I am starting to learn that, with every story, there are multiple ways to look at things. For instance, my Bible study today was over Genesis 33-34. In chapter 33, it tells the story of the meeting of Jacob and Esau as Jacob comes back from Paddan Aram. As I read it on my own, I got the feeling that Jacob may have dealt deceitfully with Esau again (I’ll explain in just a minute), but as I studied a little deeper and read some commentary on this chapter, I think I may know why.
The whole story actually begins a couple of chapters before chapter 33, but the climax of the story occurs here. Jacob has traveled away from Paddan Aram in order to go back to the land of his family. He is fearful about meeting his brother Esau again, since the last time he had seen him, Esau swore to kill him. Jacob spends a lot of time in prayer in the days preceding the meeting, and on that day he makes some final preparations by putting his family in place (interestingly, he puts them in order from what appears to be least loved to most loved – so that those he cared most about were furthest away from where they might be attacked). To Jacob’s great surprise, Esau comes to him and hugs and kisses him instead of attacking him, and the brothers seem to make up. I wonder if, by leaving for Paddan Aram, Jacob didn’t forfeit what he would have taken from Esau by winning his birthright and taking his blessing from their father Isaac. This is just speculation, but perhaps Esau’s wrath had subsided since he was able to get what he wanted after all – a generous inheritance from their father. Esau says that he has everything he needs, and tries to turn down Jacob’s gifts. But Jacob insist Esau take them, and he does. Esau tries to get Jacob to come back with him, but Jacob says that Esau should go ahead, and that he will come after him slowly, at a pace better suited for the family and the livestock. Esau goes on ahead, but instead of following him, Jacob turns to the west and heads toward an area called Succoth (which means “shelters”) to set up his tents. Then later he moves on to Shechem to buy some land and settle down. (See the map at the bottom of this post for a good visual of all of this).
My first reaction to this chapter was that Jacob has once again deceived Esau by saying he would follow him to the area of Seir, but then not doing so, and instead heading to Shechem to settle down. Obviously he did lie to him, but at first I couldn’t see why – things seemed to be very favorable between him and Esau now. I started to think about how this deception was going to affect their relationship, but without reading further into the story, I wasn’t able to foresee any particular consequences.
After reading some commentary, I can now make sense of why Jacob might not want to go with Esau. Esau was a godless man, and as we know from the earlier stories, he was prone to giving in to his emotions and he lacked patience and gentleness. Jacob, who was the master of long-suffering (he worked over 20 years for Laban to get the wife he wanted and to get some livestock/wealth of his own), may have known that it was only a matter of time before Esau’s favor turned to wrath again, and conflict would soon arise. On top of this, Esau apparently did not have a fear of God, nor did he seem to be the kind of guy that worshiped God. Perhaps Jacob knew that, since Esau did not fear God, and since he had married women from other nations (who probably worshiped other gods), there was sure to be conflict based on their spiritual beliefs. Several times in the Bible, we are told to be careful about having too close of a relationship with those who do not share our beliefs. Later, when the Israelites have come out of Egypt, God tells them not to intermarry with other nations who have other beliefs: “Do not intermarry with [the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites]. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.” (Deuteronomy 7). And in the New Testament, we are told “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6).
I am very careful not to condone Jacob’s lies – I believe that God’s moral standard is absolute, and that lying is wrong regardless of the reasoning behind it. But at the same time, after spending time thinking about this particular story, I believe that Jacob cared greatly for his family (perhaps some more than others, which is a whole other topic of discussion), and he did what he had to do to keep them safe.