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    Esau’s army – Vayyishlach

    Jacob sees Esau coming to meet him, by James Tissot

    Jacob sees Esau coming to meet him, by James Tissot

    Gen. 32:7 tells us that Esau was supported by an army of four hundred men when he encountered Jacob.

    The story is supposed to be about the reconciliation of the two brothers, so why did Esau need to bring an army with him?

    No wonder Rashbam remarks that Jacob distrusted Esau, more or less in line with the rabbinic advice, kab’dehu v’chash’dehu – “Respect him but suspect him” (a well-known saying that does not seem to have a specific source in the Talmud).

    Why the four hundred men? Did Esau have them because he planned to attack and annihilate his brother?

    That’s the approach that Sforno takes to the story, but more likely the army was part of a bargaining ploy. It’s not that Esau was definitely bent on wiping out Jacob, but he wanted to intimidate Jacob and show him how what strength he could utilise if he wished. The army represented a threat and not a promise.

    What did Jacob have to counter them?

    Go back to the end of last week’s sidra and you find what he had – an army of angels. A host which – according to the description of angels in the Friday night hymn, Shalom Aleichem – represented peace and joy.

    Jacob had no intention of attacking Esau. All he wanted was peace and brotherhood.

    Rashi says that Jacob would only contemplate armed combat as a last resort: he relied on peace offerings and prayer before thinking of war.

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