Jacob returns to Canaan a changed man from when he left over 20 years ago. Not only is he wealthy with an enormous family, but he is also experienced in the grace of God and aware of all that he owes to Him. He hasn’t completely left behind the scheming man who cheated his brother and deceived his father, but he knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of unjust and deceptive treatment and knows that God controls all outcomes. His conversion to a God-dependent follower becomes even more complete after a face-to-face meeting with God just outside of Canaan. After seeing and wrestling with God overnight Jacob leaves knowing nothing will ever be the same. The lesson of Genesis 32 is that no one encounters God and stays the same, and God doesn’t allow His children to live unchanging lives.
After Laban says goodbye to his daughters and grandchildren and exits Jacob’s life (most likely to no one’s regret), Jacob continues on his journey home. On the way, the angels of God meet him. The author tells us this with no comment and no other explanation. We don’t know exactly where this happens or what the purpose of the meeting is. And nothing is recorded as to any dialogue between Jacob and the angels or any statement from God. We just know Jacob meets some angels and then names the place he met them using a word meaning “two camps” or “two companies.”
So what do we read into this story? Any explanation is obviously conjecture, but perhaps this is God’s way to further encourage Jacob and show him – just as he is about to enter Canaan and just as he is fully independent for the first time in 20 years – that He will protect him. And Jacob’s name for the place perhaps means there are two companies of angels at his disposal, or that God’s camp is with his camp. Whatever the explanation, it seems that God wants Jacob to know He is with him just as He promised when He told him to leave Haran. Once again, God encourages Jacob when he most needs it.
Jacob sends messengers ahead to Esau. Somehow he knows where Esau lives (perhaps he is able to make inquiries as to what happened to him or perhaps he got word from home sometime during his stay in Haran) and so sends the messengers to Edom. He tells them to explain to Esau that he has been with Laban this whole time and that he returns to Canaan a wealthy man who wants to find favor with Esau (implying that he will make it worth Esau’s while to accept Jacob favorably). He makes sure to phrase the message as humbly as possible, telling the messengers to refer to Jacob as Esau’s servant and to refer to Esau as “my lord.”
All of this makes sense from the standpoint of Jacob having no idea how angry Esau remains two decades after Jacob cheated him. Remember that the whole reason Jacob left Canaan was to escape Esau’s promised revenge. Twenty years ago Esau swore to kill him (27:41), so it pays for Jacob to tread lightly now that he returns. The fact that his first order of business upon entering Canaan is to seek out his brother shows how concerned he is about how Esau will respond.
We don’t know how long it takes, but the messengers go and return. Their message upon returning is cryptic and frightening. They say they reached Esau and that he is coming to meet Jacob with 400 men. They don’t bring a message from Esau and they don’t explain why he’s bringing 400 men with him. They simply report what’s happening and apparently leave it up to Jacob to draw his own conclusions.
The servants’ actions here are interesting. Why don’t they give any more information than this? Why don’t they express an opinion about Esau’s intentions? And how do they have no message from Esau himself? Perhaps they act as they do because Esau didn’t give them anything? Maybe they gave the message to Esau and he told them to simply return to Jacob and tell him he’s coming and he’s bringing 400 men with him? If so – and we have no idea of what actually happened when they encountered Esau – perhaps Esau wants Jacob to be worried and wants Jacob to wonder about his intentions. Maybe he likes leaving things ambiguous so he can size up Jacob when he meets him. Esau certainly has the right to be skeptical of his brother’s objectives in reaching out to him. And it’s hard to begrudge Esau any attempt to make Jacob squirm a little. In the end he may be willing to let bygones be bygones, but perhaps he wants to approach Jacob on his own terms without giving away what he plans to do.
Jacob reacts to the messengers’ news with fear. He assumes the worst and takes action to save his family and wealth. He divides the people and the flocks and the herds into two groups, reasoning that if Esau attacks one the other will survive. That way he won’t lose everything in one attack. There is no mention of how many people are with Jacob, but he knows he stands no chance against 400 men. Nothing is in the text as to how he divides the people, but the fact that verse 22 mentions his wives and children being with him may mean that the two groups don’t include family members. Perhaps the two groups go ahead while Jacob and the women and children stay together.
After dividing the groups, Jacob prays. We could possibly criticize him for taking action before asking for God’s help and we might criticize his great fear of Esau (especially since he just met God’s angels), but his prayer shows his ultimate trust is in God (not his defensive actions to thwart Esau), and his fear drives him to prayer which is certainly not a bad thing.
He prays and reminds God that God told him to come back to Canaan and that God would prosper him (God actually said He would be with Jacob – 31:3 – but perhaps the meaning is roughly the same). He humbly acknowledges that God has blessed him far more than he deserves, and has showered him with lovingkindness and faithfulness. He left Canaan with nothing and now has great wealth. He then asks God to protect him from Esau and to save his wives and children. He ends by reminding God that God promised that his descendants would be innumerable (which obviously won’t be the case if Esau wipes out his family).
[The text doesn’t hold this up as a model prayer, but we can probably learn from it nonetheless. Jacob reminds God of God’s promises and then acknowledges how God has been faithful to him in the past, and then asks for God to be faithful again. There is wisdom in this method. It is never wrong to bring up scriptural promises to God (assuming it is with a humble attitude) and it is always good to rehearse how God has protected/blessed/guided us in the past. And it is always good to take our concerns to God.]
The prayer shows Jacob in a good light. It shows that he’s learned much about God during his contentious stay in Haran. The mistreatment he endured at Laban’s hands and God’s faithful blessing in the midst of it has changed him. He knows what a miracle it was that he prospered for 20 years while his father-in-law actively tried to take advantage of him. And he saw firsthand how God rose above every circumstance (and he also just saw God’s angels at the entrance to Canaan). As a result, he knows God can protect him (though he fears Esau maybe more than he should) and that God isn’t bound by the plans or strength of men.
Jacob’s prayer shows what happens to God’s children when He works in their lives. God doesn’t let His children stay the same. He has worked on Jacob for the last two decades to get him to this place. And God works on all of His children to make them more useful for His kingdom and more like Himself. He brings circumstances – like Laban’s unjust actions and deceit – to mold them and change them. He causes growth; He sculpts away the rough spots; He rounds off the sharp edges; all to make them into God-glorifying, God-serving and God-resembling children. No one likes all the circumstances God brings (as we saw in Jacob’s defense to Laban in 31:36-42), but the payoff is always worth it and the results far outweigh the pain. God loves His children too much to allow them to remain unchanged.
After praying, Jacob decides to send a generous present ahead to Esau with the hope that it will placate him and cause him to see Jacob more favorably. He puts together an enormously valuable collection of animals and separates them into droves. He then tells his servants to drive them to Esau and put space between the droves so that Esau will come upon them one by one. The reason for the separate droves is perhaps to impress upon Esau the size of the gift and also to have each of the servants express to Esau that Jacob comes in peace and has nothing but goodwill toward his brother (Esau will later ask Jacob, “What’s with all the droves?” – 33:8).
The end of the chapter describes an extremely odd and difficult-to-understand scene. Jacob sends his wives/maids and children across the Jabbok River (which makes it sound like they aren’t part of the two companies – or that only one of the companies has family in it). The text actually says that he and his two wives and two maids and eleven children cross the river (Jacob actually has twelve children, but presumably the text references only the sons). Along with his family, he sends any possessions that are still with him across also (it is unclear if he crosses or if he only sends family and possessions across – the text seems to say both).
For some reason, he does this at night. Perhaps it is part of the security of trying to evade Esau or perhaps it’s just how the timing works out. Either way, once everyone is across he finds himself alone. It is unclear if this is by design, but God uses it to appear to him.
The text says that a man wrestled with him until daybreak. Since we don’t know when the man shows up there’s no way to know how long this wrestling match lasts. We also don’t know how the man showed up or what caused them to start wrestling. Perhaps he comes to where Jacob is and grabs him such that Jacob has no choice but to defend himself (this likely would be an amazing scene to witness).
Perhaps owing to Jacob’s great strength (remember him rolling the stone off the well that typically took two men to move – 29:10 – albeit 20 years ago?) or more likely because he chooses not to, the man does not prevail against Jacob even after wrestling for such a long time. To enable him to defeat Jacob, he touches (or hits) the socket of Jacob’s thigh and dislocates it (it’s not exactly clear what part of the body he harms, but whatever it is it causes Jacob to limp as a result).
Even this apparently doesn’t stop Jacob because the man then asks Jacob to let him go. He actually tells Jacob to let him go because dawn is about to break. The reason for this isn’t known, but perhaps it is so Jacob won’t see his face. Why he doesn’t want Jacob to see him isn’t clear. It is possible that he is God Himself and wants to stay hidden lest His glory kill Jacob. However, Hosea will later refer to him as the angel (Hosea 12:4), so the ultimate reason remains a mystery.
Jacob tells him he won’t release him without a blessing. This shows that Jacob knows his opponent is more than a man by this point and also acknowledges that the man is superior to Jacob (the demand is actually a sign of humility). In response, the man changes Jacob’s name. He tells him that he will no longer be known as Jacob, but Israel. This is significant because of the meaning of the names. The name Jacob means “one who takes by the heel” (25:26) which is an idiom for “deceiver.” All his life Jacob has lived with this name and in many cases lived up to it (see Esau’s words in 27:36). But now God renames him and uses a name meaning either “one who strives with God” or “God strives.” Jacob is a changed man, and from here on his name will reflect that.
This scene is difficult to understand. What is the point of wrestling? And what does it mean that Jacob has striven with God and with men and has prevailed? Is that a good thing? Perhaps the wrestling match is a picture of Jacob’s life to this point. Literally from the womb – 25:22 – he has had conflict and has continually sought to get ahead through it. And perhaps throughout that time he has also struggled with God in refusing to yield completely to His authority. Yet he has prevailed throughout his life – and even in this match to some extent – but not because of his own strength. He has prevailed because God ensured that he did. But in yielding to God in this match by asking for a blessing, he shows that he realizes his position before and dependence upon God and so God marks the change by a new name.
This is the first instance of the name Israel in the Bible. It is from this name change that Jacob’s descendants will be identified. Interestingly, throughout the rest of Genesis and even when he’s referred to in the future, Jacob is rarely called Israel. However, its usage doesn’t detract from the significance of the change. The God of Abraham and Isaac is now the God of Jacob.
The wrestling match is another illustration of what we mentioned before. No one encounters God and leaves unchanged. And God doesn’t allow his children to remain the same. Wrestling is obviously an extreme example, but God oftentimes uses circumstances in a similar way to effect change or to show us change in our lives (we may not realize how we’ve changed until God shows us). God does not leave us alone and loves us too much to allow us to stagnate for long periods. Whether it’s forcing us to deal with sin or making us address our weaknesses, God manufactures situations and events to cause growth and make us more useful for Him. Though all-night wrestling matches are no fun, their existence is proof that God loves us and works for our best. And we come away from them changed and grateful and useful.
Jacob asks the man’s name but is refused. The man blesses him and leaves (how is not explained). Jacob names the place Peniel, which means “the face of God” (this is his third encounter with God or a messenger of God and in each case he’s named the place where it occurred – Bethel, Mahanaim, Peniel). He names the place because, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” This would perhaps argue that Hosea’s identification of the man as the angel doesn’t rule out that he was in fact God Himself. If this is the case, Jacob doesn’t mean that he actually gazed on God’s face as much as he came face to face with him.
When the sun rises (interesting that the text specifically calls this out, once again highlighting that the man had to come and go in darkness), Jacob goes to rejoin his family. As he walks, he limps as a result of the injury the man gave him. It could be that this is a lifetime injury or it may be something that goes away – either is possible as the text doesn’t address it. The text does say that the injury causes the descendants of Israel to not eat the sinew of the hip which is on the socket of the thigh because that is where the man touched. That area becomes too sacred to eat.
We don’t know what happens when Jacob rejoins his family or how he explains his whereabouts overnight. His explanation to Leah and Rachel and the kids would no doubt be fascinating to hear.
He now prepares to meet Esau. He likely prepares with a changed perspective as a result of his encounter with God. There is no doubt as to God’s presence with him. He may have no idea what to expect from Esau, but he knows what to expect from God. And the latter is much more important than the former.