Genesis 32:1-32 “Jacob’s Brokenness & Israel’s Beginning, Part 2”

Posted on February 19, 2012. Filed under: Genesis: Answers to Life's Crucial Questions |

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Bryan E. Walker

Read Genesis 32

Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. And when Jacob saw them he said, “This is God’s camp!” So he called the name of that place Mahanaim.

            And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother in thelandofSeir, the country ofEdom, instructing them, “Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have sojourned with Laban and stayed until now. I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male servants, and female servants. I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight.’”

            And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed. He divided the people who were with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, then the camp that is left will escape.”

            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,’ 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. 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. 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.’”

(Genesis 32 ESV)


Introduction: in today’s lesson we find Jacob in his biggest crisis and we shall see him turn to God in prayer, trusting in His salvation. The main message for us is to pray in humility but with confidence, anticipating God’s faithfulness.

 I.                   Messengers of God Met Jacob, vv.1-2

A.  Jacob Went on His Way and Meets the Angels of God, 32:1-2

                                                            1.      Most commentators assign these two verses to the following passage in ch.32, and indeed they can very well be discussed there, but I will side with Wenham on this one and link them with ch.31 (p.281).

                                                            2.      Jacob went on his way- nicely closes what the LORD began in 31:3 “Return to the land of your fathers…” but so did Laban’s leaving in v.55 “Then Laban departed and returned home.”

                                                            3.      And the angels of God met him- this now makes the encounter a bookend to the experience at Bethel and the stairway from heaven with the angels ascending and descending on it in 28:10-22. It also previews what will happen in ch.32 as he prepares to meet Esau and spends the night in the octagon wrestling with God.

                                                            4.      The entire experience in Paddan Aram began with a covenant with the LORD at Bethel and a promise to be with Jacob and to bless him, and finally to bring him back home. Now, at Mahanaim, he has another reassuring vision of angels. Angels at his departure from Canaan, and angels at his return.

                                                            5.      So he called the name of that place Mahanaim- Mahanaim means two camps and is military in style. There is no accompanying revelation so we are a left a bit in the dark about the significance of this to Jacob. It could mean that he saw two camps of angels, thus assuring him of God’s protection. However, considering the “man” who wrestles with Jacob at the end of the chapter, there can be perceived in this encounter at Mahanaim  some kind of a threat. The two camps of angels do prefigure Jacob’s dividing his own family and flocks/herds into two camps on vss.7-8. The two camps also continues the use of wordplays by Moses in that the number two (2) occurs frequently in this chapter as it did in the last: two camps, two families, two meetings (with God and Esau), and two brothers.

                                                            6.      Moses himself had a threatening encounter with the LORD in Ex.4:24 “At a lodging place on the way the LORD met him and sought to put him to death.” The issue was the circumcision of his son which Moses had neglected. Another incident of the Angel of the LORD meeting Joshua in Josh.5:13-15 sword in hand reveals this dangerous side of meeting God. As C.S. Lewis put it, “He is not a tame lion!”

                                                            7.      John Sailhamer writes, p.208 EBC, vol.2, “The effect of these two brief pictures of Jacob’s meeting with angels on his return to the land is to align the present narrative with the similar picture of the Promised Land in the early chapters of Genesis. The land was guarded on its borders by angels. The same picture was suggested early in the Book of Genesis when Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden and ‘cherubim’ were positioned on the east of the garden to guard the way to the tree of life. It can hardly be accidental that as Jacob returned from the east, he was met by angels at the border of the Promised Land….The fact that Jacob had met with angels here suggests that the man at the end of the chapter is also an angel.”

                                                            8.      C.F. Keil writes, (p.193), “This appearance of angels necessarily reminded him of the vision of the ladder on his flight from Canaan. Just as the angels ascending and descending had then represented to him the divine protection and assistance during his journey and sojourn in a foreign land, so now the angelic host was a signal of the help of God for the approaching conflict with Esau of which he was in fear, and a fresh pledge of the promise (28:15)….”

                                                            9.      Victor Hamilton, p.318, gives us the geographical background of Mahaniam: “…located east of the Jordan, on the border between the territories of the half-tribe of Manasseh and of the tribe of Gad (Josh. 13:26, 30). For a while it served as the capital of Ishbosheth, Saul’s son (2Sam.2:8), as well as a temporary capital for David after Absalom’s coup (2Sam.17:24, 27). Solomon later made it a district center (1Kings 4:14).”

                                                        10.      I believe that the “two camps” of angels is ultimately a sign of God’s protection to Jacob and may have been useful in restraining Esau. Just as Laban was in pursuit of Jacob, but received a divine warning the night prior to catching Jacob, so too, this experience is primarily one of God keeping His word to Jacob for a safe return. The use of military language here, the word from Jacob’s messengers in v. 6 that Esau is coming with 400 men, combines to indicate an implied threat. I can think of no other purpose for Esau to approach his brother with 400 men. The text does not explicitly tell us anything about this strange encounter with the two camps of angels so I certainly cannot be dogmatic, but it seems to me that it is more likely to give help to Jacob who is following the Lord’s will.


  1. II.                Jacob’s Fear of Esau, vv.3-8

A.   Jacob sends messengers to Esau, vv.3-5

                                                            1.      And Jacob sent messengers, v.3 the word for messengers is malakim and Mathews (p.549) tells us that of the 17 times this word is used in Genesis, it refers to angels 16 times. Only here does it mean messengers in the human sense. The term is used for human messengers 4 times in Numbers and once in Deuteronomy. It is an obvious play on the encounter in vss.1-2. From a human perspective it makes perfect sense to send messengers or scouts/spies in advance of the main party to see if it is safe. In this case it is to make contact and deliver a message. The fact that he sends messengers immediately after meeting the angels in vss.1-2 probably indicates that he was encouraged by God’s presence with him through these two camps of angels.

                                                            2.      Esau-Seir-Edom- Moses here brings back to mind the various names of Esau. Seir sounds like sair-hairy, which is mentioned in 25:25; and Edom points to the red stew adom from 25:25, 30. Sadeh– the land- also points back to Esau who loved the outdoors/field 25:27. The geography involved here is that Jacob has come from the NE,Aram, and is traveling south, on the east side of theJordan River. Esau lives east of theDead Sea in the area named for him,Edom.

                                                            3.      Thus you shall say to my lord Esau…your servant Jacob-vs.4- Jacob is using very diplomatic language here, but it goes beyond being polite. Although not a repudiation of the blessing received from their father Isaac, he is placing himself in a position of subservience to Esau. 27:29 plainly put Jacob’s brothers underneath his lordship, so he is reversing their roles. This may not be wise in man’s eyes since the blessing was God’s intention after all, but this may also resemble Abram in ch.13 when he humbly givesLot the first choice of the land; but this may just be a formality seeking to appease Esau. It likely shows the arrogance of Jacob is all but gone.

                                                            4.      I have sojourned with Laban- he lets Esau know that Jacob was only a sojourner in PaddanAram with their uncle Laban. This also links Jacob to Abraham who sojourned inCanaan and Isaac, also a sojourner.

                                                            5.      This would speak to Israel of Moses’ day who had sojourned inEgypt for several generations and now were wandering in the desert. For the Christian we must understand that we are sojourners in this world which is not our home. 1Peter2:11 “aliens and strangers in the world”

                                                            6.      I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, servants…vs.5- he is making a statement of the wealth he has accumulated, much as Abraham and Isaac as sojourners had accumulated wealth. He does not mention the camels mentioned back in 30:43. His traveling from the ancestral homeland, his time as a sojourner, and now his wealth all mirror the way God blessed his father and grandfather. It also points to the Israel of Moses’ day as following in the same pattern of God’s blessings.

                                                            7.      that I may find favor in your sight- this phrase occurs in 33:8, 10, 15 as well as here. It seems he is sincere about wanting to get his relationship with Esau right. It was Noah, ch.6, who found favor with God. Wenham, p. 290, writes, “Here the key word ‘favor’, ‘grace’, makes its first appearance in this episode (33:8,10, 15 cf. the associated verb ‘grant’ ‘be gracious’, 33:5, 11).”

  1. B.        Jacob’s Response to the report from his messengers, vv.6-8
  2. 1.      he is coming to meet you- the Hebrew phrase is ambiguous; sometimes it is used to mean hostile intent, and other times peaceful. The intent of Moses here is to get his audience, and us, to feel the doubt and fear that Jacob must have felt.
  3. 2.      there are four-hundred men with him. Not good. This certainly heightens the anxiety level of all concerned. What are Esau’s intentions? By bringing 400 men I would have to say that Moses is letting us know, without telling us directly, that his intent is not good. This parallels and intensifies what Jacob experienced with Laban in pursuit. Waltke suggests that if Esau’s intentions were evil he would not have release the messengers (p.442).Hamilton says, p.322, that it may be Esau is playing the family game of deception and manipulation, “he creates the circumstances that establish a maximum amount of guilt in Jacob.” We see this same kind of ploy later in how Joseph relates to his brothers and devises a couple of tricks to test them.
  4. 3.      Place yourself in Jacob’s position- he cannot return the way he has come because of the boundary, the Mizpah, between he and Laban. Now, his brother is taking obvious aggressive moves towards him. He is stuck between the rock and a hard place.
  5. 4.      Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed, v.7- Waltke, p.442, “This very strong language is used for people in dire straits.” Do you think that maybe Jacob was remembering everything he did to Esau and that a guilty conscience is adding to his fears?Hamilton, p.319, translates it this way, “Jacob was beside himself with fear. In his anxiety he divided the people with him…” Wenham translates it, p.283, “Then Jacob was very frightened and distressed.”
  6. 5.      Application- guilt brings a heavy price tag and burden to the human soul. If guilt is not forgiven in a legitimate manner through confession, repentance, restoration and atonement it can be very destructive. In Christianity we have the only means of ridding ourselves of guilt ultimately, and the only serious manner of dealing with guilt when compared with other world religions and philosophies. This I found to be a good witnessing tool recently as a friend had some good questions about the faith. Waltke writes, p.443, “His guilty conscience leads him to imagine the worst.”
  7. 6.      He divided…into two camps- the idea here is clearly stated in vs.8, that if one camp is attacked, the second may be able to escape. His fear does not paralyze him.



  1. III.             Jacob’s Prayer for Deliverance, vv.9-12

A.   Jacob’s prayer quotes God’s Word, v.9

                                                            1.      And Jacob said/prayed, O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD- This is Jacob’s first prayer recorded by Moses and is the longest prayer in Genesis. The structure of the prayer is Invocation, Confession, Thanksgiving, Petition, Statement of Faith. This rather long title for God at the start or Invocation of the prayer points us back to God’s own self-revelation to Jacob at Beth-el in 28:13 where God uses the same title for himself. Jacob is deliberately recalling God’s past acts and promises to his father and grandfather as well as himself. Jacob is responding to a dangerous situation with prayer and action. It may he should have prayed first, but that does not take away from his prudent action. Some may say that his dividing of his camp was not of faith, yet clearly this prayer shows faith.

                                                            2.      who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred’- Jacob points out that it was the LORD who told him to return; he is obeying God and it seems things are not working out. First Laban pursued him with intent to cause harm, now it seems as if Esau is doing the same. I don’t think this is blaming God, I think this is a sincere prayer that includes God’s own words, commands and past acts as a part of the prayer.

                                                            3.      When you pray, do you ever pray back God’s Word to Him? Do you ever include in your prayer the things that God has promised and accomplished in your past? Last week’s sermon by brother Kenny Dalton challenged us to pray expectantly; one way to do that is to imitate Jacob’s example here.

  1. B.        Jacob’s prayer includes confession, v.10
    1. 1.      I am not worthy- Jacob admits he is not worthy of all that God has done for him. He is finally seeing himself as the sinner he is. Here is the big point of this section: Jacob is broken by God in his spirit. He has reached the bottom and realizes he is not worthy.
    2. 2.      Confession of our unworthiness and sinfulness is not a one time thing that we do to begin our Christian walk. We will never be worthy; that is why we shall forever be reliant on God’s grace and promises. Genuine prayer should be made in the spirit of humility yet also confidence in the God who promises to act on our behalf. The only One who could pray without confession was Jesus, the sinless One. But even Jesus prayed with an attitude of submission to the will of his Father. Though we are God’s children, we still sin and disobey therefore we should pray humbly yet also confidently based upon our relationship to God as his children.
    3. 3.      Thankfulness-Jacob recounts the blessings God has given- the deeds of steadfast love and faithfulness which includes the fact that he has now become two camps, two hosts; he has lots of material wealth and he bases that not on his own hard work, though he did work hard, but solely upon God’s goodness. This exhibits a spirit of Thankfulness which is a key element in genuine prayer.
    4. 4.      The word for ‘steadfast love’ (ESV) is hesed which “relates to a superior who, out of kind character, meets the need of a covenant partner who cannot help himself or herself (see 21:23)” Waltke, p.443. The concept of steadfast love-hesed is throughout the OT and is THE KEY to understanding God’s actions toIsrael and to the Church, the newIsrael, through Christ.
    5. 5.      The word for ‘faithfulness’ (ESV) is emet- “signifies that, although the superior has no obligation to meet the need, the superior can always be counted on” (ibid.).
    6. 6.      your servant- his haughtiness broken, Jacob takes on the role of servant, both to his brother in v.4 and to God here. Just as Jesus became a servant (Mark10:45) we too are to take on a servant’s heart. You find a few people in the OT called a servant of the Lord: Moses, Joshua, Caleb, David, Isaiah’s anonymous Servant (pointing to Christ).
    7. 7.      this Jordan a little geographical confusion as he is at the Jabbok (vs.22). As a tributary to theJordan, and being relatively close to theJordan perhaps, Jacob considers it to be a part of the bigger river.
    8. 8.      Petition- Please deliver me from …the hand of Esau- Jacob is asking to be delivered from his brother so he is clearly interpreting Esau’s advance as a threat and he considers himself to be in mortal danger. This continues the theme introduced back in11:30 (Sarai’s barrenness) of obstacles to the covenant blessings God promises to the patriarchs.
    9. 9.      Statement of faith- “But You said, ‘I will surely do you good’” Jacob clings to the promises of God in desperate faith.
    10. 10.  Application- while this prayer by Jacob contains some good elements of prayer it is not a complete guide to prayer. What elements of prayer might be missing from this particular prayer? (And every prayer you pray does not have to have all the elements in it!)
    11. 11.  E.M. Bounds on Prayer
    12. 12.  Andrew Murray on Intercessory Prayer


Conclusion: While in ch.31 we saw the beginning of Jacob’s turning point, here we see this faith blossom in the midst of the most severe crisis he has faced. We see Jacob humbled and actively seeking to appease his brother and turning to God in prayer with faith for deliverance. Jacob’s prayer, the longest in Genesis, is an excellent model for the Believer today.


  1. IV.              Jacob Sends Gifts to Esau, vv.13-21
  2. V.                 Jacob Is Left Alone, vv.22-24a
  3. VI.              Jacob Wrestles with God, vv.24b-25
  4. VII.           Jacob Becomes Israel, vv.26-29
  5. VIII.        Peniel, vv.30-33



Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis Chapters 18-50. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company:Grand Rapids, MI.1995 (pp.316-339).

Keil, C.F. Commentary on the Old Testament, Volume 1 The Pentateuch. Hendrickson Publishers:Peabody,Mass. 2006 (pp.193-197). Original English translation published by T&T Clark,Edinburgh, 1866-91.

Mathews, Kenneth A. The New American Commentary, Volume 1B, Genesis 11:27-50:26. Broadman & Holman Publishers:Nashville, TN. 2005. (pp.536-561).

Ross, Allen P. Creation & Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis. Baker Academic:Grand Rapids,MI 1998 (pp.536-559.)

Sailhamer, John H. “Genesis” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol.2, Frank E. Gaebelein, Editor. Regency Reference Library, Zondervan Publishing House:Grand Rapids,MI 1990 (pp.208-211).

Waltke, Bruce. Genesis: A Commentary, Zondervan:Grand Rapids, MI. 2001 (pp.437-450.)

Wenham, Gordon. Word Biblical Commentary vol.2 Genesis 16-50.Word Books:Dallas,TX. 1994 (pp.283-297).




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