In chapter 33, we see the brothers reunite. The animosity appears to be gone. Jacob offers gifts to Esau, who tells him they are not necessary, and Jacob insists. When Jacob tells Esau to go on ahead and let him and his family and his livestock come at a slower pace, Esau offers some of his people, and Jacob tells him it is not necessary. This cordiality between brothers is recorded not just because it is history and helps move the story forward, but again, Moses is trying to establish the cordial relationship that should exist between the nations of Israel and Edom at the time of his writing, four centuries later.
In verses 18-20, we read of Jacob settling in Shechem. There is a comparison being drawn between the now believing Jacob and his grandfather Abraham, the man of faith. First, Jacob settles in Canaan (see Gen 13:12). Second, he buys a small parcel of land (see Gen 23:8-16) where a beloved relative will be buried (compare Gen 23:19 and Josh 24:32). This is the only bit of land that Jacob owns in the land God promised to him (Gen 28:13). He also builds an altar to God, like Isaac before him (Gen 26:25), and Abraham before him (Gen 12:7, Gen 12:8, Gen 13:18). Jacob is being established as the patriarch of the faithful.
In chapter 34 we have the recounting of a horrible event. Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped by Shechem, the prince of the land that bore his name. Two of her full-blood brothers, Simeon and Levi – Jacob’s second and third born – perpetrate a horrible revenge by wiping out all the males in the city and taking as captives the women and children along with the plunder of the city. We are reminded again that sin abounds.
Two things to notice about this chapter. First, this is the first chapter in the Bible in which God is not named. He is absent from this story of horrible, sinful acts, just as He was absent in the acts themselves. Second, we see the reason for the exclusion of these two sons from carrying on the promise. We will see this play in later when Jacob pronounces blessings on his twelve sons (see Gen 49:5-7).
In chapter 35, God tells Jacob to move. He tells him to return to the scene of Jacob’s first encounter with Him and where the covenant was passed on to Jacob (Gen 28:10-22), and where God promised He would bring Jacob back (28:15). We see the faith of Jacob in his going, like Abraham before him. We also see the preserving hand of God in providing Jacob safety in his travels. When he arrives, God renews the covenant with him, and reestablishes his name as Israel. This history would have shown the nation of Israel that God would keep His promise to bring them to the land, and that He would preserve them as they went. We will see that this is exactly what He does. Moses wanted to encourage the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the nation so they would go when and where God said to go.
We then read of the birth of the twelfth son of Jacob. And his beloved Rachel dies giving birth. Then, in verse 22, we have an almost parenthetical statement about Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn son, sleeping with Bilhah, Jacob’s concubine, and Jacob hearing about it. Why this insertion? Because we now see the exclusion of the firstborn son from carrying on the promise (Gen 49:3-4).
The chapter ends with a listing of Jacob’s twelve sons, and the death of Isaac. The description of his death is the same as that of Abraham (Gen 25:8). The idea of being “gathered to ones people” signals the reality that physical death is not the end. Left to carry on the promise and the blessing are Israel, and his twelve sons.
These three chapters record both the history of the continuation of the promise and set up details of the story that we will come to later. God has a plan. Even though there is sin – even perpetrated at times by God’s chosen people – and even though earthly circumstances so often seem like just that: earthly circumstances; through it all, God’s purposes stand.