Jacob fears for his life. Esau will kill him if he believes he’s coming to claim the inheritance. Why else would he bring a posse of 400 men (32:6)?
Jacob needs to show he’s not coming to demand anything, and he needs to do that fast. The best way to show that he no longer wants to take from his brother would be to give to him, generously.
Jacob sends some of his herders with 100+ animals ahead of him. When Esau meets them, he learns that this is a gift from Jacob, but Jacob himself is still coming. Esau must cool his heels. The next group arrives: another gift, but Jacob is not in this company either. Then a third gift, but still no Jacob.
It’s a brilliant strategy. If Esau was planning an ambush, he can no longer hide with these 550 bleating animals. If Esau hired mercenaries who expect spoils, they’ll relax: Jacob’s gift ensures their payment. Artfully, Jacob’s own herders are now mixing with Esau’s men.
The staggered and generous gift not only cools Esau’s anger; it demonstrates that Jacob has not come to take but to give. Jacob no longer seeks to dominate Esau: he is Esau’s servant, and Esau is Jacob’s lord:
Genesis 32:17–20 (ESV)
17 He instructed the first, “When Esau my brother meets you and asks you, ‘To whom do you belong? Where are you going? And whose are these ahead of you?’ 18 then you shall say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a present sent to my lord Esau. And moreover, he is behind us.’ ” 19 He likewise instructed the second and the third and all who followed the droves, “You shall say the same thing to Esau when you find him, 20 and you shall say, ‘Moreover, your servant Jacob is behind us.’ ” For he thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me.”
Verse 20 contains atonement language. The verb translated appease (ESV) or pacify (NIV) is kā·p̄ǎr — the word for atonement. Jacob’s gift is intended to reconcile the relationship. Jacob wants to see Esau’s face, but he’s too ashamed to look his brother in the eye. He will bow his head in shame, and hope that his brother might lift up his head to see his face. That’s the literal meaning of accept in verse 20: to lift up his face.
The narrator is crafting this story of reconciliation in cultic language. What Jacob is doing with his brother is what Israel does with their God. The word used five times of Jacob’s gift to Esau is min·ḥā(h) (32:13, 18, 20-21; 33:10). This word is used of offering something to a great ruler (Genesis 43:11, 15, 25-26). But most often (98 times in Leviticus – Numbers) it is used of offerings to YHWH. The Israelites brought their offerings to make atonement, so God would lift up their face and accept them.
Given this merging of the horizontal and vertical relationships in atonement language, I wonder if we should see Jacob’s generous offering to Esau as the fulfilment of the vow he made to give “a full tenth” of whatever YHWH gave him (28:22)?
Relationship with God forms the basis for restored relationship between brothers:
- Before Jacob asks Esau to spare his life, he first asks God to “deliver me from the hand of my brother” (32:11).
- Before Jacob wrestles with Esau, he first wrestles with God, for the one who prevails with God prevails with people too (32:28).
- Jacob sees the face of God and so is delivered (32:30). He then sees the face of Esau and is accepted. Seeing his brother’s face “is like seeing the face of God” (33:10).
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are laying the foundation for God’s reign. Humans must first be reconciled with their sovereign. Then they must also be reconciled with their brothers. That’s how we become community under our heavenly ruler—the kingdom of God.
What others are saying
Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16–50, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1998), 292:
Jacob speaks in quasi-sacral terms of this present. It is designed to “mollify” “make atonement” (כפר) for him, so that he may be “accepted” (רצה; v 22), which are both key terms in sacrificial texts (e.g., Lev 1:4). Finally, Jacob comments, “I have seen your face which is like seeing the face of God.” Clearly, for Jacob to make peace with his brother is to make peace with God (cf. Matt 5:24; 1 John 4:20).
John E. Hartley, Genesis, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012), 282–283:
The text reads literally, “I will see his face, and perhaps he will lift up my face” (nasa’ panim). “Face” captures the critical issue. If the anger was removed from Esau’s face, Jacob hoped that he might see his brother’s face and that Esau would look on his face with respect. Intent on meeting Esau face to face as he owned up to his past vile behavior, Jacob resolved not to flee, hide, or trick his brother.
Read Genesis 32:13-21.