“For he thought, ‘I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me.’ So the present passed on ahead of him and he himself stayed that night in the camp” (Gen. 32:20b-21).- Genesis 32:13–21
Fear remains a factor among God’s chosen. True, fearfulness is not ideal, and some biblical heroes seem to fear nothing (see Dan. 6, for example). Yet until we are glorified, we will battle the flesh (Rom. 6:12–14). “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18), but love, faith, and hope (1 Cor. 13:13) will not be perfected in us until that final day (1 John 3:2). Christ destroyed sin’s power (Rom. 8:2), but its presence remains; thus, fear often colors our faith, hope, and love.
After his prayer in Genesis 32:9–12, Jacob shows how fear can affect faith. In today’s passage, Jacob sends a gift to Esau ahead of their meeting. In the ancient Near East, people gave presents to a great man before visiting him. But Jacob’s gift is excessive given the custom of the day. He offers hundreds of animals, all gained in Paddan-aram (vv. 13–15; 30:25–43). Coupled with this exorbitant gift is his address in which Esau is called, “lord,” and Jacob, “servant” (32:16–20).
How does all this reveal the level of Jacob’s fear? First, Jacob calls himself “servant” and Esau “lord,” thereby setting Esau over himself and returning the stolen blessing of lordship (25:23; 27:27–29). This is a noble gesture only if Jacob is truly sorry for the way he gained his blessing. But Jacob is not yet fully renouncing the ungodly means he used to seize the godly gift, as evident in his lack of trust of the Lord to keep His word. He is “greatly afraid and distressed” and more concerned to save his own skin (32:7).
Second, Jacob approaches Esau in the same way pagans approached their gods. Seeing them as capricious and vindictive, pagans offered sacrifices to get on the good side of their deities. Jacob likewise hopes to buy off his brother; the Hebrew word for present in this passage is the same word used for grain offering (Ex. 29:41).
Biblical sacrifices are rooted in God’s gracious redemption. They do not “bribe” an arbitrary deity; God ordains them according to His unchanging holiness and mercy towards His own people (Lev. 16; Rom. 5:8). Yahweh is on Jacob’s side (Gen. 32:12), and he should expect “grace” from Esau without buying him off. Yet Jacob stumbles, trying to give his blessing to Esau for all the wrong reasons.
Jacob’s attempt to buy off his brother shows how little he trusted God to keep him safe as he returned to the Promised Land. He goes too far in trying to make amends with Esau, unconsciously showing a willingness to give up the blessing the Lord brought to him in Paddan-aram. Do you trust God to provide for you even if you have greatly displeased Him? If you have come to rely on Christ alone do not be like Jacob, but trust Him to provide for you.
Passages for Further Study
2 Tim. 4:9–18