The compassion on display is a remarkable response from Esau. Esau has every right to be angry. He was grossly dishonored. He is in a position to justifiably lord himself over Jacob until such a time as Jacob recompenses him for the wrong that has been done to him. However, he runs to Jacob, embracing him, kissing him as a brother, and weeping with him. This is indeed a tremendous act of compassion on the part of Esau. Though he is often dismissed and looked down upon, it is in this very act that Esau reveals himself as the quintessentially compassionate brother.
As Jacob goes through a process by which he is effectively attempting to divest himself of honor (effectively shaming himself through behavior that is set at quite a distance from behavior that works towards the accrual of honor), Esau’s gracious compassion shines through. He actually takes shame upon himself (divesting himself of honor) by running to Jacob. It was well understood that men, in that culture, did not run. A man’s honor was at least partially measured and revealed by the slowness of his walk. It was shameful for a man to even show his legs, and with the type of clothing that was common in that day, showing the legs would be necessary for running to take place. Now, one might believe that Esau was being disingenuous, and was actually harboring resentment towards Jacob, but the fact of Esau’s running to Jacob takes this possibility out of play. This is extraordinarily revelatory when it comes to providing knowledge of the character of Esau, and this would not be lost on the hearers or culturally attuned readers of the story.
The scene of Jacob and Esau’s reunion continues, as “Esau looked up and saw the women and children,” asking “Who are these people with you?” (33:5a) Continuing his effective prostrations before Esau, Jacob answers with “The children whom God has graciously given your servant” (33:5b). With this, the pattern established by their husband and father is carried forward, as “The female servants came forward with their children and bowed down. Then Leah came forward with her children and they bowed down. Finally Joseph and Rachel came forward and bowed down” (33:6-7). Surely, this pleased the compassionate Esau. Searching out his brother’s intentions, Esau goes on to as “What did you intend by sending all these herds to meet me?” (33:8a) Of course, those who have been hearing the story know the answer, as Jacob replies by saying “To find favor in your sight, my lord” (33:8b).
It can be observed that Jacob has done well in keeping up the language of servant and lord. Undoubtedly, he is still fearful and hopeful. What has been seen from Jacob, though assuredly genuine, is also a negotiation tactic. Jacob has sent the animals ahead of him, laying the groundwork for their face to face meeting, but Esau does not immediately acquiesce in acceptance. Things will not be so simple for Jacob. He is not going to be able to give Esau some animals and get himself off the hook. He is going to have to demonstrate some penitence. Esau makes it clear that this is not a matter of property. He says “I have plenty, my brother. Keep what belongs to you” (33:9).
Jacob insists and even ups the ante, moving beyond the use of servant and lord while also presuming Esau’s satisfaction, saying “If I have found favor in your sight, accept my gift from my hand. Now that I have seen your face and you have accepted me, it is as if I have seen the face of God. Please take my present that was brought to you, for God has been generous to me and I have all I need” (33:10-11a). With this, it is said that Esau relents and accepts the gift, though it seems as if he does so in a way that is actually against his wishes, especially as he has demonstrated such compassion and mercy, and because there is nothing in the Scriptural record to suggest that this compassion was not genuine.