Bible studies with Don Isaac Abravanel’s commentary (also spelled Abarbanel) has withstood the test of
time. For over five centuries, Abravanel has delighted – and enlightened – clergy and layman alike,
offering enduring interpretations of the Bible. Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) was a preeminent Jewish thinker, scholar, and prolific Biblical
commentator. In Genesis Chapter 33, we read about the long-anticipated reunion of Jacob and Esau.
Twenty years had elapsed from the time the twins had last seen each other.
“And Jacob lifted up his eyes and looked and behold, Esau came and
with him four hundred men. And he divided the children unto Leah, and
unto Rachel, and unto two handmaids…And he himself passed over
before them, and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he
came near his brother. And Esau ran to meet him and embraced him,
and fell on his neck and kissed him. And they wept. And he lifted up his
eyes and saw the women and children and said, Who are these with
you? And he said, The children whom God has graciously given your
The Bible makes Jacob’s conduct before Esau explicit. Unabashedly, the patriarch showed deference to
his brother, behavior befitting a servant before his master. “And bowed himself to the ground seven
times until he came near his brother.”
Abravanel shares his thoughts on the brothers’ encounter. The verses illustrate Jacob’s subservience.
But, how did Esau receive it? When Esau observed Jacob’s demeaning posture and proper etiquette, he
softened, or better, melted. “And Esau ran to meet him and embraced him…and kissed him.” Jacob, too,
choked up. For a stitch in time, sibling hostility dissipated. Brotherliness and affection swept over them,
filling their hearts. They may have asked themselves why they let so many years pass apart from each
After the brothers hugged it out, Esau opened the conversation with a question. “And he lifted up his
eyes and saw the women and children and said, Who are these with you?” Jacob answered, but only
partially. “And he said, The children whom God has graciously given your servant.”
Abravanel picked up on Jacob’s evasiveness, as the patriarch only touched upon his children. Why didn’t
Jacob breathe a word about his wives, as Esau had enquired? Apparently, Esau assumed that some of
the women and children were Jacob’s, others were not. Perhaps some women and kids were related,
Abravanel writes that Jacob didn’t want to open himself up for humiliation. How so? Jacob was reticent
to tell Esau that he had four wives, lest Esau give his kid brother a rakish, goofy grin before cracking
ribald remarks. What a paradox! You my righteous and God-fearing brother have four wives! One or
even two wives don’t suffice? You outdid your evil brother. I only have three wives etc.
In responding to Esau, the patriarch chose the path of discretion. He pivoted the conversation to his
children. “And he said, The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” As for the womenfolk
accompanying Jacob, the patriarch was mum. Thus, Jacob sidestepped Esau’s booby trap.