Meeting of Esau and Jacob (Francken, Frans II 1620's)

As Jacob prepared to return to the Promised Land, he was met by angels in a place he named Mahanaim (meaning “two camps”). He recognized that God was with him.

Jacob sent two messengers ahead of the caravan to meet his estranged brother, Esau, who lived in Seir, in the region of Edom. Jacob was unsure how Esau would react to his homecoming. He instructed the messengers to tell Esau: “Your servant Jacob says, I have been staying with Laban and have remained there until now. I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, male and female servants. I am sending this message to you, that I may find favor in your eyes.”

Jacob Sees Esau Coming to Meet Him (watercolor circa 1896–1902 by James Tissot)When the messengers returned, they told Jacob, “We delivered your message to Esau and now he is coming to meet you – with four hundred men at his side.”

Jacob feared Esau’s intent. He split his people into two groups rationalizing that at least one group would be safe if Esau attacked. Then Jacob prayed to God, admitting he was afraid and asking for protection from Esau.

Before going to sleep that night, Jacob selected goats, ewes, camels, cows, bulls, donkeys, and rams from his flock as gifts for Esau. He sent servants ahead with the herd telling them, “Go ahead of me, and leave some space between the herds.”

Jacob instructed the lead servant, “When my brother Esau meets you and asks who these animals belong to, tell them they belong to Jacob, who is following behind us, and are a gift sent to Esau.”

Jacob instructed the second, the third, and all the others who followed the herds to say the same thing reminding them to mention, “Your servant Jacob is coming behind us.”

Jacob felt  he could pacify Esau with the gifts.

The gifts went ahead of him while Jacob spent the night in the camp.

What the story means to us today

Jacob combines prayer with action

Jacob's gift to EsauThe story illustrates a wonderful interplay between God’s divine guidance and man’s responsibility to act. God prepared Jacob for his meeting with Esau by sending angels before him, a sort of “welcome back” to the Promised Land. But Jacob was still afraid – we see this throughout the story (even in his prayer to God).

Jacob’s faith in God is growing stronger as evidenced through his prayer for help. However, note that at the same time, Jacob takes the initiative to repair the broken relationship with his brother. Many believe being a Christian and putting faith in God means we have no responsibility to act on our own. This story demonstrates otherwise. God’s divine protection and our own personal responsibilities are not mutually exclusive but rather, complementary.

God will indeed guide and protect us, but he does not perceive us to be puppets – he expects us to take action on our own too.

Additional thoughts and considerations

Jacob finds himself in a perilous situation

You can’t deny there’s a bit of humor in this story. Jacob has just left an egregious situation with Laban and as always, things seem to never go right for Jacob. He sends a friendly but nervous greeting ahead to his brother Esau. The message comes back that Esau received his greeting and is now heading towards him with a small army.

Jacob finds himself facing an approaching army with a none-too-pleased Laban behind him blocking any potential escape route. Jacob put himself in this precarious position.

Jacob’s fear

The story is wonderfully complex. It illustrates faith, reconciliation, independent thinking, but a focal point throughout is Jacob’s fear. We see Jacob’s fear mentioned several times, even in his prayer to God, and his preparations are clearly intended to afford protection from Esau and his army of men.

Despite his fear, or perhaps on account of his anxiety, Jacob does precisely what God expects us to do when afraid. He prays – then acts with faith.

Jacob’s prayer – a modern-day example

"Grace" - photo by Eric Enstrom, 1918 (Charles Wilden, a poor peddler, in photo)Jacob’s prayer (which is the first prayer recorded in the Bible) demonstrates not only his increased faith in God but his religious maturation. Overall, Jacob provides an excellent model for modern-day prayer.

  1. Jacob approaches God with earnest humility and gratitude.
  2. He is honest, admitting his fear to himself and God.
  3. His request is altruistic, his concern for others clearly expressed.
  4. Finally, he confirms God’s earlier promise of prosperity which demonstrates great faith.

After prayer, Jacob does not depend solely upon God’s aid. He still executes prudence and foresight.

Were Jacob’s gifts a bribe?

To some, Jacob’s gifts to Esau could be perceived as bribery or weakness. In fact, they are an intelligent solution to a problem for which there is no answer. Other than God’s protection, Jacob is helpless at the hands of Esau and he recognizes that he is powerless to stop an attack of 400 men. Jacob openly acknowledges the intent of the gifts – to pacify Esau. And with God’s help, his plan works.

Space between the herds

When Jacob sent his servants with animal herds (as gifts) for Esau, he told them to “go ahead of me, and keep some space between the herds.” The story does not divulge Jacob’s intent but it is likely that his arrangement of the animal herd was to produce a visual impact – long lines of animals approaching may impress Esau. Or the purpose could have been to create a multi-layered buffer between Esau’s army and Jacob’s family.

Were Jacob’s visions real or in his mind?

Although there is certainly no way to know whether Jacob saw the angels with his eyes or envisioned them in his mind, the verbiage used in the verses hints that he physically saw the angels at Mahanaim.

The science and history behind the story

The land of Seir

Jacob sent his messengers ahead to Esau “in the land of Seir”. Seir was a mountainous highland country to the east and south of the Dead Sea. At the time, it was occupied by the Horites, who would eventually be overcome by Esau’s descendants, the Edomites. In ancient time, Seir was positioned to control the trade routes from Arabia and the Red Sea.

Notes on Biblical translation

The angels

Desert Camp, with Mt. Seir in the distance (1849, Colored lithograph by Louis Haghe after David Roberts)Most translations describe the entities that Jacob met as “angels of God”. The phrase used here only occurs twice in the Bible, the other time being another encounter Jacob has with angels (their appearance on the ladder). The phrase likely means an entity akin to messengers of God or God’s messengers.

Bible Text

NIV

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. q

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, e 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.

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

The Message

32 And Jacob went his way. Angels of God met him. When Jacob saw them he said, “Oh! God’s Camp!” And he named the place Mahanaim (Campground).

3–5 Then Jacob sent messengers on ahead to his brother Esau in the land of Seir in Edom. He instructed them: “Tell my master Esau this, ‘A message from your servant Jacob: I’ve been staying with Laban and couldn’t get away until now. I’ve acquired cattle and donkeys and sheep; also men and women servants. I’m telling you all this, my master, hoping for your approval.’ ”

6 The messengers came back to Jacob and said, “We talked to your brother Esau and he’s on his way to meet you. But he has four hundred men with him.”

7–8 Jacob was scared. Very scared. Panicked, he divided his people, sheep, cattle, and camels into two camps. He thought, “If Esau comes on the first camp and attacks it, the other camp has a chance to get away.”

9–12 And then Jacob prayed, “God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, GOD who told me, ‘Go back to your parents’ homeland and I’ll treat you well.’ I don’t deserve all the love and loyalty you’ve shown me. When I left here and crossed the Jordan I only had the clothes on my back, and now look at me—two camps! Save me, please, from the violence of my brother, my angry brother! I’m afraid he’ll come and attack us all, me, the mothers and the children. You yourself said, ‘I will treat you well; I’ll make your descendants like the sands of the sea, far too many to count.’ ”

13–16 He slept the night there. Then he prepared a present for his brother Esau from his possessions: two hundred female goats, twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty camels with their nursing young, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. He put a servant in charge of each herd and said, “Go ahead of me and keep a healthy space between each herd.”

17–18 Then he instructed the first one out: “When my brother Esau comes close and asks, ‘Who is your master? Where are you going? Who owns these?’—answer him like this, ‘Your servant Jacob. They are a gift to my master Esau. He’s on his way.’ ”

19–20 He gave the same instructions to the second servant and to the third—to each in turn as they set out with their herds: “Say ‘Your servant Jacob is on his way behind us.’ ” He thought, “I will soften him up with the succession of gifts. Then when he sees me face-to-face, maybe he’ll be glad to welcome me.”

21 So his gifts went before him while he settled down for the night in the camp.

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

Ancient castle in the village of Mount SeirThe NET Bible

32:1 So Jacob went on his way and the angels of God met him. 32:2 When Jacob saw them, he exclaimed, “This is the camp of God!” So he named that place Mahanaim.

32:3 Jacob sent messengers on ahead to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the region of Edom. 32:4 He commanded them, “This is what you must say to my lord Esau: ‘This is what your servant Jacob says: I have been staying with Laban until now. 32:5 I have oxen, donkeys, sheep, and male and female servants. I have sent this message to inform my lord, so that I may find favor in your sight.’ ”

32:6 The messengers returned to Jacob and said, “We went to your brother Esau. He is coming to meet you and has four hundred men with him.” 32:7 Jacob was very afraid and upset. So he divided the people who were with him into two camps, as well as the flocks, herds, and camels. 32:8 “If Esau attacks one camp,” he thought, “then the other camp will be able to escape.”

32:9 Then Jacob prayed, “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O LORD, you said to me, ‘Return to your land and to your relatives and I will make you prosper.’ 32:10 I am not worthy of all the faithful love you have shown your servant. With only my walking stick I crossed the Jordan, but now I have become two camps. 32:11 Rescue me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, as well as the mothers with their children. 32:12 But you said, ‘I will certainly make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand on the seashore, too numerous to count.’ ”

32:13 Jacob stayed there that night. Then he sent as a gift to his brother Esau 32:14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 32:15 thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. 32:16 He entrusted them to his servants, who divided them into herds. He told his servants, “Pass over before me, and keep some distance between one herd and the next.” 32:17 He instructed the servant leading the first herd, “When my brother Esau meets you and asks, ‘To whom do you belong? Where are you going? Whose herds are you driving?’ 32:18 then you must say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They have been sent as a gift to my lord Esau. In fact Jacob himself is behind us.’ ”

32:19 He also gave these instructions to the second and third servants, as well as all those who were following the herds, saying, “You must say the same thing to Esau when you meet him. 32:20 You must also say, ‘In fact your servant Jacob is behind us.’ ” Jacob thought, “I will first appease him by sending a gift ahead of me. After that I will meet him. Perhaps he will accept me.” 32:21 So the gifts were sent on ahead of him while he spent that night in the camp.

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

King James Version

32 And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. 2 And when Jacob saw them, he said, This is God’s host: and he called the name of that place Mahanaim. 3 And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother unto the land of Seir, the country of Edom. 4 And he commanded them, saying, Thus shall ye speak unto my lord Esau; Thy servant Jacob saith thus, I have sojourned with Laban, and stayed there until now: 5 And I have oxen, and asses, flocks, and menservants, and womenservants: and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find grace in thy sight. 6 And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, We came to thy brother Esau, and also he cometh to meet thee, and four hundred men with him. 7 Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed: and he divided the people that was with him, and the flocks, and herds, and the camels, into two bands; 8 And said, If Esau come to the one company, and smite it, then the other company which is left shall escape. 9 And Jacob said, O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, the LORD which saidst unto me, Return unto thy country, and to thy kindred, and I will deal well with thee: 10 I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which thou hast shewed unto thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two bands. 11 Deliver me, I pray thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau: for I fear him, lest he will come and smite me, and the mother with the children. 12 And thou saidst, I will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude. 13 And he lodged there that same night; and took of that which came to his hand a present for Esau his brother; 14 Two hundred she goats, and twenty he goats, two hundred ewes, and twenty rams, 15 Thirty milch camels with their colts, forty kine, and ten bulls, twenty she asses, and ten foals. 16 And he delivered them into the hand of his servants, every drove by themselves; and said unto his servants, Pass over before me, and put a space betwixt drove and drove. 17 And he commanded the foremost, saying, When Esau my brother meeteth thee, and asketh thee, saying, Whose art thou? and whither goest thou? and whose are these before thee? 18 Then thou shalt say, They be thy servant Jacob’s; it is a present sent unto my lord Esau: and, behold, also he is behind us. 19 And so commanded he the second, and the third, and all that followed the droves, saying, On this manner shall ye speak unto Esau, when ye find him. 20 And say ye moreover, Behold, thy servant Jacob is behind us. For he said, I will appease him with the present that goeth before me, and afterward I will see his face; peradventure he will accept of me. 21 So went the present over before him: and himself lodged that night in the company.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database