Genesis 32
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 32 (J, E.) Jacob at Mahanaim and Penuel

1–2.  Jacob at Mahanaim.

3–12.  The Approach of Esau, and Jacob’s Prayer.

13–21.  Jacob’s Present to Esau.

22–32.  Jacob’s Wrestling with the Angel.

In this section Genesis 32:1-2 are from E; 3–13a from J (notice the different explanations given of the origin of the name “Mahanaim” in Genesis 32:2 and in Genesis 32:7-8); Genesis 32:13 b–21 are very probably from E, since 21b seems to take up the thread of 13a.

And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him.
1. the angels of God] See note on Genesis 28:12. The appearance of the angels to Jacob on his return from Haran, as on his journey thither, gives him the assurance of God’s presence. In chap. 28 it was a dream; here we are told the angels “met him.”

And when Jacob saw them, he said, This is God's host: and he called the name of that place Mahanaim.
2. This is God’s host] The Heb. word for “host” (maḥaneh) is usually, and ought here to be, rendered “camp.” The angels are regarded as the warriors of Jehovah; cf. the narrative in Joshua 5:13-15, and 1 Kings 22:19; Psalm 103:21; Psalm 148:2.

Mahanaim] That is, Two hosts, or, companies. The termination -aim denotes the dual. Possibly Jacob here refers to the two “companies,” or “encampments,” one of the angels, and the other of his own followers. The LXX renders παρεμβολαί = “camps”; Lat. Mahanaim, id est, Castra, without reference to the dual number. For another derivation of the name, see on Genesis 32:7; Genesis 32:10.

Mahanaim was in later times a place of considerable importance. During Absalom’s rebellion it was the residence and head-quarters of David; see 2 Samuel 17:24; 2 Samuel 17:27. Cf. 2 Samuel 2:8; 2 Samuel 2:12; 2 Samuel 2:29; 1 Kings 2:8. The site is uncertain: from Genesis 32:11 it would appear to be not far from the banks of the Jordan, and from Genesis 32:22 to lie north of the Jabbok (modern Zerka). In Joshua 13:26-30, it appears to lie on the confines of Gad and Manasseh.

And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother unto the land of Seir, the country of Edom.
3–12 (J). The Approach of Esau, and Jacob’s Prayer

3. the land of Seir] This name for the country occupied by the Edomites (Genesis 14:6) seems to mean the “shaggy,” or “rough,” “forest-covered” country; see Genesis 33:14; Genesis 33:16, Genesis 36:8. It is applied not only to the mountains on the east of the Arabah desert, but also to the mountain country of the Arabah and the southern borders of Palestine.

the field of Edom] The future home of Esau’s descendants is here so called by a not unnatural anachronism. Cf. Genesis 14:7, “the country of the Amalekites”; Genesis 21:34, “the land of the Philistines.”

The description of the country by the twofold name “land of Seir” and “field of Edom” indicates the two sources of the narrative.

And he commanded them, saying, Thus shall ye speak unto my lord Esau; Thy servant Jacob saith thus, I have sojourned with Laban, and stayed there until now:
4. my lord Esau] Jacob adopts the language of extreme courtesy and respect. Cf. Genesis 18:3, Genesis 43:20, Genesis 44:18.

And I have oxen, and asses, flocks, and menservants, and womenservants: and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find grace in thy sight.
5. find grace] Cf. Genesis 18:3, Genesis 33:8; Genesis 33:15, Genesis 34:11, Genesis 47:25. Jacob hopes to be reconciled and desires to propitiate his brother. He has not forgotten his brother’s threats (Genesis 27:41).

And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, We came to thy brother Esau, and also he cometh to meet thee, and four hundred men with him.
6. four hundred men] Where Esau was, and how he had become the head of a force of four hundred men, is not related, but may have formed part of another narrative. His intentions, if not hostile, are suspicious (cf. Genesis 33:4).

Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed: and he divided the people that was with him, and the flocks, and herds, and the camels, into two bands;
7. two companies] The word for “companies” is the same as that rendered “host” in Genesis 32:2, except that it occurs in the plural (mahanoth). This is evidently another explanation of the origin of the name Mahanaim. It is a pity that the same word, “camp,” has not been used here and in Genesis 32:2; Genesis 32:8; Genesis 32:10; Genesis 32:21, in order to bring out the two etymologies that were current.

And said, If Esau come to the one company, and smite it, then the other company which is left shall escape.
And Jacob said, O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, the LORD which saidst unto me, Return unto thy country, and to thy kindred, and I will deal well with thee:
9. O God, &c.] Jacob’s prayer consists of (1) an invocation; (2) a reminder of the promise; (3) a humble acknowledgment of mercies; (4) an entreaty (a) for protection, and (b) for the fulfilment of the covenant promise. Jacob’s prayer, followed by the symbolic scene of the wrestling with the angel (Genesis 32:24-32), is an indication that, through discipline, the patriarch’s character has been made ready for the exercise of the faith of which it was capable, and for submission to the Will which it had begun to recognize. The absence of confession of sin has been remarked upon. The self-sufficiency still lingers; see Genesis 32:11.

which saidst] The reference is to Genesis 31:3.

I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which thou hast shewed unto thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two bands.
10. I am not worthy] Heb. I am less than all, &c. The meaning is, “I am too small and insignificant to deserve.” For this idiom, cf. Genesis 4:13, Genesis 18:14.

mercies … truth] See Genesis 24:27; Genesis 24:49 : i.e. “manifestations of graciousness and fidelity.”

with my staff] i.e. with only my shepherd’s stick (maḳḳêl) in my hand, Exodus 12:11; Numbers 22:27.

I passed over this Jordan] Jacob is on the banks of the Jabbok; but evidently the distance from the river Jordan was not considerable.

two companies] Heb. mahanoth. Another evident allusion to the name Mahanaim; cf. Genesis 32:2; Genesis 32:7.

Deliver me, I pray thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau: for I fear him, lest he will come and smite me, and the mother with the children.
11. from the hand of Esau] Jacob in his prayer makes no reference to the possible cause of Esau’s anger, and expresses no consciousness of, nor sorrow for, his own wrong-doing towards either Esau or Isaac.

the mother with the children] A proverbial phrase for “the mother and family”; cf. Hosea 10:14.

And thou saidst, I will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.
12. thou saidst] See Genesis 28:14.

as the sand of the sea] See Genesis 13:16, Genesis 22:17, and cf. Genesis 16:10.

And he lodged there that same night; and took of that which came to his hand a present for Esau his brother;
13–21. Jacob’s Present to Esau

13. a present] Heb. minḥah. Cf. Genesis 43:11; Genesis 43:15. See note on Genesis 4:3. Jacob hopes that a substantial present will turn away the resentment of his brother. Proverbs 18:16, “a man’s gift maketh room for him”; Genesis 21:14, “a gift in secret pacifieth anger”; cf. Abigail’s present to David, 1 Samuel 25:18; 1 Samuel 25:27.

Two hundred she goats, and twenty he goats, two hundred ewes, and twenty rams,
14. two hundred, &c.] The numbers here given enable us to form some idea of the great size of Jacob’s caravan. The animals are apparently mentioned in the order of their value, beginning with the least valuable.

Jacob hopes by the arrival of a succession of gifts to break down Esau’s bitter grudge against him. For “a brother offended,” cf. Proverbs 18:19.

Thirty milch camels with their colts, forty kine, and ten bulls, twenty she asses, and ten foals.
And he delivered them into the hand of his servants, every drove by themselves; and said unto his servants, Pass over before me, and put a space betwixt drove and drove.
And he commanded the foremost, saying, When Esau my brother meeteth thee, and asketh thee, saying, Whose art thou? and whither goest thou? and whose are these before thee?
Then thou shalt say, They be thy servant Jacob's; it is a present sent unto my lord Esau: and, behold, also he is behind us.
And so commanded he the second, and the third, and all that followed the droves, saying, On this manner shall ye speak unto Esau, when ye find him.
And say ye moreover, Behold, thy servant Jacob is behind us. For he said, I will appease him with the present that goeth before me, and afterward I will see his face; peradventure he will accept of me.
20. I will appease him] Lit. “I will cover his face,” in the sense of “I will propitiate.” The present will so “cover his face,” that Esau cannot look upon Jacob’s offence; cf. Genesis 20:16. LXX renders ἐξιλάσομαι τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ. Cf. Proverbs 16:14 (the pacifying of a king’s wrath with a gift).

accept me] Lit. “lift up my face.” Cf. Genesis 4:7, Genesis 19:21; Malachi 1:8.

So went the present over before him: and himself lodged that night in the company.
21. company] Lit. “camp”; cf. Genesis 32:7.

And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two womenservants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok.
22. the ford of Jabbok] This river, the modern Zerka, is a tributary of the Jordan on its eastern bank. The narrative does not state on which bank of the Jabbok the angel appeared to Jacob. According to Genesis 32:22 Jacob had crossed the stream; according to Genesis 32:23 he had not. If, as seems probable, Genesis 32:24-32 follow Genesis 32:22 and belong to J (Genesis 32:23 belonging to the E narrative), Jacob met the angel on the S. bank of the Jabbok.

22–32. Jacob’s Wrestling with the Angel

This passage forms the climax of Jacob’s history. It records the occasion on which his name is changed to Israel, and describes his personal meeting with the Divine Being, whose blessing he obtains. The religious significance of the story turns upon (1) the sudden mysterious wrestling by night; (2) Jacob’s persistence in his demand for a blessing; (3) the blessing given, and symbolized by the new name, Israel; (4) the physical disability, a memorial of acceptance and spiritual victory, and a symbol of the frailty of earthly strength, in the crisis of life, when God meets man face to face. See the hymn “Come, O thou Traveller unknown” (Chas. Wesley).

And he took them, and sent them over the brook, and sent over that he had.
23. the stream] The Jabbok is called a “stream” (naḥal) in Deuteronomy 3:16; Joshua 12:2. On the word rendered “stream,” see note on Genesis 26:17.

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
24. And Jacob … alone] It is natural to suppose that Jacob remained behind to think and to pray at this crisis of his life. He was given over to anxious fears; the darkness and loneliness intensified them. The thought that God had left him, or was opposed to him, overwhelmed him.

there wrestled a man] The brevity of the account leaves it unexplained, who the man is, how he appeared, and how the contest began.

The word for “wrestled,” yêâbêk, is very possibly intended to be a play on the name of the river Jabbok as if it meant “twisting.” In Genesis 32:28, and in Hosea 12:4, a different word, “to strive,” is used for the “wrestling” of Jacob. It is this scene of “wrestling” which has become, in the language of spiritual experience, the classical symbol for “agonizing” in prayer.

And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.
25. he saw] In the narrative, as we have it, these words refer to the mysterious combatant with whom Jacob wrestled. But the omission of the subject both in this and the subsequent clause, in the Hebrew as well as in the English, leaves the meaning ambiguous. That it was Jacob, and not “the man,” who by some trick of wrestling got the mastery, may have been the version of the story referred to in Hosea 12:4, “he had power over the angel, and prevailed.”

And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.
26. the day breaketh] A survival of the old belief that unearthly visitants of the night must be gone before daybreak. In Plautus, Amphitr. 532f., Jupiter says, “Cur me tenes? Tempus est: exire ex urbe, priusquam lucescat, volo.” Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act i. Scene i.:

Ber. It was about to speak, when the cock crew.

Hor. And then it started like a guilty thing.”

See note on Genesis 19:15; Genesis 19:23.

except thou bless me] Jacob had suddenly realized, through the touch of physical suffering, that he was in the grasp of more than mortal power. He neither shrinks, nor desists, but maintains his hold and asks for a blessing.

And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob.
27. What is thy name?] This question, concerning the name which the Questioner knows, leads up to the solemn pronunciation of Jacob’s new title.

And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.
28. Israel] That is, He who striveth with God, or, God striveth. The name is clearly a title of victory, from a root meaning “to persevere.” (a) The meaning seems here to be applied to Jacob as “the perseverer with God.” It is commonly compared with Jerubbaal = “he that striveth with Baal” (Jdg 6:32). The prophet Hosea gives this meaning in Genesis 12:3-4, “in his manhood [or ‘strength’] he had power [or ‘persevered,’ ‘strove’] with God; yea, he had power over the angel, and prevailed.” (b) The meaning, on the analogy of similarly formed words, would be “El persevereth”; and would be exactly similar to Seraiah = “Jah perseveres”; Ishmael = “God hears.” Another suggested derivation is from sar = “prince.” See another account of the origin of the name “Israel” given by P in Genesis 35:10.

The narrative of

J, from this point onwards, shews a marked preference for the name “Israel” in its application to the patriarch.

The name of “Israel” has been found, as is generally believed, in the inscription of the Egyptian king, Merneptah (circ. 1230 b.c.), as Ysir’r; and in Assyrian inscriptions as Sirlai.

thou hast striven, &c.] R.V. marg. thou hast had power with God, and thou shalt prevail against men. LXX ἐνίσχυσαςδυνατὸς ἔσῃ; Lat. fortis fuisti … praevalebis. Jacob had prevailed in his contest with Laban; now, also, the promise of deliverance from Esau is contained in the past tense, “hast striven and hast prevailed.” The rendering of the R.V. text gives the literal translation of the Hebrew. The past and the future are embraced in one thought.

And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there.
29. And he blessed him] The name is refused, but the blessing previously asked for (Genesis 32:26) is granted. The same occurrence is recorded in Jdg 13:17-21. The prayer may not always be right or wise. But the blessing is not refused, because the literal answer is not given. The blessing is the sign of God’s Presence and the pledge of man’s salvation.

And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.
30. Peniel] R.V. marg. The face of God. In the Sam. version, Syr., and Lat., it is called “Penuel,” as in Genesis 32:32. Popular tradition explained the etymology of the name of the place by the story of Jacob.

The face of God was to be seen in the Angel: he that looked on the Angel saw the Presence of Jehovah.

I have seen God … preserved] The belief that to see God was to die prevailed amongst the Israelites; see Genesis 16:13; Exodus 19:21; Exodus 24:10-11; Exodus 33:20; Deuteronomy 5:24; Jdg 6:22; Jdg 13:22. Jacob has seen the Divine Being, Elohim, and lives.

Jacob, on his deathbed, refers to this event (Genesis 48:16): “The Angel which redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads.”

face to face] See Exodus 33:11; Deuteronomy 34:10
And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh.
31. And the sun rose] See Genesis 32:24.

Penuel] The name of a town in Jdg 8:8; 1 Kings 12:25. The site is doubtful, but was evidently not far from the confluence of the Jabbok and the Jordan.

Therefore the children of Israel eat not of the sinew which shrank, which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day: because he touched the hollow of Jacob's thigh in the sinew that shrank.
32. Therefore the children of Israel] The Compiler adds this note, which explains the Israelite custom of abstaining from eating the muscle in an animal, corresponding to the muscle, or sinew, in the thigh of Jacob that was touched by God: it was regarded as sacred.

This tendon is commonly supposed to be the sciatic muscle, nervus ischiaticus, running from the thigh to the ankle. No mention of this practice of ritual abstinence occurs in the Levitical law; but it is referred to in the Talmud Tract Chullin, cap. vii.

he touched] The subject to the verb is not expressed, out of motives of reverence.

“The nature of the lameness produced by injury to the sinew of the thigh socket is explained by the Arabic lexx., s.v. ḥârifat; the man can only walk on the tips of his toes” (!).—Robertson Smith, Rel. Sem (380, n. 1).

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