Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
The Host of God. - When Laban had taken his departure peaceably, Jacob pursued his journey to Canaan. He was then met by some angels of God, in whom he discerned an encampment of God; and he called the place where they appeared Mahanaim, i.e., double camp or double host, because the host of God joined his host as a safeguard. This appearance of angels necessarily reminded him of the vision of the ladder, on his flight from Canaan. Just as the angels ascending and descending had then represented to him the divine protection and assistance during his journey and sojourn in a foreign land, so now the angelic host was a signal of the help of God for the approaching conflict with Esau of which he was in fear, and a fresh pledge of the promise (Gen 28:15), "I will bring thee back to the land," etc. Jacob saw it during his journey; in a waking condition, therefore, not internally, but out of or above himself: but whether with the eyes of the body or of the mind (cf. Kg2 6:17), cannot be determined. Mahanaim was afterwards a distinguished city, which is frequently mentioned, situated to the north of the Jabbok; and the name and remains are still preserved in the place called Mahneh (Robinson, Pal. Appendix, p. 166), the site of which, however, has not yet been minutely examined (see my Comm. on Joshua, p. 259).
From this point Jacob sent messengers forward to his brother Esau, to make known his return in such a style of humility ("thy servant," "my lord") as was adapted to conciliate him. אחר (Gen 32:5) is the first pers. imperf. Kal for אאחר, from אחר to delay, to pass a time; cf. Pro 8:17, and Ges. 68, 2. The statement that Esau was already in the land of Seir (Gen 32:4), or, as it is afterwards called, the field of Edom, is not at variance with Gen 36:6, and may be very naturally explained on the supposition, that with the increase of his family and possessions, he severed himself more and more from his father's house, becoming increasingly convinced, as time went on, that he could hope for no change in the blessings pronounced by his father upon Jacob and himself, which excluded him from the inheritance of the promise, viz., the future possession of Canaan. Now, even if his malicious feelings towards Jacob had gradually softened down, he had probably never said anything to his parents on the subject, so that Rebekah had been unable to fulfil her promise (Gen 27:45); and Jacob, being quite uncertain as to his brother's state of mind, was thrown into the greatest alarm and anxiety by the report of the messengers, that Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men. The simplest explanation of the fact that Esau should have had so many men about him as a standing army, is that given by Delitzsch; namely, that he had to subjugate the Horite population in Seir, for which purpose he might easily have formed such an army, partly from the Canaanitish and Ishmaelitish relations of his wives, and partly from his own servants. His reason for going to meet Jacob with such a company may have been, either to show how mighty a prince he was, or with the intention of making his brother sensible of his superior power, and assuming a hostile attitude if the circumstances favoured it, even though the lapse of years had so far mitigated his anger, that he no longer seriously thought of executing the vengeance he had threatened twenty years before. For we are warranted in regarding Jacob's fear as no vain, subjective fancy, but as having an objective foundation, by the fact that God endowed him with courage and strength for his meeting with Esau, through the medium of the angelic host and the wrestling at the Jabbok; whilst, on the other hand, the brotherly affection and openness with which Esau met him, are to be attributed partly to Jacob's humble demeanour, and still more to the fact, that by the influence of God, the still remaining malice had been rooted out from his heart.
Jacob, fearing the worst, divided his people and flocks into two camps, that if Esau smote the one, the other might escape. He then turned to the Great Helper in every time of need, and with an earnest prayer besought the God of his fathers, Abraham and Isaac, who had directed him to return, that, on the ground of the abundant mercies and truth (cf. Gen 24:27) He had shown him thus far, He would deliver him out of the hand of his brother, and from the threatening destruction, and so fulfil His promises.
"For I am in fear of him, that (פּן ne) he come and smite me, mother with children." בּנים על אם is a proverbial expression for unsparing cruelty, taken from the bird which covers its young to protect them (Deu 22:6, cf. Hos 10:14). על super, una cum, as in Exo 35:22.
Although hoping for aid and safety from the Lord alone, Jacob neglected no means of doing what might help to appease his brother. Having taken up his quarters for the night in the place where he received the tidings of Esau's approach, he selected from his flocks ("of that which came to his hand," i.e., which he had acquired) a very respectable present of 550 head of cattle, and sent them in different detachments to meet Esau, "as a present from his servant Jacob," who was coming behind. The selection was in harmony with the general possessions of nomads (cf. Job 1:3; Job 42:12), and the proportion of male to female animals was arranged according to the agricultural rule of Varro (de re rustica 2, 3). The division of the present, "drove and drove separately," i.e., into several separate droves which followed one another at certain intervals, was to serve the purpose of gradually mitigating the wrath of Esau. פּנים כּפּר, Gen 32:21, to appease the countenance; פּנים נשׁא to raise any one's countenance, i.e., to receive him in a friendly manner. This present he sent forward; and he himself remained the same night (mentioned in Gen 32:14) in the camp.
The Wrestling with God. - The same night, he conveyed his family with all his possessions across the ford of the Jabbok. Jabbok is the present Wady es Zerka (i.e., the blue), which flows from the east towards the Jordan, and with its deep rocky valley formed at that time the boundary between the kingdoms of Sihon at Heshbon and Og of Bashan. It now separates the countries of Moerad or Ajlun and Belka. The ford by which Jacob crossed was hardly the one which he took on his outward journey, upon the Syrian caravan-road by Kalaat-Zerka, but one much farther to the west, between Jebel Ajlun and Jebel Jelaad, through which Buckingham, Burckhardt, and Seetzen passed; and where there are still traces of walls and buildings to be seen, and other marks of cultivation.
When Jacob was left alone on the northern side of the Jabbok, after sending all the rest across, "there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day." נאבק, an old word, which only occurs here (Gen 32:25, Gen 32:26), signifying to wrestle, is either derived from אבק to wind, or related to חבק to contract one's self, to plant limb and limb firmly together. From this wrestling the river evidently received its name of Jabbok (יבּק = יאבּק).
"And when He (the unknown) saw that He did not overcome him, He touched his hip-socket; and his hip-socket was put out of joint (תּקע from רקע) as He wrestled with him." Still Jacob would not let Him go until He blessed him. He then said to Jacob, "They name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel (ישׂראל, God's fighter, from שׂרה to fight, and אל God); for thou hast fought with God and with men, and hast prevailed." When Jacob asked Him His name, He declined giving any definite answer, and "blessed him there." He did not tell him His name; not merely, as the angel stated to Manoah in reply to a similar question (Jdg 13:18), because it was פּלא wonder, i.e., incomprehensible to mortal man, but still more to fill Jacob's soul with awe at the mysterious character of the whole event, and to lead him to take it to heart. What Jacob wanted to know, with regard to the person of the wonderful Wrestler, and the meaning and intention of the struggle, he must already have suspected, when he would not let Him go until He blessed him; and it was put before him still more plainly in the new name that was given to him with this explanation, "Thou hast fought with Elohim and with men, and hast conquered." God had met him in the form of a man: God in the angel, according to Hos 12:4-5, i.e., not in a created angel, but in the Angel of Jehovah, the visible manifestation of the invisible God. Our history does not speak of Jehovah, or the Angel of Jehovah, but of Elohim, for the purpose of bringing out the contrast between God and the creature.
This remarkable occurrence is not to be regarded as a dream or an internal vision, but fell within the sphere of sensuous perception. At the same time, it was not a natural or corporeal wrestling, but a "real conflict of both mind and body, a work of the spirit with intense effort of the body" (Delitzsch), in which Jacob was lifted up into a highly elevated condition of body and mind resembling that of ecstasy, through the medium of the manifestation of God. In a merely outward conflict, it is impossible to conquer through prayers and tears. As the idea of a dream or vision has no point of contact in the history; so the notion, that the outward conflict of bodily wrestling, and the spiritual conflict with prayer and tears, are two features opposed to one another and spiritually distinct, is evidently at variance with the meaning of the narrative and the interpretation of the prophet Hosea. Since Jacob still continued his resistance, even after his hip had been put out of joint, and would not let Him go till He had blessed him, it cannot be said that it was not till all hope of maintaining the conflict by bodily strength was taken from him, that he had recourse to the weapon of prayer. And when Hosea (Hos 12:4-5) points his contemporaries to their wrestling forefather as an example for their imitation, in these words, "He took his brother by the heel in the womb, and in his human strength he fought with God; and he fought with the Angel and prevailed; he wept and made supplication unto Him," the turn by which the explanatory periphrasis of Jacob's words, "I will not let Thee go except Thou bless me," is linked on to the previous clause by בּכה without a copula or vav consec., is a proof that the prophet did not regard the weeping and supplication as occurring after the wrestling, or as only a second element, which was subsequently added to the corporeal struggle. Hosea evidently looked upon the weeping and supplication as the distinguishing feature in the conflict, without thereby excluding the corporeal wrestling. At the same time, by connecting this event with what took place at the birth of the twins (Gen 25:26), the prophet teaches that Jacob merely completed, by his wrestling with God, what he had already been engaged in even from his mother's womb, viz., his striving for the birthright; in other words, for the possession of the covenant promise and the covenant blessing. This meaning is also indicated by the circumstances under which the event took place. Jacob had wrested the blessing of the birthright from his brother Esau; but it was by cunning and deceit, and he had been obliged to flee from his wrath in consequence. And now that he desired to return to the land of promise and his father's house, and to enter upon the inheritance promised him in his father's blessing; Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men, which filled him with great alarm. As he felt too weak to enter upon a conflict with him, he prayed to the covenant God for deliverance from the hand of his brother, and the fulfilment of the covenant promises. The answer of God to this prayer was the present wrestling with God, in which he was victorious indeed, but not without carrying the marks of it all his life long in the dislocation of his thigh. Jacob's great fear of Esau's wrath and vengeance, which he could not suppress notwithstanding the divine revelations at Bethel and Mahanaim, had its foundation in his evil conscience, in the consciousness of the sin connected with his wilful and treacherous appropriation of the blessing of the first-born. To save him from the hand of his brother, it was necessary that God should first meet him as an enemy, and show him that his real opponent was God Himself, and that he must first of all overcome Him before he could hope to overcome his brother. And Jacob overcame God; not with the power of the flesh however, with which he had hitherto wrestled for God against man (God convinced him of that by touching his hip, so that it was put out of joint), but by the power of faith and prayer, reaching by firm hold of God even to the point of being blessed, by which he proved himself to be a true wrestler of God, who fought with God and with men, i.e., who by his wrestling with God overcame men as well. And whilst by the dislocation of his hip the carnal nature of his previous wrestling was declared to be powerless and wrong, he received in the new name of Israel the prize of victory, and at the same time directions from God how he was henceforth to strive for the cause of the Lord. - By his wrestling with God, Jacob entered upon a new stage in his life. As a sign of this, he received a new name, which indicated, as the result of this conflict, the nature of his new relation to God. But whilst Abram and Sarai, from the time when God changed their names (Gen 17:5 and Gen 17:15), are always called by their new names; in the history of Jacob we find the old name used interchangeably with the new. "For the first two names denoted a change into a new and permanent position, effected and intended by the will and promise of God; consequently the old names were entirely abolished. But the name Israel denoted a spiritual state determined by faith; and in Jacob's life the natural state, determined by flesh and blood, still continued to stand side by side with this. Jacob's new name was transmitted to his descendants, however, who were called Israel as the covenant nation. For as the blessing of their forefather's conflict came down to them as a spiritual inheritance, so did they also enter upon the duty of preserving this inheritance by continuing in a similar conflict.
The remembrance of this wonderful conflict Jacob perpetuated in the name which he gave to the place where it had occurred, viz., Pniel or Pnuel (with the connecting wound וּ or י), because there he had seen Elohim face to face, and his soul had been delivered (from death, Gen 16:13).
With the rising of the sun after the night of his conflict, the night of anguish and fear also passed away from Jacob's mind, so that he was able to leave Pnuel in comfort, and go forward on his journey. The dislocation of the thigh alone remained. For this reason the children of Israel are accustomed to avoid eating the nervus ischiadicus, the principal nerve in the neighbourhood of the hip, which is easily injured by any violent strain in wrestling. "Unto this day:" the remark is applicable still.