SDMB weekly Bible Study (SDMBWBS)-Week 19 Genesis 32

Welcome to the SDMB weekly Bible Study (SDMBWBS). This week we will be discussing Genesis** 32**. Since the discussion can turn into a very broad and hijackable thread, we would like the following rules to be adhered to:

  1. These SDMBWBS threads are to deal with the books and stories in the Bible as literature. What I’m hoping to achieve is an understanding of the stories, the time in which they were written, context, and possibly its cultural relevance.

  2. While it is up to the individual to choose to believe or disbelieve any portion, that is not to be the discussion of the thread. If you must, please choose to witness/anti-witness in Great Debates.

  3. The intention is to go through the Bible from front to back in order. While different books are needed to be referred to in order to understand context, please try and keep the focus on the thread’s selected chapter(s)/verse(s).

  4. Since different religions have chosen which books to include or omit, the threads will use the Catholic version of 46 Old Testament Books and 27 New Testament Books. It’s encouraged to discuss why a book was included/omitted during the applicable threads only. BibleHub, as far as I know, is a good resource that compiles many different versions of the verses into one page.(Also the SDMB Staff Reports on Who Wrote the Bible). Please feel free to use whatever source you want, including-and even more helpfully-the original language.

  5. Hopefully we can get through these threads with little to no moderation. A gentle reminder that if a poster comes in and ignores these rules, please use the “report post” function instead of responding.

Links to previous threads:
Genesis 1:1 to 2:25
Genesis 3
Genesis 4
Genesis 5-6
Genesis 7-9:17
Genesis 9:18-10:32
Genesis 11
Genesis 12-13
Genesis 14-15
Genesis 16
Genesis 17
Genesis 18-19
Genesis 20-22
Genesis 23-24
Genesis 25
Genesis 26:1-33
Genesis 26:34-Genesis 28:9
Genesis 30:25-31:55

Genesis 32

Jacob Prepares to Meet Esau

32 Jacob also went on his way, and the angels of God met him. 2 When Jacob saw them, he said, “This is the camp of God!” So he named that place Mahanaim.

3 Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. 4 He instructed them: “This is what you are to say to my lord Esau: ‘Your servant Jacob says, I have been staying with Laban and have remained there till now. 5 I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, male and female servants. Now I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favor in your eyes.’”

6 When the messengers returned to Jacob, they said, “We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.”

7 In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well. 8 He thought, “If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape.”

9 Then Jacob prayed, “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,’ 10 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. 11 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. 12 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.’”

13 He spent the night there, and from what he had with him he selected a gift for his brother Esau: 14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 15 thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. 16 He put them in the care of his servants, each herd by itself, and said to his servants, “Go ahead of me, and keep some space between the herds.”

17 He instructed the one in the lead: “When my brother Esau meets you and asks, ‘Who do you belong to, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?’ 18 then you are to say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us.’”

19 He also instructed the second, the third and all the others who followed the herds: “You are to say the same thing to Esau when you meet him. 20 And be sure to say, ‘Your servant Jacob is coming behind us.’” For he thought, “I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.” 21 So Jacob’s gifts went on ahead of him, but he himself spent the night in the camp.

Jacob Wrestles With God

22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”

But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.
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First, Prof P, I hope you’re feeling better. I seem to have caught it from you, I was sick all last week and I’m still coughing like crazy.

Second, my text has different verse numbering, I’m not sure what’s going on. What you cite as 31:55 from last week, appears in my text as 32:1, so all my numbers are one more than the NIV. I had prepared this in advance based on my numbering, so once I saw the difference, I’ve added square-brackets to cite NIV.

OK, to text: first story is Jacob preparing to meet his brother Esau after a 20-year absence. Jacob is worried about this meeting. Remember that Esau had threatened him, and with good cause.

He proceeds in a very natural way: he tries to get information, he imagines the worst, he prays for guidance, and he sends [del]bribes[/del] peace-offerings.

In verses 4–7 [NIV 3-6], he tries to get information about Esau’s state of mind (and strength of forces.) Esau has four hundred men; from other sources (such as I Samuel 22:2, 25:13, 30:10 and 30:17), this seems to be a standard size for militia, so becomes worrisome to Jacob. Also, of course, numerology was important back then, and 400 = 40 x 10, and 40 is the number of generational change and 10 is a number of completeness, so the number 400 bodes something. Jacob worries.

In verses 8-9 [NIV 7-8], Jacob considers the worst case scenario, conflict, and he’s outnumbered significantly. What are the options? He can’t flee because he promised Laban (Gen 31:42) not to go back. So, he tries to position his people to minimize losses in case Esau attacks.

In verses 10–13 [NIV:9-12], he prays for guidance and for help. He uses phrases from God’s promise (the ladder dream in Gen 28:13-15), and from God’s command (that he go back to the land, in Gen 31:3, which put him in this situation.) Those two interactions with God are not random, but mark the beginning and end of his 20-year exile.

In verses 14-22 [NIV: 13-21], Jacob sends gifts to Esau, to try to soothe any hostility. It’s almost a tribute, and he keeps a “distance between the droves” so the gifts come as a series of surprises. Esau admires each gift, and then the next gift arrives. Great psychological ploy!

Second story: Jacob wrestles with someone
Now we have an interlude, an interruption of the story of the reunion with Esau. Jacob has moved his family and flocks, so he is alone at night. In verses 23 – 33 [NIV 22-32] he is attacked by and wrestles with a mysterious assailant. It’s very brief, but very deep and there has been much commentary and iconography in this story.

The first question is who is the assailant? Although the NIV says “Jacob wrestles with God,” that’s not the plain meaning of the Hebrew text. The assailant is called “a person” in verse 25 [NIV 24], but in verse 31 [NIV 30] Jacob says “I have seen elohim face-to-face.” The word elohim is ambiguous; it can refer to God, or pagan gods, or to other divine beings. Hosea recounts this story and calls it an angel (Hos 12:4). We’ve seen before (Abraham being visited by three strangers) that angels can be initially perceived as humans.

Another interpretation is that the attacker is a literary symbol for Esau (obviously not Esau himself). One midrash has it that the wrestler is some sort of “guardian angel” of Esau. Since Esau will father the nation of Edom, which tries to block the Israelites from occupying the land, the wrestling here foreshadows the coming confrontation with Esau, and the later historic difficulties between Israel and Edom.

The Hebrew word “wrestled” is the stem ’-V-K, which (I think) only appears in this story. That word sort of puns on both the man Jacob and the place Jabbok (see v 23 [NIV v 22].) The place is significant, it’s later a frontier of the Israelite kingdom.

As dawn comes, the attacker tries to escape. Unable to overcome Jacob by simple strength, he delivers a “sudden, powerful blow” to Jacob’s hip, but Jacob still refuses to let go. There’s a poetic justice here: the wrestler grabs Jacob’s hip from behind, as Jacob had grabbed Esau’s heel a birth.

The being says, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking” and thus Jacob now understands that he is wrestling with something supernatural, and so asks for a blessing.

The Name Change
“What is your name?” is of course rhetorical, but is a more dramatic way of getting to the name change. Names in the bible are almost always tied to personality or destiny. This name change indicates that Jacob is no longer the trickster but one who strives with God and men. (Or with divine beings and men, the Hebrew is the ambiguous elohim.) The “men” with whom Jacob strives could mean Esau and Laban, or could be more generic.

in short, the exact etymology of “Israel” is unclear. The narrative requires the stem S-R-H and that is consistent with Hosea’s retelling. However, that root is not otherwise used in the bible, so the meaning “to strive” is derived from the context. The -el ending on names means God, as in Samuel and Michael. But then the meaning of “Israel” would “God strives” rather than “He strives with God.”

One possible meaning is “had dominion over a divine being”, again suggested in Hosea.

Another possiblitiy: the stem Y-SH-R means “to be straight” or upright, and the letter S and SH here are almost identical. So there’s a change of personality destiny: his original name Ya-akov meant to be crafty or deceitful, and his new names means “He is upright with God.”

Yet another explanation: yisra’el could be a contraction of ish ra’ah el “the man who saw a divine being” or “the man who saw God.”

Basically, we don’t understand the etymology. We do understand that Jacob is now also called “Israel.” For those believing in multiple authors, this is the E-version. The P-version of the name-change will appear in Gen 35:9-15.

Jacob’s comment about seeing elohim face-to-face is deliciously ambiguous. First ambiguity is whether this means God or a divine being. (Although we later have God telling Moses that no human can see God’s face and live.) Second ambiguity is that face-to-face can mean confrontationally, or can mean intimately.

We end with the first mention of “the children of Israel” (NIV translates “Israelites”) meaning the entire people, not just Jacob’s sons. The narrative is slowly changing from the story of one family, to the story of a people.

An interesting note on the angel’s response “Why do you ask my name?” in verse 29 is that the angel that visited Manoah and his wife in Judges 13 gives the same response (in verse 18) to that question.

I know it’s a Jewish/Christian thing, but I don’t know why. Perhaps the Massoretic text and Septuagint (or Vulgate) differ. I could see a translator making a “correction,” as the Christian version makes more sense. Laban’s leaving is clearly a part of the previous section.

This story of 32:22-32 is just really interesting to me. Here we have Jacob, who has kind of been a jerk in the past. While he believes in God, he has not always been righteous. So, on the eve of his possible comeuppance with his brother Esau, whom he screwed over, he meets with God (or Elohim/Angel). They wrestle from night until dawn. Here we have the personification of God in human form in an almost Greek like struggle.

In fact, let me sidenote this and compare Jacob to Herecles. There are several overlapping similarities. Jacob’s twin brother is Esau. Herecles has Iphicles. Herecles was bit on the heel by a crab, Jacob grabbed Esau’s heel when being born. Most importantly, Herecles wrestles Zeus to a draw. Just like Jacob wrestling Elohim until sunrise.

Now, the wrestling match is over with Jacob permanently injured, almost as a medal to show his struggle with God. After this, Jacob’s behavior changes for the better and becomes somewhat the father of Israel.

Here’s some more about this:


Yeah, Bigt, I’d always heard that there are some slight numbering differences, but I have no idea why.

On the name-change, it’s worth adding that Jacob is the only one who, after a name change given by God, is still sometimes called by his former name. Under one of the interpretations of “Israel” I gave above, that makes sense: he’s sometimes still Jacob (twisty) and sometimes Israel (straight.)

We’ll get to the other version of the renaming next time, st pauler. If you believe in multiple authors, this is E-version and the P-version will appear in the next chapter. However, the two versions are different; here the name-change comes from some sort of divine being (angel or night-demon), but the second name-change comes directly from God.

Perhaps the angel was worried that Jacob was going to use the name for magical purposes. Since Jacob had done what amounts to sympathetic magic to make the sheep of his fee speckled.

I heard the same thing about when Moses was trying to get Yahweh to tell him His name.

But the whole story of Jacob wrestling with the angel is so brief and off-hand, and apparently unrelated to the reconciliation with Esau, that it almost jars. From this short, abruptly appearing story, we get the name Israel.

Sidenote: did the Israelites in fact not eat the hip tendon? I don’t recall that admonition in the Old Testament law.



Indeed we don’t. In fact, the process of removing it is so complicated and time-consuming that it is not done on a mass-commercial scale, and most Kosher slaughterhouses simply sell the entire back half (from the end of the rib cage) of cattle or sheep to non-Jewish meat vendors.

Interestingly, that comment is the only instruction not to eat the hip. My recollection (cmkeller will, I hope, correct me or confirm) is that, amidst all the later dietary laws, this is not mentioned again.

I believe that is correct.

Thanks for the info - ignorance fought.


Just to say, I’m not better. In fact, I’m worse. I’m very glad Dex is here to supply such wonderful information. Thanks!

Sorry to hear that, Prof. My best wishes for a full recovery.

Feel better Prof!

I hope your health improves soon, Prof. Take care of yourself.

New thread for Genesis 33