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This is a question about the intention/actions of Esau in Genesis 33.

We know Esau wanted to kill Jacob. See How did Rebekah know that Esau was planning to kill his brother in Genesis 27:42?

Some commentators also think that Genesis 32:6 (ESV) indicates that Esau had distinctly hostile intentions (Pulpit commentary).

And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.”

Jacob's own reaction indicates that he viewed Esau's company as hostile (Genesis 32:7-8 ESV)

Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed. He divided the people who were with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, 8 thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, then the camp that is left will escape.”

But when Esau actually meets Jacob in Genesis 33:4 (ESV), his actions seem unexpected.

But (emphasis mine) Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.

So why didn't Esau try to kill Jacob?

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    20 years is enough to soften many offences, and by the time of their reunion Esau was a rich and satisfied man. Jacob may have thought that Esau was hostile, but he was wrong.
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 31 at 11:13
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    @curiousdannii We are in the Middle East, "He who waits forty years for his revenge - is in a hurry" (local proverb). Jan 31 at 14:36
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That Esau held murderous, revengeful intentions is stated explicitly:

Gen 27:41 - Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. And Esau said in his heart, “The days of mourning for my father are at hand; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”

Because Rebekah knew this she sent Jacob away to her brother's (Laban's) family. All this is well known.

Following this, there is an interval of 20 years before Jacob and Esau meet again. Jacob is rightfully fearful lest his brother still harbors the murderous intentions.

Jacob was also probably conscience-stricken because of the deception he had effected on his uncle Laban in escaping with all the flocks (Gen 31:1-22).

Jacob committed the problem to the LORD (Gen 32:9-12); in response God gave Jacob several forms of encouragement: (a) he was met by angels (Gen 32:1); (b) he was met by "God" (Gen 32:30) and blessed (Gen 32:27-32).

He also realized that if any kind of reconciliation was to be effected between the brothers, that Jacob must demonstrate reform himself. He did three significant things following his earnest prayer:

  • He sent a conciliatory message to Esau, Gen 32:3-5
  • Jacob selected a very generous gift (Gen 32:13-16) for his brother to show that he was no longer a greedy, avaricious, cheating man.
  • He also instructed those at the front of the line of people and flocks to greet Esau as, "My Lord Esau" (Gen Gen 32:18) to show respect for the one whom he previously disdained.

That is, Jacob, while operating under the conscious blessing of God, did what he could to heal the brotherly rift created years earlier.

Jacob was then met by "a man" (Gen 32:24). Jacob soon realized that this was no ordinary man but must be God (32:28, 30) and so Jacob begged a blessing.

Apparently, God granted such a blessing because Esau's heart was miraculously changed and no further murderous intentions were evident. Let there be no doubt that this was a divine miracle possibly seen as a loss of face and so very unlikely in Eastern culture.

Therefore, I see a divine miracle of grace produced on the heart of Esau. It is significant that this occurred following two initiatives by Jacob - His prayer and his determination to personally reform and demonstrate it.

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  • +1, a 'miraculous change' seems plausible/compelling to me. Perhaps it's a similar dynamic to how God intervenes to protect Jacob from Laban in Gen 31 and from the Canaanites/Perizzites in Gen 35 ('a terror from God fell upon the cities')?
    – whiskey92
    Feb 3 at 23:59
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Rebekah knew his son Esau's behavior and predicted his anger would subside:

Genesis 27:42 When Rebekah was told what her older son Esau had said, she sent for her younger son Jacob and said to him, “Your brother Esau is planning to avenge himself by killing you. 43Now then, my son, do what I say: Flee at once to my brother Laban in Harran. 44Stay with him for a while until your brother’s fury subsides. 45When your brother is no longer angry with you and forgets what you did to him, I’ll send word for you to come back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?”

Why didn't Esau try to kill Jacob?

To me, Esau had experienced a change of heart when he saw Jacob's humility before him. After all, they were blood brothers. Look at his actions:

Genesis 33:4 But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.

All these verbs showed Esau's sincerity. He showed true emotions from his heart.

The next thing he did was to ask about his brother's wives and kids, i.e., his sisters-in-law and nephews.

5 Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. “Who are these with you?” he asked.

Then he asked about Jacob's properties:

8 Esau asked, “What’s the meaning of all these flocks and herds I met?”

After that, he offered protection:

12 Then Esau said, “Let us be on our way; I’ll accompany you.”

In the end, I think Esau had forgiven the wrongs that Jacob did to him.

16 So that day Esau started on his way back to Seir.

Interestingly, the name Esau is listed in the faith hall of fame in Hebrews 11:20

By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.

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