Genesis 33 Bible Commentary

John Calvin’s Bible Commentary

(Read all of Genesis 33)

Verse 1. And Jacob lifted up his eyes . We have said how greatly Jacob feared for himself from his brother; but now when Esau himself approaches, his terror is not only renewed, but increased. For although he goes forth like a courageous and spirited combatant to this contest, he is still not exempt from a sense of danger; whence it follows, that he is not free, either from anxiety or fear. For his cruel brother had still the same cause of hatred against him as before. And it was not probable, that, after he had left his father's house, and had been living as he pleased, he had become more mild. Therefore, as in a doubtful affair, and one of great danger, Jacob placed his wives and children in the order described; that, if Esau should attempt anything hostile, the whole seed might not perish, but part might have time for flight. The only thing which appears to be done by him out of order is, that he prefers Rachel and her son Joseph to all the rest; whereas the substance of the benediction is really in Judah. But his excuse in reference to Judah is, that the oracle had not yet been revealed; nor, in fact, was made known till shortly before his death, in order that he might become at once its witness and its herald. Meanwhile, it is not to be denied, that he was excessively indulgent to Rachel. It is, indeed, a proof of distinguished courage, that, from a desire to preserve a part of his seed, he precedes his companies, and offers himself as a victim, if necessity demanded it. For there is no doubt that the promise of God was his authority and his guide in this design; nor would he have been able, unless sustained by the contident expectation of celestial life, thus bravely to meet death. It happens, indeed, sometimes, that a father, regardless of himself, will expose his life to danger for his children: but holy Jacob's reason was different; for the promise of God was so deeply fixed in his mind, that he, disregarding the earth, looked up towards heaven. But while he follows the word of God, yet by the affection of the flesh, he is slightly drawn aside from the right way. For the faith of the holy fathers was not so pure, in all respects, but that they were liable to swerve to one side or the other. Nevertheless, the Spirit always so far prevailed, that the infirmity of the flesh might not divert them from their aim, but that they might hold on their course. So much the more ought every one of us to be suspicious of himself, lest he should deem himself perfectly pure, because he intends to act rightly; for the flesh ever mingles itself with our holy purpose, and many faults and corruptions steal in upon us. But God deals kindly with us, and does not impute faults of this kind to us.

Verse 3. And bowed himself to the ground seven times . This, indeed, he might do for the sake of giving honor: for we know that the people of the east are addicted to far more ceremonies than are in use with us. To me, however, it seems more probable, that Jacob did not pay this honor simply to his brother, but that he worshipped God, partly to give him thanks, and partly to implore him to render his brother propitious; for he is said to have bowed down seven times before he approached his brother. Therefore, before he came in sight of his brother, he had already given the token of reverence or worship. Hence we may conjecture, as I have said, that this homage was paid to God and not to man: yet this is not at variance with the fact, that he also approached as a suppliant, for the purpose of assuaging his brother's ferocity by his humiliation. 1 If any one object, that in this manner he depreciated his right of primogeniture; the answer is easy, that the holy man, by the eyes of faith, was looking higher; for he knew that the effect of the benediction was deferred to its proper season, and was, therefore, now like the decaying seed under the earth. Therefore, although he was despoiled of his patrimony, and lay contemptible at his brother's feet; yet since he knew that his birthright was secured to him, he was contented with this latent right, counted honors and riches as nothing, and did not shrink from being regarded as an inferior in the presence of his brother.

Verse 4. And Esau ran to meet him . That Esau meets his brother with unexpected benevolence and kindness, is the effect of the special favor of God. Therefore, by this method, God proved that he has the hearts of men in his hand, to soften their hardness, and to mitigate their cruelty as often as he pleases: in short, that he tames them as wild beasts are wont to be tamed; and then, that he hearkened to the prayers of his servant Jacob. Wherefore, if at any time the threats of enemies alarm us, let us learn to resort to this sacred anchor. God, indeed, works in various ways, and does not always incline cruel minds to humanity; but, while they rage, he restrains them from doing harm by his own power: but if it is right, he can as easily render them placable towards us; and we here see that Esau became so towards his brother Jacob. It is also possible, that even while cruelty was pent up within, the feeling of humanity may have had a temporary ascendancy. And as we see that the Egyptians were constrained, for a moment, to the exercise of humanity, although they were rendered nothing better than before, as their madness, which soon afterwards broke out, bears witness: so it is credible that the malice of Esau was now under constraint; and not only so, but that his mind was divinely moved to put on fraternal affection. For even in the reprobate, God's established order of nature prevails, not indeed in an even tenor, but as far as he restrains them, to the end that they may not mingle all things in one common slaughter. And this is most necessary for the preservation of the human race. For few are so governed by the spirit of adoption, as sincerely to cultivate mutual charity among themselves, as brethren. Therefore, that men spare each other, and do not furiously rush on each other's destruction, arises from no other cause than the secret providence of God, which watches for the protection of mankind. But to God the life of his own faithful people is still more precious, so that he vouchsafes to them peculiar care. Wherefore it is no wonder, that for the sake of his servant Jacob, he should have composed the fierce mind of Esau to gentleness.

Verse 5. And he lifted up his eyes . Moses relates the conversation held between the brothers. And as Esau had testified his fraternal affection by tears and embraces, there is no doubt that he inquires after the children in a spirit of congratulation. The answer of Jacob breathes piety as well as modesty; for when he replies, that his numerous seed had been given him by God, he acknowledges and confesses that children are not so produced by nature as to subvert the truth of the declaration, that the fruit of the womb is a reward and gift of God. And truly, since the fecundity of brute animals is the gift of God, how much more is this the case with men, who are created after his own image. Let parents then learn to consider, and to celebrate the singular kindness of God, in their offspring. It is the language of modesty, when Jacob calls himself the servant of his brother. Here again it is proper to recall to memory what I have lately touched upon, that the holy man caught at nothing either of earthly advantage or honor in the birthright; because the hidden grace of God was abundantly sufficient for him, until the appointed time of manifestation. And it becomes us also, according to his example, while we sojourn in this world, to depend upon the word of the Lord; that we may not deem it wearisome, to be held wrapped in the shadow of death, until our real life be manifested. For although apparently our condition is miserable and accursed, yet the Lord blesses us with his word; and, on this account only, pronounces us happy, because he owns us as sons.

Verse 6. Then the handmaidens came near . The wives of Jacob, having left their country, had come as exiles into a distant land. Now, at their first entrance, the terror of death meets them; and when they prostrate themselves in the presence of Esau, they do not know whether they are not doing homage to their executioner. This trial was very severe to them, and grievously tormented the mind of the holy man: but it was right that his obedience should be thus tried, that he might become an example to us all. Moreover, the Holy Spirit here places a mirror before us, in which we may contemplate the state of the Church as it appears in the world. For though many tokens of the divine favor are manifest in the family of Jacob; nevertheless we perceive no dignity in him while lying with unmerited contempt in the presence of a profane man. Jacob also himself thinks that he is well treated, if he may be permitted by his brother, as a matter of favor, to dwell in the land of which he was the heir and lord. Therefore let us bear it patiently, if, at this day also, the glory of the Church, being covered with a sordid veil, is an object of derision to the wicked.

Verse 8. What meanest thou by all this drove ? He does not inquire as if he were altogether ignorant; seeing he had heard from the servants, that oxen and camels and asses and other cattle were sent him as a present; but for the purpose of refusing the gift offered to him: for when anything does not please us, we are wont to make inquiry as concerning a thing unknown to us. Jacob, however; is urgent; nor does he cease to ask, till he induces his brother to receive the gift: for this was as a pledge of reconciliation. Besides, for the purpose of persuading his brother, he declares, that it would be taken as a great kindness not to refuse what was given. For we do not willingly receive anything but what we certainly know to be offered to us freely and with a ready mind. And because it is not possible that we should willingly honor any but those we love, Jacob says that he rejoiced in the sigh of his brother as if he had seen God or an angel: by which words he means, not only that he truly loved his brother, but also that he held him in esteem. But it may seem, that he does wrong to God, in comparing Him with a reprobate man; and that he speaks falsely, because had the choice been given him, he would have desired nothing more earnestly than to avoid this meeting with his brother. Both these knots are easily untied. It is an accustomed form of speaking among the Hebrews, to call whatever is excellent, divine. And certainly Esau being thus changed, was no obscure figure of the favor of God: so that Jacob might properly say, that he had been exhilarated by that friendly and fraternal reception, as if he had seen God or an angel; that is, as if God had given some sign of his presence. And, indeed, he does not speak feignedly, nor pretend something different from what he has in his mind. For, being himself perfectly free from all hatred, it was his chief wish, to discharge whatever duty he could towards his brother; provided that Esau, in return, would show himself a brother to him.

Verse 10. Receive my present at my hand . This noun may be taken passively as well as actively. If understood actively, the sense will be, "Accept the present by which I desire to testify my goodwill towards thee." If understood passively, it may be referred to God, as if Jacob had said, "Those things which the Lord has bestowed upon me by his grace, I liberally impart to thee, that thou mayest be, in some measure, a partaker with me of that divine blessing which I have received." But not to insist upon a word, Jacob immediately afterwards clearly avows that whatever he possesses, is not the fruit of his labor or industry, but has been received by him through the grace of God, and by this reasoning he attempts to induce his brother to accept the gift; as if he had said, "The Lord has poured upon me an abundance, of which some part, without any loss to me, may overflow to thee." And though Jacob thus speaks under the impulse of present circumstances, he yet makes an ingenuous confession by which he celebrates the grace of God. Nearly the same words are on the tongues of all; but there are few who truly ascribe to God what they possess: the greater part sacrifice to their own industry. Scarcely one in a hundred is convinced, that whatever is good flows from the gratuitous favor of God; and yet by nature this sense is engraven upon our minds, but we obliterate it by our ingratitude. It has appeared already, how labourious was the life of Jacob: nevertheless, though he had suffered the greatest annoyances, he celebrates only the mercy of God.

Verse 12. Let us take our journey . Although Esau was inclined to benevolence, Jacob still distrusts him: not that he fears to be ensnared, or that he suspects perfidy to lie hidden under the garb of friendship; but that he cautiously avoids new occasions of offense: for a proud and ferocious man might easily be exasperated again by light causes. Now, though just reason for fear was not wanting to the holy man, yet I dare not deny that his anxiety was excessive. He suspected the liberality of Esau; but did he not know that a God was standing between them, who, as he was convinced by clear and undoubted experience, watched for his salvation? For, whence such an incredible change of mind in Esau, unless he had been divinely transformed from a wolf into a lamb? Let us then learn, from this example, to restrain our anxieties, lest when God has provided for us, we tremble, as in an affair of doubt.

Verse 13. My lord knoweth . The things which Jacob alleges, as grounds of excuse, are true; nevertheless he introduces them under false pretexts; except, perhaps, as regards the statement, that he was unwilling to be burdensome and troublesome to his brother. But since he afterwards turns his journey in another direction, it appears that he feigned something foreign to what was really in his mind. He says that he brings with him many encumbrances, and therefore requests his brother to precede him. "I will follow " (he says) "at the feet of the children ;" that is, I will proceed gently as the pace of the children will bear; and thus I will follow at my leisure, until I come to thee in Mount Seir. In these words he promises what he was not intending to do; for, leaving his brother, he journeyed to a different place. 2 But truth is so precious to God, that he will not allow us to lie or deceive, even when no injury follows. Wherefore, we must take care, when any fear of danger occupies our minds, that we do not turn aside to these subterfuges.

Verse 17. And Jacob journeyed to Succoth . In the word Succoth, as Moses shortly afterwards shows, there is a prolepsis. It is probable that Jacob rested there for some days, that he might refresh his family and his flock after the toil of a long journey; for he had found no quiet resting-place till he came thither. And therefore he gave to that place the name of Succoth, or "Tents," because he had not dared firmly to plant his foot elsewhere. For though he had pitched tents in many other places; yet on this alone he fixes the memorial of divine grace, because now at length it was granted to him that he might remain in some abode. But since it was not commodious as a dwelling-place, Jacob proceeded farther till he came to Sichem. Now, whereas the city has its recent name from the son of Hamor, its former name is also mentioned, (Genesis 32:18;) for I agree with the interpreters who think Salem to be a proper name. Although I do not contend, if any one prefers a different interpretation; namely, that Jacob came in safety to Sichem. 3 But though this city may have been called Salem, we must nevertheless observe, that it was different from the city afterwards called Jerusalem; as there were also two cities which bore the name of Succoth. As respects the subject in hand, the purchase of land which Moses records in the nineteenth verse, may seem to have been absurd. For Abraham would buy nothing all his life but a sepulcher; and Isaac his son, waiving all immediate possession of lands, was contented with that paternal inheritance; for God had constituted them lords and heirs of the land, with this condition, that they should be strangers in it unto death. Jacob therefore may seem to have done wrong in buying a field for himself with money, instead of waiting the proper time. I answer, that Moses has not expressed all that ought to come freely into the mind of the reader. Certainly from the price we may readily gather that the holy man was not covetous. He pays a hundred pieces of money; could he acquire for himself large estates at so small a price, or anything more shall some nook in which he might live without molestation? Besides, Moses expressly relates that he bought that part on which he had pitched his tent opposite the city. Therefore he possessed neither meadows, nor vineyards, nor stable land. But since the inhabitants did not grant him an abode near the city, he made an agreement with them, and purchased peace at a small price. 4 This necessity was his excuse; so that no one might say, that he had bought from man what he ought to have expected as the free gift of God: or that, when he ought to have embraced, by hope, the dominion of the promised land, he had been in too great haste to enjoy it.

Verse 20. And he erected there an altar . Jacob having obtained a place in which he might provide for his family, set up the solemn service of God; as Moses before testified concerning Abraham and Isaac. For although, in every place, they gave themselves up to the pure worship of God in prayers and other acts of devotion; nevertheless they did not neglect the external confession of piety, whenever the Lord granted them any fixed place in which they might remain. For (as I have elsewhere stated) whenever we read that an altar was built by them, we must consider its design and use: namely, that they might offer victims, and might invoke the name of God with a pure rite; so that, by this method, their religion and faith might be made known. I say this, lest any one should think that they rashly trifled with the worship of God; for it was their care to direct their actions according to the divinely prescribed rule which was handed down to them from Noah and Shem. Wherefore, under the word "altar," let the reader understand, by synecdoche, the external testimony of piety. Moreover, it may hence be clearly perceived how greatly the love of divine worship prevailed in the holy man; because though broken down by various troubles, he nevertheless was not forgetful of the altar. And not only does he privately worship God in the secret feeling of his mind; but he exercises himself in ceremonies which are useful and commanded by God. For he knew that men want helps, as long as they are in the flesh, and that sacrifices were not instituted without reason. He had also another purpose; namely, that his whole family should worship God with the same sense of piety. For it behaves a pious father of a family diligently to take care that he has no profane house, but rather that God should reign there as in a sanctuary. Besides, since the inhabitants of that region had fallen into many superstitions, and had corrupted the true worship of God, Jacob wished to make a distinction between himself and them. The Shechemites and other neighboring nations had certainly altars of their own. Therefore Jacob, by establishing a different method of worship for his household, thus declares theft he has a God peculiar to himself, and has not degenerated from the holy fathers, from whom the perfect and genuine religion had proceeded. This course could not but subject him to reproach, because the Shechemites and other inhabitants would feel that they were despised: but the holy man deemed anything preferable to mixing himself with idolaters.

Verse 21. And he called it El-eloh-Israel . 5This name appears little suitable to the alter; for it sounds as if a heap of stones or turf formed a visible statue of God. But the meaning of the holy man was different. For, because the altar was a memorial and pledge of all the visions and promises of God., he honors it with this title, to the end that, as often he beheld the altar, he should call God to rememberance. That inscription of Moses, "The Lord is my help." Has the same signification; and also that Ezekiel inscribes on the forms of speaking thereis a want of strict propiety of metaphor; yet this is not without reason. For as superstitious men foolishly and wickedly attach God to symbols, andm as it were, draw him down from his heavenly throne to render him subject to their gross inventions; so the faithful, piously and rightly, ascend from carthly signs that he worshipped no other God than him who had been manifested by certain oracles, in order tha he might distinguish Him from all idols. And we must observe it as a rule of modesty, not to speak carelessly concerning the mysteries and the glory of the Lord, but from a sense of fait, so far indeed, as he is made known to us in his word. Moreover Jacob had respect to his to his prosperity; for since the Lord had appeared to him, on the express condition, that he would make with him the covenant of salvaation, Jacob leaves his monument, from which, after his death, his descendants might ascertain, tat his religion had not flowed from a dark or obscure well, or from a trubid ppool, but from a clear and pure fountain; as if he had engraved the oracles and visions, by which he had been taught, upon the altar.

1 Rivetus judiciously observes on this passage: "There are those who think that by this ceremony Jacob worshipped God; but by what argument they prove this I do not see; for whatever precedes or follows indicates that he wished to show reverence to his brother; and for this reason, he went before his family; so also the handmaidens and their sons bowed themselves; likewise Leah and her sons, and lastly, Rachel with Joesph; in each case the same word is used, which the Vulgate renders 'adored.' This verse also proves the same thing; for after he saw his brother approaching, he bowed seven times, till his brother drew near..... This, therefore, was civil reverence, (reverentia civillis,) which did not derogate from the spiritual right and prerogative of the covenant entered into with Jehovah." This account seems much more probable than that given by Calvin.—Ed.

2 Peter Martyr inclines to the opinion of Calvin, though he expresses himself with greater caution. There appears no reason to doubt that Jacob said what he meant. It is tru he might have other reasons besides those he gave, for not accompanying his brother; reasons sufficient to deter a pious mind from too close and frequent intercourse with persons uninfluenced by true religion. But it is by no means certain that Jacob did not go to Seir; though he would probably go unaccompanied by his wives and children, his flocks and herds. The omission of the sacred writers to mention it, affords no proof that he did not take the journey. Still less, is there any proof that he did not intend to take it; which is all that a regard to truth and sincerity required of him. -- Ed.

3 To understand the above passage the English reader will require to be informed that the word Mls , (Shalem,) which our translators, with Calvin, regarded as a proper name, means also "peace," or "safety;" and therefore the 18th verse may be read "Jacob came in safety to the city of Sichem." And this is the translation given in Calvin's own version, Et venit Iahacob incolumis in civitatem Sechem. Thus his own text is, singularly enough, at variance with his Commentary.—Ed.

4 "For a hundred pieces of money." The word rendered pieces of money, hjysq , (Kisitah,) means also lambs; and the price given might have been one hundred lambs; the probability, however, is, that the coin itself was called a lamb, as we have a coin called a sovereign. It is supposed that the coin bore the image of a lamb, perhaps because it was the conventional price at which lambs were generally valued. The testimony of St. Stephen (Acts 7:16) is decisive as to the fact that money was in use. —Ed.

5 Et vocavit illud, Fortis Deus Israel; "the strong God of Israel." The margin of the English translation is more literal, "God, the God of Israel."—Ed.