Genesis 33: Lessons from Jacob on Backsliding in Your Walk With Jesus

Introduction: When Jesus removed the Apostle Paul’s blindness, Paul walked with Christ for the rest of his life. No less than 13 books of the New Testament are the fruit of his transformed life. Many became believers because of his mighty walk. Jesus also transformed Jacob on his return trip to the Promised Land. His new name of “Israel” reflected the promise that God had created through him as a new creation. But Jacob was not like Paul in his walk. Instead, like most believers, Jacob frequently allowed his flesh to gain control over the Spirit’s direction in his life. “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.” (Gal. 5:17). As a result, Jacob backslid in his walk. He then corrected himself. Yet, through complacency, he would then backslide again. His walk became a spiritual yo-yo. In Genesis chapter 33, God referred to the transformed “Israel” by his old name Jacob. This reflected Jacob’s backslidden state only moments after Jesus appeared to him in a pre-incarnate form and transformed him. From Jacob’s unstable walk, God reveals seven lessons on backsliding and how to prevent it.

First, after taking his eyes off Jesus, Jacob looked at Esau with his 400 men and felt fear. From this, God reveals that taking your eyes off Jesus can cause you to backslide in your walk. Second, after his initial panic, Jacob tried to correct his error by placing himself in front of his family and bowing in submission seven times to his brother Esau. From this, God reveals that dying to yourself by placing the needs of others before yourself can help put you back on your walk with Christ. This can include acts of servitude to others, just as Jacob did before Esau. Third, in a Spirit-led act of restoration, Jacob insisted that Esau accept his offering. While acting under the Spirit, Jacob praised God for both his children and his wealth. From this, God reveals that praising Him for His blessings can help to put you back on your walk with Him. Fourth, immediately after God cooled Esau’s anger, Jacob became complacent in his walk and backslid again. He failed to trust God. Thus, again motivated by fear, he used lies and deceit to convince his brother to journey without him. From this, God reveals that lies and deceit will cause you to backslide in your walk. The Bible reveals that those who employ lies and deception act under the devil’s influence. Being under the devil’s influence, Jacob then backslid further in his walk. Fifth, God made a covenant to bring Jacob back to Bethel. Yet, after being sidetracked in his walk, Jacob failed to return to Bethel to face his father and tithe to God as he promised. Instead, he settled in Succoth, a place that God had not called him to. Jacob compromised in his walk. But he deluded himself into believing that he was going to fulfill God’s calling by only building “temporary” instead of permanent structures. But this compromise in his walk would only push Jacob further off his walk. From this, God reveals that compromising in your walk will only cause you to backslide further. Sixth, after his compromise in Succoth, Jacob then abandoned his call to return Bethel. Instead, he conformed to the thinking of the world by buying land in Shechem. The patriarchs were told to live as sojourners in the Promise Land. The only land that either Abraham or Isaac ever purchased was a single grave site. Being conformed to the thinking of the world, Jacob backslid further off his walk. In a place where God had not called him to be, his daughter would later be raped. His eldest sons would then commit murder in God’s name. From this, God reveals that conforming to the thinking of the world can also pull you off your walk. Finally, although he was in the wrong place, Jacob built an altar to God to give thanks for His mercy and grace. He knew that he was unworthy of God’s blessings for his disobedience. From this, God reveals that you should always give thanks for His mercy and grace when you backslide. If you repent, He is faithful to forgive your sins (1 Jo. 1:9).

1. Taking Your Eyes off Jesus Can Cause You to Backslide in Your Walk. Gen. 33:1-2.

  • Jacob’s backsliding only moments after seeing the pre-incarnate Jesus. Moments after receiving the blessing from a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ, Jacob saw Esau with his 400 men and panicked. Even worse, he arranged his wives and children to sacrifice the ones that he cared about least in the event of a conflict: “1 Then Jacob lifted 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.” (Gen. 33:1-2). Jacob had just wrestled with Jesus. In faith, he sought out and received Jesus’ blessings: “26 Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.’ But he said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ 27 So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ 28 He said, ‘Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.’” (Gen. 32:26-28). While Jacob looked at Jesus, he felt protected. But the moment he took his eyes off Jesus, he felt fear. Jacob showed that it does not take long for a believer to backslide in their walk.

  • Taking your eyes off Jesus can also cause you to fear those around you. Jacob’s faith failed because he took his mind off the Lord. Likewise, Peter began to walk on water when Jesus called him (Matt. 14:29). “But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, Lord save me.” (Matt. 14:30). After saving him, Jesus responded: “You of little faith, why did you doubt.” (Matt. 14:31). J. Vernon McGee observed that: “when you are afraid and you have lost your faith, difficulties and problems are magnified. They become greater than they really are.” (Thru the Bible Commentary Series, Numbers p. 90). Paul reveals that it is the “spirit of slavery” which “lead[s] to fear.” (Ro. 8:15). The last time you felt fear, did you take your eyes off Jesus?

  • Walking in the flesh will cause you to bring others down in their walk. In his moment of the flesh, Jacob caused damage to his entire family. By placing the wives and children that he cared about least up front for sacrifice in the event of conflict, he caused them to feel worthless and jealous of the love that Jacob reserved for Rachel and Joseph. “Your mother will be greatly ashamed, she who gave you birth will be humiliated. Behold, she will be the least of the nations, a wilderness, a parched land and a desert.” (Jer. 50:12). This would later cause his unloved children to act out of anger to kill the people of Shechem. It would also cause them to try to kill Joseph and then sell him into slavery. Having more than one spouse is not part of God’s plan for mankind. Thus, blended families typically struggle with feelings of jealousy and insecurity. If you are part of a blended family, ensure that each person feels equally accepted, loved, and secure.

2. Dying to Yourself Through Submission Can Help to Restore Your Walk. Gen. 33:3.

  • Jacob’s proper submission before his family and before his brother. After Jacob’s moment of panic, he tried to do the right thing by putting himself in front of his family and bowing in submission seven times to his estranged brother: “But he himself passed on ahead of them and bowed down to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.” (Gen. 33:3). In the Bible, the number seven symbolizes completeness. Jacob’s seven bows symbolized his complete submission to his brother. He gave up his life-long ambition to be better than his brother. Jacob knew that Esau’s anger was directed at him alone. He reasoned that if Esau killed him, he might spare Jacob’s family. He led through submission and by placing the needs of others above his own. “He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.” (Matt. 10:39; 16:25; Mk. 8:35; Lk. 9:24). Only by being humble and last in importance would God exalt his descendants. “Sitting down, He called the twelve and said to them, ‘If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.”’ (Mk. 9:35). “and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all.” (Mk. 10:44). Have you submitted yourself as a humble servant to those around you so that God can exalt you?

  • Let God’s plan be fulfilled on His timeline, not your own. If Jacob had trusted in God’s timing, Esau would have bowed to him. Before the twins were born, God prophesied that Esau would bow to Jacob: “The LORD said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb; and two peoples will be separated from your body; and one people shall be stronger than the other; and the older shall serve the younger.”’ (Gen. 25:23; Ro. 9:12). “By your sword you shall live, and your brother you shall serve; but it shall come about when you become restless, that you will break his yoke from your neck.” (Gen. 27:40). The submission of Esau’s descendants to the descendants of Israel would eventually happen. But Jacob would never live to see it. It would instead happen under King David.

3. Praising God Can Also Help Put You Back on Your Walk. Gen. 33:4-11.

  • God’s transformation of Esau’s anger, and Jacob’s proper praise for God. As a result of Jacob’s faith in the pre-incarnate Jesus, Jesus melted the anger in Esau’s heart. Being temporarily back on his walk, Jacob then praised God for all that he had: “Then Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. He lifted his eyes and saw the women and the children, and said, ‘Who are these with you?’ So he said, ‘The children whom God has graciously given your servant.’ Then the maids came near with their children, and they bowed down. Leah likewise came near with her children, and they bowed down; and afterward Joseph came near with Rachel, and they bowed down. And he said, ‘What do you mean by all this company which I have met?’ And he said, ‘To find favor in the sight of my lord.’ But Esau said, ‘I have plenty, my brother; let what you have be your own.’ 10 Jacob said, ‘No, please, if now I have found favor in your sight, then take my present from my hand, for I see your face as one sees the face of God, and you have received me favorably. 11 Please take my gift which has been brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me and because I have plenty.’ Thus he urged him and he took it.” (Gen. 33:4-11). Jacob had just cried out in faith for God to deliver him: “Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, that he will come and attack me and the mothers with the children.” (Gen. 32:11). God rewarded Jacob’s faith by transforming Esau’s anger. By accepting Jacob’s gift, Esau showed more than mere forgiveness. He now considered Jacob to be his friend: “In that culture, one never accepted a gift from an enemy, only from a friend. To accept the gift was to accept the friendship.” (David Guzik on Gen. 33).1 If you are in need, have you cried out in faith for Jesus to help you?

God allowed for Jacob and Esau to be reconciled2

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 1606 – 1669 (The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau) (1655)3

  • When you walk with God, your enemies will also be at peace with you. Some might look at Jacob’s gifts as a sign of weakness. Yet, they were instead Spirit-led acts of restitution. Under God’s law, Jacob had to restore the value of what he had taken from Esau through his deceit (Lev. 6:1-5; Ex. 22:4; 2 Sam. 12:6; Lk. 19:8). “A gift in secret subdues anger, and a bribe in the bosom, strong wrath.” (Prov. 21:14). When you act in a way that is pleasing to God, He also promises to transform the hearts of your enemies: “When a man’s ways are pleasing to the LORD, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.” (Prov. 16:7). “He also made them objects of compassion in the presence of all their captors.” (Ps. 106:46). “I will grant this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and it shall be that when you go, you will not go empty-handed.” (Ex. 3:21). “and forgive Your people who have sinned against You and all their transgressions which they have transgressed against You, and make them objects of compassion before those who have taken them captive, that they may have compassion on them.” (1 Kgs. 8:50). If you have enemies who will not accept an apology and restitution, pray for the Spirit to reveal areas of your walk that are displeasing to God.

  • Praise God for the blessings that He offers when you show forgiveness and mercy. God transformed Esau’s heart to forgive Jacob the same way the father forgave the prodigal son. Indeed, the language used in both accounts is similar: “So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” (Lk. 15:20). Because Esau and Jacob forgave each other, God blessed them both with forgiveness: “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” (Matt. 6:14). Because Esau was merciful toward Jacob, God also was merciful to him: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Matt. 5:7). God blessed Esau with a nation in what is now part of modern Jordan. If you are in need of forgiveness and mercy, praise God that He offers you forgiveness and mercy when you show them to others.

  • Give thanks for any child as a blessing from God. Although God transformed Esau’s heart to forgive Jacob, Esau was still not a man of God. Thus, he gave no credit to God for his many possessions. While he was walking under the influence of the Spirit, Jacob gave God the credit for his wealth and his children. “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” (James 1:17). God gave Jacob his wealth: “12 Now Isaac sowed in that land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. And the Lord blessed him, 13 and the man became rich, and continued to grow richer until he became very wealthy; 14 for he had possessions of flocks and herds and a great household, so that the Philistines envied him.” (Gen. 26:12-14). He also gave Jacob his then 11 boys and one girl: “Behold, children are a gift of the LORD, the fruit of the womb is a reward.” (Ps. 127:3). “He makes the barren woman abide in the house as a joyful mother of children. Praise the LORD!” (Ps. 113:9; Is. 8:18; 54:1; Gal. 4:27; Ruth 4:13). If you have been blessed with wealth or children, do you give thanks for His blessing?

4. Lies and Deceit Will Cause You to Backslide in Your Walk. Gen. 33:12-16.

  • Jacob’s backsliding in his deceitful dealing with his brother. Even after God delivered Jacob from his brother’s anger, Jacob again failed to trust God. Thus, he used lies and deceit to convince his brother to leave without him: “12 Then Esau said, ‘Let us take our journey and go, and I will go before you.’ 13 But he said to him, ‘My lord knows that the children are frail and that the flocks and herds which are nursing are a care to me. And if they are driven hard one day, all the flocks will die. 14 Please let my lord pass on before his servant, and I will proceed at my leisure, according to the pace of the cattle that are before me and according to the pace of the children, until I come to my lord at Seir.’ 15 Esau said, ‘Please let me leave with you some of the people who are with me.’ But he said, ‘What need is there? Let me find favor in the sight of my lord.’ 16 So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir.” (Gen. 33:12-16). Jacob told two lies to Esau. First, he lied when he claimed that his family and flocks could not travel fast. While trying to flee from Laban, Jacob made it from Haran to Gilead in just seven days (Gen. 31:22). This translates to 300 miles or 482 kilometers in a week. Stated differently, his family and livestock were traveling in excess of 42 miles or 68 kilometers per day. Thus, his group was not traveling slowly. Second, Jacob falsely told his brother that he would join him at Seir. Mount Seir is located in modern Jordan, outside of the Promised Land. Jacob was supposed to be traveling to Bethel (Gen. 28:13-14; 31:3). Yet, he got sidetracked by settling in first Succoth and then Shechem (Gen. 33:15-19). If Jacob trusted God, he would have told Esau the truth. After 20 years living in exile, he belonged in the Promised Land. “[T]he truth will make you free.” (John 8:32(b)).

  • Deceit and lies place you under Satan’s influence. By employing lies and deceit, Jacob backslid into his old ways of handling problems. He used lies and deceit to gain the blessing that Isaac intended to give to Esau (Gen. 27:19-20). If you are using lies and deceit, you also have backslidden in your walk. Lies and deceit are Satan’s tools to turn people away from God (Dt. 11:16; 30:17). Jacob was under his influence when he deceived and lied to his father. He was again under his influence when he deceived and lied to Esau. Lies and deceptions were “familiar spirits” that Jacob easily backslid into when he was off his walk. If you deceive or lie, you are also under Satan’s influence. “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. . . Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (Jo. 8:44). Are there any lies or deception in your dealings with others?

  • A godly person only speaks the truth. Solomon warns that “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21) and that “a wholesome tongue is a tree of life”. (Prov. 15:4). If Jacob were under the influence of the Holy Spirit, he would have spoken only the truth. “Your word is truth.” (Jo. 17:17(b)). “For He said, ‘Surely, they are My people, sons who will not deal falsely.’” (Is. 63:8(a)). “You shall not . . . deal falsely, nor lie to one another.” (Lev. 19:11). “Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, for we are members of one another.” (Eph. 4:25). Will you speak God’s truth to others, even if it might cause you harm?

5. Compromise Will Also Cause You to Backslide in Your Walk. Gen. 33:17.

  • Jacob’s backsliding regarding his vow to return to Bethel. Although God had called Jacob to return to Bethel, Jacob was sidetracked in Succoth in his backslidden state. There, he compromised in his return by building structures to live in: “17 Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built for himself a house and made booths for his livestock; therefore the place is named Succoth.” (Gen. 33:17). While Jacob was in Bethel, God promised: “15 Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’” (Gen. 28:13-15). In Haran, God told Jacob to return to the “land of your fathers.” (Gen. 31:3). At that time, his father Isaac lived near Bethel in Mamre (Gen. 35:27). Moreover, when God told Jacob to return from Haran, He identified Himself as “the God of Bethel” (Gen. 31:13). Succoth was not part of God’s plan for Jacob. Instead of following God’s Word, Jacob compromised in his walk. The name “Succoth” means a temporary structure. Jacob may have reasoned that he could return on his journey to Bethel at any time because his structures were not permanent. Yet, when you compromise your walk, one compromise will lead to another. This compromise would make it easy for him to compromise again and buy property in the wrong city. Succoth was in the opposite direction of Seir. Jacob might have again sought to evade his brother. Or, he might have feared facing his father. Or, he might have wanted to delay tithing at Bethel as Jacob previously promised (Gen. 28:21-22). Or, he might have felt that the flat grazing lands and rivers of Succoth in the Jordan Valley were better for grazing than the more rugged mountain terrain of Bethel (Harold Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 255). Each compromise caused Jacob to backslide further off his walk with God. Have you compromised in any part of your walk?

Jacob journeyed to Succoth4

6. Conforming With the World Will Also Cause You to Backslide. Gen. 33:18-19.

  • Jacob’s backsliding in God’s command to live as a sojourner. After living in a temporary structure in the wrong place, it wasn’t long before Jacob felt comfortable living in a permanent structure by buying land in the wrong place: “18 Now Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan-aram, and camped before the city. 19 He bought the piece of land where he had pitched his tent from the hand of the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for one hundred pieces of money.” (Gen. 33:18-19). This was only the second time that one of the patriarchs had purchased property in the Promised Land. The only other place was the tomb that Abraham purchased for his family (Gen. 23:12-20). Jacob felt that he needed to accumulate land to provide for his family. But God had told the patriarchs to live as sojourners in the Promised Land. This was part of Isaac’s blessing to Jacob before he fled: “May God Almighty bless you . . . may possess the land of your sojournings, which God gave to Abraham.”’ (Gen. 28:3-4). Abraham passed through this place without stopping: “Abram passed through the land as far as the site of Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. Now the Canaanite was then in the land.” (Gen. 12:6). As part of his slow steps of compromise, Jacob first camped “before the city.” (Gen. 33:18). It was then the next inevitable step for Jacob to buy land at this place. By placing his family in a place where he was not supposed to be, Jacob’s daughter Dinah would be raped and his sons would then kill the people of Shechem in cold blood (Gen. 34). Jacob’s attempt to conform to the world would place them outside of God’s protections. Joseph also would not be buried with the other patriarchs. He would instead be buried by himself in this city: “Now they buried the bones of Joseph, which the sons of Israel brought up from Egypt, at Shechem, in the piece of ground which Jacob had bought from the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for one hundred pieces of money; and they became the inheritance of Joseph’s sons.” (Josh. 24:32). Thus, you must always stay in your walk.

  • Do not conform to this world. Jacob was guilty of following the wisdom of the world instead of trusting God. Believers should avoid letting their thinking conform to the thinking of the world: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Ro. 12:2). The perception that a person must first accumulate land or wealth before following after God is one of the most common traps of the devil that people fall into: “And the one on whom seed was sown among the thorns, this is the man who hears the word, and the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.” (Matt. 13:22; Mk. 4:19).

Jacob settled in Shechem5

7. Be Thankful For God’s Mercy and Grace When You Backslide. Gen. 33:20.

  • Jacob’s proper praise and gratitude for God’s deliverance. Although Jacob had backslidden in his walk, he built an altar to give thanks for God’s mercy and grace: “20 Then he erected there an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel.” (Gen. 33:20). Although God has many names, the name that Jacob used “El-Elohe-Israel” only appears here. The name meant “El, the God of Israel.” Although he had backslidden many times, Jacob recognized that he belonged to God. Thus, he remembered how God had transformed him into Israel. But it would take time before he earned his new name (Gen. 35:9-10).

  • The altars of gratitude. This was the seventh altar of gratitude built by the patriarchs. It was the eighth altar in the book of Genesis. Amongst the patriarchs, Abraham built a first altar of gratitude after first being shown the Promised Land (Gen. 12:8). After God’s deliverance from his sins in Egypt, Abraham built a second altar for repentance (Gen. 13:3-4). Abraham then built a third altar of thanks (Gen. 13:18). Abraham later built a fourth altar for the sacrifice of Isaac and then the substitute ram (Gen. 22:9). Isaac built a fifth altar of gratitude to Yahweh (Gen. 26:25). After God spoke to Jacob at Bethel, he built a sixth altar of gratitude (Gen. 28:16-18). This was the seventh altar of the patriarchs (Gen. 33:20). Including Noah’s altar after the Flood, (Gen. 8:20) this was the eighth altar in the book of Genesis. In the Bible, eight is a number of new beginnings. Jacob was grateful that God gave him many new beginnings. You should do the same.

  • God requires obedience before sacrifice. Although it was commendable for Jacob to build an altar of gratitude, it was not worship in the manner that God requested: “From outward appearance Jacob is a religious man, much like his forefather Abraham. He has built an altar, which he called El-Elohe-Israel. Initially this seems very similar to what Abraham had done in the past, but this thought is short lived. When Abraham built altars, he did so “to the LORD” (12:8), and both Abraham and Isaac “called upon the name of the LORD” in worship (12:8; 13:4; 26:25). With Isaac, the altar was the first thing he built (26:25), while with Jacob it was the last (33:20). All of this, in addition to later developments, strongly suggests that while there was a religious formality, there was no spiritual reality. Jacob promised to build an altar at Bethel (28:22), which he later did (35:13-14), but there does not seem to be any great spiritual exercise here, only ritual. It is extremely difficult to worship God in the place where we are not supposed to be.” (Bob Deffinbaugh, “One Step Forward and Three Backward (Genesis 33:1--34:31)” (May 12th 2004, As Paul said, “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God.” (1 Cor. 7:19). Do you show your gratitude through your obedience? If you continue to openly sin, how grateful can you claim to be for Christ’s sacrifice for you at the cross? (Gal. 5:13).