Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.
Genesis 32: 9-12
9 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,’ 10 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. 11 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. 12 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 section is one of the earliest clearly quoted prayers in the Bible. From Ellicott’s Bible Commentary where it is cited as being the first:
(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.
I’m not certain that I agree with Ellicott’s categorization that this is the first recorded prayer in Genesis, though. From Genesis 15:
2 But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” 4 And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” 5 And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 6 And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
This sounds like prayer to me though perhaps Ellicott differentiates the two circumstances by virtue of the potential differences in the manner the petition to God is given.
The Pulpit Commentaries combine the prayer section into a single commentary note.
And Jacob said,—the combined beauty and power, humility and boldness, simplicity and sublimity, brevity and comprehensiveness of this prayer, of which Kalisch somewhat hypercritically complains that it ought to have been offered before resorting to the preceding precautions, has been universally recognized—O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, the Lord—Jacob’s invocation is addressed not to Deity in general, but to the living personal Elohim who had taken his fathers Abraham and Isaac into covenant, i.e. to Jehovah who had enriched them with promises of which he was the heir, and who had specially appeared unto himself (cf. Genesis 28:13; Genesis 31:3, Genesis 31:13)—which saidst unto me, Return unto thy country, and to thy kindred, and I will deal well with thee:—here was a clear indication that Jacob had in faith both obeyed the command and embraced the promise made known to him in Haran—I am not worthy of the least of (literally, I am less than) all the mercies, and (of) all the truth, which thou hast showed unto thy servant;—the profound humility which these words breathe is a sure indication that the character of Jacob had either undergone a great inward transformation, if that was not experienced twenty years before at Bethel, or had shaken off the moral and spiritual lethargy under which he too manifestly labored while in the service of Laban—for with my staff (i.e. possessing nothing but my staff) I passed over this Jordan (the Jabbok was situated near, indeed is a tributary of the Jordan); and now I am become two bands (or Macha-noth). Deliver me, I pray thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau (thus passing from thanksgiving to direct petition, brief, explicit, and fervent): for I fear him, lest he will come and smite me (i.e. my whole clan, as Ishmael, Israel, Edom signify not individuals, but races), and the mother with the children. Literally, mother upon the children, a proverbial expression for unsparing cruelty (Rosenmüller, Keil), or complete extirpation (Kalisch), taken from the idea of destroying a bird while sitting upon its young (cf. Hosea 10:14). And thou saidst, I will surely do thee good,—literally, doing good, I will do good to thee (vide Genesis 28:13). Jacob here pleads the Divine promises at Bethel (Genesis 28:13-1.28.15) and at Haran (Genesis 31:3), as an argument why Jehovah should extend to him protection against Esau—conduct at which Tuch is scandalized as “somewhat inaptly reminding God of his commands and promises, and calling upon him to keep his word; but just this is what God expects his people to do (Isaiah 43:26), and according to Scripture the Divine promise is always the petitioner’s best warrant—and make thy seed as the sand of the sea,—this was the sense, without the ipsissima verb? of the Bethel promise, which likened Jacob’s descendants to the dust upon the ground, as Abraham’s seed had previously been compared to the dust of the earth (Genesis 13:16), the stars of heaven (Genesis 15:5), and the sand upon the sea-shore (Genesis 22:17)—which cannot be numbered for multitude.
Prof. Meira Z. Kensky at TheTorah.com wrote Jacob’s Struggle at Jabbok: The Limits of Strategy for TheTorah.com and it’s a terrific read about his character, his destiny, and the role of divine providence in Jacob’s life. I’ll include some excerpts below:
After escaping the house of Laban (Gen 31), Jacob prepares to encounter Esau. Anticipating that Esau is still angry with him over the stolen birthright and blessing, he first sends envoys to Edom with a flattering message in which he names himself as עַבְדְּךָ יַעֲקֹב, “your servant Jacob,” mentions the wealth he has accrued, and insists that he hopes to find favor in Esau’s eyes (32:4–6).
When the envoys return, saying that Esau is coming to meet him with a contingent of 400 men (v. 7), Jacob takes steps to prepare for what he clearly expects to be a hostile meeting. The Torah gives us Jacob’s internal monologue and thinking about his plans, so that readers can see Jacob’s mind at work and follow the logic of his multi-pronged strategy:
1. Jacob divides his camp into two groups, reasoning that if Esau attacks one group, the other may escape (vv. 8–9).
3. Jacob selects a massive gift of livestock to win Esau’s favor, sending the animals off in at least four separate companies, with space between them, each one with the message that the animals are a gift from Jacob, Esau’s servant (vv. 17–21). Once again, readers are privy to Jacob’s logic here, and how he is hoping to pacify Esau through these gifts before Jacob faces him directly (32:20).Though it is not explicitly stated, Jacob hopes to wear Esau down with each subsequent gift, thus diffusing the tension.
But I skipped a step here. Because in addition to these material preparations, Jacob also engages in a critical tactic:
2. He prays to God to save him from Esau’s hand (vv. 10–13).
Jacob’s prayer, undertaken at a moment in which he perceives himself and his company to be in grave peril, is not only a prayer for aid, but a strategically worded argument for God to live up to the promises God made him at Bethel.
From here, the article examines the prayer more specifically, as shown below:
The prayer begins with a double invocation and a reminder of what God had promised him:
This reminder frames what follows: Jacob is arguing that God has to live up to God’s promises.
The prayer continues with Jacob acknowledging what God has already done for him, apparently humbling himself before God:
Jacob acknowledges what God has done for him and pleads for deliverance. Though Jacob seems to be humbling himself before God, Jacob is framing this deliverance as being in God’s self-interest: God needs to protect what God has done. Jacob is insinuating that Esau threatens to undo God’s chesed.
Jacob frames the prayer by beginning and ending with a variation on God’s own words, וְאֵיטִיבָה עִמָּךְ “I will do well by you.” This is not just a prayer for deliverance, it is a reminder to God—and thus an argument to God—that God needs to live up to God’s own words and protect Jacob.
Now that Jacob is in trouble, he conveniently leaves out his attempt to negotiate additional conditions with God at Bethel, instead putting the responsibility of keeping the covenant squarely on God’s non-anthropomorphic shoulders. This prayer, placed between Jacob’s other strategic maneuvers, is linked to the overall plan. It is a central part of Jacob’s strategy to stave off a confrontation with Esau, not an afterthought or something tacked on.
I encourage reading the entire article at the link above.
We do not get to the actual confrontation between the two brothers in the next section. Instead we get more planning and then a very famous wrestling match first.