Jacob extended his instructions, as he “gave these instructions to the second and third servants, as well as all those who were following the herds, saying ‘You must say the same thing to Esau when you meet him. You must also say, “In fact your servant Jacob is behind us!”’” (Genesis 32:19-20) Notice the language that is being used. Jacob is asking his servants to refer to him, before Esau, as “your servant,” while also asking them to refer to Esau as “my lord.” The goings-on could not be more obvious.
Jacob’s plan is now in full effect. He knows that this must be done in order to, as he hopes, deflect the vengeance that he knows is due him. The author confirms this, once again sharing a thought process (with this forming part of the oral tradition that had, no doubt, been passed down through the generations beginning with Jacob’s own telling, before it would be composed in written form), in which “Jacob thought, ‘I will first appease him by sending a gift ahead of me. After that I will meet him. Perhaps he will accept me.’” (32:20b) This process of appeasement would be terribly important, as Jacob, dishonored his father, his brother, himself (shaming himself), and his entire family, is well aware that he deserves something far different.
The thirty-third chapter (though it is necessary to always be cognizant of the fact that there would have been no chapter and verse divisions, especially considering that the primary means of conveying the story would have been orally rather than as a written story to be read) begins rather ominously for the hopeful Jacob. “Jacob looked up and saw that Esau was coming along with four hundred men” (33:1). At this point, the herds of animals have already been presented to Esau. The servants have already made repeated references to Jacob as Esau’s servant. Esau has already heard himself referred to as lord on a number of occasions. Yet here he is, coming with his four hundred men.
What must Jacob be thinking at this point? If this story was being told afresh into a community shaped by honor and shame concerns, or if it is being read for the first time by an individual who has grown up steeped in a culture that values honor and shame, what would the hearer or reader be thinking? Clearly, Jacob is still fearful. He can probably surmise that his plan has been unsuccessful to this point. Taking further steps, “he divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two female servants” (33:1b). These, lest it has been forgotten, are Bilhah and Zilpah---his other two wives. “He put the servants and their children in front, with Leah and her children behind them, and Rachel and Joseph behind them” (33:2).
Jacob, with what would appear to be a lavish display of humility on his part, and in a last ditch effort to avert his brother’s wrath (while also knowing that, if he survives, he will still have to deal with the wrath of his dis-honored father), “went on ahead of them, and he bowed toward the ground seven times as he approached his brother” (33:3). One should not underestimate what this would have communicated to all involved---Esau included.
Jacob is actively humbling himself. He is divesting himself of his honor, and demonstrating that he is willing to shame himself before his brother. The total effort has been a substantial gesture, indicating Jacob’s penitent spirit and his willingness to do whatever it takes to rectify the shame while preserving his own life. So how does Esau respond? To what would be the astonishment of those hearing or reading the story, “Esau ran to meet him, embraced him, hugged his neck, and kissed him. Then they both wept” (33:4).