Description / Transcription
As we have just sung, now we bring back to You as our petition, O Lord, that You would revive Thy work, Thy mighty arm make bare, speak with the voice that wakes the dead and make Thy people hear. Open Your mouth, O Lord, teach us from Your Word. We are hard of hearing. Use this poor, lisping, stammering tongue and give us ears to hear. Revive Your work among us. May our time together not be wasted religious activity, but give to us Your very words, life, breath, hope, healing, forgiveness. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
We return to the book of Genesis, the first book in the Bible, and we come this morning to Genesis chapter 33. Genesis 33 concludes this series of stories of conflict between Esau and Jacob and then propelling Jacob to a foreign land where he in the midst of conflict there yet returns blessed with wives and children and great prosperity and now he is on the verge of returning to the Promised Land. Indeed, he has entered in but he has yet to encounter his long lost brother.
So we read by beginning at verse 1 through the end of the chapter, Genesis 33.
“And Jacob lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, Esau was coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two female servants. And he put the servants with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on before them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.”
“But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. And when Esau lifted up his eyes and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” Then the servants drew near, they and their children, and bowed down. Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down. And last Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down. Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” Jacob answered, “To find favor in the sight of my lord.” But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” Jacob said, “No, please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand. For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me. Please accept my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough.” Thus he urged him, and he took it.”
“Then Esau said, “Let us journey on our way, and I will go ahead of you.” But Jacob said to him, “My lord knows that the children are frail, and that the nursing flocks and herds are a care to me. If they are driven hard for one day, all the flocks will die. Let my lord pass on ahead of his servant, and 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.” So Esau said, “Let me leave with you some of the people who are with me.” But he said, “What need is there? Let me find favor in the sight of my lord.” So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir. But Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built himself a house and made booths for his livestock. Therefore the name of the place is called Succoth.”
“And Jacob came safely[d] to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, on his way from Paddan-aram, and he camped before the city. And from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, he bought for a hundred pieces of money the piece of land on which he had pitched his tent. There he erected an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel.”
We have seen throughout these studies in the book of Genesis that there are almost always many things going on in the same passage. There are several layers of meaning in most of these chapters, and this chapter is no different. If we look at chapter 33 on a horizontal level, it is a wonderful story about human and familial reconciliation. It’s about a nervous family reunion, about brothers who might have come to war with one another but didn’t. That’s one way to approach the passage, and that’s not with wrong way.
But if that’s all we did, our understanding of chapter 33 would be incomplete. So we can look at this on a horizontal level, but we also must look at this passage on a vertical level, or dimension. The story is certainly about Jacob and Esau, they’re the two principal characters here. But even more than that, it’s a part of a larger series of stories about Jacob and God, about Jacob’s journey away from the Promised Land and now back to the Promised Land, and about God’s commitment at every step of the journey to His own promises.
So we need to look at this story on the horizontal level, Jacob and Esau, but we also need to look at it in the vertical dimension, Jacob and his God.
So we’re going to work through this chapter and we will spend most of the time on the first plane, the horizontal level, dealing with these estranged brothers, but then at the end we’re going to look vertically at what God is doing across these 20 years of Jacob’s life.
So as we look at the horizontal dimension, here’s the big theme. The big theme is reunion. Reunion. We can look at it in three different scenes. Scene 1, the sighting. Scene 2, the celebration. Scene 3, the separation. The second word there starts with a “C” but it sounds with an “S” so it works.
Scene 1, you see here in the first paragraph, is the sighting. Jacob lifted up his eyes. It seems that almost immediately after this wrestling with God in chapter 32 where he sees the face of God and yet lives, God touches his hip socket and he emerges with a limp as a changed man. Jacob now is Israel. He lifts his eyes and there he looks and behold, Esau’s coming. And not just Esau, but we’re reminded again in verse 1, four hundred men with him. This is the normal number throughout the Old Testament for a military regiment. It seems as if Esau is coming and he has bad intentions. He comes with an army. So Jacob is really nervous about this family reunion.
Some of you have a habit of family reunions. I think people don’t do this as much as they used to, or it takes the next generation to then get old enough where they want to do the hard work of bringing these family reunions together. We used to have, on both sides of my family, my mom’s and my dad’s side, we would have family reunions and it was always, as kids it was the time where you meet a lot of people that you don’t remember that you ever met before. They have the same sort of questions that as a kid you think, “Can’t you think of any different questions to ask?” and now that I’m an adult, I think, “No, I can’t. That’s all the same questions I have to ask. How are you? How’s school? What are you doing? Where are you going to school?” All the same questions.
So one, on my mother’s side we’d meet at a park in Zeeland, Michigan, meet all of those Dutch people, and the other one, every few years, was in Leota, Minnesota, there just north of Iowa, and we’d meet with another set of Dutch people there. Over time, as the older generation has passed off, we don’t do the family reunions in the same way. Thankfully, they were of little drama, but inevitably you have a family and you have sinners, and you have families that don’t agree. I’m just glad that maybe we did our family reunions in simpler times. We did them before the last five political years and before COVID, so we just didn’t have as much to fight about.
But even then, all of you can imagine, some nervous family reunions. Just don’t bring up grandpa. Okay? Don’t say anything about that. Don’t say anything about the land that they have that we all know is really ours, just don’t bring that up. Don’t say anything about politics while you’re at it. Maybe don’t talk about why they ended up in that church or no church.
You get nervous. You have to talk to all of these people and you have to make small talk and you’re just trying to get through the day, with the green bean casserole and the ham on buns and all the rest.
Well, this is exponentially worse. This is a family reunion that Jacob has probably been dreading for 20 years. His brother, the one from whom he cheated the birthright and the blessing and now 20 years later. Last he knew, his brother wanted him dead, that’s why he left in the first place.
So he comes. He seems to have a military regiment with him. So Jacob divides the family into three groups, with the favored ones in the back. This prompted a saying of the rabbis, “The more beloved, the more behind.” He put them in the behind because why? Jacob’s already sent some of the retinue of gifts ahead to try to placate his brother, but he knows as Esau meets the companion, he’s going to meet Zilpah and Bilhah, the female servants and their children, and then next will be Leah with her children, and then at the back are Rachel and Joseph. You could already see before the coat of many colors why there might be a little sibling rivalry. “Yeah, thanks, Dad. You want Joseph to live if all of us have to die,” because of course the ones in the back, if this thing goes bad real quick and Esau starts killing everyone, at least the favorites get to high tail it out of there. Everyone understands what’s happening.
Now Jacob, to his credit, is out in front. See verse 3, “He himself went out before them.” And he bows seven times along the way to meet Esau. One of the things that’s difficult about this chapter, we see it here at the beginning, we see it throughout this chapter, is it’s hard to tell is Jacob an example of genuine humility and contrition, or is this just more of the old Jacob, shrewd, conniving, cunning, trickster, and you could read all the commentaries and they verge off in different directions. No, this is the same old Jacob; no, this is Jacob who’s a changed man.
So here he bows seven times. It would have been a common greeting to perhaps bow once, but this is really extraordinary. This is what a lowly servant would do to his lord. You just think, on the ground, and then a few steps, and then again on the ground, seven times. This is not a normal greeting between brothers.
So you could make the case, Jacob, is he being properly humble before Esau? Or is he really embarrassing himself by groveling before Esau?
In chapter 27:29, part of the blessing to Jacob, it was told that the nations would bow before him. So is this an example of Jacob turning the back on his blessing? You’re not to be bowing before Esau. Or is this an example of Jacob’s humility, that even though the nations one day will bow before him, here he will put himself on the ground before his brother. We’re not fully going to resolve that tension. I lean a bit more toward the positive view of Jacob, that even though there is something perhaps a little unseemly, a little groveling, yet there is a genuine sense “I have done my brother wrong and I come in a spirit of contrition.” At least we see some measure of courage that Jacob is not in the very back. Okay. “Wives, kids, let me know how it goes when you meet Esau. I’ll be looking from the back and I know you want me, most of all, to survive.” At least he comes out the front to see what happens.
So the sighting. Here’s scene 1.
Scene 2. The celebration. Look at verse 4. Before Jacob even reaches him, Esau runs to meet him. One cannot help but think of Jesus’ story of the prodigal son. Now it’s brothers here, not a father, but there as the prodigal returns home, having squandered his inheritance, just would you please accept me, before he even gets there, while still a long way off, the father runs to him. Well, similarly here. Before he can even make it to his brother, Esau puts decorum aside and he sprints and he runs and he meets his long lost younger brother. Esau has not come to attack his brother, he has come to embrace his brother.
Turn back a few chapters to Genesis 25:34. This is where Esau sells his birthright and we see how angry Esau was. Genesis 25:34: “And Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew and he ate and drank and rose and went his way, then Esau despised his birthright.” There we see where all of this conflict started. Moses gives us the narration with five staccato verbs: Ate, drank, rose, went his way, despised his birthright.
Surely it is intentional that now when they finally reunite he tells the story again with these five staccato verbs, but now not ones of alienation, but ones of reunion. Chapter 33, verse 4: He ran to meet him, embraced him, fell on his neck, kissed him, and they wept. This is a scene of great celebration. The last time Esau saw Jacob, Jacob was a single man, fleeing for Rebecca’s ancestral home, and now he sees Jacob has two wives. He has these servant women. He has scads of children. Esau says, “Who are they?” Jacob introduces them, they come, they bow before him.
Esau says, “Now come on. Why did you send this whole company? Why all the servants and the animals? Why parade your wealth before me? Why did you do that?” and Jacob at least is honest for his part, in verse 8, he says “I wanted to find favor in your eyes. That’s absolutely what I’m doing is I wanted to give you a lavish, extravagant gift that you would look favorably upon me.”
Esau says, a moment of great magnanimity, “I have enough. I don’t need your stuff.” Jacob insists, “Please, really, you must. I won’t take no for an answer.”
So we read in verse 11 that Esau finally relents and he accepts the gift.
Another one of the difficulties in interpreting this passage is to understand when there’s genuine bartering back and forth and when we have the typical, exaggerated hospitality of the ancient near-Eastern world. You may remember way back in Genesis 23 when Abraham is trying to buy a cave in the field to bury Sarah, and at first it seems like Ephron the Hittite is, “No, no, no, take it for free.” But then he says, “Well, you know what, what’s a few thousand dollars between friends” and he names his price. He’s not really trying to give it away. This is part of the way that you do business. “No, no, no, I couldn’t possibly accept money, but if I were, here’s what I would need from you.”
So it’s hard in this passage to know where some of that is taking place and when Esau is genuinely refusing the gift. I think Esau genuinely did not mean to take the gift because Moses tells us, in verse 11, “Thus he urged him and he took it.” We’ve all had this, “No, take it. Take the leftover pizza. No, take the cookies. Just take it. We’re not going to eat it.” “No, I couldn’t possibly.” “Just take it.” And you’re coming to blows about who’s going to take the leftover food after dinner together. Finally Esau says, “Okay, okay. Enough. All right. I’ll take it.”
Now notice Esau doesn’t reciprocate a gift. That would have been customary if they were just exchanging pleasantries, “Well, now here’s my great gift to you.” So likely Esau is acknowledging, “Yes, there is something, brother, that you do owe me,” so Jacob urges him and he takes it.
I want you to notice in this section of celebration two key words. Look at verse 10. The first key word is “face.” We saw that in chapter 32 several times. Here we see it again. It’s as if Jacob is saying, “I saw Peniel,” remember that’s what he named the place up in chapter 32 verse 30, Peniel or Peniel, it means “the face,” “peni-el” short for Elohim, I saw the face of God, Peniel, now I see peni-Esau. I see the face of my brother. God didn’t kill me when I saw his face, and now you have not killed me when I see your face.
The promise in chapter 32 was really a promise of assurance, “I have seen the face of the Lord and I still am alive.” That was meant to give Jacob reassurance. If you can see Peniel and still live to talk about it, surely you can see peni-Esau and not die. So it is. He sees the face of his brother and he lives.
And then verse 11. Here’s the second key word, I hope it stood out to you. “Please accept my blessing.” Surely that word would have rung out in Esau’s ears. Jacob was given the blessing that should have belonged to the firstborn, but by God’s design was meant for Jacob. Nothing is going to change that fact, but Jacob now wants to share some of that blessing with Esau. “I can’t undo everything that’s been done, brother, but God has been so gracious to me and please accept some of the blessing He’s given me now to you.”
It is as God promised all those years ago to Abraham: “Whoever curses you, I will curse.”
But here’s Esau. He doesn’t some to curse Jacob. He comes with kindness. So as he blesses Jacob, Jacob will be a blessing to Esau. Take it, take some of the blessing.
Now this section isn’t mainly about conflict resolution, but we can’t help but pause for a moment and see at least a couple of important lessons when you think about reconciliation in your own life.
Here’s one lesson: They don’t try to change the past. Now it’s not that you don’t have to acknowledge the past and sometimes you have to be forgiven for the past, but you can’t change the past. You just can’t. And Esau and Jacob, to both of their credits, they don’t try to re-litigate everything that happened in the past. Esau doesn’t say, “Hey, hold on a minute, little brother. You stole my birthright, you stole my blessing. Let’s talk about that.” And Jacob doesn’t say, “Well, hold on, big brother. Because of you when you wanted to kill me 20 years ago, I had to run away from home. I had to get cheated by my uncle. I had to be gone from the land for 20 years. You know what you’ve done to me over the last 20 years? Let’s talk about that.”
But neither of them do that. Again, it’s not an absolute rule that you can’t. Sometimes you have to talk about the past. But you can’t change it. So even if you have to talk about it and acknowledge it, they don’t try to change it. I can’t undo what was done 20 years ago, and both of them seem to recognize that. There’s one lesson.
Here’s a second lesson. Both of them focus on what they have instead of what they don’t have. Esau was especially magnanimous. That’s a good word. That’s an old virtue that’s often in short supply today. Magnanimity. Greatness of spirit or character. It means in our day you don’t have to settle every score. That’s the magnanimous person. You don’t feel the need to be vindicated on every front. You’re okay to let some bygones be bygones. You’re okay to look the other way with certain offenses. Esau is willing to leave those two decades in the past.
You hear it both from Esau, “Don’t I have enough?” and then later you hear it from Jacob, “Don’t I have enough?” You see, rather than focusing on all that was missing, “Well, let me enumerate to you, Jacob, all of the hardships I had because of you. Everything that I could have had but I don’t because of you.” Esau says, “I have a lot.” And Jacob, instead of looking at all the suffering that he had to encounter because he had to flee because Esau wanted to kill him, he doesn’t go back to all that he lost. He says, “Don’t I have enough?” They’re both recognizing what they have rather than dwelling on all that they potentially lost.
It doesn’t make reconciliation easy, it doesn’t make it a foregone conclusion, but we do see they don’t try to change the past and they focus on what they have instead of what they don’t have. Surely those are some good lessons for each of us when we think about family members, friends, colleagues, people that we need to be reconciled to.
So there’s a scene of sighting, celebration, and then here’s the third scene, in verses 12 through 17. It’s separation.
So the reconciliation doesn’t end up here that they just all live in the same tent together. Again, it’s hard to know how to interpret these paragraphs, because it could be that this whole section is suffused with exaggerated politeness and hospitality that would have been understood by Esau and Jacob. So we don’t know do they understand the unwritten, unspoken things going on, or do they mean literally every word that they’re saying.
You all have this, and we have it. You know, we’re nice people down South, right? We got to get together sometime! Sometimes, parentheses is, we’re never going to get together. But we gotta do it! You gotta come over, you gotta come over. We gotta have the kids. Sometimes we mean it, sometimes we don’t. And sometimes you use those sort of exaggerated expressions of kindness and hospitality and you’re now waiting by the phone, “They said we were…” No. It just means “I like you, you like me, maybe it’ll happen, maybe it won’t.”
So is that what’s going on here? Or is there a real deception by Jacob?
Here’s what Esau says. Try to piece together. He says, “I’m going to go ahead of you and we can both make our way to Canaan together.” That’s Esau’s first pitch. “Great, brother, so happy. How about I’ll go ahead of you, we’ll both make our way back to Canaan. Good ol’ times.” Jacob says, [sound effect] you know, again we don’t know, is Jacob telling the truth, is he making and excuse? “Look,” he says, “I move real slow. I got children. I got flocks. Some of them, if we go too fast, they’re going to die. You know what, bro? You go your own pace and I’ll just meet you back at your home in Seir.” So that’s down south, the Edomites, south of the Promised Land.
Then Esau says, “Well, brother, okay, if you’re going to meet me at Seir, I will leave of my men with you. They’ll protect you. They’ll lead you back. You’re going to need somebody to drive the car down. I’ll leave somebody. I’ll leave my biggest 15-passenger DeYoung style van, somebody to drive it, and you can head down there.” And Jacob says, “No, you don’t have to. I wouldn’t, no. I don’t want to be a burden. Don’t do that.”
So then we read Esau went back home to Seir, you see verse 16, but Jacob journeyed north to Succoth. How should we understand Jacob’s journey away from Seir and to Succoth? Well, some people say he intended to go, he really meant to go, but one thing happened after another and he didn’t make it.
Someone else says, “Well, I think he later did make it but we just don’t have record of it in Genesis.” Well, I suppose, but that’s speculative.
Others say, “Well, he never intended to go to Seir. He was being polite and Esau understood. Brother, I’ll meet you there. Well, I should leave some men with you. You know, don’t worry about it. Just we’ll catch up.” And Esau would have understood Jacob’s not coming.
Those could be the case, or on the face of it, it seems he never intended to go to Seir and this is the old Jacob showing up and he lies. He’s still nervous about his brother, “I don’t know about the two of us going to Canaan together. I don’t know about actually going to meet you in your home. That sounds even more dangerous. But I’ll see you there. Don’t wait up.” And he never actually goes.
So it leads back to this question: How good or how bad is Jacob?
You can make a case for both. If you want to make Jacob to look really bad in this passage, that’s easy to do. You can say, “Well, he shows favoritism to his wives and children. He grovels before his brother. He tries to buy his way out of trouble. He doesn’t really want a relationship with Esau, he just wants to placate him, and then he lies about his plans and he never sees his brother again.” Yeah, you could make that case.
You could also paint Jacob in a better light. You could say, “Well, he’s leading out in front of his family. He’s taking some responsibility. Actually, he’s not groveling, he’s showing admirable humility. He’s not trying to placate his brother, he’s trying to return some of the blessing and acknowledging that he had done something wrong. And Esau may have never really expected Jacob to take him up on his offer anyway.”
Now, I’ll find something in the middle there, that Jacob is still a mixed character, but I don’t think it’s all bad. It does seem like he deceived his brother once again about his intentions, a polite lie to Esau. But then we should recall that he prayed in chapter 32 and that Jacob does recognize several times God’s hand at work in chapter 33. In fact, most of the time in this chapter, doesn’t Esau look better than Jacob? Like wow, Esau really comes off looking good.
But there’s one aspect in which Jacob comes off looking better than Esau. I wonder if you noticed it. You see Esau when he says, verse 8, “What do you mean with all this company, to find favor?” Esau says, verse 9, “I have enough.” Good. That’s true. I have enough. But do you notice how Jacob puts it? In verse 5, when Esau says, “Whose are these?” Jacob says, “The children whom God has graciously given me.” Verse 11: “Please accept the blessing because God has dealt graciously with me.”
Isn’t it telling? Esau, for all of his common grace, magnanimity, recognizes what he has, “I got plenty.” But conspicuous by its absence is any reference to God’s grace in his life. Where Jacob, when he talks about his plenty, is understanding this is God’s promise to Abraham, to Isaac, and now to me. God has dealt graciously with me.
We’re left with some unanswered questions about exactly what is motivating Jacob. But that’s because the focus is not meant to be on the inner state of each man as they reconcile, but rather to simply note that they were reconciled. Neither, it turns out, was looking for a fight. They both were willing, very literally, to meet each other somewhere in the middle.
When you have an argument, some of you are married and I bet you have arguments every once in a great while with your spouse. We do, once in a while. My wife and I get into a tiff. It’s amazing. If one of us is willing to even take a little baby step toward the other person, you know, as long as you’re just here and, you know, I got a lot to forgive you for. Isn’t that the truth? And it’s just a wall, that doesn’t work. Even when in your head and heart you’re still thinking, “This is 95% you,” when you take just a teeny little, “I can understand from your point of view, maybe how it would seem like I totally screwed up.”
Again, this doesn’t mean that every conflict is really just 50/50. It’s not. Sometimes it’s really 100/0. Sometimes it’s some percentage in between. Your willingness to meet someone in the middle is not an admission that the issues are 50/50. One step on your part does not negate the many steps they have to take on their part. But we certainly see whatever the internal motivations of Jacob and Esau, at least they’re willing to come and take steps toward each other. Steps in humility from Jacob, steps in kindness from Esau.
Now you can only do all that you can do. If Esau had come warring, it wouldn’t have mattered how kind and humble Jacob was. But they come and they meet and what the Bible wants us to see is that by God’s grace there is some, imperfect though it is, reconciliation. That’s the horizontal dimension.
But if we only left it there, and I promise this second part will be briefer, if we left it there, that would be nice and those are important lessons, but we’d be missing what I think is the real heart of this passage, and that is to look at the vertical dimension.
If on the horizontal level the theme is reunion, here’s the them on the vertical level: Return. Return. Because where is Jacob at the end of this passage? He’s back. He’s returned to the Promised Land. Jacob was so anxious and it turns out that God was in control, not Jacob’s anxiety.
You’ve heard me say before, I’m sure I got it from someone else, “Anxiety is living out the future before it gets here. Anxiety is living out the future before it gets here.” Sometimes it’s a general sort of anxiety, you can’t even, you don’t even understand why is it here. You can even exactly put your finger on it, it’s just a general sort of anxiety, of something’s not going to go right, or what the future holds is going to be very difficult, or something’s going to happen to your family or your health or you’re going to be alone.
Sometimes the anxiety is specific. You’re waiting to hear back the test from the doctor. You have a long trip to go on. You wonder if you’ll ever be married. You have a hard conversation to have. A difficult task. An illness that you’re facing. Some difficulties for those you love.
Anxiety can be general. Anxiety can be specific. But in both cases, anxiety is living out the future before it gets here.
That’s what Jacob was doing. He’s literally wrestling at night, living out the future before it got there. What’s going to happen with Esau? With his 400 men. Twenty years of built-up anxiety.
But of course God deals with him more kindly than he deserves. That doesn’t mean that every one of your anxieties always turns out and the bad guys are never bad guys. Yes, sometimes they are. Sometimes the hard things are really hard.
But here’s what we see, and it’s the promise that we get later in Lamentations chapter 3, that the mercies of God are really new every morning. And when you’re anxious, it’s what Jesus says, you’re borrowing tomorrow’s troubles for today before tomorrow’s graces can meet you tomorrow.
So Jacob, don’t be anxious now about that meeting with Esau later, because when you get to that meeting with Esau, God’s going to have new grace for you there.
So God answered his prayer. Jacob, it turns out, in this instance, was anxious for nothing, because Jacob had already done the most important thing he could do. Sometimes the only thing we can do. You remember what he did? He prayed. He prayed. Longest recorded prayer in Genesis. He prayed and God answered that prayer.
To fully appreciate what is going on here, we need to see the bigger picture. As I said at the outset, this is the conclusion of the Esau/Jacob cycle that started with the despising of the birthright in chapter 25, but really spun out in chapter 27. By the end of chapter 27, after Jacob has the blessing, Jacob is being sent off from Canaan to go find his uncle in a distant land while his brother wants to see him dead. That’s where things were at the end of chapter 27.
There’s many ways to tell the story that happens with Jacob over the next 20 years. But one way to make out the story of Jacob’s last two decades is to pay attention to the names given by Jacob to the various places on his journey. I mentioned this two weeks ago. There are four place names that Jacob gives along this journey.
Go back to chapter 28, verse 19: “He called the name of that place Bethel,” that is, house of God. So there when he sets out to leave and head to Haran on his way before he gets there he has this dream and there he sees the face of God and he calls it Bethel, house of God. That’s the first place name.
Then look at chapter 32, verse 2. Jacob went, so now he’s coming back, and the angels meet him. “When Jacob saw them, he said, ‘This is God’s camp!’ and he called the name of that place Mahanaim,” which means two camps, to presage that he’s going to split his family into two camps, but also because in this place there was the meeting of heaven and earth. The angels of the Lord met him there. The two camps refer to God coming to meet man.
And then the third place name. Turn to chapter 32, verse 30, “Jacob called the name of that place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen the face of God.”
Bethel, Mahanaim, Peniel, and then here’s the fourth place he names, in verse 17: “Therefore the name of that place is called Succoth.”
The first three names are all named after encountering God. Bethel, house of God. Mahanaim, two camps, heaven and earth. Peniel, I’ve seen the face of God.
Which one of these names is not like the other? Well, it’s the fourth name. The first three names are as if to say, “God is here, God is here, God is here.” Then the fourth name actually seems a bit anticlimactic. Succoth is simply plural for tents, dwellings, booths. Man, the other three names were pretty good, Jacob. You’re losing some of your naming energy here. Succoth? So named because he erects shelters for his animals. We read that he built himself a house, verse 17, and made booths for the livestock.
But do you see what the name represents, even though it seems less spiritual than the other three names? Succoth represents home. He made it back. Why else do you build a house except that your journey has come to an end? Why build shelters for the animals except that you’ve made it to your destination?
I don’t think it’s too much to see a lesson for us as Christians on our earthly pilgrimage to the heavenly city. Your places along the way, God is with me, God is with me, God is with me, and finally, home. That’s essentially how Jacob marks out these last 20 years.
How telling that when he’s not at his final destination, he names the places for God being with him and when he finally arrives, he calls it booths, shelters, home.
There’s one final name. You see it in verse 20. Not of a place, but of an altar. He buys a piece of land, only the second time in Genesis, just like Abraham did with the cave of Machpelah, here he buys a land because he’s going to stay.
And he worships, just like his father Isaac did. In 26:25, he built an altar just like his grandfather Abraham did. Recorded some four times that Abraham built an altar and worshiped. Like father, like son. Like grandfather, like grandson. He worships. And he names the altar El-Elohe-Israel.
Go back to chapter 28, when Jacob was just leaving on his journey, and he meets God there at Bethel. He makes a vow, do you remember? Chapter 28, verse 20. Jacob made a vow saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God.”
He made that vow 20 years ago, and now he makes good on that promise, just as God has made good on all of His promises. Twenty years ago at Bethel he says, “God, if you do this, if you really are with me, you give me food, you give me clothing, and you bring me back home,” and so as he made the vow at Bethel, he fulfills at Succoth, and he names the altar El-Elohe-Israel, God the God of Israel. You notice he uses his new name, as if to say “I’ve changed, but God’s the same.”
Jacob set out, Israel returned. But the God of promise has been with me every step of the journey and so 20 years later I’ve finally returned.
This is the life of faith. Of course, he doesn’t have everything that he will one day receive. His people have not inherited the whole Promised Land and we know from Hebrews that the Promised Land is just a type of the holy heavenly city to come. But the theme throughout the Old Testament, banishment and return, you get east of Eden and the whole story is how do you get back? How do you get back? They get the Promised Land. They get exiled in Babylon. How do they get back? Here we are in God’s earth. How do we get back to our heavenly home?
Well, here you see a type of it. God has been true to His promise, and 20 years later El-Elohe-Israel marks out the God of Jacob is now the God of Israel.
So I leave you with this. I know it sounds like a commencement speech or something, but all of you are on a journey. It’s true. You can track with various parts of Jacob’s journey. Some of you identify with Jacob because you’re on the run. You’re on the run from somebody or something or from yourself. Some of you maybe identify with Jacob if he’s far from home but there’s many blessings. Or maybe you’re in a season of great hard work or conflict, or family joys or family sorrows, or anxiety or panic or reconciliation. All of those are steps along Jacob’s journey.
But this is the good news for Jacob and it’s the good news for you. If you are a covenant child, and you belong to Christ, our covenant-keeping Messiah, be assured of this: Wherever you are, wherever you go, God is with you and He knows how to bring you safely home.
Let’s pray. Our Father in heaven, we give thanks for Your Word. We give thanks for Your promises to bring us on our journey and to bring us home. Remind us again You are with us, You are with us, You are with us, and You will bring us from Bethel to Mahanaim to Peniel finally to Succoth. Thank you for Jesus, who gives us confidence that all of these promises are yes and amen. In His name we pray. Amen.