Let’s read Genesis 33:1-3, “Then Jacob lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, Esau was coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. He put the maids and their children in front, and Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. But he himself passed on ahead of them and bowed down to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother” (NASB).

The act of bowing down before another was an ancient custom that showed “respect” and “submission” to the person you were bowing down to. In other words, it was an act of submission to someone in a superior position. Why did Jacob bow “seven times?” Generally a single bow was sufficient to express respect and reverence, but historical records reveal that in the royal court of Pharaoh, King of Egypt, servants would bow down seven times before him as a demonstration of their complete submission to him as their lord. Interestingly, the number “seven” in the Bible symbolizes “completion,” as we see in Genesis 2:2 which says, “And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had made.”

Many have questioned Jacob’s motives for bowing down to Esau, especially when God had told Rebekah in Genesis 25:22, before Jacob and Esau were born, that “Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowelsand the elder shall serve the younger.” So, Jacob was destined, in God’s purposes, to rule over Esau, and yet in the scene we are contemplating, Jacob is serving Esau. But we must remember the failure of Rebekah and Jacob twenty years earlier, when Jacob deceived his father Isaac and stole his brother’s birthright. Because of this act of treachery, we read in Genesis 27:41, “And Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing wherewith his father blessed him: and Esau said in his heart, The days of mourning for my father are at hand; then will I slay my brother Jacob.”

Now here they are twenty years later, face to face, and Jacob fears that Esau is still angry with him and that his life may be in jeopardy. In light of these fears, Jacob lined up his family according to the value he placed on each one, just in case Esau’s revenge turned into a massacre. To Jacob’s credit, he goes before his family and meets Esau with a show of humility and respect, no doubt hoping to avert the massacre he feared. Was his bowing down a “false humility” or was he “truly humble” and feeling guilty and sorry for his act of deception against his brother? If it was the former, he was up to his old tactics of being manipulating and deceiving his brother. But if he was in fact a changed man after 20 years of being humbled in God’s “school of hard knocks” in the land of Haran, then perhaps his bowing before Esau was his way of admitting that he was wrong in stealing his brother’s birthright. I lean towards the latter view, though even if this is true, there was a mixture of the “old Jacob,” which was always “scheming” to get his way, and the “new Jacob” involved in this scene. Whatever the case, if we were to read on we would see that all his fears were unfounded, for verse 4 tells us, “And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him: and they wept.” While Jacob was “planning,” God was behind the scenes “appeasing” Esau. What a lesson for us all, dear brothers and sisters, for as another has said, “God ever delights to rebuke our poor, coward, unbelieving hearts, and put to flight all our fears.” Let us learn from this to “trust in God’s goodness,” and not in “our poor, anxious hearts.” (160.4) (DO)