Esau’s Embrace: Thoughts on Genesis 33

Bleker, Gerrit Claesz.; The Meeting of Jacob and Esau; Shipley Art Gallery;

Finally, there is the risk of embrace. . . . I open my arms, make a movement of the self towards the other, the enemy, and do not know whether I will be misunderstood, despised, even violated, or whether my action will be appreciated, understood, and reciprocated. I can become a savior or a victim—possibly both. Embrace is grace, and ‘grace is a gamble, always.

–Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation

One of the great things about the Hebrew Bible is that it never quite does what it is supposed to do. Like many of its main characters, the text itself is a trickster. It serves its own ends and refuses to cooperate with our flannel-board versions of the story (Kids, think of a really big iPad where you have to stick the pictures to the screen yourself). Every time we think we know what the text is saying, it shifts the narrative and says something different.

Perhaps the tricksteriest of all of the tricksters in the Hebrew Bible is Jacob, who became Israel and gave name to the nation. Jacob tricks his brother, Esau, out of his birthright by wearing animal skins and pretending to be hairy so that his nearly blind father, Isaac, will give him the wrong blessing. And then he manages to engage in some early genetic engineering to swindle his father-in-law, Laban, out of most of his livestock.

And yet, Jacob is the chosen one, the man chosen to become the patriarch of the entire Israelite nation. He represents the point at which the Abrahamic covenant stops descending only through the birthright son (leaving descendants of Ishmael and Esau out of the picture) and becomes universal to all of his descendants. He was also (we are told) a great prophet who, like all great prophets, does just the sorts of things that God wants done.

The text pushes back hard against this simplistic good guy-bad guy narrative, and most modern faithful renditions of the story either sanitize Jacob’s deceptions or focus entirely on the good parts. But that gets harder to do as the narrative progresses. And perhaps the most spiritually vital part of the text—Jacob wrestling with an angel, who changes his name to Israel and makes him the father of the Twelve Tribes—is connected to Jacob’s most significant failure—his failure to reciprocate his brother’s embrace.

Let’s try to see the story through Esau’s eyes. He was the oldest son (albeit by about two minutes), and he was destined to receive the birthright. At some point in his life he was hungry, and, rather than simply giving him food because that is what brothers do, Jacob forces him to surrender his birthright in exchange for some soup. But that sort of deal is not legally binding. Isaac can give the birthright to whoever he wants, and he wants to give it to Esau. But his brother and his own mother conspire against him and dress Jacob up in furs to trick the father into giving the birthright blessing to the wrong son. Jacob heads out of town for 21 years, and now he wants to come back and claim his inheritance. What would you do? Esau forgives.

When Jacob hears that Esau is heading towards him with 400 men, he is terrified. He spends the night begging God to protect him and wrestling angels. But when Esau does show up, all he wants to do is embrace his brother:

Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. (Genesis 33:1-5 NRSV)

In this passage, Esau engages in what Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf calls “the risk of embrace.” The two brothers have been apart for decades because of a dispute that, in many stories from the ancient world (and a few from the modern one), would have ended in bloodshed. Esau risks the embrace and offers reconciliation from his heart.

What Jacob does next should shock us all. He does not reject Esau’s offer—there is no way that he could—but he does not return the embrace either. Not really. Rather, he immediately turns the conciliatory embrace into a transaction by presenting Esau with a significant portion of his flock:

Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” Jacob answered, “To find favor with my lord.” But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” Jacob said, “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor. Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.” So he urged him, and he took it. (Genesis 33: 8-11)

Jacob acts here like somebody who has been given a surprise gift and, rather than appreciating the gift for what it is, insists on going out and buying something of equal value to avoid having to be in debt. As Esau points out himself, it is unnecessary, and it changes the entire nature of the relationship from fraternal affection to economic transaction. Jacob cannot simply accept forgiveness as a free gift. He must try to purchase it with the coin of the realm. And when Esau tries to engage his brother as a brother saying, “let us journey on our way, and I will go alongside you” (Gen 33:12), Jacob brushes him off. Having escaped the noose, Jacob shows no interest in having a brother.

This is the trick that the text plays on us. Esau, not Jacob, becomes the Christ-figure in the story—the one who initiates reconciliation by offering unconditional forgiveness to somebody who has wronged him grievously. Jacob is the unrepentant sinner who doesn’t want to be punished, but who cannot accept a simple offer of grace and tries to purchase his brother’s forgiveness with a bunch of goats.


  1. This touches a nerve for me, thank you.
    So what do we learn from this Michael?
    I just know that I have a brother who has not spoken to me in two years. When we last spoke, i was angry, I want to apologize, he won’t return my calls or texts. I miss him.
    You have a typo- “con of the realm” instead of “coin of the realm.” But maybe it isn’t a typo, maybe it is the truth that the transactional never quite purchases what we want. It leaves us empty. All we really need is love.
    I know a former SP who used to frequently quote SWK (it appears the source may have been aprocaphyl) that the definition of hell is that moment when we realize what we could have obtained, what we have missed by not being faithful. I like Father Zosima’s defintion (Dostoevsky) better, that hell is the suffering that comes from having lost the ability to love. More essential, not transactional.
    And now I will spam your wonderful post with a poem that seems relevant:

    Degrees of Glory, Here and Now
    Heaven isn’t
    Made of things,
    Not mansions
    Or golden streets,
    It’s abundantly
    Not missing you.
    Would you visit
    Even if
    Your glory sings
    Too bright for me?
    We swim
    In quiet skies alone.
    Even Hope still holds,
    When you just
    Pick up the phone.
    – Lona Gynt, January 2022, All rights reserved

  2. Michael Austin says:

    Thank you Lona. Your poem is beautiful. (And I fixed the typo, though maybe I shouldn’t have).

  3. I love this story, and reading Michael Austin’s perspective on this text (any text) is always a treat.

    Jacob/Israel is a disappointment on a lot of levels for me. He wasn’t much of a parent either, playing favorites with his kids, to say nothing of wives! Don’t have many positive things to say about the grandpa there either. It’s enough to make one question the Almighty’s taste in patriarchs.

    Lona, I’m sorry about your brother. I don’t know you except for your presence here at BCC, but you are the kind of sister all of us are richer for having. Beautiful poem.

  4. Thank you for the insightful comments and the beautiful poem. I have been doubly blessed.

  5. Well done, as always.
    It’s always difficult to untangle what I thought before from what I think now after reading a commentary, including this one. But I believe I’ve never liked Jacob. For me he is the entitled pedigreed college boy who not only didn’t deserve the rewards handed to him but made the mistake of confusing blessings with righteousness. So fie on Jacob.
    The value here for me is recovering Esau as a Christ figure. At the same time, I think it worthy of note that his fraternal love and forgiveness, in place of an earlier desire for fratricide, was decades in the making and that having 400 men to march with him represents a worldly success independent of the birthright. I also take the lesson that life can be long, complicated, and not wholly predictable.

  6. Larry the Cable-Guy says:

    This is a charitable and useful reading of Esau, but I’m not sure we need to denigrate Jacob in the process. Jacob pulls some slick moves in the chapters we have, but he gets punked by others plenty of times as well. The pottage idea was his, but the hairy arm swap was Rebecca’s operation. He finagled the cattle, but that was within the context of Laban changing the terms nearly a dozen times. And, while he has a choppy relationship with his wives/concubines/sons, perhaps it might have been different if — at the end of seven years — he got to marry the wife he thought he was getting.

    I don’t think it’s fair to read the gifts to Esau as an awkward and hamfisted response to a genuinely charitable act. The preceding chapter shows Jacob arranging these gifts in incremental waves days ahead of time in order to buffer his brother’s assumed deadly anger. It describes him as “anxious and distressed.” It’s been over twenty years, and people can change, but I’m not sure we have to fault Jacob here for proceeding with caution when Esau shows up with 400 men (servants?, armed?) and wants to go on a walk together, or leave some of his men with Jacob.

    Perhaps we should read their exchange as plainly as stated, or it’s possible that this is a faceoff of sorts. A few chapters later, it clarifies that there was only room in the land for one of their households to remain.

    I like the favorable reading of Esau. I’m glad they were together at Isaac’s burial. I’m just not sure we need to make Jacob a villain in order for Esau to be a hero.

  7. Michael Austin says:


    This is a charitable, defensible, and absolutely sound way to read the story. I have a somewhat different reading of some parts, but your understanding is very much within the range of interpretations that the text supports.

  8. I think the lesson of Jacob’s response was to be overly generous towards someone either you’ve offended, or might be your enemy, or you believe has the wrong view of you.

    Esau got a letter that Jacob was coming, and came out with 400 men. It’s either to protect Jacob, or to assault him. Jacob flooded Esau with waves of gifts before his arrival. That either softened Esau’s heart or was unnecessary.

    I think what we have to go on is why did Esau come with 400 men. That seems rather threatening. Was it common place to send out 400 men as an escort along the road? Jacob certainly felt threatened by it. Did he completely misjudge?

    I think your retelling skips too quickly over the wrestling with God. The way this is sandwiched in the story suggests a much more important link.

  9. Terry H says:

    I enjoy your takes on the Old Testament in particular, especially since Re-Reading Job (I made my public feelings very plain about that). I may not agree with all of your takes on whatever, but I benefit from the reflection and your perspective. Please keep it up and give us more.

  10. BHodges says:

    Love the post. One of the most incredible moments in the Hebrew Bible is in Genesis 33:4 (KJV)—”And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him: and they wept.”

    Thanks for bringing those quotes to my attention. In my Sunday school lesson I pointed out that Jacob seems reluctant to really fully reconcile, I mean the peoples end up separated in territory, they don’t band together, and eventually become enemies a la the Nephite/Lamanite dynamic. So yeah. Complicated!

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