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David Ben-Gad HaCohen





If Jacob Is Returning to Canaan, Why Send Messengers to Esau in Seir?





APA e-journal

David Ben-Gad HaCohen





If Jacob Is Returning to Canaan, Why Send Messengers to Esau in Seir?








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If Jacob Is Returning to Canaan, Why Send Messengers to Esau in Seir?

Traditional commentators have grappled with why Jacob risks Esau’s wrath by sending him a message that he is on his way. Understanding the history of the text shows that in an older version of this story, Jacob had no choice: he was heading to his parents’ home in the Seir region.


If Jacob Is Returning to Canaan, Why Send Messengers to Esau in Seir?

Reconciliation of Jacob with Esau, Johann Heinrich Schönfeld, c. 1640. Kunsthistorisches
Museum Wien

Jacob Contacts Esau

Upon returning from Aram, Jacob sends his brother, Esau, a message:

בראשית לב:ד וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו אֶל עֵשָׂו אָחִיו אַרְצָה שֵׂעִיר שְׂדֵה אֱדוֹם. לב:ה וַיְצַו אֹתָם לֵאמֹר כֹּה תֹאמְרוּן לַאדֹנִי לְעֵשָׂו כֹּה אָמַר עַבְדְּךָ יַעֲקֹב עִם לָבָן גַּרְתִּי וָאֵחַר עַד עָתָּה. לב:ו ...וָאֶשְׁלְחָה לְהַגִּיד לַאדֹנִי לִמְצֹא חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ.
Gen 32:4 Jacob sent messengers ahead to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom, 32:5 and instructed them as follows, “Thus shall you say, ‘To my lord Esau, thus says your servant Jacob: “I stayed with Laban and remained until now; 32:6 … and I send this message to my lord in the hope of gaining your favor.’”

The messengers return to Jacob with frightening news:

בראשית לב:ז וַיָּשֻׁבוּ הַמַּלְאָכִים אֶל יַעֲקֹב לֵאמֹר בָּאנוּ אֶל אָחִיךָ אֶל עֵשָׂו וְגַם הֹלֵךְ לִקְרָאתְךָ וְאַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת אִישׁ עִמּוֹ.
Gen 32:7 The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.”

Jacob worries that this means that his brother intends on taking the vengeance he had sworn to take years earlier after Jacob tricked their blind father into giving him Esau’s blessing (Gen 27:41).

Why Does Jacob Contact Esau?

Once Esau heads towards Jacob with 400 men, Jacob must do his best to placate his brother. Jacob sends gifts, prays to God, and devises an escape plan. All this underscores a core problem that has bothered commentators for millennia: Why did Jacob tempt fate by contacting his brother in the first place? Why not at least attempt to return to the land and avoid Seir entirely?

Like One Who Seizes a Dog by the Ears

One rabbinic midrash is so bothered by this action that it quotes a proverb implying that Jacob’s problems here are of his own making (Gen. Rab. 75:3, Theodor-Albeck ed.).

רב הונא פתח מחזיק באזני כלב עובר מתעבר על ריב לא לו (משלי כו יז) נחמן בר שמואל אמר לארכיליסטיס שישן בדרך, עבר אחד ושרי מעיריה, אמר ליה קום לך דבישה שכיח הכא, קם ושרי מקפח ביה, אמר ליה יגער [ס"א ינער] בישה, אמ' ליה דמיך הוא ועירתניה, כך אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא לדרכו היה מהלך והייתה משלח אצלו ואומר לו כה אמר עבדך יעקב.
Rav Huna opened [with the verse]: “Like one who seizes a dog by the ears is a person who gets involved in someone else’s quarrel” (Prov 26:17). Nahman bar Samuel says: “[It is comparable] to a case in which a brigand leader is sleeping by the roadside. A passerby begins to waken him, saying, ‘Get up, there is danger around here.’ [The brigand leader] gets up and begins to attack him. [The passerby] says to him: ‘Let the danger be stopped’ [or: ‘The danger has been awoken’]! [The brigand leader] said to him: ‘It was sleeping and you awoke it.’ Thus the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him (Jacob): ‘He (Esau) was just going his own way and you sent him a message: “Thus says your servant Jacob” (Gen 32:5)!’”[1]

The Ford at Mahanaim and Penuel

When we look at the geography of the story, the problem becomes worse. Jacob and Esau meeting at the ford of the Jabbok River (Gen 32:23) follows the account of Jacob wrestling with an angel in Penuel. The brothers, then, must be meeting on the ford near Penuel and Mahanaim (modern Tulul adh-Dhahab).[2] Although a road from Seir to this junction exists, it is a local, secondary route, not the international highway Jacob would have been taking from Haran.

Mahanaim and Penuel are about a day’s walk west of the international route, so Jacob must have turned west. This comports with what Jacob does after the meeting with Esau. First, he continues west to Sukkot (modern day Deir Alla), still in the Transjordan, where he settles:

בראשית לג:יז וְיַעֲקֹב נָסַע סֻכֹּתָה וַיִּבֶן לוֹ בָּיִת וּלְמִקְנֵהוּ עָשָׂה סֻכֹּת עַל כֵּן קָרָא שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם סֻכּוֹת.
Gen 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.

Jacob apparently decides not to settle there permanently, but continues westward, crossing the Jordan, and ending up in the Cisjordan:

בראשית לג:יח וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב שָׁלֵם עִיר שְׁכֶם אֲשֶׁר בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן...
Gen 33:18 Jacob arrived safe in the city of Shechem which is in the land of Canaan…[3]

This route, heading westward to Mahahaim and Penuel, then continuing to Sukkot and finally Shechem, suggests that Jacob never intended to go anywhere near Seir, where his brother Esau lived. If so, why did Jacob contact Esau?

Traditional Solutions

A number of traditional commentators have tried to explain Jacob’s behavior. Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167), for instance, offers a geographical explanation:

הנה ידענו כי ארץ אדום בין חרן ובין ארץ ישראל.
We know that the land of Edom is between Haran and the land of Israel.

This geographical information is inaccurate. Seir borders on southern Judah, but Jacob could have entered Canaan opposite Shechem—and later does—without coming anywhere near Seir.

Ramban (R. Moses Nahmanides, 1194–1270) takes a similar approach, but avoids ibn Ezra’s geographical error:

בעבור היות נגב ארץ ישראל על ידי אדום ואביו יושב בארץ הנגב, יש לו לעבור דרך אדום או קרוב משם, על כן פחד אולי ישמע עשו והקדים לשלוח אליו מלאכים לארצו.
Since the Negev of the land of Israel is near Edom, and [Jacob’s] father lived in the Negev, [Jacob] would have had to pass through Edom or at least near it, therefore, he was afraid that Esau might hear [about his return], and for this reason, he send messengers to the his land.

Ramban himself, however, admits that this answer is weak, noting that וכבר תפסוהו החכמים על זה “the sages already called Jacob out on this.” He turns to allegory, suggesting that Jacob’s behavior was meant as a sign for the future:

ועל דעתי: גם זה ירמוז כי אנחנו התחלנו נפילתנו ביד אדום, כי מלכי בית שני באו בברית עם הרומיים ומהם שבאו ברומה, והיא היתה סבת נפילתם בידם.
In my opinion: This also hints that our fall began with Edom, since the kings during the Second Temple period made treaties with the Romans, and some even went to Rome, and this was the reason we fell into their hands.

Ramban applies the rabbinic principle כל מה שאירע לאבות סימן לבנים, “everything that happened to the fathers is a sign for the sons:”[4] Esau symbolizes Rome (a classic rabbinic trope)[5] and Jacob’s actions foreshadow later Jewish history. While such an approach successfully avoids the question, it does so at the expense of the text’s simple (peshat) meaning.

Was Jacob Going to Seir?

A further problem with the text helps explain why Jacob contacts his brother. After Esau embraces Jacob and the brothers reconcile, he says to Jacob:

בראשית לג:יב נִסְעָה וְנֵלֵכָה וְאֵלְכָה לְנֶגְדֶּךָ.
Gen 33:12 Let us start on our journey, and I will proceed at your pace (or “I will go alongside you”).[6]

If Esau is returning to Seir, and Jacob is heading to Sukkot or Shechem, why would Esau suggest they walk together? To make matters worse, after Jacob demurs, and requests neither to walk with Esau nor to have Esau’s associates accompany him, he says to Esau:

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.

Why is Jacob suddenly heading to Seir? Perhaps he actually isn’t (i.e., perhaps he is lying)—but then why would he think Esau would believe such a claim? It seems clear that Jacob was heading west, returning home to his parents! The answer to both questions—why Jacob contacts Esau and why both brothers seem to act as if Jacob is going to Seir—becomes clear when we realize that Seir, rather than Shechem or Sukkot, was Jacob’s former home.

On the King’s Highway to Beer-lahai-roi

As I argued in my “Locating Beer-lahai-roi” (TheTorah 2014), the story of Jacob stealing his brother’s blessing (Genesis 27) is set in the area of Ein el-Chai, biblical Beer-lahai-roi, a site midway between Siq el-Bared (biblical Bered) and Ein el-Musa (biblical Kadesh), on the outskirts of Petra (Gen 16:14). In fact, the Torah is explicit elsewhere that this is where Isaac lived:

בראשית כה:יא וַיֵּשֶׁב יִצְחָק עִם בְּאֵר לַחַי רֹאִי.
Gen 25:11 And Isaac dwelt in Beer-lahai-roi.

Thus, Jacob has no choice but to contact Esau and tell him that he is heading home.

If Beer-lahai-roi was Jacob’s destination, he would not have turned west to Mahanaim and Penuel; as he was travelling from Haran in northern Syria[7] south to the area of Petra, he would have remained on the international road known as דרך המלך, “The King’s Highway” (Num 20:17, 21:22).[8] This was the standard way to travel from Syria and is more or less identical with today’s Jordanian highway 35.[9] The brothers would have met there at the Jabbok Ford,[10] with Jacob’s two camps on the northern side and Jacob himself on the southern side.[11]

Adding Mahanaim and Penuel

Why were Mahanaim and Penuel added to the story? Although the twin sites of Mahanaim and Penuel are not part of Judah, a later Judean storyteller was apparently familiar with the local legend and poem of Jacob wrestling with an angel at Penuel,[12] causing him to adopt El as his God and change his name to Israel (33:20b).

The name literally means “El will rule,” but the Judean storyteller (like most Israelis today) was not aware of such a meaning to the national name, and came up with a folk etymology based on his retelling of the struggle: In J’s story, Jacob wins a victory over “the Man,” who blesses him and gives him his new name to reflect how Jacob wrestled with God.[13]

Bringing Jacob to Penuel also brings him to nearby Mahanaim, and this inspired the author to connect the name Mahanaim to Jacob and Esau with the midrash-style folk etymology about Jacob’s two camps. Although this is not the way anyone would travel from Haran to Seir, J had to place the encounter with Esau at this ford once he decided to include Penuel and Mahanaim in his account.[14] Jacob and Esau were literally carried away by midrash.

But Why Shechem?

If Jacob is indeed headed to the Seir region to see his family, why does he change his plans and head westward? The text as we have it implies that Jacob is simply too afraid of Esau to continue south, so he lies to his brother and then runs off.[15]

Yet it is strange to imagine that after being embraced in a friendly way by Esau, Jacob would then change his plans and head away from his home, never again to see his parents. Moreover, even if we were to accept this interpretation, it explains only his move to Sukkot; why does he continue on to Shechem in the Cisjordan? These literary scars result from how the authors of J surgically stitched previous narratives together into one.

The Judean Authors of J and the Cisjordanian Bias

J is not a source created of whole cloth by a single author. Rather, the Judean scribes who authored J inherited stories, including the Jacob-Esau saga, set in the Transjordan, where their ancestors apparently once lived.[16] Over time, other stories were told about the patriarchs; these were set in the Cisjordan, which became the main area of the Israelites and Judahites in the monarchic period.

The J scribes who attempted to create a coherent narrative about the patriarchs had to resolve these geographical differences. This explains why, for instance, Isaac is described as travelling between Beer-lahai-roi and the Negev (Gen 24:62), an assertion which allows for stories about Isaac in Beersheba and Gerar (Gen 26) to be juxtaposed with stories of Isaac in Beer-lahai-roi (Gen 27). The same is true of Jacob, who is placed in the Cisjordan in other J stories.[17]

Cisjordanifying a Transjordanian Story

In other words, the authors of J inherited a story in which Jacob, after stealing his brother’s blessing, runs away from his home in Beer-lahai-roi, in the Seir region, and returns years later, and reconciles with Esau on the road back home, after which he either returns to Beer-lahai-roi or settles in Sukkot.

For the Judahite authors, this simply could not be the end of the story. Home—whether for Jacob or Isaac—had to be in the Cisjordan, the main center of the state. Seir, at that point, was foreign Edomite territory; Beer-lahai-roi, a distant memory.[18] Thus, the scribes moved Jacob to Shechem and Isaac to the Negev.[19]

The likely assumption, then, of J here is that Isaac and Rebekah had moved while Jacob was in Haran. Although J never tells us how Jacob knows where his parents are living, perhaps we are meant to imagine that upon the brothers’ meeting, Jacob learns from his brother that they left Beer-lahai-roi and now live in the Cisjordan, and he changes his itinerary accordingly.

Whether or not this is what the author of J who revised the original story meant to convey, the overall challenge faced by the J authors is clear. On one hand, they did not erase the stories of patriarchs in the Transjordan that they inherited from their ancestors. On the other hand, Isaac and Jacob needed to be brought into the Cisjordan, into what was eventually considered to be the legitimate or at least primary land.

Ironically, with this geographic reversal, it is Esau who lives away from the family, even though it is the family who has been moved from their home. The Seir region, including Beer-lahai-roi, where the boys grow up, becomes a permanent holding of Esau and the Edomites. “To Esau I have given Mount Seir” (לְעֵשָׂו נָתַתִּי אֶת הַר שֵׂעִיר; Deut 2:5), but Jacob’s future is in the west.


December 12, 2019


Last Updated

April 13, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. David Ben-Gad HaCohen (Dudu Cohen) has a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from the Hebrew University. His dissertation is titled, Kadesh in the Pentateuchal Narratives, and deals with issues of biblical criticism and historical geography. Dudu has been a licensed Israeli guide since 1972. He conducts tours in Israel as well as Jordan.