Early the next morning after having concluded a covenant with Jacob, Laban kissed his “sons” (or grandchildren) and his daughters and blessed them. He then departed with the men who had accompanied him and returned to his own place. (31:55[32:1])
With his household and domestic animals, Jacob continued on his journey, and “angels of God met him.” Upon seeing the angels, Jacob referred to them as the “camp of God” and called the location Mahanaim (“two camps”), possibly meaning the camp of angels and his own camp. In the Septuagint, the Hebrew name Mahanaim is rendered “Camps.” (32:1, 2[2, 3]) Targum Jonathan quotes Jacob as saying, “These are not the host of Esau who are coming to meet me, nor the host of Laban who have returned from pursuing me. But they are the host of holy angels.”
To prepare for a meeting with his brother Esau who was then residing in the land of Seir (a region between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of ‛Aqaba), Jacob sent messengers to inform him about his arrival. The messengers were to tell Esau that his “servant Jacob” had lived with Laban in the time that had passed but was returning with cattle, donkeys, flocks, and male and female servants. Jacob’s reason for having this message conveyed was to be expressed as follows: “I have sent to tell my lord [Esau] that I may find favor in your eyes” (or be kindly received). After meeting Esau and then returning to Jacob, the messengers reported that Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men. This frightened Jacob, as he feared that Esau was coming with so many men in order to harm him. To prepare for a violent assault, Jacob decided to divide the people and the domestic animals with him into two camps, believing that, if Esau and his men annihilated one camp, the remaining camp could escape. (32:3-8[4-9]; see the Notes section.)
Jacob turned to God, petitioning him for his help and expressing his gratitude for all that he had done for him. “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O YHWH you did say to me, Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good. I am not deserving of all your kindness [gracious favor or steadfast love (righteousness [LXX])] and truth [faithfulness] that you have shown to your servant, for I crossed this Jordan with only my staff and now have become two camps. Deliver me please from the hand [or power] of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear that he will come and slay me, [together] with mother and children. And you did say, I will do you good and make your seed [descendants] like the sand [particles] of the sea [seashore] that cannot be numbered for multitude.” (32:9-12[10-13])
After remaining overnight at the site where news from his brother Esau reached him, Jacob selected a gift for him from among his domestic animals — 200 female goats, 20 male goats, 200 ewes, 20 rams, 30 milk camels and their young, 40 cows, 10 bulls, 20 female donkeys, and 10 male donkeys. Seemingly, to make the gift appear more impressive, Jacob divided the animals into separate droves, directed that each drove be at an interval from the one that followed, and placed a servant in charge of each drove. He instructed the servants to tell Esau, upon his making inquiry about the drove, that the animals belonged to Jacob and that they were a “present to my lord Esau,” and that Jacob was behind them. It appears that Jacob did not initially consider giving a present to Esau but chose to do so when he thought that his brother was coming to harm him. This seems apparent from the desired intent of the gift — “that I may appease him with the present that precedes me [literally, is going before my face], and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me [literally, my face]” or forgive me for what I did to get the birthright and the blessing of our father Isaac. (32:13-20[14-21])
While the servants went on their way with the present for Esau, Jacob spent the night at the location. During the night he rose, took his two wives Rachel and Leah, the two maids Bilhah and Zilpah, and his eleven sons and his daughter Dinah, and had them ford the Jabbok. He also sent everything he possessed across the stream. While he was alone, a “man” began to wrestle with him until just before daybreak. Targum Jonathan identifies the “man” as an angel “in the likeness of a man.” The angel did not prevail over Jacob in the struggle and, therefore, touched or struck his hip (literally, the “flat [or hollow] of his hip” [LXX]) and dislocated its socket. Doubtless Jacob must have felt intense pain, but he held on to the angel. (32:21-25[22-26]) According to Hosea 12:4(5), he wept and pleaded for a blessing, suggesting that he shed tears on account of his great pain.
When the angel asked Jacob to let him go because daybreak was approaching, he replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” “What is your name?” the angel asked, and he replied, “Jacob.” The angel told him that he would be called, not “Jacob,” but “Israel” (“Contender with God”), for he had “contended with God and with men” and had prevailed (“prevailed with God and been powerful with men” [LXX]). The angel did not answer Jacob’s question, “What is your name?” He simply countered with the question, “Why do you ask for my name?” The angel did, however, bless Jacob. (32:26-29[27-30])
In view of what had happened at the location, Jacob called the place Peniel or Penuel (“Face of God” [“Form of God” (LXX)]), for (in his view) he had “seen God face to face” and yet his “soul” or life had been preserved. Jacob departed from the location (Peniel or Penuel) as the sun was rising, limping because of what the angel had done to his hip. In remembrance of what their forefather had experienced, his descendants (the Israelites) did not eat the sinew of the hip of any animal (or the thigh muscle on the hip’s socket). (32:30-32[31-33])
Josephus (Antiquities, I, xx, 1) has the messengers convey Jacob’s message to Esau in a way that differed significantly from the extant Hebrew text. “Jacob had thought it wrong to live together with him while he was angered against him, and so he had left the country; and that he now, thinking the length of time of his absence must have made up the differences, was returning; that he brought with him his wives and his children, with what possessions he had obtained; and delivered himself, with what was most dear to him, into his hands; and should think it his greatest happiness to partake together with his brother what God had bestowed upon him.” Targum Jonathan has the messengers telling Esau that there was nothing in his hand or possession that included anything respecting which their father Isaac had blessed him, but that he was returning with a few cattle, donkeys, sheep, and male and female servants. The message continued, “I have sent to tell my lord [Esau] that [our father’s] blessing has not profited me so that I might find mercy in your eyes” and that you may not remain at enmity toward me on account of that blessing.
According to Targum Jonathan, the angel who wrestled with Jacob was Michael. This does not agree with the Hebrew text of verse 30, which indicates that the angel did not reveal his name to Jacob.
Jacob’s encounter with an angel may have served to show him that he was not in a fit condition to enter the land that had been promised to Abraham, Isaac, and their descendants. Through his previous maneuvering, he had purchased the birthright from his brother Esau and deceived their father to obtain the blessing that Isaac had intended for Esau. In this way, he had gained the advantage over his brother. His having to wrestle with an angel must have made him aware that God was resisting his course and must have humbled Jacob. As a result, he would not be meeting his brother as the proud Jacob who had lived up to the meaning of his name (“supplanter” or “heel grabber”) but would meet him as a humbled man who limped. The contrast would be great. Esau would be coming as a chieftain in command of 400 men, but Jacob would make his way to his brother in what would appear to be a weak physical condition.