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Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament

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 Chapter 31
Chapter 33
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Here we have the preliminaries for the meeting of the long-estranged brothers Jacob and Esau, a moving, dramatic account of their moving toward a reunion after many years of separation, both having become wealthy in the meanwhile. The actual, face-to-face meeting of the brothers does not take place until the next chapter, but all of the background for it is here. Jacob's fear, with which he had lived for so many years, his prayer to God for divine help in the approaching crisis, his precautions to protect his family against the potential hostility of Esau, with special concern for Rachel and her children, the rich gifts sent to Esau, his wrestling all night with an angel of God at Peniel, and, most significant of all, the heavenly award to Jacob of a new name -- these are the events of this chapter which have challenged the thoughts of men for ages.

Verses 1, 2
And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. And Jacob said when he saw them, This is God's host: and he called the name of that place Mahanaim.

Twenty years before this event when he was about to journey into the land of his twenty-year bondage, God had appeared to Jacob and strengthened him in the vision of the ladder reaching to heaven, and now, that he was about to enter into a new phase of his life, again God appeared to him, first in this vision of the angels, later in the wrestling event. Apparently, only Jacob saw the heavenly host, just like the occasion when Elisha and his servant were surrounded and threatened by innumerable enemies. Only the prophet saw the angelic host, until Elisha prayed for God to "open his eyes" (2 Kings 6:17).

He called the name of that place Mahanaim…
This word is a dual form meaning, two hosts or bands. The visible band was Jacob and his servants; the invisible band (momentarily visible to Jacob) was that of the angels.F1 Mahanaim was later a distinguished city, situated just north of the Jabbok, and the name and remains are still preserved in a place called Mahneh.F2 The two great enemies confronted by Jacob were Laban in the land of his long servitude, and Esau in the land to which he returned. The visions at the beginning of each confrontation assured Jacob of God's blessing and protection.

Verses 3-12
And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother unto the land of Seir, the field of Edom. And he commanded them, saying, Thus shall ye say unto my lord Esau: Thus saith thy servant Jacob, I have sojourned with Laban, and stayed until now: and I have oxen, and asses, [and] flocks, and men-servants, and maid-servants: and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find favor in thy sight. And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, We came to thy brother Esau, and moreover he cometh to meet thee, and four hundred men with him. Then Jacob was greatly afraid and was distressed: and he divided the people that were with him, and the flocks, and the herds, and the camels, into two companies; and he said, If Esau come to the one company, and smite it, then the company which is left shall escape. And Jacob said, O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, O Jehovah, who saidst unto me, Return unto thy country, and to thy kindred, and I will do thee good: I am not worthy of the least of all the lovingkindnesses, and of all the truth, which thou hast showed unto thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two companies. Deliver me, I pray thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau: for I fear him, lest he come and smite me, the mother with the children. And thou saidst, I will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.

Reassured by the vision of angels, Jacob took the initiative in his projected confrontation with Esau. He sent a message, which is a model of humility, making clear that he desired a friendly reception. However, he was greatly distressed and filled with fear when the word came back from his messengers that Esau was indeed coming to meet him with four hundred armed men! When Jacob left home, his mother Rebekah had promised to send word when Esau's anger had cooled, but no word ever came. Thus Jacob naturally felt the greatest alarm. It is of interest that the messengers were able to find Esau so easily, indicating that Esau had become a mighty chieftain, known throughout the area where he chose to live in Seir, "the field of Edom." This was the region south and eastward from the Dead Sea. Esau's presence apparently so near where the brothers met might have resulted from his being on some kind of military mission against his enemies.

Jacob did two things:

  1. He took every possible precaution human wisdom could suggest, dividing the companies, etc.
  2. Then he prayed one of the greatest prayers of his life, consisting of "an invocation (Genesis 32:10), thanksgiving (Genesis 32:11), petition (Genesis 32:12), and appeal to the divine faithfulness (Genesis 32:12), a classic model of O.T. devotion."F3 His confession of unworthiness should be included (Genesis 32:10). One is surprised that anyone could find fault with this prayer, but Unger wrote: "Jacob uttered it only after his own plans and schemes were exhausted."F4 So he did, but we think that Morris made a better evaluation:

    "He realized that they would require God's protection, and he fully intended to call on the Lord. But he realized it was wise, as well as in keeping with God's will, to take what natural precautions were opened to him as quickly as possible, after which he could pray in good faith, knowing that he had done all that he could and that the Lord would have to take over the rest of the way."F5
The mother with the children…
This was a proverbial expression descriptive of a total annihilation from which no one would escape. It is equivalent to our statement with no survivors.F6 The sins of Jacob, committed long previously, were the basis of his pitiful fear, a condition that always results when sin is committed. As a matter of fact, Esau had long ago forgiven Jacob and had probably longed to see him. Josephus preserved the tradition that, When Esau received the messengers from Jacob, he was very glad.F7 Of course, Jacob did not know that.

Verses 13-21
And he lodged there that night, and took of that which he had with him a present for Esau his brother: two hundred she-goats and twenty he-goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milch camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty she-asses and ten foals. And he delivered them into the hand of his servants, every drove by itself, and said unto his servants, Pass over before me, and put a space betwixt drove and drove. And he commanded the foremost, saying, When Esau my brother meeteth thee, and asketh thee, saying, Whose art thou? and whither goest thou? and whose are these before thee? then thou shalt say [They are] thy servant Jacob's; it is a present sent unto my lord Esau: and, behold, he also is behind us. And he commanded also the second, and the third, and all that followed the droves, saying, On this manner shall ye speak unto Esau, when ye find him; and ye shall say, Moreover, behold, thy servant Jacob is behind us. For he said, I will appease him with the present that goeth before me, and afterward I will see his face; peradventure he will accept me. So the present passed over before him: and he himself lodged that night in the company.

This "present" was indeed a rich one, some 550 animals,F8 or 580 animals,F9 depending, apparently, on how many colts the camels and asses had; but, since they were milch camels, they would all have had colts, and, therefore, the higher estimate is correct. What a present! It would take at least $100,000.00 today to put together such a drove as that which Jacob sent Esau.

The skilled arrangement of its presentation is one of the marvels of this episode. None of the drove captains knew that he was being followed by another drove, for he was instructed to say, "Jacob is behind us." Thus, no loose-tongued servant could apprise Esau of the full extent of the gift, which he would not know until Jacob himself appeared. This intention lay behind Jacob's instruction that there should be a space between drove and drove. One must admire that kind of planning.

Verses 22, 23
And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two handmaids, and his eleven children, and passed over the ford of the Jabbok. And he took them, and sent them over the stream, and sent over that which he had.

"The Jabbok is a stream that flows west into the Jordan, entering it about halfway between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea."F10 "Today the Jabbok is known as the Zerka."F11 "The name Jabbok means wrestler, a name evidently given to it later in commemoration of Jacob's experience that night."F12


Verses 24-32
And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him. And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed. And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there. And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for, [said he], I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved. And the sun rose upon him as he passed over Penuel, and he limped upon his thigh. Therefore the children of Israel eat not the sinew of the hip which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day: because he touched the hollow of Jacob's thigh in the sinew of the hip.

Here we have the record of one of the most important events in the history of human redemption. Jacob, the head of the Messianic line through whom the CHRIST would come was facing the most serious threat of his whole life. "If Esau had been victorious here, all of God's plans and promises would have been defeated, and the world would never have had a Savior."F13 It was this crisis nature of the situation that required and justified God's personal intervention to establish and confirm Jacob's faith.

The big question here concerns the understanding of what really happened. Peake alleged that Jacob wrestled with "a local deity ... one of the river gods (pagan)," trying to prevent anyone's crossing the river.F14 "Jacob was not wrestling with an angel, but with his brother Esau."F15 "Some scholars hold that this was a struggle with a demon of some kind."F16 Still others insist that this was merely some kind of vision or a vivid dream. Against such arrogant and unbelieving denials it is a genuine pleasure to present the words of one of the great young scholars of today who wrote:

"The Biblical author is not relating a vision, dream, or fantasy; nor is he using well-known external phenomena to symbolize an inner struggle (like prayer); rather, he is relating a real, hand to hand combat. Gen. 32:28,30, show that Jacob was actually wrestling with God Himself, but apparently God had assumed a human form, for Jacob's assailant is called "a man" in Gen. 32:24,25. Although the plain meaning of the text is very hard for modern man to comprehend or rationalize, there is no justification for forcing it to say something it does not say."F17

Yes. Here the wrestler with Jacob was "the captain of the Lord's host" (Josh. 5:13f).F18 "He was none other than The Angel, the pre-incarnate Christ."F19 As we shall see a moment later, the very name given on this occasion celebrated the divine nature of Jacob's assailant.

Touched his thigh…
Skinner translated this struck his thigh, with the meaning that the socket of his thigh was dislocated.F20

The unwillingness of the assailant to continue the conflict after daylight was not founded on the superstition that "spirits of the night must vanish at dawn," as alleged by Skinner;F21 but "The angel's desire to depart before daylight expressed God's concern lest Jacob perish through beholding his face unobscured by darkness."F22

The great spiritual crisis that Jacob passed through here was memorialized by the bestowal upon him of a new and glorious name, a boon which only God could give. The Heel-catcher has now become the Prince of God. The Israel of God has signified the ultimate of human blessing and privilege from that memorable night until the present day! Although most scholars give the meaning of Israel as Prince of God, Josephus declared that it means One that struggled with the divine angel. Moreover, William Whiston, the noted translator of Josephus' works affirmed that:

"This may be the proper meaning of Israel. It is certain that the Hellenists of the first century, in Egypt, and elsewhere, interpreted Israel to be a man seeing God."F23

This tremendous episode also carried with it a deep spiritual awakening on the part of Jacob. He was defeated and powerless to continue, but he clung to God and would not let go until he received the blessing. It is written that "he prevailed"; but how did he do so? He won by surrender, by confessing his unworthiness in the admission of his name (Heel-catcher), and by pleading for the blessing which could come only from the grace of God. That is precisely the way that the saints of all ages have triumphed. Cling to the Lord, and never let go! "Here Jacob received the final lesson that humbled and broke down his self-will, and convinced him that he would not snatch the blessing from God's hand, and that he must accept it as a gift of God's grace."F24

Footnotes for Genesis 32
1: Merrill F. Unger, Unger's Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 1 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1981), p. 81.
2: C. F. Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), p. 301.
3: John Skinner, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1910), p. 406.
4: Merrill F. Unger, op. cit. p.82.
5: Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Record (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), p. 496.
6: G. Ch. Aalders, Genesis II (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), p. 139.
7: Flavius Josephus, Life and Works of, translated by William Whiston (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston), p. 58.
8: C. F. Keil, op. cit., p.303.
9: Kyle M. Yates, Wycliffe Bible Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1962), p. 35.
10: Henry M. Morris, op. cii, p. 498.
11: Kyle M. Yares, op. cit., p. 36.
12: Henry M. Morris, op. cit., p.499.
13: Henry M. Morris, op. cit., p. 500.
14: Arthur S. Peake, A Commentary on the Bible (London: T. C. and E. C. Jack, Ltd., 1924), p. 160.
15: George M. Lamsa, Old Testament Light (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1964).
16: G. Ch. Aalders, op. cit., p. 140.
17: John T. Willis, Genesis (Austin: Sweet Publishing Company, 1979), p. 357.
18: Meredith G. Kline, The New Bible Commentary, Revised (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), p. 105.
19: Henry M. Morris, op. cit., p. 499.
20: John Skinner, op. cit., p. 408.
21: Ibid.
22: Meredith G. Kline, op. cit., p. 105.
23: Flavius Josephus, op. cit., p. 58.
24: J. R. Dummelow, Commentary on the Holy Bible (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937), p. 37.

Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Genesis 32". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". <>. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.  


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