1 Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. 2 And when Jacob saw them he said, “This is God’s camp!” So he called the name of that place Mahanaim.
3 And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother in the land of Seir, the country of Edom, 4 instructing them, “Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have sojourned with Laban and stayed until now. 5 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.’”
6 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.” 7 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, 8 thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, then the camp that is left will escape.”
9 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,’ 10 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. 11 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. 12 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.’”
13 So he stayed there that night, and from what he had with him he took a present for his brother Esau, 14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 15 thirty milking camels and their calves, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. 16 These he handed over to his servants, every drove by itself, and said to his servants, “Pass on ahead of me and put a space between drove and drove.” 17 He instructed the first, “When Esau my brother meets you and asks you, ‘To whom do you belong? Where are you going? And whose are these ahead of you?’ 18 then you shall say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a present sent to my lord Esau. And moreover, he is behind us.’” 19 He likewise instructed the second and the third and all who followed the droves, “You shall say the same thing to Esau when you find him, 20 and you shall say, ‘Moreover, your servant Jacob is behind us.’” For he thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me.” 21 So the present passed on ahead of him, and he himself stayed that night in the camp. – Genesis 32:1-21 ESV
After a 20-year absence, Jacob was about to come face-to-face with his estranged brother, Esau. Years earlier, they had not parted on the best of terms. Angered at having been swindled out of his birthright and blessing by Jacob, Esau had been plotting his brothers murder. But their mother had intervened and sent Jacob to go live with her brother, Laban, in Mesopotamia. She had hoped this would prove to be a temporary separation, and had assured Jacob that, as soon as Esau calmed down, she would send word that it was safe to come home. That message was never delivered.
So as Jacob and his caravan drew closer to home, he became increasingly more concerned about what might happen when he finally encountered his brother. He had no way of knowing whether Esau had calmed down or if he would still be harboring thoughts of revenge.
Somewhere along the way, Jacob had an encounter with some angelic beings. It had been 20 years earlier that Jacob had received a vision from God in which he saw “a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12 ESV). Now, as he returned to the land of promise two decades later, he had another divine encounter. Moses provides no details about this meeting, but simply states that Jacob called the place Mahanaim, which means “two camps.” Perhaps he saw the angels of God encamped in the region and decided this was a good spot to stop for the night. The presence of these heavenly messengers must have provided Jacob with a sense of comfort and security, and prompted him to set up camp nearby.
But his anxiety is on full display as he instigates a plan designed to assuage the anger of his disgruntled brother. Jacob sends messengers ahead with a carefully worded greeting for Esau.
“Humble greetings from your servant Jacob. Until now I have been living with Uncle Laban, and now I own cattle, donkeys, flocks of sheep and goats, and many servants, both men and women. I have sent these messengers to inform my lord of my coming, hoping that you will be friendly to me.” – Genesis 32:4-5 NLT
Jacob was attempting to get some idea of his brother’s emotional state. How would he react to the news that Jacob was back in Canaan? Would it cause him to rejoice or simply reignite the long-simmering rage that lie hidden in his heart? And as the messengers departed, Jacob was left to wait, worry, and wonder about what was going to happen next. Moses doesn’t provide a timeline for how long it took the messengers to make the round-trip from Laban’s home back to Jacob’s encampment. But as the minutes stretched into hours and, possibly, days, Jacob’s anxiety must have reached an all-time high.
And when the messengers returned, the news they delivered was far from encouraging. Jacob was petrified by what he heard.
“We met your brother, Esau, and he is already on his way to meet you—with an army of 400 men!” – Genesis 32:6 NLT
This doesn’t sound like Esau is preparing to roll out the red carpet. And the army of 400 men doesn’t sound like the local welcome wagon. Moses reveals that “Jacob was terrified at the news” (Genesis 32:7 NLT). So, he immediately went into self-preservation mode, coming up with a plan for buying off his vengeance-seeking brother.
He divided his household, along with the flocks and herds and camels, into two groups. He thought, “If Esau meets one group and attacks it, perhaps the other group can escape.” – Genesis 32:7-8 NLT
Fearing the worst, Jacob divided his possessions, including his family members, into two separate groups, preparing to use them as guinea pigs to test the degree of his brother’s anger. He was hoping that Esau would be moved to show sympathy when he encountered the innocent women and children. By staggering the departure of the two groups, Jacob hoped to test Esau’s resolve. Would he be willing to slaughter his sisters-in-law and nephews or would the sight of them soften his hardened heart? If Esau proved to be inappeasable, Jacob was willing to risk the deaths of his loved one, hoping that at least one of the two groups would have time to escape and survive.
It’s interesting to note that, having committed himself to his own plan, Jacob also decided to get God involved. But his prayer almost comes across as an afterthought. It’s almost as if, once he had come up with his strategy, he asked God to bless it.
“O Lord, please rescue me from the hand of my brother, Esau. I am afraid that he is coming to attack me, along with my wives and children.” – Genesis 32:11 ESV
Jacob had not yet sent the first wave of flocks and family members to meet Esau, so he decided to ask God to step in and save the day. And, in his prayer, he reminds God of His earlier promise to protect and preserve him.
“…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 32:12 ESV
It was Jacob who had chosen to divide his household into two camps, exhibiting his willingness to risk their lives to save his own neck. He was fully prepared to send them out like innocent lambs to the slaughter. Fortunately, Jacob delayed his plan and decided to sleep on it. The next morning, he changed his mind and sent a delegation with a sizeable “bribe” to soften up Esau.
…he selected these gifts from his possessions to present to his brother, Esau: 200 female goats, 20 male goats, 200 ewes, 20 rams, 30 female camels with their young, 40 cows, 10 bulls, 20 female donkeys, and 10 male donkeys. – Genesis 32:13-15 NLT
Jacob was a wealthy man and he attempted to use his formidable resources to buy off his brother. But, the ever-wary Jacob, chose to send these gifts in waves, creating a buffer zone between himself and Esau. He hoped that the cumulative effect of each successive wave of tribute would slowly transform his brother’s desire for revenge into a growing lust for treasure.
Jacob’s plan and the logic behind it were simple. When Esau encountered each caravan of servants and livestock, he would want to know to whom they belonged. And each servant had been instructed to respond, “They belong to your servant Jacob, but they are a gift for his master Esau. Look, he is coming right behind us” (Genesis 32:18 NLT). One after the other, these traveling treasure troves would come into Esau’s sight and possession. And Jacob hoped that this progressive payment plan would reap huge dividends.
“I will try to appease him by sending gifts ahead of me. When I see him in person, perhaps he will be friendly to me.” – Genesis 32:20 NLT
Jacob had asked God to rescue him, but was putting all his hope and trust in his own intellectual and financial capital. He was attempting to use his sizeable, yet still limited, resources to save the day. And having invested all that he had, he was forced to wait and wonder what the morning might bring. But little did Jacob know that his next confrontation would not be with his unhappy brother but with his holy and all-powerful God.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.
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