Commentary on Genesis 32

Last updated: October 19, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. 2And when Jacob saw them he said, “This is God’s camp!” So he called the name of that place Mahanaim.

3And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother in the land of Seir, the country of Edom, 4instructing them, “Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have sojourned with Laban and stayed until now. 5I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male servants, and female servants. I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight.'”

6And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” 7Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed. He divided the people who were with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, 8thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, then the camp that is left will escape.”

9And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’ 10I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. 11Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. 12But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.'”

13So he stayed there that night, and from what he had with him he took a present for his brother Esau, 14two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 15thirty milking camels and their calves, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. 16These he handed over to his servants, every drove by itself, and said to his servants, “Pass on ahead of me and put a space between drove and drove.” 17He instructed the first, “When Esau my brother meets you and asks you, ‘To whom do you belong? Where are you going? And whose are these ahead of you?’ 18then you shall say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a present sent to my lord Esau. And moreover, he is behind us.'” 19He likewise instructed the second and the third and all who followed the droves, “You shall say the same thing to Esau when you find him, 20and you shall say, ‘Moreover, your servant Jacob is behind us.'” For he thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me.” 21So the present passed on ahead of him, and he himself stayed that night in the camp.

22The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 24And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.

Notes

1-2 Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. And when Jacob saw them he said, “This is God’s camp!” So he called the name of that place Mahanaim.

The description of the meeting of the angelic host points us back to Jacob’s dream theophany in 28:10-12: “went/set out” (halak), “met/reached” (paga), and “the angels of God” (mal’ake elohim). This latter expression appears only in 28:12 and 32:1[2] in the whole of the Old Testament. In Jacob’s departure from Canaan and in his return, the angels of God appeared to him, suggesting their accompaniment of the patriarch during the entirety of his travels. The absence of a verbal message from the angels in chap. 32 is another facet of the account that creates perplexity in the reader. At Bethel, too, the angels do not speak, but there the Lord delivers a message (28:12-13). In the first case Jacob “reached” (paga) the sacred “place” (maqom) of Bethel (28:11), but in the “place” (maqom) of Mahanaim the angels “met” (paga) the patriarch. It was they who were scouting the area for Jacob. Although outside the land of promise, he was not outside the hand of promise. Houtman observes that the word “camp” (mahaneh) indicates a temporary, mobile settlement versus the permanency of the “house of God” (bet elohim) at Bethel. He finds the “stairway” resting on the earth in the Bethel dream conveys the same sense of a mobile residence. Are the angels Jacob’s unseen traveling companions (cf. 24:7; 48:16)?1

Mahanaim means “two camps.”2 It is located east of the Jordan on the border between the territories of the half-tribe of Manasseh and the tribe of Gad (Joshua 13:26, 30). What two camps are in mind is unclear (Jacob and Laban?, Jacob and Esau?, Jacob and the angels?). It is noteworthy that Jacob subsequently divides his camp into two camps.

3-5 And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother in the land of Seir, the country of Edom, instructing them, “Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have sojourned with Laban and stayed until now. I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male servants, and female servants. I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight.'”

It is now presupposed that Esau had migrated east of the Jordan to Seir.

The three Hebrew words se’ir, sadeh, and ‘edom are deliberately used to evoke memories of the hostile relations with Esau, the one covered with hair (se’ar), a man of the outdoors (sadeh), of ruddy complexion (‘admoni), who came in from the field (sadeh) and begged for the red stuff (‘adom), and whose hairiness (sa’ir) played a crucial role in the deception that precipitated Jacob’s flight to Laban.3

Jacob tells the messengers to use conciliatory language (lord/servant) towards the possibly still angry Esau. He tells them to say he has been with Laban the whole twenty years and that is why he has not previously contacted Esau.

6 And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.”

Four hundred men may have been the standard size of a militia (1 Samuel 22:2; 25:13; 30:10, 17). This explains Jacob’s fear in verse 7.

7-8 Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed. He divided the people who were with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, then the camp that is left will escape.”

A retreat was impossible with women, children, and flocks. The best he can hope for is to spare some of his camp.

9-12 And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.'”

This invocation combines features from 28:13-15 and 31:3. “The prayer ends with a recollection of divine promises still to be redeemed. The desperate appeal is thereby grounded in God’s steadfast fealty, not in the petitioner’s merit. At the moment of crisis it is a concern with posterity that is uppermost in Jacob’s mind.”4

13-15 So he stayed there that night, and from what he had with him he took a present for his brother Esau, two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milking camels and their calves, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys.

The young animals and female animals were particularly valuable since they could be used to grow the herd.

22-23 The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had.

Only the principal actors in the evolution of the nation are mentioned as Jacob is about to become Israel.

[The Jabbok] is one of the most important [rivers] east of the Jordan. Flowing through a deep ravine on a meandering course, it joins the Jordan River at right angles about 20 miles (32 km.) north of the Dead Sea. Before the construction of bridges, flat stepping-stones or timber would be laid across the shallowest and narrowest part to afford passage. To cross at night with a vast entourage is a difficult and dangerous operation, to be undertaken only by moonlight and only as a matter of great urgency. By moving from the northern to the southern side of the river, Jacob is placing himself all the more quickly in the path of Esau, who is advancing from Seir in the north. His tactic, apparently, is to reduce the interval between Esau’s encountering the gifts and his own arrival heralded by his messengers, each in turn. He can thereby better exploit the immediate psychological advantage gained form the mollifying effect of the tribute and at the same time enhance his claim actually to be on his way to meet his brother. He does not want to convey the impression that he is trying to avoid or delay a face-to-face meeting.5

24 And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.

In verses 28 and 30 the man is called a divine being (elohim). Hosea 12:4 identifies the man as an angel. The Hebrew word for “wrestled” is a play on both Jacob and Jabbok.6

25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.

Note that Jacob is ninety-seven years old at this point in the narrative. He can therefore hardly be considered a challenge to an angel in physical terms. Though there is no reason to doubt that a physical contest takes place, we cannot make the mistake of thinking that is the main point. When the text tells us that Jacob’s opponent cannot overcome him, it is not suggesting that Jacob is physically besting the man. The ease with which he inflicts physical damage on Jacob (32:25) indicates that any inability must be in the spiritual arena, not the physical one. If the wrestler is unable to overcome Jacob spiritually, it is because Jacob is not willing to yield. Only when the man threatens to go without offering assurances of God’s help does Jacob show his willingness to negotiate in the critical issues.7

The last element in the narrative to deal with is Jacob’s yarek (hip/thigh). The “hollow” of his yarek is “touched/struck” and as a result is “wrenched” (NIV) or, more likely, “torn” or even “ruptured.” Consequently he limps. Yarek is the same word translated “thigh” in Genesis 24:2, 9. In that context there is no mention of the “hollow” of the thigh; instead, Abraham’s servant places his hand “under” the thigh. Yarek usually refers to flesh or muscle rather than the pelvic bone. That which the Israelites do not eat (32:32) would also be meat (tendons/sinew, see Job 10:11; Ezek. 37:6; and Akkadian) rather than bone. This suggests the possibility that yarek refers to the groin area.

The word translated “hollow” (Heb. Kap) when associated with the hand or foot is usually translated palm or sole. But the fact that the kap can be cut off (Deut. 25:12; Judg. 8:15; 1 Sam. 5:4) indicates that the word refers to an entire hand or foot and generally refers to an appendage. Again, usage suggests that it is not the appendage of a bone but one of flesh. Finally, the word used in combination with the sinew to describe what the Israelites do not eat occurs only here and is indecipherable.

Whatever this part is, it is most logical that this is the part that is injured. While the “hollow/appendage of the thigh” describes the area, the “tendon of the X” specifically describes the damaged part that Israelites do not eat. It should be noted that Jacob’s injury does not necessarily create a permanent disability. The text says that in the morning he is limping – it does not say that he has a limp the rest of his life. It is therefore not a requirement that the terms we have been looking at be understood in a way that produces a debilitating injury that will not have healed over time.

What conclusions can we draw from all of this? If there were only the description of the injury, a blow to the groin area causing a rupture of the testicles would make the most sense of the language used here. But that does not fit with the description of what the Israelites do not eat. But if we are trying to figure everything out, we may a well ask why something that happens to Jacob dictates what part of an animal they can eat. Until more linguistic information comes to light that can further explain technical meanings of the terms used in these verses, the precise interpretation must remain obscure.8

26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

The divine assailant may want to leave before morning so that Jacob cannot see him in his entirety. That Jacob believes the man can render a blessing indicates he knows his identity to some degree.

Since this is God’s messenger, Jacob has his opportunity to obtain the blessing from God that had escaped him until now, for he had only received his father’s blessing and that was given unwittingly. The earlier narratives have implied that Jacob is already the recipient of the Lord’s blessing (30:27, 30; cf. 35:9; 48:3), but it is explicitly stated for the first time that God “blessed him” (v. 29 [30]). This experience provides Jacob (and his descendants) the confirmation of God’s blessing. The precise nature of this blessing is unstated. We may surmise that Jacob sought the power only God could provide him to overcome his enemies. The difficulty with this understanding, however, is that Jacob had already overpowered the “man,” leaving the impression that the blessing Jacob sought transcended the circumstances. He seeks from the Lord the assurance that his descendants will endure, creating the nation God had promised (28:13-14; 31:3, 13). That the blessing is or is related to the name “Israel” fits textually since the name presumes the nation that his sons will furnish.9

27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”

In disclosing his name Jacob is doing more than sharing information. He is making a confession about the appropriateness of his name. Only now would Jacob agree with Esau that Jacob is the perfect name for him (27:36). The acknowledgement of the old name, and its unfortunate suitability, paves the way for a new name.10

28 Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

The name Israel means “God struggles/fights.”11 The men Jacob prevailed over include Esau and Laban. Walton believes that by yielding to God’s blessing Jacob prevails in a spiritual sense; by relying on God one no longer needs to struggle with God.

29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.

In Judges 13:17-18, the angel also refuses to give his name. The question, “Why is it that you ask my name,” seems to be a way of saying, “Don’t you realize who I am?” After the disappearance of the divine being, the protagonists in both stories realize the true identity of the visitor.

30 So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.”

Peniel means “Face of God.”12 It may be identified with Tulul adh-Dhahab, on the Jabbok a few miles from where it flows into the Jordan.13 Since it was night, Jacob’s statement about seeing God face to face is not meant literally, rather it means he had a direct, non-mediated encounter with God.14

When Jacob adds now my life has been preserved, he does not mean that he is happily surprised that he has seen God and is still alive. Jacob is not saying: “By all logical considerations, I should be dead by now.” It is true that God says that “a man shall not see me and live” (Exod. 33:20) (a concept that admits exceptions throughout the OT), but that is hardly Jacob’s concern. Such an interpretation misses the thrust of the double use of the root nsl in this chapter. Earlier Jacob had prayed “Preserve me [hassileni] from my brother” (v. 12). Now he says: my life has been preserved (wattinnasel). In other words, Jacob’s recognition that none other than God himself stands before him gives to Jacob the assurance that Esau shall not destroy him. Jacob’s earlier prayer for deliverance is now answered by God in this encounter. Jacob shall be “preserved” from Esau, for God has “preserved” him. In this verse Jacob moves, in his own words, from a proclamation of revelation (“I have seen God face-to-face”) to a statement of testimony (“and yet my life has been preserved”), that is, he shifts from awe to relief.15

31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

The sun rises after the assailant is gone, meaning it was not the sun that allowed Jacob to identify the assailant.

32 Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.

Jewish tradition identifies “the sinew of the thigh” with the sciatic nerve.16 “By refraining from eating this sinew, the Israelites were constantly reminded of Jacob’s meeting with God and the promise of ultimate victory and blessing he wrung from God then.”17

Bibliography

Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament 1B. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary Volume 1B. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

Sarna, Nahum M. JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989.

Walton, John H. Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.

Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary 2. Thomas Nelson, 1994.

1Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 547.

2Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 317.

3Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 224.

4Ibid., 225.

5Ibid., 226-227.

6Ibid., 227.

7Walton, Genesis, 605.

8Ibid., 607-608.

9Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 558.

10Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 333.

11Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 296-297.

12Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 228.

13Ibid.

14Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 336.

15Ibid., 337.

16Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 228.

17Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 297-298.

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