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What kind of messengers did Jacob send to Esau?

Genesis 32:4 יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו אֶל־עֵשָׂו אָחִיו  וַיִּשְׁלַח – Jacob sent messengers before him to his brother Esau —   The term מַלְאָךְ is used with both human and supernatural messengers. Often it refers to it refers to human beings who act as God’s messengers, i.e., prophets[1] or priests[2] but in this particular sense the envoys Jacob sent functioned in a secular capacity.  Not all rabbinic sources accept this kind of interpretation.

Rashi and his supporters argued that the visionary experience mentioned in v. 2 would indicate that these messengers were of a supernatural order.[3] Despite Rashi and the Midrash’s insistence Jacob sent “angels,” most other medieval exegetes lead by Ibn Ezra and Rashbam contend that the contextual meaning of the text means exactly what it says: Jacob sent human envoys.

Ibn Ezra and Rashbam’s approach seems much more sensible and is contextually justified. I would add that sins perpetrated against one’s fellow persons—especially one’s brother—can never be given as a carte blanche gift from Above without the wrong-doer making an earthly effort to reconcile and renew their bonds of love.  The brave Protestant theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer described such a concept as a “cheap grace.” Atonement occurs when the offender makes a serious attempt in undoing the damage that one has done in weakening the bonds of relationship; and it is for this reason, Jacob sent messengers of flesh and blood and not “spiritual beings,” as alleged by Rashi and the Midrash.


[1]. See Hag 1:13; Isa 44:26; 2 Chr. 36:15.

[2].Mal 2:7.

[3]. Based on this nuance, Rashi cited the Midrash argues that Jacob actually sent  angels to his brother Esau.. Ibn Attar shared a similar view and notes that the angelic camp that appeared to Jacob made themselves available to be used by Jacob as he saw fit.



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