Back on task: Through the Whole Bible continues with Genesis 33 (link). Here, Jacob's story of going home finishes up. He returns to Canaan. It is time for him to face the music of his years away and the circumstances that drove his departure.
He looks up and sees, though, a bad moon a-risin' as Esau is coming his way with 400 men. It would not have been surprising to see Esau coming with a few men. Traveling alone is dangerous and treacherous, and was no less so in those days. 400 men is more than just a bodyguard group or a hunting party. That's a batch big enough to fight a pretty substantial fight.
What does Jacob do at this point? He gets a little nervous. Wouldn't you? Jacob decides to split up his group more than it was already split up. He puts the two maidservants with their children in one group, Leah and her children in a second group, and finishes the line with Rachel and Joseph. We don't know exactly why he does this: Perhaps his hope is that Rachel and Joseph will escape if the other groups are attacked. Perhaps he's just spreading his family out so that they encounter Esau piecemeal. That might keep Esau from coming back with an aggressive response, not unlike Gandalf and Beorn in The Hobbit.
What I do know is this: I've heard and read this passage as an indictment against Jacob. Here he is, prioritizing his children. How wicked, how cowardly, how unmanly are his actions here? Extremely.
Well, only if you do not read Genesis 33:3. That's the most important verse in the whole opening paragraph about the arrangement of everyone. Jacob goes in front of everyone else. The linguistic phrase of "he himself" indicates that he likely goes forward alone. There's Esau with 400 and Jacob, alone, standing between the 400 and his family.
He's right where he should be: intervening between the danger he has caused and the innocent (potential) victims of it. That's good. Now, to get there, I think starts in Genesis 32 with his encounter with God. Without that encounter, Jacob would think he is alone facing Esau. He's not.
When we face trouble, we are not alone.
That's part one of the message. Part two, though, goes back to my fourth paragraph, the one where I mention how I had personally misunderstood this passage and had heard it presented differently, where Jacob's actions are the work of a man hiding behind his children. A man who is hiding behind his "least favorite" children first, and then the rest of his children at that.
Bible reading is a funny thing: there is nothing more important that a Christian can do and there are few things that we do so badly as read the Bible. We come with a lot of previously held opinions and want to find the Bible backs them up. We come with previously heard stories and want to find them presented just the same way in Scripture.
That's a danger we must be careful of falling into. Here's the truth: we cannot study the Bible with a completely open mind. We come with certain assumptions and find them validated: an example is that I come to the Bible believing there's a God and that God wants to be known. As such, I see in the text validation that there is a God, He wants to be known, and the Bible is the primary vehicle of that knowledge.
Now, some of these assumptions are good; some are not. We need to constantly allow the text to reshape those assumptions. At some points in history people came with the assumption the world was flat and found Scripture to agree; later years we found the world to be round and feel Scripture validates that view. My assumptions about how the world began and how it ends are somewhat in flux, with the hard stance being this: God did it, God sustains it, God ends it in His good time. The text has shaped and reshaped my understanding.
So, be cautious when a text is one that "you've always read this way." Make sure you're not missing anything there or adding in something that's not there. You may not be: the Resurrection is a pretty clear fact, though you may have missed a detail. But you may be taking the wrong lesson from some things—consider, and reconsider. The same God who inspired the text will illuminate it as your read it.