It is about Jacob. Genesis 27 was about Jacob, but so was Genesis 28. Genesis 29 was about Jacob, but so was Genesis 30. Genesis 31 was about Jacob, but so was Genesis 32. His brother Esau may have shared the sentiment, “Hey! It has always been about Jacob! Even in the womb it was all about Jacob!” But then there is Genesis 33. And come Genesis 33, it is still about Jacob.
Jacob, along with his family, was on the journey home. This was an approximate 500-mile journey; a walk that Jacob had anticipated for twenty years. As soon as it began, Jacob was stopped. And as soon as it restarted again, Jacob was stopped again. Then he was delayed from restarting the journey a third time. He was delayed by the word of his brother’s coming to meet him. He was delayed by a restless night’s sleep. He was delayed by God who would not let him rest. God wrestled him to the ground and wrestled with him all over the ground until the break of the day. Then as a new day dawned, Jacob was delayed by the sight of his brother’s coming to meet him.
And in Genesis 33:12-20, Jacob seeks to keep moving and to get home. And as soon as Jacob renewed the journey home, he stopped. But then he moved again and stopped again. So, the big question is, why did Jacob stop? Why did he not keep heading home?
It Has Been Hard
Genesis 33 has been called a very difficult passage; a very difficult passage to interpret. Genesis 33 has three parts to it. The first part is when Jacob met Esau (Genesis 33:1-11). The second part is simply a transition (Genesis 33:12-17), a transition to the third part. The third part is that Jacob journeyed peacefully. The difficulty of the passage is these last two parts. The first part had quite a bit of drama and intrigue. There are the previous 24 hours and all Jacob endured leading up to the moment of meeting his brother face to face. And there is this picture of these two manly men weeping together in the warm embrace of forgiveness and reconciliation. It is wonderful!
But then there are these last two parts with a lot less drama and little less intrigue. So, what could possibly be so difficult about it?
Jacob began his journey home in Genesis 31. And in Genesis 31 Jacob shared his heart. His journey had started and then came to an abrupt halt. He had been stopped by his father-in-law Laban. When Jacob had his chance, he unloaded on his father-in-law. It was twenty years of pent up frustration. And it began with these words, “These twenty years I have been with you.” Listen closely to what Jacob says next. “Your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried, and I have not eaten the rams of your flocks” (31:38). What had Jacob been doing for Laban for twenty years? He was a shepherd. Now listen to what Jacob says about being a shepherd. “What was torn by wild beasts I did not bring to you. I bore the loss of it myself. From my hand you required it, whether stolen by day or stolen by night. There I was: by day the heat consumed me, and the cold by night, and my sleep fled from my eyes.” What does Jacob say about being a shepherd? It was hard.
A commentator made this mention, “Pastoring is hard.” Another word for shepherd is pastor. Those three words I believe apply here in Genesis 33. Pastoring is hard – this is what Jacob shared at the very beginning of his journey and at the first stop of his journey. It has been hard. And I know what you may be thinking; it is all hard. Parenting is hard. Being married is hard. Working is hard. What is not hard?
Remember, there are three parts to Genesis 33. The first part is Genesis 33:1-11; when Jacob met Esau. And the second part transitions into the third part, so we are a calling the second part…the transition. It begins with Genesis 33:12. “Then Esau said, ‘Let us journey on our way, and I will go ahead of you.’” This all must be read at face value. These brothers just hugged it out; twenty years of estrangement and hard feelings. And Esau with what must be some exuberance says, “Come, let us go! Let us move on together! Let us travel together and I will lead the way!” I just take it that Esau is really glad to have his little brother back.
Then comes a word that we have gotten used to paying attention to; but. “But Jacob said to him…” The children are frail, and the livestock are fragile. If this family takes one more step, we will all collapse. This is rather important. What is Jacob hinting at here in this transition? You have to keep in mind that out of all 417 people, Jacob is the only one who has not showered in a really long time. He is tattered and battered and dirty. And he has not slept in twenty-four hours. He looks how he feels – a hot mess. In addition, the family was awakened during the middle of the night – nothing worse – sent packing across a river with no warning, without their dad and husband, without their protector. And the next time the family sees Jacob, he is unrecognizable and has a limp. This family, including Jacob, was wore out physically and perhaps more importantly, emotionally. So, what do they each need? Rest. And it is all because it has been hard.
Pay close attention to verse fourteen. Jacob tells his brother that he needs to sit and recuperate for a while and for him to go on ahead. As soon as the family and Jacob are ready, “I will lead on slowly, at the pace of the livestock that are ahead of me and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.” Seir is in the opposite direction of home, if we count home as Beersheba (cf. Genesis 28). And it is completely opposite, east, of the journey it takes to get home. It is Esau’s home and, again, take it all at face value for now, Jacob shares an intention to come to Esau’s home. When will Jacob come to Esau’s home? He does not say. It is never recorded that Jacob ever came to his brother’s house.
The transition continues and is near full completion. Esau offers that he leave some of his men behind to accompany Jacob (33:15). Esau is fully embracing Jacob’s intention that he is coming to his house sooner rather than later. Then comes a word that we have gotten used to paying attention to; but. “But he said, ‘What need is there?’” This is more important than we think. What would be the point of leaving Esau’s men with Jacob? Help. Assistance. Protection. And Jacob very clearly does not see the need. Why? The worst is behind him – Laban; wrestling with God; the anxiety of seeing Esau then actually seeing Esau. And in the tear-filled embrace of Esau, God had done more abundantly than Jacob asked or thought. What more is there to be concerned with? Things could not get worse! Is it reasonable to assume that Jacob is letting his guard down?
Then here it comes. Esau goes his way toward his home (33:16). And Jacob goes the opposite direction (33:17). Why would Jacob really not go with Esau or to Esau’s home? God commanded Jacob to journey home, the home of his fathers (31:3). God commanded Jacob to return to the promised land (28:15). It was not God’s will that Jacob go to Esau’s home outside of the promised land. But is it not curious that Jacob never shared that with Esau? Instead, he left Esau with the impression that he would meet up with him soon at Esau’s house. Maybe it was because Jacob was not ready to fully trust Esau. Or maybe Jacob was being Jacob.
And Yet Jacob Journeyed Peacefully
Notice verse seventeen. This is where it all transitions into the third part of the chapter. It starts with a word that we have gotten used to paying attention to; but. “But Jacob journeyed to Succoth.” Jacob moves a little west. It is closer to the path he needs to get home, but not much closer. And notice that when he moves a little west, he stops. He is still close to the Jabbok and Jordan River. But why did he stop? When he stopped he built a house. How long would that have taken? And then Jacob built some sheds for all his livestock. How long would that have taken? Better yet why is he doing it? Why is he building a home for his worn out family and his worn out livestock?
Notice then verse eighteen. Jacob moves again. He moves further west. This is to the other side of the Jordan and he stops again. Why did he stop again? And when he stops, he stops at the city of Shechem. Shechem is not only the name of the city, but the name of a man who lives in the city. He has brothers and his dad is Hamor. So, Jacob moves his family across the Jordan and stops in this city, buys some land and he stays. The impression even after reading the next chapter is that he stays for a while.
Why though did Jacob stop? And not once, but why did Jacob stop twice? I know part of this passage seems to be saying something about obedience. Jacob was told, commanded by God to return home (cf. 31:3). Succoth, although Jacob built a home there, was not home. Shechem although within the boundaries of the promised land, was not home. Beersheba was home. I want us to notice that Bethel is really close to Shechem, some 20 miles or a day’s journey. Bethel is where God promised Jacob “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go,” and note this, “and will bring you back to this land.” So, it seems the destination could be Bethel. This was the place Jacob called God’s house. But maybe Shechem was close enough. Maybe it was good enough to be within the promised land and travel to Bethel, travel even to Beersheba, home, whenever Jacob wanted. Jacob got close enough. Close enough is called partial obedience and partial obedience is called disobedience. God’s command was to not be close enough.
Why did Jacob stay in Shechem? The people were friendly. They sold him a piece of land for what seemed like a friendly amount. He was near the Jordan River, a major river. The ground was fertile. His family liked it there. It was comfortable. Notice that Jacob took his time to get to Shechem. It was slow. Jacob saw no need for a rearguard. He slowly moved into Shechem. And he came with such ease. “And Jacob came safely,” (Genesis 33:18). Another word for safely would be “in friendliness,” or “peacefully” (cf. Genesis 28:21). Things were going great. Jacob even built an altar and worshiped. He called on the name of the Lord – God is the God of Israel! But the cost of his comfort would be seen soon enough. This is Genesis 34.
But our big question was, why did Jacob stop? Keep in mind how the journey began. It had been hard. And Jacob at the end of Genesis 33, not the end of the journey, was tattered and battered and dirty. Why did he stop? He was tired. Being tired he let his guard down and grew comfortable.
I am tired. The journey is not over, and I am tired. So, what can I do? (cf. Matthew 11:28-30).
1. Listen for and to God’s voice. This is only possible with God’s written word. Recently and it is with being tired, this, hearing God’s voice, has renewed my spirit. I have heard him speak in the Gospel of John. I heard him yesterday morning in Proverbs 29. “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint [get discouraged], but blessed is he who keeps the law” (29:18).
2. Lift up my voice. Recently, and it is with being tired, this, lifting up my voice, has renewed my spirit. It is prayer. And it is not just praying for myself, but spending time praying for others. “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you” (Jeremiah 29:12; cf. Ephesians 3:14-20).
3. Get with God’s people. I knew I was in trouble when I watched a program where a man volunteered to experience solitary confinement and I envied him. Recently, and it is with being tired, this, getting with God’s people, has renewed my spirit. “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Jacob was tired. He let his guard down. He grew comfortable. He got as far as he could on his own strength. It was partial obedience. The cost would be immense.