The events that climax with Jacob wrestling by the Jabbok (Gen 32:1-32) flow from the day of judgement precipitated when he returns to Canaan with idolatry in his camp (see Chapters 11 and 19). They started, as at Sodom, when angels (plural) visited the camp. Only a single angel was needed to carry a message from God, as in Hagar’s visitation (Gen 27:17) and Jacob’s earlier dream (Gen 31:11). However, to convict a community of a serious crime, such as at Sodom, required at least two angelic witnesses (Num 35:30, Deut 17:6). Jacob, alert to this precedent, immediately reassured the angels, “this is God’s camp”. Then, implying that they should search elsewhere, he named that place “two camps” (Mahanaim). Rather ironically, this aptly described the problem within his family, with its entrenched divide between Leah and Rachel.
Once the angels departed, Jacob sent a polite, but to the point, invitation to Esau, inviting him to honour Isaac’s blessing. However, when Esau advanced with a small army, the purpose behind the angels visit became clear. Jacob faced a day of judgement and they had not come to assess some other camp, but to report on his. As he contemplated this, he lamented how, with only the authority God had given him (his staff), he had passed over the waters1, yet now his family had become two companies. It was divided against itself by a spiritual cleft as real as any physical one (cf. Matt 12:25)2. Therefore, Jacob separated his camp in the hope that one half might endure. Then, as night fell, he poured out his heart, reminding his Lord of the reason for his return, acknowledging his unworthiness of the blessings already granted and confessing his fears. In this valley judgement he recognized the spoils must surely go to Esau, so, that night or the next, he humbled himself yet further, sending three gifts to appease his brother.
As Esau continued to advance, God finally brought Jacob to the ford of Jabbok, a place of making void or laying waste (the root meaning of the name) in the bottom of a valley. There, Jacob separated himself from his wives and children, waiting alone for the judgement of God. Lot escaped from Sodom by distancing himself from the failings of his townsfolk. Similarly, Jacob tried to distance himself from the sins of those around him, though in his case it was not so easy. He was one flesh with Rachel and they would be judged as one. Thus, overnight, God found him wanting and, stepped into the role of adversary, wrestling with Jacob as Rachel had wrestled with her sister (Gen 30:8). Jacob may have striven successfully against Laban, but, asked the Lord, could he fight against God as well as man and still prevail. The question’s answer was so obvious that neither Jacob, nor Genesis’ author, need give it. It was absurd to think of man prevailing against God (cf. 1 Cor 1:25) and so vanquished Jacob limped away hobbled.
On a typical day of judgement God finish the work and depart by dawn. However, Jacob, like Cain before him, could not bear the separation that this adverse judgement would bring. So, just as he once grasped the heel of his brother, so he clung to God (cf. Hos 12:3-43), demanding that his offer of slave-like subservience be acknowledged4. God accepted Jacob as a divine possession by giving him a new name. Scholars dispute what the name Israel means5. However, as personal names that contain ‘el’ tend to take God as their subject, ‘grasps God’ seems as good as any.
Following the wrestling incident, Jacob named the place ‘the face of God’, for he seemed genuinely surprised to have seen God’s face and survived (Gen 32:29). Abraham had seen God’s face and welcomed it (Gen 18:1-2), as did Moses (Exod 33:11), but Jacob was more like those who feared God’s face because idolatry had rendered their land unclean (see Chapter 6). The presence of hidden idolatry had undermined his ministry, as symbolized by his weakened priestly portion (thigh). To those whom God granted authority, the divine name was revealed (Exod 23:21), for it was the Lord’s nature (Exod 3:14-15) and conferred his authority. However, to Jacob, there would be no such revelation, leaving him with no option but to seek sanctuary under the godly authority of his elder brother.
After surviving this day of judgment by submitting to Esau’s authority, Jacob moved on to provide a precedent by building booths and naming a place Succoth. After their submission to Moses brought salvation, Israel’s eponymous descendants (Gen 33:17) would also call a camp Succoth and then recall the event by building booths (Lev 23:42).
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1 As would Moses (Exod 14:16), Joshua (Josh 3:15-16, cf. Heb 9:4), Elijah (2 Kgs 2:8), Elisha (2 Kings 2:14) and Jesus (Matt 14:25, cf. Exod 14:29)
2 Being a divided people was fundamentally bad (cf. Ezekl 37:22, Dan 5:28)
3 Hosea places Jacob contending with God in parallel with him grasping Esau’s heel
4 In Israelite tradition the stronger blessed the weaker (e.g. Heb 7:7).
5 G. A. Lee, “Israel,” ISBE, 2:907-8.