"He sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau…" (Gen. 32:4)


  • Why did the Torah say "ahead of him", which appears superfluous?
  • The word "his brother" also needs justification. Who did not know that Esau was Jacob's brother?
  • Even the words "the land of Se-ir in the field of Edom" need an explanation.
  • What difference would it make to the angels where Esau was located?
  • Why did Jacob employ heavenly beings without a pressing need? He could have accomplished the same thing by employing human messengers!


The Torah says "ahead of him" to tell us that since Jacob had already met with these angels and they had obviously come to help him, he was permitted to use them as messengers for a task that human messengers might prove inadequate for.

...he might not consider messengers of a lower order as appropriate to his stature.

Jacob reasoned that seeing that these messengers would meet an important man such as Esau, he might not consider messengers of a lower order as appropriate to his stature. (Compare Bereishit Raba 75) Esau might not have responded to any other messengers at all.

It is also possible that Esau would immediately pounce on Jacob's human messengers as the eagle does when he swoops out of the skies, thus not giving any warning before attacking them. For all these reasons Jacob was justified in employing celestial beings to act as his messengers. Perhaps he also hoped that when Esau became aware that he, Jacob, had celestial beings do his bidding he would desist from his planned attack on Jacob altogether. The Midrash we quoted above refers to those angels as being garbed in "fiery garments, riding horses of fire..."

The reason the Torah mentions the word "his brother" is to emphasize that Jacob dispatched the messengers in a spirit of brotherliness and that he accorded Esau the honor due to an older brother. He was afraid of engaging Esau in warfare in case the latter should invoke his father's merits.

Another approach is also possible. The Torah emphasizes: "to Esau" in order to tell us that on the one hand Esau hated him; on the other hand, the Torah wrote "to his brother", to tell us that he did not hate him, that he was his brother. The messengers should be guided in their approach to Esau according to the frame of mind they would find him in. Since only celestial beings could divine Esau's frame of mind with any certainty, Jacob had to send celestial messengers to accomplish this task.

The angels did not actually have to go anywhere.

Still another possibility is that Jacob's strategy was to send messengers to Esau before Esau had a chance to hear about his approach from another source. This is the line with the various Midrashim in which Jacob is criticized severely for not letting sleeping dogs lie, for demeaning himself by repeating so many times: "your servant Jacob..." He chose to send angels who would not have to exert themselves by excessive travel. To the angels, the whole universe appears no greater than four cubits do to us mortal human beings. When the Torah reports that Jacob send messengers ahead of him to Esau, the word "ahead of him" is an allusion that the angels were still literally in his presence although they performed their mission to Esau who was quite a distance away. The angels did not actually have to go anywhere. All they had to do was face in a different direction. The reason that the field is called "Edom" is that they would arrive at Esau's i.e. the field of Edom, before the latter had a chance to even get under way towards Jacob.

[Selected with permission from the five-volume English edition of "Ohr HaChaim: the Torah Commentary of Rabbi Chaim Ben Attar" by Eliyahu Munk.]