De-escalation or “standing down” from potential emotional or political flash-points is a principle found throughout the Old and New Testaments alike. We see it everywhere from proverbs such as “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but harsh words stir up anger” (Proverbs 15:1 NLT) to the words of Jesus himself: “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9).
But there is one section of the Bible that provides an amazingly clear example of interpersonal de-escalation – the story of the patriarch Jacob’s meeting with his brother Esau a number of years after Jacob had effectively cheated his brother out of his inheritance with that famous post-hunting trip bowl of stew (Genesis 25:34). When that incident occurred, Jacob had to literally leave town in the hopes that his brother’s anger (which was at the homicidal level) might subside (Genesis 27:43-44).
When we fast-forward in this story to the next time Jacob and Esau met – some twenty years later – we read that Jacob sent a message to his brother to test the situation and the returning messengers said: “We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him” (Genesis 32:6). If there was ever a situation needing de-escalation, this would appear to be it.
Understandably, Jacob felt “fear and distress’ (Genesis 32:7), but notice how he handled the situation: “Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well. He thought, ‘If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape’” (Genesis 32:7-8). Jacob then – understandably – prayed and asked God for his protection in this situation (Genesis 32:9-12). This was good basic tactical preparation. Jacob did what he could and asked God to help with the rest. But Jacob then proceeded to employ a very astute plan of de-escalation.
Jacob selected a large group of animals from his herds and flocks and divided these animals into smaller groups, each under the control of some of his servants – telling them “Go ahead of me, and keep some space between the herds” (Genesis 32:13-16). “For he thought, ‘I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me’” (Genesis 32:20). This approach of attempting to win his brother’s favor by means of generous gifts is obvious enough, but there is a great deal more tactical wisdom to it than might meet the eye.
By sending his gift in multiple installments, Jacob actually gained a number of tactical advantages. First, he slowed the advance of Esau and his four hundred men who had to repeatedly stop and deal with the incoming gifts of animals. This not only bought Jacob time to plan and prepare for their meeting, but also slowed Esau down and helped distract him from any murderous thoughts of vengeance that may have been in his mind.
Second, Jacob continually bled off small numbers of Esau’s men who would have to be assigned to take charge of and herd the numerous groups of animals. Just as important from a tactical perspective, Jacob also was able to repeatedly insert small groups of his own men into the heart of the advancing potential enemy – giving him a major tactical plus if fighting occurred.
Third, from a tactical perspective, Jacob might have guessed that Esau did not regularly keep four hundred men in his employ. It was very likely that many if not most of these men had been quickly brought together as a mercenary force with the promise of plunder if they helped Esau attack Jacob’s group. If this were the case, Jacob’s extensive gifts gave Esau an option not to have to fight – they provided him with ample goods to pay off any fighters Esau might have hired.
Finally, there was, of course, an undoubted and cumulative psychological effect of the gifts Jacob sent ahead. Just as the Book of Proverbs tells us that a gift “pacifies anger” (Proverbs 21:14), Jacob was clearly aware of the potential for this in the gifts he was sending, as we have seen (Genesis 32:20). In that day and age it was also common for minor kings and nations to pay “tribute” (read “protection money”) to greater kings and nations in order to gain a guarantee of their safety from attack by their more powerful neighbors. Jacob’s gifts could clearly be seen as “tribute” – reinforcing the psychological effect of gifts that also proclaimed submissiveness.
Perhaps not surprisingly, and perhaps with God’s help, of course, this multi-pronged approach of de-escalation was wildly effective. When the two groups finally came into combat range Jacob cemented the de-escalation by stepping forward and bowing before his brother (Genesis 33:3). How effective this all was can be seen in Esau’s response: “Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him” (Genesis 33:4). If we think this would have been Esau’s response all along, we should ask ourselves why he needed to bring four hundred men to do that.
Submission may not always be the appropriate approach in situations where de-escalation is needed, but it often is. There is no question that Jacob’s humble strategy and careful use of tactical principles was totally successful in protecting a small group from a much larger and potentially very hostile one. The principles Jacob utilized are also a lasting lesson for us in the value of asking God’s help, then doing everything we can to avert violence when that is possible. In more cases than not, de-escalation does not just happen. De-escalation – as Jacob teaches us – is usually a matter of strategy and of carefully applied tactics.