It seems clear from 32:21 that Jacob is sending servants ahead of him as gifts to his brother and he doesn't intend for those servants to be killed. Also, 33:1-3 makes clear that Jacob puts himself before the rest of his family members in the meeting with Esau. I don't think there is any evidence from the text that Jacob “expected them to get slaughtered, appeasing Esau's anger.” Nevertheless, the story of Jacob's confrontation with Esau is rich with ambiguity.
In 32:22-23 it's a lot less clear what is going on:
And he rose up that night, and took his two wives and his two
womenservants and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok.
And he took them and sent them over the brook, and sent over what he
Commentators argue whether or not Jacob is gathering his wives, maidservants and children to escape the impending confrontation with his brother.
In general the Pentateuch doesn't make explicit moral judgments. This is part of why the book is timeless. The character of Jacob is interesting and compelling because he is thrust into a world of fighting and confrontation he much rather avoid.
Much of Jacob's life and journeys are characterized by perpetual fear and running away:
- 27:43 Jacob runs away from his brother wrath
- 32:8 Jacob is terrified
and in 32:23 he may or may not be running away a second time
Jacob expresses fear that the surrounding nations will attack him
- 46:3 God tells Jacob not to be afraid of going down to Egypt
In retrospect, all these fears of Jacob look a little unfounded and silly. He never gets attacked by his neighbors and Esau turns out to be friendly. We know from Genesis 29:10 that Jacob was heroically strong and after defeating an angel in a wrestling match it seems pretty clear to the reader that Jacob is capable of standing up for himself and doesn't need to be so afraid. I think the following judgment can be made based on a straightforward reading of the Jacob stories: he is far more fearful than he should be as he embarks on the process of nation building.
If you're interested in understanding why the narrative is presented in such an ambiguous way, I recommend this short article:
Was Eisav really planning to wipe out Yaakov's family with his four
hundred men? Or was his intention all along simply to welcome his
brother back 'home'?
When reading Parshat Vayishlach, it is difficult to reach a clear
Similarly, when Yaakov crossed the Yabok River (with his wives and
children), was he planning a secret escape from this confrontation?
Or, was Yaakov's intention all along to confront his brother - face to
And finally, was God's purpose in sending a 'mal'ach' to struggle with
Yaakov - simply to bless him at this critical time, or was it an
attempt to thwart Yaakov's planned 'escape'?
When one reads Parshat Vayishlach, it is difficult to find precise answers to these
(and many other) questions.
In Part One of this week's shiur, we'll suggest some answers to these questions, while offering a reason why the Torah's account of
these events is intentionally so vague. Based on that analysis, Part
Two will discuss the deeper meaning of Yaakov's name change to
(Yaakov = Jacob, Eisav = Esau, Yisrael = Israel, Parshat Vayishlach = the chapters under inspection, malach = angel)