Here, we continue our study in Genesis.
32:1Jacob also went on his way, and the angels of God met him. 2When Jacob saw them, he said, "This is the camp of God!" So he named that place Mahanaim.
3Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. 4He instructed them: "This is what you are to say to my master Esau: `Your servant Jacob says, I have been staying with Laban and have remained there till now. 5I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, menservants and maidservants. Now I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favor in your eyes.'"
6When the messengers returned to Jacob, they said, "We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him."
7In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well. 8He thought, "If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape."
9Then Jacob prayed, "O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who said to me, `Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,' 10I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups. 11Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. 12But you have said, `I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.'"
13He spent the night there, and from what he had with him he selected a gift for his brother Esau: 14two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 15thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. 16He put them in the care of his servants, each herd by itself, and said to his servants, "Go ahead of me, and keep some space between the herds."
17He instructed the one in the lead: "When my brother Esau meets you and asks, `To whom do you belong, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?' 18then you are to say, `They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us.'"
19He also instructed the second, the third and all the others who followed the herds: "You are to say the same thing to Esau when you meet him. 20And be sure to say, `Your servant Jacob is coming behind us.'" 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." 21So Jacob's gifts went on ahead of him, but he himself spent the night in the camp.
In the previous chapter, Jacob took his final leave of Laban. In doing so, he effectively promised Laban that he would not return (see Gen. 31:52). So, there is now only one way for Jacob to travel, and that is home to Canaan. But, ahead of him is Esau, his brother who at one time vowed to kill him (see Gen. 27:41). Thus, Jacob is (proverbially speaking) between a rock and a hard place. However, God is with Him, and makes His presence known to him: "Jacob also went on his way, and the angels of God met him" (Gen. 32:1). God is good. Sometimes obedience to His commands is not easy. We face difficulties in carrying out His will. Jacob was commanded to return to Canaan (see Gen. 31:13). This was a difficult command for Jacob to carry out because of Esau's pledge to kill him. But God showed Jacob that He was with him, and that Jacob was indeed within the will of God in returning to Canaan, by sending "angels" to meet Jacob in his journey. So we learn that God tests us and send trials so that we might mature in our faith; but we also learn that God is with us through the trials, supporting us and strengthening us. Paul taught: "No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it" (I Cor. 10:13).
Again: "the angels of God met [Jacob]," and so note this: angels are real. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews asks rhetorically (thereby teaching us the office of angels): "Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?" (Heb. 1:14). There are special promises concerning the protection of believers by angels, among them: "If you make the Most High your dwelling--even the LORD, who is my refuge-- then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent. For He will command His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone" (Ps. 91:9-12). Jacob was blessed by God in that he was shown the angels that were protecting him: "When Jacob saw them, he said, `This is the camp of God!' So he named that place Mahanaim" (Gen. 32:2). Jacob acknowledged the presence of the angels and the protection of God by naming the place "Mahanaim". "Mahanaim" means "two camps". Jacob not only had his own camp (which was formidable in itself) with which to confront Esau, but was also accompanied by a camp of God's angels.
Jacob devised a plan in order to try to mitigate some of his brother's anger: "Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. He instructed them: `This is what you are to say to my master Esau: "Your servant Jacob says, I have been staying with Laban and have remained there till now. I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, menservants and maidservants. Now I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favor in your eyes."'" (vss. 3-5). Jacob's plan was to let Esau know about his riches--his "cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, menservants and maidservants"--so that Esau would not see him as a threat to reclaim all the riches of the birthright. Also, Jacob went out of his way in order to appease Esau by using phrases such as: "my master Esau...your servant Jacob...to my lord..." Such humiliation of himself on Jacob's part was not within the will of God. In the oracle God gave to Jacob's mother Rebekah, He had said, "The older will serve the younger" (Gen. 25:23). Thus, by using such humiliating language, Jacob was ceding to Esau what was rightfully his own, given to him by God. Jacob was hardly stepping out in the faith of someone who had a camp of angels protecting him. On the contrary, though the camp of angels was with him, Jacob was still walking in his own power, and in his own ability to devise his own plans and schemes, rather than turning to God for strength and wisdom.
Note in passing that Esau was not even living in the promised land of Canaan, but was living in "Seir, the country of Edom", which was on the other side of the Dead Sea from the land of Canaan. We are not given the specific reasons for this, but we can speculate that the tension between Esau's Hittite wives and his parents Isaac and Rebekah (see Gen. 26:35) had not improved, and so, Esau moved out of the promised land. Given this, Jacob, in wanting to return to Canaan, was absolutely no threat to Esau's wealth and property.
Jacob's scheme did not work very well: "When the messengers returned to Jacob, they said, `We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him'" (vs. 6). The "four hundred men" were clearly meant to be a threat to Jacob. Esau was bringing an army to meet his brother, whom he had not seen for twenty years. "In great fear and distress", Jacob withdrew. He "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'" (vs. 7-8).
Up to this point, from a worldly point of view, Jacob had acted with wisdom, had done everything that was right in order to assess the threat of Esau and to protect his own family. From a godly point of view though, Jacob had neglected to do a very important thing, something which he should have done first, before coming up with his own scheme: he should have first prayed to God. Now finally, in verse 9, after his own scheme had failed, we read: "Then Jacob prayed." We so often turn to God only as a last resort. When the situation gets utterly hopeless, when we have backed ourselves into a corner, then and only then do we turn to God in prayer. Why do we wait so long? Pray first! If we would pray first, we would save ourselves a lot of distress. Jacob's fear of the "four hundred men" drove him to prayer. God often uses trials to get our attention, and to turn us back to Him.
Believe it or not, Jacob's prayer here is only the second recorded prayer in the Bible. The first recorded prayer (recall) was an intercessory prayer when Abraham pleaded with God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (see Gen. 18:16ff). So, this is the first recorded prayer that deals with one's own needs. And it is (for the most part) a model prayer, a prayer we would do well in using as an example. Jacob began by addressing God as the God of the covenant promises: "O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac" (vs. 9). Jacob's invocation of the God of the Covenant of his people is similar to us invoking the God of our Covenant by saying, "Our Father in heaven" (Matt. 6:9). Jacob continued: "O LORD" (or "YHWH", the name of God) "who said to me, `Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper.'" We are always on solid ground in our prayers when our actions are in line with a command of God, and our petitions are consistent with a promise of God. Though Jacob was appealing to a promise of God, he didn't treat the promise as something that God owed him due to his own merit. Rather, he prayed: "I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant" (vs. 10). Jacob prayed with humility before God, realizing that he did not deserve the blessings and favor of God. He looked back to the work that God had done on his behalf throughout his life: "I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups" (vs. 10). After this prelude, Jacob came to his petition: "Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children" (vs. 11). To end his prayer, Jacob again appealed to a promise of God: "But you have said, `I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted'" (vs. 12). God, of course, does not need to be reminded of His promises, but our remembrance of them boosts our confidence in prayer, and strengthens our faith.
After his prayer, Jacob devised another plan. He sent a large gift ("two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys") ahead of him to Esau, with servants to attend to the gift. This was a wise plan. If Esau accepted the gift, he could not (for honor's sake) attack Jacob. If he did not accept the gift, Jacob would have plenty of time to react to the rejection of the gift and prepare for a conflict. Jacob advised his servants to tell Esau, in response to an inquiry concerning the gift: "They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us" (vs. 18). Again, I believe that Jacob went overboard on his humility in saying to Esau "your servant Jacob... my lord Esau." "There is a difference between genuine repentance and grovelling humiliation." Jacob did not have to renounce the exalted position that God had given him. Jacob did not need to humiliate himself in front of Esau. What he needed to do was apologize to and ask for forgiveness from Esau for his scheming. Jacob here is typical of those who need forgiveness from God: they send gift after gift (by doing "good works") thinking this will appease God. What they really need is to repent and receive the forgiveness of God that is available for the asking through Jesus Christ.
32:22That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak."
But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."
27The man asked him, "What is your name?"
"Jacob," he answered.
28Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."
29Jacob said, "Please tell me your name."
But he replied, "Why do you ask my name?" Then he blessed him there.
30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared."
31The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. 32Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob's hip was touched near the tendon.
Now we come to this strange, almost surreal, event in Jacob's life, where he wrestles an angel of the Lord. Jacob apparently could not sleep due to his anxiety over meeting Esau. So, "that night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok" (vs. 22). Presumably to get a quieter environment so that he may sleep better, Jacob took everyone and all his possessions across the river, but he himself remained on the other side. Jacob (I'm sure) felt that he needed lots of rest before confronting Esau; however, God had other ideas: "So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak" (vs. 23). Because this narrative is told from Jacob's point of view, the wrestler is originally called a "man". We learn from the book of Hosea that the wrestler was an "angel" (see Hosea 12:4). At the end of the episode, Jacob believed that he wrestled with God Himself (see vs. 30). So, who was this wrestler? I believe (as do many other commentators), that the wrestler was an Old Testament appearance of Jesus Christ Himself. We do know (whoever the wrestler may have been) that he was sent from God and that this struggle represents God's ongoing struggle with Jacob.
It is significant that the "man wrestled with [Jacob]" (vs. 24). Some see in this event a symbol of how believers can achieve their objectives through struggling with God in prayer. This interpretation, however, does not fit the details of the event. It was not Jacob wrestling with God, but God wrestling with Jacob. This event is a symbolic picture of God's grace and care for us. Rather than overpowering us, forcing us to do His will, or (on the other hand) rather than ignoring us when we are disobedient, God wrestles with us to turn us toward Him. Jacob (typical of us) was always trying to get things done his own way, always devising schemes to achieve his own purposes. God forever was wrestling with Jacob to get him to depend on Him. Finally, in order to get Jacob to cling to Him, God "touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled the man" (vs. 25). This again is the grace of God. God could not get Jacob to change (He "could not overpower him") by just wrestling with him: Jacob rather than give up would just keep wrestling. God had to send an affliction, had to cripple him, in order to get him to stop wrestling. Note, the affliction was sent as a last resort, because it was the only thing that could get Jacob to stop wrestling with God and start clinging to God.
God, through the wrestler, achieved His purpose: "Then the man said, `Let me go, for it is daybreak.' But Jacob replied, `I will not let you go unless you bless me'" (vs. 26). Jacob was clinging so hard that the angel had to ask him to let go. The Lord through Hosea gives us a clearer picture of how desperately Jacob was clinging to the wrestler: "[Jacob] struggled with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged for his favor" (Hosea 12:4). Jacob would not let go until he received a blessing from the wrestler. Jacob, it appears, was well aware that he was wrestling a representative (if not a representation) of God, for he knew that the wrestler had the power to bless him.
The wrestler answered Jacob by changing his name: "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome" (vs. 28). The name "Jacob" (which literally means, "heel catcher") is a picture of Jacob's struggles with men; his new name "Israel" (which seems to mean "he struggles with God") is a picture of Jacob's struggle with God. Significantly, "Israel" could also be translated "God struggles". This latter translation best fits this episode because, as we have said, it was God who was wrestling with Jacob.
Interestingly, the wrestler said that Jacob struggled with God, and that Jacob had "overcome". I would hardly call someone who was permanently crippled and clinging to his adversary as being the one who had "overcome". However, it was in God's eyes that Jacob overcame, for God has defined what it means to overcome: "For everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God" (I John 5:4,5). The only true victors in the world are those who are "born of God". After the wrestling match, "the sun rose above Jacob". This could be symbolic of Jacob's new birth. He is a new person. He was Jacob, now he is Israel. He did depend upon his own schemings, now he clings to God, and depends on Him. We should all learn from Jacob. Let us all stop wrestling with God and start clinging to Him, so that we too, in this way, may "overcome".