Genesis 32: Jacob Prepares for Esau; Jacob Fights with a Divine Man and Becomes Israel


Hebrew-English Text

I. Summary

Jacob sees angels at his camp and names the place Mahanaim, “the camps” of god. Jacob prepares to meet Esau by communicating words of peace, praying to Yahweh, sending  Esau hundreds of animals in droves, and splitting his camp in two with the hope that at least one will survive. Jacob wrestles with a divine man who injures his leg and changes his name to Israel. Jacob names the site Peniel, “the face of god.”

II. Photo

Jacob survives his fight with the divine man: “The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip.” (v. 32)

III. Select Verses

2-3: Jacob went on his way, and angels of God encountered him. When he saw them, Jacob said, “This is God’s camp.” So he named that place Mahanaim.

7-9: The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” Jacob was greatly frightened; in his anxiety, he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.”

10-13: Then Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who said to me, ‘Return to your native land and I will deal bountifully with you’! I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant: with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike. Yet You have said, ‘I will deal bountifully with you and make your offspring as the sands of the sea, which are too numerous to count.’”

14-17: After spending the night there, he selected from what was at hand these presents for his brother Esau: 200 she-goats and 20 he-goats; 200 ewes and 20 rams; 30 milch camels with their colts; 40 cows and 10 bulls; 20 she-asses and 10 he-asses.  These he put in the charge of his servants, drove by drove, and he told his servants, “Go on ahead, and keep a distance between droves.”

25-29: Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”

IV. Outline

1-3. Jacob encounters Yahweh’s angels at Mahanaim

    1. Laban leaves in peace

    2-3. Jacob sees Yahweh’s angels, so he calls the place Mahanaim, “the two camps” of God 

4-22. Jacob sends offerings to Esau and prepares for the worst

    4-6. Jacob sends words of peace to Esau in Edom

    7. Jacob learns that Esau approaches with 400 men

    8-9. Jacob divides his camp in two so that one may survive

    10-13. Jacob praises Yahweh and petitions him to save him and his offspring

    14-16. Jacob separates hundreds of she goats, he goats, ewes, rams, male and female camels, cows, bulls, and female and male donkeys as gifts for Esau

    17-22. Jacob sends the animals group by group in droves with the message that Jacob is right behind them

23-33. Jacob’s fight with a divine man at Peniel

    23-24. Jacob brings his wives and possessions across the Jabbok

    25. A [divine - v. 33] man wrestles Jacob, who is left alone

    26. The divine man injures Jacob’s leg

    27-29. Jacob asks for a blessing, and his name is changed to Israel because he “persevered (s-r-y) with god (‘el)”

    30. The divine man does not reveal his name

    31. Jacob names the place Peniel because he saw the “face (p-n-y) of god (’el)”

    32. Jacob leaves Penuel (variant spelling) limping

    33. Cultural note: this is why the Israelites do not eat the sinew of the leg [sciatic nerve?] until this day

V. Comment

Two notes today. First, the medieval commentator Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Mayer, ca. 1085-1158, France) had a fascinating read of the final episode in this chapter. According to Rashbam, Jacob sent his presents to Esau group by group in droves so that he could buy himself time. Each present came with the message that Jacob was right behind it so Esau would have no reason to hurry up on his journey to Jacob. Rashbam also explains why Jacob was left alone on the other side of the Jabbok, separated from his family. Fearing for his life, Jacob abandoned his family and fled from Esau. He knew he could not protect them and did not trust in Yahweh to save him. At this point, Yahweh intervenes and does not allow Jacob to flee. After a brawl, Jacob’s name is changed from Jacob, which connotes weakness and trickery (Genesis 25:26; 27:36), to Israel, which connotes strength (vv. 28-29). Israel is now a new man who trusts in Yahweh and is able to confront his fears accordingly.

As a second note, I provide a site identification for Mahanaim/Peniel from my dissertation titled “The Tribe of Manasseh and the Jordan River: Geography, Society, History, and Biblical Memory.”

General Location (certain): Jabbok (Zarqa) River region

Specific Location (uncertain): Perhaps Tulul adh-Dhahab (Latitude 32.185533°; Longitude 35.686551°)

Relevant Biblical Names: Mahanaim (מחנים); Peniel (פניאל); Penuel (פנואל)

Greek Names: Μααναιν; Μαναϊμ; Μααναιμ; Μάναλιν1; Παρεμβολαί (“two camps”); Φανουηλ

Verses: Gen 32:3, 31-32; Josh 13:26, 30; 21:38; Judg 8:8-9, 17; 2 Sam 2:8, 12, 29; 17:24, 27; 19:33; 1 Kings 2:8; 4:14; 12:25; 1 Chr 6:65

According to Joshua 13:30, Mahanaim was on the border of east Manasseh: “Their boundary extended from Mahanaim” (ויהי גבולם ממחנים).2 Mahanaim was also on the border of Gad and was considered that tribe’s city of refuge (Joshua 13:26; 21:38; 1 Chronicles 6:65). It appears to have been an important site for it was also the capital of one of Solomon’s twelve districts (1 Kings 4:14). It was there that Eshbaal/Ish-boshet was coronated and where David mustered his troops against Absalom’s forces (2 Sam 2:8-9; 17:24-27). A number of texts suggest that Mahanaim was not far from the Jordan River (2 Sam 2:29; 17:24; 19:31–32). Genesis 32 provides the most details about Mahanaim’s location. According to that text, Mahanaim is located along a ford of the Jabbok river, where Jacob divided “two camps” (שני מחנות) as he prepared to meet his brother Esau (Gen 32:3, 8, 23). The phraseology of “two camps” is significant; the ים-ending of Mahanaim, which originally was a locative,3 appears to have been understood by the biblical authors as a dual form that means “two camps.” This etymology would lead to Mahanaim’s Greek name Παρεμβολαί, which literally means “two camps” (LXX Gen 32:3; 1 Kgs 2:8; Josephus Ant. 7:10, 18, 230, 232, 235, 171, 388). According to Genesis 32:31-32, Jacob named “that place” (המקום) Peniel/Penuel. Perhaps this is a reference to one of the “two camps,” the other being Mahanaim. Other texts mention Penuel in the vicinity of Succoth (Judg 8:8) and recount how it was built up by Jeroboam as his capital city (1 Kgs 12:25).

Mahanaim appears to be listed as mḥnm in Shosheq I’s topographical list from Karnak.4 Penuel might also be mentioned in the very same list as [p]nir, but the text is broken and the geographical context is unclear.5 Unfortunately, there are no ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek traditions that can help us identify the location of Mahanaim/Penuel with any certainty.

In his 1322 book Kaphtor va-Ferah, Ishtori Haparhi identified Mahanaim with an Arab village named Mehna, which he spelled as מחנה.6 This site was listed as Muhna (محنا) in an Ottoman census from the late 16th century.7 Ulrich Seetzen visited the site in the mid-19th century and transcribed it as Möhny.8 Although he did not cite Haparḥi, Edward Robinson identified Mehna with Mahanaim in 1865 and many such as Tristram, Oliphant, Wright and Filsom, and Abel accepted this identification.9 Although it is not clear why the suffix would have dropped (perhaps the final vowel is a remnant), the connection between Hebrew Mahanaim (מחנים) and Arabic Muhna (محنا) is strong, for the Arabic consonants line up perfectly with their Hebrew counterparts (מ/م, ח/ح, נ/ن). However, Muhna is approximately 20 km from the Jabbok (Zarqa) and is not easily accessible from the Jordan, meaning the location does not fit the biblical text. Additionally, although the biblical text ascribes some significance to Mahanaim, surveys of contemporary Mehna have only revealed a site 0.2 ha in size with little to no Iron Age remains.10 For these reasons, scholars began to question this location for Mahanaim, suggesting that the linguistic connection is mere coincidence.11

Screenshot 2017-07-07 11.56.03.png

Although there is neither a linguistic connection nor an ancient tradition, the best possible candidate for Mahanaim is Tulul adh-Dhahab, a group of two tells located along an S-bend on the Jabbok (Zarqa) River. As many point out, this twin site is in consonance with Genesis 32, which understands Mahanaim to mean “two camps.”12 The western tell, which is to the north of the Jabbok (Zarqa), is named Dhahab el-Gharbiyeh, and is approximately 14.2 ha in size.13 The eastern tell, which is to the south of the Jabbok (Zarqa), is named Dhahab el-Sharqiyeh, and is approximately 8.6 ha in size.14 Although neither site has been excavated, Robert L. Gordon and Linda E. Villiers conducted extensive surveys at the two tells in 1980 and 1982.15 They found considerable architecture including two towers, a tunnel (perhaps for a tomb), casemate fortification walls, a main gate with a 7 m opening, part of an 8th or 7th century BCE terra cotta figurine, and 4,681 Iron Age pot sherds (of 12,000 collected in total). They conclude, “There can be no doubt now that the west hill [Dhahab el-Gharbiyeh] as well as the east [Dhahab el-Sharqiyeh] was occupied during both Iron I and Iron II.”16 For these reasons, a number of scholars choose to identify Mahanaim as one of the two tells at Tulul adh-Dhahab, and most settle on Dhahab el-Gharbiyeh (Dhahab el-Sharqiyeh is often identified as Penuel).17 If these identifications are not correct then Mahanaim/Penuel was certainly in the near vicinity. While other suggestions have been made (e.g., Tell Hajjaj, which is only 4 km away, and Tell Rehil, which is only 10 km away), these nearby Iron Age sites are less preferable because they have neither a linguistic connection nor any evidence of the “two camps” mentioned by the biblical authors.18

Screenshot 2017-07-07 11.56.17

In sum, it is probable but not certain that both Mahanaim and Penuel were located at Tulul adh-Dhahab. While this identification satisfies the biblical and archaeological requirements and even explains the biblical etymology of Mahanaim, the linguistic connection is lacking. To add to the problem, a strong linguistic candidate (but not a strong archaeological or biblical one) exists 20 km to the north at Mehna and there are a number of Iron Age tells in that region. No matter the case, the general whereabouts of Mahanaim is certainly along the Jabbok (Zarqa) River not far from the Jordan. This means that Manasseh’s territory extended to the Jabbok (Zarqa), encompassing the entirety of northern Gilead.

1 H. St. J. Thackeray and Ralph Marcus suggest that this is a corruption in Josephus or his biblical vorlage (Josephus V: Jewish Antiquities, Books V-VIII [Cambridge: Harvard University, 1934], 363 n. “c”.

2 Some scholars suggest a second connection between Manasseh and Mahanaim. According to 1 Kings 4:14, a certain Ahinadab son of Iddo (אחינדב בן עדא) lived in Mahanaim, and according to 1 Chronicles 27:21, a certain Iddo son of Zechariah (ידו בן זכריה) was a chief of Manasseh. If the Iddos can be equated (but note the spelling difference) then Ahinadab was a Manassite. See Diana V. Edelman, “Mahanaim (Place),” ABD 4:471-472.

3 See Yigal Levin, “The identification of Khirbet Qeiyafa: A New Suggestion,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 367 (2012), 73-86; Elitzur, Ancient Place Names, 282-290.

4 This is the 22nd toponym mentioned in the list. For the text, see, Wilhelm M. Müller, Egyptological Researches: Results of a Journey from 1904 (Vol. 1; Washington D. C.: Carnegie Institution, 1906), pls. 75-87; Wilhelm M. Müller, Egyptological Researches: Results from a Journey from 1906 (Vol. 2; Washington D. C.: Carnegie Institution, 1910), 113-115; Jan J. Simons, Handbook for the Study of Egyptian Topographical Lists Relating to Western Asia (Leiden: Brill, 1937), 178-186. This identification is accepted by Aḥituv, Canaanite Toponyms, 134. While Frank Clancy suggests that Shoshenq might be referring to the Mahaneh-Dan (מחנה דן) of Judg 13:25, 18:12, Kevin A. Wilson writes that “Mahanaim is a well known site and probably was larger, which makes it the better candidate.” See Frank Clancy, “Shishak/Shoshenq’s Travels,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 86 (1999), 3-23; Kevin A. Wilson, The Campaign of Pharaoh Shoshenq I into Palestine [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005], 108.

5 See Wilson, Campaign, 115 for a list of those who support and question this reading.

6 Ishtori Haparhi, Kaphtor va-Ferah (ed. A. M. Luncz; Jerusalem: 1897), 311.

7 Hütteroth and Kamal Abdulfattah, Historical Geography of Palestine, 201.

8 Seetzen, Ulrich Jasper Seetzen’s Reisen durch Syrien, 385.

9 Edward Robinson, Physical Geography of the Holy Land (Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1865), 86. Robinson spelled Mehna as محنه in his Biblical Researches in Palestine, Mount Sinai and Arabia Petraea (Vol. 3; Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1841), Second Appendix, 166. For examples of those who accept the identification, see Henry B. Tristram, The Land of Israel: A Journal of Travels in Palestine (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1865), 482-483; Laurence Oliphant, The Land of Gilead with Excursions in the Lebanon (Edinburgh: W. Blackwood and Sons, 1880), 142-143; Henry B. Tristram, Bible Places, or the Topography of the Holy Land (New York: E. & J. B. Young & Co., 1897), 384; G. Ernest Wright and Floyd V. Wilson, The Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible (Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1956), 125, 223; Abel, Géographie de la Palestine, 2: 373-374.

10 “Site Report: Mehna,” MegaJordan: The National Heritage and Documentation System. Online: Nelson Glueck found some Iron Age pottery sherds at Mehna (site no. 40), though he could not find the remains of an ancient village (Explorations in Eastern Palestine, IV. Part I: Text [ASOR 25/28; New Haven: American Schools of Oriental Research, 1951], 227-229). Siegfried Mittmann visited the site after Glueck but only found Byzantine and Arab period sherds (Beiträge zur Siedlungs, 259). J. W. Hanbury-Tenison found no Iron Age remains at the site (no. 51) and described the material as “predominantly Umayyad and Mediaeval” (“Jarash Region Survey 1984,” 157).

11 To the best of my knowledge, Selah Merrill was the first to question the identification based on biblical and archaeological grounds (East of the Jordan, 436-437). For other examples, see Simons, Geographical and Topographical Texts, 232 where this identification is called “improbable” and “incompatible with our view,” and the arguments put forth in Emil G. Kraeling, Rand McNally Bible Atlas (London: Collin’s Clear Type, 1956), 205.

12 Although there is no linguistic connection, a similar approach has been taken for the identification of biblical Shaaraim (שערים; Josh 15:36; 1 Sam 17:52; 1 Chr 4:31), a dual form that literally means “the two gates.” Khirbet Qeiyafa has been identified by its excavators as Shaaraim, primarily because it has two gates and fits the biblical location. For more, see Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor, Khirbet Qeiyafa Vol. 1: Excavation Report 2007-2008 (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2009), 8-10.

13 “Site Report: Dhahab el-Gharbiyeh,” MegaJordan: The National Heritage and Documentation System. Online:

14“Site Report: Dhahab el-Sharqiyeh,” MegaJordan: The National Heritage and Documentation System. Online:

15 Robert L. Gordon and Linda E. Villiers, “Telul Edh Dhahab and its Environs Surveys of 1980 and 1982: A Preliminary Report,” Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 27 (1983), 275-289. The site was surveyed two previous times but given less attention. See Nelson Glueck, Explorations in Eastern Palestine Vol. 3, AASOR 18/19 (New Haven: 1939), 2332-235; De Vaux, “Exploration de la region de Salt,” 411-413.

16 Gordon and Villiers, “Telul Edh Dhahab,” 284.

17 The most detailed study has been Robert A. Coughenour, “A Search for Maḥanaim,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 273 (1989), 57-66. Also see Gustaf Dalman, “8: Die Zeitreise. Auf den suche nach Mahanaim,” Palästina-Jahrbuch 9 (1913), 66-73; Yohanan Aharoni and Michael Avi-Yonah, The Macmillan Bible Atlas: Revised Edition (New York: Macmillan, 1977), Map no. 78; Kallai, Historical Geography, 264 n. 345; Diana V. Edelman, “Mahanaim (Place),” ABD 4:471-472; Macdonald, “East of the Jordan,” 140-142. Jeremy M. Hutton settles on either Telul Edh Dhahab of Tell Hajjaj (“Mahanaim, Penuel, and Transhumance Routes: Observations on Genesis 32–33 and Judges 8,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 65.3 [2006], 161-178, esp. 162-164).

18 For those who make these suggestions, see Coughenour, “A Search for Maḥanaim,” 59; Hutton, “Mahanaim, Penuel,” 162-164 ; Macdonald,“East of the Jordan,” 140-142. Also see Finkelstein, Koch, and Lipschitz, “The Biblical Gilead,” 147-149, where Tell Hajjaj is preferred for Mahanaim and Tulul adh-Dhahab is preferable for Penuel.


VI. Works Used

(see “Commentaries” page)

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