named it Gal-ed.
They also look to different family gods to enforce their treaty, as Laban states:
בראשית לא:נג אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם וֵאלֹהֵי נָחוֹר יִשְׁפְּטוּ בֵינֵינוּ אֱלֹהֵי אֲבִיהֶם וַיִּשָּׁבַע יַעֲקֹב בְּפַחַד אָבִיו יִצְחָק.
Gen 31:53 “May the God of Abraham and the god of Nahor judge between us”—their ancestral deities. And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac.
Moreover, the setting up of this gal-ed as a boundary marker separates Israel from Aram in territorial terms. In Genesis 34, the story of the debasing of Dinah continues this theme, with its strong emphasis on ethnic separation between Israel and others. We also see a clear rejection of idolatry in the demeaning treatment of Laban's terafim (probably household gods) and in the disposal of foreign gods in Genesis 35:4.
In all these ways, Jacob/Israel now stands at the head of a people that distinguishes itself from Arameans and Canaanites in clear and unmistakable ways.
The same would go for his relationship with Esau, father of the Edomite people. There can be no journey to Seir now just as, in the future, there can be no intercourse with the Edomites, other than passing through their territory on the way to Canaan (Num 20 and Deut 2). Jacob remains Esau’s kin, but he can never become his friend.
Option 2: Jacob Resists Intimacy
While the nationalistic explanation correctly reflects the Torah’s overall perspective on Israel’s relationship with other peoples, it does not do sufficient justice to the narrative aspect of Jacob the person, who appears to have something inherent in his character that resists intimacy. Jacob does not enter into close mutual relations with most of the other characters in Genesis 25–35:
- Rebecca loves Jacob, but what, besides respect and obedience, does Jacob feel towards his mother?
- Isaac’s preference for Esau apparently keeps Jacob at a distance from his father, with the exception of the moment of deception and the theft of the blessing.
- His relationship with Laban stretches over twenty years but is fraught throughout; Jacob’s accusations in Genesis 31 reveal the deep mistrust of his uncle that leads him to try to escape surreptitiously.
- Jacob certainly shows no positive sentiment toward Leah, who is always chasing the next birth, hoping that this will be the one that gets her husband to love her.
- Jacob loves Rachel, though the text emphasizes that this derives from her beauty. Moreover, it is never clear how much his love for Rachel is reciprocated. The unpleasant interchange between them in 30:1–3 does not leave the reader with the impression of mutual affection.
In light of all these complex interpersonal relationships, Jacob’s fearful and evasive responses to Esau’s overtures are not surprising, and even somewhat predictable.
Option 3: Competition with His Twin
Finally, Jacob’s difficulty in bonding with others, including and especially with Esau, may be a reflection of the dilemma he faced as Esau’s twin. His actions regarding his brother attest not only to a desire to catch up with Esau—beginning with grasping his heel at birth—but to actually replace him.
Jacob contrives the sale of Esau’s birthright, and, while impersonating his brother to steal his blessing, dresses in Esau’s clothes, wraps himself in animal skins which give him the smell of a man of the field, and calls himself “Esau your first born.”
During his years at Laban’s home, Jacob succeeds in establishing the boundaries of his own identity; it is here that he becomes a husband and a father, and shows his concern for the welfare and future of the household that he has created. Nevertheless, his struggle with Esau in his parents’ home may have left a permanent mark.
Having formed his sense of self with great effort, he is reluctant to bond more closely with Esau for fear of losing that hard-won self-confidence. To be a younger brother is one thing, but to be a twin is far more intense, and in this case friendship and twinship do not go hand in hand.
The intense competition between the twins as described in Jacob’s boyhood and adolescence is never fully overcome, as we see in their contesting with one another over the issue of the gift. Jacob has matured in many ways and has surmounted difficult struggles, but the encounter with Esau reawakens his earlier experience and prevents him from responding positively to Esau’s opening.
Sibling Troubles in the Bible
The relationship of Jacob and Esau, the anger and fear, the competition and jealousy, characterize nearly all kinship ties in the patriarchal narratives, but here they are supercharged by the intensity of the twin relationship. As with other sibling relations, there may be room for partial reconciliation, but the reciprocity that is essential for a deeper type of relationship does not develop. One need only look ahead to the painful interaction of Joseph and his brothers to see how tensions within the family are never fully resolved.
Genuine friendship in biblical narrative is rare and seems to work best outside the nuclear family. The most enduring examples of biblical friendship—David and Jonathan, Naomi and Ruth—are not blood relations. David and Jonathan are brothers-in-law (the only such relationship developed in the Bible), and Ruth and Naomi are mother/daughter-in-law (also unique in biblical narrative).
In Genesis, growing up in the same household is not a sure formula for close bonding, as the relations between Jacob and Esau clearly demonstrate. Despite the possibilities for intimacy in twinship, it seems that the sibling aspect of twin relations, at least in the Bible, does more to hinder friendship than to promote it.
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Prof. George Savran (retired) taught at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies since 1996, and was director of biblical studies. He received his Ph.D. from Brandeis University and is the author of Telling and Retelling: Quotation in Biblical Narrative (Indiana University Press, 1989) and Encountering the Divine: Theophany in Biblical Narrative (Sheffield University Press, 2005).
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