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Often we hear that the Bible contains lots of stories without indicating if the actions were good or bad.

When Jacob returned home in Gen 33, he sent the crowds ahead of him (Gen 32:13-21). By what hermeneutic principle do we determine if he expected them to get slaughtered, appeasing Esau's anger, or if he expected them to be well but was merely forfeiting them to Esau? Had Jacob been reformed and was returning what he stole or was he still his old self just looking out for himself?

Can such things be determined?

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closed as unclear what you're asking by Frank Luke, Caleb Jun 21 '14 at 13:47

Please clarify your specific problem or add additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it’s hard to tell exactly what you're asking. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Yaakov went in front of all of them, so where are you reading that he might have been offering up bait to protect himself? –  Gone Quiet Oct 24 '11 at 14:18
@MonicaCellio Genesis 32:13-21 tells of the gift that he sent ahead for Esau. Genesis 33:1-3 does make it clear he was in front of his wives and children. –  jimreed Oct 24 '11 at 15:01
Thanks for clarifying that he's asking about the tribute sent in chapter 32. The plain reading (pshat) of the text is that it's tribute; that's not necessarily the last word, of course, but I am still unclear on how one would read this as a decoy or bait or the like, expecting the servants bringing the flocks etc to be killed? Nowhere does the text suggest that the servants are forfeit; they're just how you get flocks from one place to another. –  Gone Quiet Oct 24 '11 at 15:17
A quick google popped up this quote from the lesson plan of a childrens sunday school. "One day it came time for the brothers to meet. Jacob was very nervous about it. He wasn’t sure what his brother would do. In fact he sent his wife and children ahead of him to make peace." This is a position that I do not hold myself, but was a test of whether or not the discussion which follows tracks the hermeneutic or the doctrine. The theory is that the one asking the question is not put in a position of having to defend the doctrine implied. If something is 'clear' how do they get their alternate POV? –  Bob Jones Oct 24 '11 at 15:42
I don't think this is a particularly good question as it stands. It seems like you have an ax to grind about the particular hermeneutical approach you hold to and you don't really have a question here. Jacob describes his own motivations quite well in Genesis 32. There might be a question of whether he was trusting God as well as he ought, but that's not what you've asked. I could edit the question to work, but I'm not sure I can get across what it is you want to ask. –  Jon Ericson Oct 24 '11 at 19:41

1 Answer 1

up vote 6 down vote accepted

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 had. (KJV)

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
  • 34:30 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 conclusion.

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 face?

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 Yisrael.

(Yaakov = Jacob, Eisav = Esau, Yisrael = Israel, Parshat Vayishlach = the chapters under inspection, malach = angel)

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Excellent! The article hits the heart of the question by identifying the POV and that even from that POV the question has been asked before, discussed and resolved in a certain way. As such the references become the authority rather than the author of the article. Such answers do not require experts in the subject, just expert compilers. It does not get side tracked by the concept which is fed in the question. –  Bob Jones Oct 24 '11 at 22:31

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