Genesis 32-33: Jacob Wrestles at Peniel and Reunites with Esau

By Mary Jane Chaignot

After a confrontational parting with Laban, Jacob and his family are off. Soon after, the “angels of God met him.” And when Jacob saw them, he said, “This is God’s host: and he called the name of that place Mahanaim.” The word itself means “two camps” or “two companies” in Hebrew. It is near Jabbok, possibly east of the River Jordan, though scholars can never be certain of its exact location. It could be Jacob’s way of acknowledging that he is in the company of God, but it also foreshadows him dividing his entourage into two camps.

Facing Esau is his next big challenge. Let’s recall that Jacob went to Canaan to escape Esau’s wrath after stealing his birthright and tricking Isaac into giving his blessing to Jacob. Although twenty years have passed, it is unlikely that they have had any contact with each other this whole time. God has now commanded him to return home, and Jacob is obedient to that command. But the realization that he needs to deal with Esau weighs heavily upon him. He uses the word “appease” in the sense of making things right with him. His concern is illustrated by the fact that he enters Canaan near Gilead, about 100 miles north of Seir, which is where Esau lives.

Yet he knows that Esau will soon discover that he has returned. A pre-emptive move is strategically required. Jacob sends messengers to Esau with the message: “I have sojourned with Laban, and stayed there until now: and I have oxen and asses, flocks, and menservants, and women servants: and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find grace in thy sight.” It is noteworthy that he refers to Esau as “my lord” and not as “brother.” He provides a very brief description of life over the past twenty years and asks that he may “find grace in thy sight.” To find “grace” or “favor” in thy sight oftentimes refers to showing one’s face to another. His hope is that Esau’s face will be favorable to him, that Esau’s attitude towards him has softened, that there is no more animosity between them.

Some scholars have pointed out that this little summation of life can be interpreted in two ways. Either Jacob is being very humble, especially by referring to Esau as “my lord,” or he is trying to show his wealth and strength. If humility is his goal, then he is trying to reassure Esau that he has no intentions of exerting his right of blessing by ruling over Esau or usurping his role as head of the family. He is wealthy in his own right and doesn’t need anything from Esau. Also, being exiled from his family has already punished him. If, on the other hand, his summary is intended as a show of strength, he could be saying that the blessing that he received from Isaac has, indeed, been realized. And some scholars continue by saying that Jacob is offering to help Esau, whom he assumes has been less fortunate.

Either way, things don’t go exactly as planned because the messengers inform Jacob that Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men. At this point, he has no idea whether they are planning a friendly or hostile encounter. Four hundred men might refer to the size of his family or his army. The text does not offer anything about Esau’s intentions. Jacob’s response, however, is explicit. Assuming the worst, he is “greatly afraid and distressed.”

Yet he is a man of action. He decides to divide his company into two groups, thinking that if one group is attacked, the other might be saved. He gives no consideration to the fact that Esau allowed all his messengers to return unharmed. And then he prays.

After calling upon God, he reminds Him that He is the one that told Jacob to return to his homeland. God promised, “I will deal well with you.” He adds that he really isn’t worthy of all the blessings that he has received from God, but for the sake of his family he asks for divine protection. While the concern for his family, is, no doubt, real, Jacob has yet to address the reason for this whole situation. He expresses no remorse for his actions of the past; he prays for divine protection in the present.

Next, Jacob prepares to offer an appeasement to Esau. The gift consists of “two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milch camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys.” This gives a clue as to Jacob’s wealth, since this is only a portion of his possessions.

The plan is that his servants will lead each respective herd ahead of Jacob. The herds will arrive separately, but in succession. Even though Jacob refers to Esau as “my brother” when talking to his servants, his message to Esau has them saying, “These belong to your servant Jacob; they are a present sent to my lord Esau; and moreover he is behind us.” The goal of all this is to “appease,” or to cover his face with gifts. This word is oftentimes used to indicate atonement and is an indication that, finally, Jacob is hoping Esau will forgive him.

Yet, some scholars are less likely to give Jacob the benefit of the doubt. They point out that gift giving can oftentimes be used to economic advantage, essentially putting Esau in Jacob’s debt. Or it could be nothing more than the expected social customs of the times. In any event, his servants go on ahead of him, while Jacob remains behind with his family.

His next move is to separate himself from his family. He sends them across the Jabbok, leaving him alone to face the night. Suddenly, the text states, “and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.” Scholars have forever tried to determine the identity of this “man.” Most have likened it to an angel of the Lord because it cannot prevail over Jacob, and the thought that God couldn’t best a human is unacceptable to many. Other options include a river demon that didn’t want Jacob to cross the river, an Esau-related figure to determine ownership of the land, or the God of Jacob as a divine testing. It is possible that all of these have a role in his struggle. If one thinks of this as a time when Jacob is fighting his inner demons as well as God, they represent all of his fears. He is crossing over into a new land, he is terrified of meeting Esau in the morning, and he is encountering God in a whole new way.

The struggle lasts all night. “When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.” But in the morning the angel says it is time to go. Jacob refuses to let him go until the angel blesses him. The angel says, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” And then, he blesses him. Typically a name change indicates a changed life. There is no consensus on whether this is true for Jacob.

Jacob calls the name of the place, “Peniel,” which means “the face of God.” He adds, “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” Going forward, however, he will be forever reminded of this night, as he will walk with a limp.

Literary scholars have long connected the events of this night with the time Jacob has a dream at Bethel. Then, he is leaving the Promised Land, embarking on a journey, going to a place he had never been. He has a dream that night about a ladder reaching up to heaven. In the dream, the Lord stands next to him and reiterates the promises made to his forefathers. God tells him that he will be with him throughout his travels and one day he will return to the land. Whereas that encounter was at the beginning of his adventures, this evening at Peniel marks the end of his sojourn. He has returned home. Together, these two events provide a framework – bookends, if you will – to the Jacob story. Much has happened over the prevailing twenty years. Whether or not Jacob has been transformed is still a matter for discussion.

The following morning, however, is at hand. Jacob rises and sees Esau coming with his 400 men. He begins staggering his wives and children, putting the dearest to him farther in the back. Then Jacob approaches Esau, perhaps indicative of a new resolve. He bows down to the ground seven times showing his respect and humility. This is proper vassal behavior when approaching a monarch. Yet, one cannot help but remember the blessing bestowed upon him by Isaac: “Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers.” The reverse seems to be happening.

Nonetheless, it is Esau who makes the first move. He runs to Jacob, breaking all social custom. Then, he embraces him, and kisses him. And they both weep. It is a heartfelt reunion devoid of evil intentions. With the tension resolved, Esau begins to ask about the people with Jacob. At that point all are introduced. Esau asks about the gifts Jacob has sent. He says that he has “enough,” but Jacob is insistent. “If I find favor with you, then accept my present…; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor. Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.” Reluctantly, Esau accepts.

So it might seem that all has been resolved. Indeed, this encounter is oftentimes cited as one of the greatest reconciliations in all of biblical history. Yet, scholars have pointed out that Jacob has not actually asked for forgiveness. He tries to buy Esau’s “favor” with gifts. Once Esau accepts, Jacob is satisfied.

That all might not be well becomes evident as they depart. Esau wishes to travel together, back to Seir. Jacob states that his entourage is weary, and they won’t be able to keep up. He encourages Esau to go on ahead, saying they will join up later. Esau and his men return to Seir, an area beyond the southern border of the Promised Land. Apparently, Jacob has no intention of joining him because he and his family go in the opposite direction to Succoth. No reason is ever given for this deception.

Scholars have suggested that it shows he didn’t fully trust Esau after all. Others have praised Jacob for choosing to stay in the land promised to his forefathers. Yet they point out that Jacob has promised to return to Bethel to worship God upon his return to Canaan. He makes no effort to do that either. Perhaps he didn’t want to face his father, whom he had deceived so many years ago.

No explanation is given, but scholars universally agree moving to Succoth, and then to Shechem where he buys land, is a poor choice by Jacob. Scholars have likened it to Lot’s decision to move to Sodom. It might seem benign in the beginning, but it leads to disaster. So it was for Lot, and so it will be for Jacob.