Genesis (Part 144)

Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

Genesis 32: 6-8

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.” 7 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, 8 thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, then the camp that is left will escape.”


The theme of two camps continues here. Jacob names the place where they are “Mahanaim” in verse 2 to signify the existence of two camps – the camp of angels and his own. Here in this section, we get another reason to call the place “two camps.”

Manaheim = מַחֲנַיִם Machănayim, makh-an-ah’-yim; dual of H4264; double camp; Machanajim, a place in Palestine:—Mahanaim.

From The Pulpit Commentaries in verse 6:

Genesis 32:6

And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, We came to thy brother Esau, and also he cometh to meet thee (vide Genesis 33:1), and four hundred men with him. That Esau was attended by 400 armed followers was a proof that he had grown to be a powerful chieftain. If the hypothesis be admissible that he had already begun to live by the sword (Genesis 27:40), and was now invading the territory of the Horites, which he afterwards occupied (Delitzsch, Keil, Kurtz), it will serve to explain his appearance in the land of Seir, while as yet he had not finally retired from Canaan. That he came with such a formidable force to meet his brother has been set down to personal vanity, or a desire to show how powerful a prince he had become (Lyra, Menochius); to fraternal kindness, which prompted him to do honor to his brother (Poole, Calvin, Clarke), to a distinctly hostile intention (Willet, Ainsworth, Candlish), at least if circumstances should seem to call for vengeance (Keil), though it is probable that Esau’s mind, on first hearing of his brother’s nearness, was simply excited, and “in that wavering state which the slightest incident might soothe into good will, or rouse into vengeance” (Murphy).

As the note implies, there is wide disagreement as to Esau’s meaning or intention here. Bringing armed men could be viewed either as an attempt to honor his brother or it could be an attempt to demonstrate his own power. It could also be a function of mixed emotions and keeping his options open to either outcome.

Verse 7 tells us that Jacob was greatly afraid. It is worth remembering that Jacob has been essentially hiding from Esau for between 20 and 40 years (depending on one’s interpretation of his time with Laban.) Jacob *just* saw a camp of angels and was told by the Lord to return home. However, it appears that he is nonetheless afraid – fearing perhaps that he may have earned some retribution from his brother based on their earlier dealings. From Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:

(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.

afraid = יָרֵא yârêʼ, yaw-ray’; a primitive root; to fear; morally to revere; causatively to frighten:—affright, be (make) afraid, dread(-ful), (put in) fear(-ful, -fully, -ing), (be had in) reverence(-end), × see, terrible (act, -ness, thing).

The Pulpit Commentaries says the following about these verses:

Genesis 32:7Genesis 32:8

Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed:—literally, it was narrow to him; i.e. he was perplexed. Clearly the impression left on Jacob’s mind by the report of his ambassadors was that he had nothing to expect but hostility—and he divided the people that was with him, and the flocks, and herds, and the camels, into two bands;—according to Gerlach, caravans are frequently divided thus in the present day, and for the same reason as Jacob assigns—And said, If Esau come to the one company, and smite it, then the other company which is left shall escape. It is easy to blame Jacob for want of faith in not trusting to God instead of resorting to his own devices (Candlish), but his behavior in the circumstances evinced great self-possession, non ita expavefactum fuisse Jacob quin res suns eomponeret (Calvin), considerable prudence (Lange), if not exalted chivalry (Candlish), a peaceful disposition which did not wish vim armata repellere (Rosenmüller), and a truly-religious spirit (‘Speaker’s Commentary’), since in his terror he betakes himself to prayer.

An article at discussing the chapter to this point, and the issue of “two camps,” is titled Jacob’s Journey to Mahanaim and Penuel in J and E and it is written by Dr. David Ben-Gad HaCohen. I will include some excerpts below. The scholarly backdrop is the prevalent idea that Genesis is constructed from a pair of sources – a Jehovist souroce and an Elohist source. In addition, the work connect the story here in Chapter 32 with the event of Jacob wrestling a divine being and subsequently being renamed Israel:

It seems that this story too functions as an etiology for the name Mahanaim, which means “a double-camp.” In other words, this story offers a folk-etymology of the place called Mahanaim, understanding it as the place where Jacob divided his camp into two camps when he was preparing to meet his brother Esau.

Of course, the dual ending ָיִם “aim” in place names does not necessarily express the concept of two but is a standard ending for geographical locations: Yerushalaim, Shaaraim, Einaim, Kiryataim, Naharaim, etc.[2] Nevertheless, such playful interpretations of names is standard in folk-etymologies.


Meeting Esau – The J Story

Whereas the story of Jacob’s encountering the encampment of angels is from the E source, the account of Jacob’s meeting with Esau, and the extensive preparations for it, is part of J.[3] This is clear from a number of elements: 
* The name for maidservant is שפחה (vv. 32:6, 23, 33:1-2, 6), as is standard for J, as opposed to E’s preferred term,[4] אמה;
* Jacob’s prayer uses the name YHWH (32:10);
* Jacob’s prayer has a literary connection with YHWH’s message to Jacob in Gen 28:13-14 (J), including the promise to make Jacob’s descendants as numerous as sand and to ensure his safe return to the land;[5]
* Jacob’s reference to the presents he sent to Esau as “my blessing” (ברכתי; 33:11) almost certainly invokes the J story of Jacob stealing Esau’s blessing.[6]

Accordingly, although J’s story does not include a naming of Mahanaim, “the place where Jacob split his camp” is almost certainly J’s folk-etymology for this toponym.[7] The complier of the Pentateuch often included only one reference to a specific detail such as naming, birth, or death, and deleted the doubled language.[8]


The E story begins with what may be an ancient poem, with a simple chiastic structure:

And a man wrestled with him 
וַיִּגַּע בְּכַף יְרֵכוֹBAnd he struck his hip at its socket,
וַתֵּקַע כַּף יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹבB’The socket of Jacob’s hip was dislocated,
בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ.A’As he wrestled with him.

The fight itself takes place not in Penuel, but in Mahanaim, where Jacob had been resting for the night (32:14a). But having escaped with his life, Jacob limps away and passes by a place called Penuel, God’s face. As the text does not explain the name of this second site explicitly, the reader is left to infer the meaning from the wrestling with the “man,” who had likely been a part of the camp, and the fact that it is the ending of the Mahanaim story, where he saw an encampment of God (more on this later.)

Perhaps Jacob did name the place in E, but this section was cut in favor of J’s naming. Either way, the story is used here to explain an Israelite taboo—not eating the sinew of the thigh.

The J Story

J’s story is significantly longer, and is meant to explain the name Israel in a midrashic way.[9] The name Israel actually means: “El will rule (ש.ר.ר),” but the Judahite author of J, who was a stickler for the name YHWH, might have found that meaning objectionable, and thus demoted el here to a divine being by attaching it to what was probably a famous story about Jacob facing an angel in Penuel. Jacob then names the site, though the spelling is slightly variant to its usual spelling (Peniel instead of Penuel).

J’s story also contains the final preparations for the coming of Esau; that night he crosses his family and personal belongings to the other side of the stream, and remains behind on his own to face his brother. This would give them even more time to escape in case Esau and his 400 men meant mischief.

Why is it that both E and J connect the Mahanaim and Penuel stories? The answer lies in the geography of these two cities: they are located on opposite sides of the Jabbok, in close proximity to each other. Thus, standing at the stream between the two cities, one could refer to both.

About 6 km. east of Tell Deir Alla, biblical Sukkot, the Jabbok Stream (Wadi az-Zarqa) forms a deep loop to the south immediately followed by another deep loop to the north. On the land at the center of each loop stands a site that goes back to biblical times.[10] Together, the sites are known as Tulul adh-Dhahab, literally, “the mounds of gold.” Biblical archaeologists have long identified these two sites with the biblical cities of Mahanaim and Penuel.[11] This being the case, it is hardly surprising that the midrashic etiologies about the origin of their names come together in both sources.

The proximity of the two sites, on opposite sides of the stream, also helps us understand the meaning of Penuel in E. If Mahanaim is God’s camp, then Penuel, which is just across the stream from Mahanaim, is “facing God,” a folk-etymology of the city’s name. In other words, in E, it isn’t just that Jacob “faced God” when he wrestled with an angel,[12] but that the city of Penuel faces the city of God’s camp, Mahanaim. 

If the J vs. E stuff is confusing to you, then you are not alone on that front. There are also allegedly P and D documents as well. I won’t go into it too much here (that’s for a later lengthy post) but a great read on the subject can be found HERE:

As we know, Jacob survives his reunion with Esau. We’ll read about the beginnings of that in the next section.