Esau had been murderously enraged at Jacob (Genesis 27:41-42) and, upon learning on his brother's return to Canaan, rushed to meet him with 400 men (32:6, 33:1), a move that could have been aggressive (Jacob certainly worried that it was). Yet in 36:6-8 (KJV), we read:

6 And Esau took his wives, and his sons, and his daughters, and all the persons of his house, and his cattle, and all his beasts, and all his substance, which he had got in the land of Canaan; and went into the country from the face of his brother Jacob. 7 For their riches were more than that they might dwell together; and the land wherein they were strangers could not bear them because of their cattle. 8 Thus dwelt Esau in mount Seir: Esau is Edom.

So Esau voluntarily left Canaan. Why did he? Why did he not insist that Jacob leave?

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Famously, Esau lightly esteemed his birthright, selling it for some red stuff—a detail, in retrospect, that looks highly symbolic: it seems only fitting that he would lightly esteem the land of his fathers, and prefer the red land of Seir instead.

That said, another explanation is given in the text itself: “For their riches were more than that they might dwell together; and the land wherein they were strangers could not bear them because of their cattle.” (Gen 36:7) The problem, apparently, was similar to that which we saw earlier between Abram and Lot in 13:5-12—but not precisely, because Jacob was not even present when Esau, evidently, concluded that he would have to leave Canaan.

Besides, even if Jacob were presently in Canaan, the explanation given here, taken one way, seems puzzling: surely the rich land of Canaan was capable of sustaining numerous flocks and numerous wealthy tribes all at once. No, there was a similar problem between Jacob and Esau and between Abram and Lot. In both cases, the problem was not the sheer lack of pasturelands but conflict—present or anticipated—should they live anywhere in close proximity.

I do not of course mean to contradict the plain words of the text, but rather to suggest a perfectly plausible reading of the words “the land...could not bear them because of their cattle.” (36:7) Why could the land not bear them? Because it was indeed difficult for the herds to “dwell together” (36:7). This, in turn, was not because the size of the land was insufficient, but because two groups of competing herdsmen dwelling together would inevitably lead to conflict. It would have been just the sort of conflict that had begun between the men of Abram and Lot (see 13:6-7). Esau therefore solved this problem, even while Jacob was gone, by moving away.

But why did he not insist that Jacob move away—or that he keep away? Here we must conclude that he accepted that Jacob had been given the blessing and the inheritance. The fact that he was murderously enraged does not entail that he failed to respect the reality of the blessing given by his father, or rather, the Lord. The facts both that he moved away while Jacob was gone, and that he was capable of meeting his brother and burying their father together (35:29), all peacefully, speaks well of him.

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