Verses 1-21: Jacob’s plan
After Jacob’s agreement with Laban in Genesis 31, Jacob continues on his journey home. He suspects that he will eventually see Esau and the vow he made at Bethel must be on his mind as he travels:
“If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God.”
Initially, Jacob has reason to be encouraged that his return home will be peaceful because angels of God meet him as he travels. He calls the place where he meets them, “Mahanaim,” which translates to “double camp.” Their presence represents God being with Jacob, and that there will be continued blessings and oversight upon him during this journey. Jacob, although heartened and encouraged by the angels of God, is still thoughtful and strategic as he thinks about how best to present himself to Esau. He sends messengers before him to announce his arrival, saying that he has worked with Laban and is returning prosperous. The mention of his “oxen, donkeys, flocks and male and female servants” is meant to be suggestive to Esau that Jacob is prepared to share his blessings with his estranged brother.
But the news that returns to Jacob with the messengers is not as positive as Jacob would have hoped: Esau is coming his way with four hundred men. Jacob is not stymied by this news and he starts planning and praying. Jacob’s first plan is to divide his large company into two separate groups so that if one is attacked by Esau, the other will survive. Then, in verses 9-12, Jacob prays:
“O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, Lord, you who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two camps. Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.’”
Jacob’s prayer is a humble request that God care for him and his family; he recalls to God how God had told him that he would be well taken care of. There is also a deeper note of humility and faith here than we have seen from Jacob before. His relationship with God is growing and deepening, and it rests on his reception of the Abrahamic covenant. Jacob is relying on the outcome of these promises to carry him through the threat of Esau.
After the prayer, Jacob enacts another plan: he designates a very large number of goats, ewes, camels, cows, bulls, donkeys and their young. Jacob separates these gifts of livestock into droves and sends them, in succession, ahead of him as gifts to Esau. When each group meets Esau, they will tell him that they are a gift from Jacob. These waves of gifts are meant to dampen Esau’s anger and lessen the perceived threat of the four hundred men. This plan is a very good one; it has the probability of wearing Esau down as he is showered with gifts. It is significant that Jacob’s idea is enacted after his prayer. This is a sign of two things: 1) Jacob’s clever plan follows his request to God that he be delivered from Esau, suggesting that his thoughts and actions were inspired by God and a direct result of the prayer and 2) Jacob’s faith in God is growing as is his understanding that it is within his power to affect the outcome with Esau, whatever it may be. All along, God has been and still is leading and protecting Jacob, and Jacob is growing into this relationship, realizing his role in it. Jacob’s confidence in God’s abilities has been steadily increasing also.
Jacob’s relationship with God is not unlike our own: a lifelong learning experience with peaks and valleys, yes, but there is a constant and steady growth underpinning it all.
Verses 22-32: Jacob’s struggle
This group of verses is admittedly odd. For one, we have Jacob engaging in what appears to be a physical struggle with God Himself. This is confusing because we know that meager man, created by God, is no match for God the Creator. The physical struggle, marked by the length of time, Jacob’s hip socket being thrown out of joint and Jacob’s pulled hip muscle is a physical manifestation of a real struggle between God and His people that took place over thousands of years.
In the first part of tonight’s study, we referenced Jacob’s growing relationship with God. Jacob might have not felt like he needed God so much at first, but has grown to trust and rely on Him. Jacob’s behavior suggests that he may have initially been a disappointment to God, yet God has not left Jacob nor has he denied him any blessings. Verse 28 is the key to understanding this passage: “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
God’s physical struggle with Jacob is not only an allegory for Jacob’s spiritual struggle with God, but is also, in a much larger sense, an allegory for the nation of Israel’s struggle with God. At times, Israel left God and returned to Him, and they also enjoyed His many (undeserving) blessings over the many years from the time of Moses until the birth of Christ. God remained constant, yet Israel struggled over and over with its’ relationship with God, leaving Him for idols only to return generations later to seek true righteousness.
Despite all this, God finally fulfills the Abrahmic covenant through Jesus Christ when all nations and peoples are blessed in Jesus’s death and sacrifice forgiving the sin of all mankind. The struggle is man’s due for holding onto self-will in place of submitting to God’s will for him. The way that Jacob’s struggle personifies the nation of Israel’s struggle is enlightening and amazing.