Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him.XXXII.
(1) Jacob went on his way.—The meeting of Jacob and Laban had been on the dividing line between the Aramean and the Canaanite lands, and consequently at a spot where Laban would have found no allies in the natives, but rather the contrary. Delivered thus from danger from behind, Jacob now takes his journey through the country that was to be the heritage of his seed, and doubtless he was harassed by many anxious thoughts; for Esau might prove a fiercer foe than Laban. It was fit therefore that he should receive encouragement, and so after some days, probably after about a week’s journey southward, he has a vision of “angels of God.”
Angels of God.—Numberless conjectures have been hazarded as to who were these “messengers of Elohim,” and how they were seen by Jacob. Some, taking the word in its lower sense, think they were prophets; others, that it was a caravan, which gave Jacob timely information about Esau’s presence in Seir; others, that it was a body of men sent by Rebekah to aid Jacob in repelling Esau. More probably, as Jacob on his road to Padan-aram had been assured of God’s watchful care of him by the vision of the angels ascending and descending the stairs, so now also in a dream he sees the angels encamped on each side of him, to assure him of protection against his brother.
And when Jacob saw them, he said, This is God's host: and he called the name of that place Mahanaim.(2) Mahanaim.—That is, the two camps, his own and that of the angels; or, possibly, two camps of angels, one on either side of him. Mahanaim was in the tribe of Gad, and became an important town. (See 2Samuel 2:8; 2Samuel 17:24; 1Kings 4:14.)
And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother unto the land of Seir, the country of Edom.JACOB’S RECONCILIATION WITH ESAU.
(3) Jacob sent messengers.—As Jacob travelled homewards to Hebron the news somehow reached him that Esau, at the head of a large body of retainers, was engaged in an expedition against the Horites. These, as we have seen on Genesis 14:6, were a miserable race of cave-men, utterly unable to cope with Esau and his trained servants. We learn from Genesis 36:6 that Esau’s home was still with Isaac at Hebron, and probably this was a mere marauding expedition, like that against the people of Gath, which a century later cost Ephraim the lives of so many of his sons (1Chronicles 7:21); but it revealed to Esau the weakness of the in habitants, and also that the land was admirably adapted for his favourite pursuit of hunting. He seems also to have taken a Horite wife (Genesis 36:5), and being thus connected with the country, upon Isaac’s death he willingly removed into it, and it then became “the country,” Heb. the field of Edom. Its other name, Seir, i.e. rough, hairy, shows that it was then covered with forests, and the term field that it was an uncultivated region. It was entirely in the spirit of the adventurous Esau to make this expedition, and on his father’s death to prefer this wild land to the peaceful pastures at Hebron, where he was surrounded by powerful tribes of Amorites and Hittites. The land of Seir was a hundred miles distant from Mahanaim, but Esau apparently had been moving up through what were afterwards the countries of Moab and Ammon, and was probably, when Jacob sent his messengers, at no very great distance. At all events, Jacob remained at Mahanaim till his brother was near, when he crossed the brook Jabbok, and went to meet him.
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) Jacob was greatly afraid.—Jacob’s message to his brother had been very humble, for he calls Esau his lord, and himself a servant. He hopes also to “find grace in his sight,” and by enumerating his wealth shows that he required no aid, nor need claim even a share of Isaac’s property. But Esau had given no answer, being probably undecided as to the manner in which he would receive his brother. The “four hundred men with him” formed probably only a part of the little army with which he had invaded the Horite territory. Some would be left with the spoil which he had gathered, but he took so many with him as to place Jacob completely in his power. And Jacob’s extreme distress, in spite of the Divine encouragement repeatedly given him, shows that his faith was very feeble; but it was real, and therefore he sought refuge from his terror in prayer.
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) Jacob said.—Jacob’s prayer, the first recorded in the Bible, is remarkable for combining great earnestness with simplicity. After addressing God as the Elohim of his. fathers, he draws closer to Him as the Jehovah who had personally commanded him to return to his birthplace (Genesis 31:13). And next, while acknowledging his own unworthiness, he shows that already he had been the recipient of the Divine favour, and prays earnestly for deliverance, using the touching words “and smite me, mother upon children.” His mind does not rest upon his own death, but upon the terrible picture of the mother, trying with all a mother’s love to protect her offspring, and slain upon their bodies. In Hosea 10:14 this is spoken of as the most cruel and pitiable of the miseries of war. But finally he feels that this sad end is impossible; for he has God’s promise that his seed shall be numerous as the sand of the sea. In prayer to man it may be ungenerous to remind another of promises made and favours expected, but with God each first act of grace and mercy is the pledge of continued favour.
And he lodged there that same night; and took of that which came to his hand a present for Esau his brother;(13) He lodged there.—That is, at Mahanaim. On the first news of Esau’s approach in so hostile a manner, Jacob had divided his possessions into two main divisions, in the hope of saving at least one. He now, quieted by his prayer, makes more exact arrangements, selects a present for Esau of five hundred and fifty head of cattle, sends them forward with intervals between, that repeated impressions might soften his brother’s fierce mood, sees all his followers safely across the Jabbok, and remains alone behind to pray. As he thus placed everything in Esau’s power, faith seems to have regained the ascendancy over his fears, though he still takes every prudent measure for the safety of those whom he loved.
Of that which came to his hand.—Heb., of that which came in his hand. Some Jewish interpreters take the phrase literally, and suppose that it was precious stones; more truly it means “what he possessed,” or what he had with him. The phrase “which came to his hand” would imply that he made no selection, but took what came first in his way.
Two hundred she goats, and twenty he goats, two hundred ewes, and twenty rams,(14, 15) Goats—ewes—camels—kine—asses.—As the kinds of cattle are arranged according to their value, it is remarkable that kine should be prized above camels; for the milk of cows was regarded as of little worth. This high estimation of them, therefore, must have arisen from an increased regard for agriculture, the ploughing being done in the East by oxen. Asses of course come last, as being the animal used by chieftains for riding, and therefore prized as matters of luxury. (See Genesis 12:16; Judges 5:10.) Jacob selected “milch camels” because their milk forms a valuable part of the daily food of the Arabs.
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.(16) A space.—Heb., a breathing place. These paration of the droves would be a matter of course, as each kind would travel peaceably onward only by itself. But Jacob rightly concluded that the repeated acknowledgment of Esau as his lord, added to the great value of the gift, would fill his brother’s heart with friendly feelings, and perhaps therefore he put a longer space than usual between the successive droves.
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.—The Heb. literally is, he said I will cover his face with the offering that goeth before my face, and afterwards I will see his face; peradventure he will lift up my face. The covering of the face of the offended person, so that he could no longer see the offence, became the usual legal word for making an atonement (Leviticus 9:7, &c). For the “offering” (Heb., minchah) see Genesis 4:3; and for “the lifting up of the face,” Genesis 4:7.
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 Jabbok.—Heb., the ford of the Jabbok. This river, now called the Wady Zerba or Blue Torrent, formed afterwards the boundary between the tribes of Manasseh and Gad. It flows through a deep ravine, with so rapid a current as to make the crossing of it a matter of difficulty. Dr. Tristram (Land of Israel, p. 558) says that the water reached his horse’s girths when he rode through the ford.
And he took them, and sent them over the brook, and sent over that he had.(23) The brook.—Really, the ravine or valley; Arab., wady. Jacob, whose administrative powers were of a very high character, sees his wives, children, and cattle not only through the ford, but across the valley on to the high ground beyond. Staying himself to the very last, he is left alone on the south side of the torrent, but still in the ravine, across which the rest had taken their way. The definite proof that Jacob remained on the south side lies in the fact that Peniel belonged to the tribe of Gad; but, besides this, there could be no reason why he should recross the rapid river when once he had gone through it, and probably the idea has risen from taking the word brook in Genesis 32:23 in too narrow a sense. Really it is the word translated valley in Genesis 26:17, but is used only of such valleys or ravines as have been formed by the action of a mountain torrent. When Jacob had seen his wives and herds safe on the top of the southern ridge, the deep valley would be the very place for this solitary struggle. This ravine, we are told, has a width of from four to six miles.
And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.(24) There wrestled.—This verb, abak, occurs only here, and without doubt it was chosen because of its resemblance to the name Jabbok. Its probable derivation is from a word signifying dust, because wrestlers were quickly involved in a cloud of dust, or because, as was the custom in Greece, they rubbed their bodies with it.
A man.—Such he seemed to be to Jacob; but Hosea (Genesis 12:4) calls him an angel; and, in Genesis 32:30, Jacob recognises in him a manifestation of the Deity, as Hagar had done before, when an angel appeared to her (Genesis 16:13). There is no warrant for regarding the angel as an incarnation of Deity, any more than in the case of Manoah (Judges 13:22); but it was a manifestation of God mediately by His messenger, and was one of the many signs indicative of a more complete manifestation by the coming of the Word in the flesh. The opposite idea of many modern commentators, that the narrative is an allegory, is contradicted by the attendant circumstances, especially by the change of Jacob’s name, and his subsequent lameness, to which national testimony was borne by the customs of the Jews.
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) The hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint.—The hollow is in the Hebrew the pan or socket into which the end of the thigh bone is inserted, and the verb more probably signifies that it was sprained from the over-tension of the muscles in the wrestling. But, in spite of his sprained tendons, Jacob still resisted, and could not be thrown down, and the angel, unable to gain any further advantage, at last acknowledges Jacob’s superiority, and at sunrise craves permission to depart.
And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.(26) Let me go . . . —Heb., send me away, for the gleam of morning has gone up. The asking of permission to depart was the acknowledgment of defeat. The struggle must end at daybreak, because Jacob must now go to do his duty; and the wrestling had been for the purpose of giving him courage, and enabling him to meet danger and difficulty in the power of faith. A curious Jewish idea is that the angel was that one whose duty it was to defend and protect Esau. By the aid of his own protecting angel Jacob, they say, had overpowered him, and had won the birthright and the precedence as “Israel, a prince with God and man.”
Except thou bless me.—The vanquished must yield the spoil to the victor; and Jacob, who had gradually become aware that the being who was wrestling with him was something more than man, asks of him, as his ransom, a blessing.
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, a prince of God, or, one powerful with God. (See Note on Genesis 17:15.) Esau had given a bad meaning to the name of Jacob, nor had it been undeserved. But a change has now come over Jacob’s character, and he is henceforth no longer the crafty schemer who was ever plotting for his own advantage, but one humble and penitent, who can trust himself and all he has in God’s hands. The last words signify, for thou art a prince with God and men; or possibly, for thou hast striven with God and men.
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) Wherefore . . . —In much the same manner the angel refuses to tell Manoah his name (Judges 13:18). Probably, however, in the blessing which followed there was a clear proof that Jacob’s opponent was a Divine personage.
And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.(30) Peniel.—Elsewhere Penuel, and so probably it should be read here. It means, “the face of God.” For the rest of the verse see Note on Genesis 16:13.
And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh.(31) As he passed over Pemiel.—Rather, as he passed Penuel. It was the place where he had wrestled, and as soon as the angel left him he proceeded onwards to rejoin his wives. It appears, from what is here said, that it was not till he tried to walk that he found out that he was lame. As his sinews grew cool, the injury to his hip-joint showed itself.
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) The sinew which shrank.—This translation has much authority in its favour, as the LXX. render the sinew that became numb, and the Vulgate the sinew that withered. More probably, however, it is the proper name for the large tendon which takes its origin from the spinal cord, and extends down the thigh unto the ankle. Technically it is called nervus ischiaticus, and by the Greeks was named tendo Achillis, because it reaches to the heel. Jewish commentators notice that this was the second special ordinance imposed upon the race of Abraham, circumcision having been enjoined upon them by God, while this grew out of an historical event in the life of their progenitor, to the reality of which it bears remarkable testimony.