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In Genesis 32:1-2 there is a short and unusual little story between Jacob's previous encounter with Laban and his encounter with Esau.

Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. And when Jacob saw them he said, "This is God's camp!" So he called the name of that place Mahanaim.

Mahanaim according to the footnote means "two camps." This is interesting to me, since soon after in verses 7-8 Jacob decides to divide his family and flocks into two camps.

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, thinking, "If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, then the camp that is left will escape."

As well, when he prays to God, he says, "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."

It seems the text is inviting some kind of comparison between the "two camps" of Mahanaim and the "two camps" of Jacob, but why? What is the text saying by inviting this comparison?

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3 Answers 3

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This complements/supplements the helpful existing answers with comment on: (1) the "dual" ending of the place-name "Mahanaim"; (2) the narrative/literary connections of Gen 32:1-2; and (3) the "two camps" that might be intended. (Plus: bonus! the location of Mahanaim.)

N.b. Genesis 32:1-2 in (most) English versions = Genesis 32:2-3 in the Tanakh: beware when comparing versions!

(1) The "dual" ending -ayim

As previously noted, the place-name "Mahanaim" (מַחֲנָיִם, maḥănāyim) has a "dual" ending - that is, it is marked neither as singular nor plural, but as a "pair" (like yād = [a] hand, yādôt = hands, but yādayim = "two hands").

There are, however, quite a number of place-names with this -ayim ending. The most famous are Jerusalem (= yerushalayim), Ephraim (= ʾephrayim), and Egypt (= miṣrayim). There are quite a few more, e.g.:

  • Ashteroth-karnaim and Shaveh-kiriathaim (Genesis 14:5)
  • Enaim (Genesis 38:14)
  • Kiriathaim (Numbers 32:37)
  • Almon-diblathaim (Numbers 33:46)
  • Shaaraim, Adithaim, and Gederothaim (Joshua 15:36)
  • Zemaraim (Joshua 18:22)
  • Hapharaim (Joshua 19:19)
  • Kibzaim (Joshua 21:22)
  • etc., etc. (we're only up to Joshua!)

Already by the time of the Gesenius-Kautzsch-Cowley Hebrew Grammar (1910), though, it was realized that the semantic value of the dual when used with place-names could be suspect: see the discussion in § 88c (equivalent discussion in Joüon-Muraoka is at § 91h). This has moved on to the point where Nadav Na'aman could quite confidently claim in 2008 that

although the dual suffix and the local ending look identical, they are separate endings, each carrying its own meaning and therefore, the efforts of scholars to interpret place names with –ayim/n endings as dual forms cannot be sustained....1

My £0.02 on this: (a) such an observation should prevent modern readers from over-interpreting (or at least ought to caution readers not to over-interpret) such forms; but (b) this equally did not prevent ancient writers from milking the resonances (so to speak), not really caring whether it was a proper "dual" ending or not. In light of the way that ch. 32 develops, it is reasonable to see minimally a "pun" at work.

(2) Literary Connections

As noted by OP (and in previous answers) this maḥănāyim ("two camps") name carries forward into the subsequent narrative of ch. 32. Just two quick notes here. First, it's worth noting in light of (1), above, that the "two camps" into which Jacob divides is described as precisely that: שְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת šĕnê maḥănôt (literally "two camps [plural]", 32:7, 10 EVV). The dual form is not used to express this observation.

Second, significant connections between this narrative and an earlier one in the Jacob story have been discerned, and are often accorded significance by commentators. The one who articulated this most clearly (and who is often cited) is Michael Fishbane in his study "Composition and Structure in the Jacob Cycle (Gen. 25:19-35:22)", Journal of Jewish Studies 26 (1975): 15-38.2 Fishbane described a macro-structure for the Jacob cycle that many have found illuminating, even compelling:

Fishbane outline

"Our" passage is D/D' in his structure. Here, the more (most?) significant literary connections are found between this episode and 28:10-22, when there was another vision of heavenly messengers, an identification of the place with God, and another naming (28:19, "Bethel").3

(3) The "Two Camps"?

That broader connection may well have significance for how the "two camps" should be understood, and thus what the "meaning" of the place-name is (or might be) in context.

  • are the "two camps" (or, to reflect the pun-like "dual", the "twin camps") the heavenly messengers of Bethel plus, now, Mahanaim?4
  • or, possibly, is it that the heavenly "camp" now is recognized as a partner with Jacob's own earthly camp (which, shortly, will itself be split into two)?

The latter option has been canvassed by many commentators, I believe the earliest being Chrysostom: see the Genesis 12-50 volume of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (vol. 2; IVP, 2002), p. 214. It has been repeated often since.

The resonance between the place-name and the subsequent action, then, would summon to the reader's mind the double reassurance that Jacob has received in the two "visions" of the "heavenly messengers" - the plural מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים malʾăkê ʾĕlōhîm appearing in the Hebrew Bible only in Genesis 28:12 and 32:1 [MT v. 2]. According to Chrysostom, that's what it meant to Jacob, too: on the cusp of his own camp being divided, Jacob is assured that his "own company, as he could now see, was matched by another" (Derek Kidner, Genesis (Tyndale, 1967), p. 167).5


Bonus

So where was Mahanaim? No one is really sure.6 The most recent study still appears to be that of Robert A. Coughenour, "A Search for Maḥanaim", Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 273 (1989): 57-66. If he's right -- and most commentators seem to follow for lack of a better option -- it is just north of the Jabbok in the trans-Jordan.


Notes

  1. N. Na'aman, "Shaaraim – The Gateway To The Kingdom of Judah", Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 8 (2008), p. 3 [n.b. full PDF online - see the literature cited there]. The semantic force of the dual had already been denied by John Skinner (A critical and exegetical commentary on Genesis (ICC; 1910), p. 405) on contextual grounds.
  2. Also reprinted in his collection Text and Texture: Close Readings of Selected Biblical Texts (Schocken, 1979), which itself was reprinted as Biblical Text and Texture: A Literary Reading of Selected Texts (Oneworld, 1998).
  3. See Fishbane for details; some helpfully summarized by later commentators, e.g., Victor Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50 (NICOT; Eerdmans, 1995), pp. 317-18. It is significant that similar results (rejecting semantic value of dual; connection of 32:1ff with 28:10ff) were arrived at independently by C. Houtman, "Jacob at Mahanaim: Some Remarks on Genesis XXXII 2-3", Vetus Testamentum 28 (1978): 37-44.
  4. Such is at least hinted at by David Cotter's Berit Olam Genesis commentary (2003), p. 240.
  5. There would be, then, a nice parallel with Elisha and the seige of Dothan (2 Kings 6:16-18).
  6. Except Diana Edelman who wrote the "Mahanaim" article in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (gen. ed. David Noel Freedman; Doubleday, 1992), vol. 4, pp. 472-3: "The site of Mahanaim can confidently be identified with Telul ed-Dhahab el Garbi...".
    Further, Jeremy Hutton considers the identification in light of hypothetical literary development in the passage: "Jacob's »Two Camps« and Transjordanian Geography: Wrestling with Order in Genesis 32", Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 122 (2010): 20–32.
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@David-Thank you for the linguistics as well as the historical perspective. –  Tau Apr 4 at 3:08

This has been an intriguing question to think through. I do believe there are a few clues in the text that lead toward an answer. (All English verse references from ESV, as I believe that is the translation you referenced.)

Gen 32:1-2

When Jacob sees the "angels of God" (מַלְאֲכֵ֣י אֱלֹהִ֔ים) he declares, "This is God's camp!" (camp singular). So why does he then call that place Mahanaim (two camps; מַחֲנַ֫יִם)? Note that the word is in the dual form in the Hebrew (Hebrew has singular and plural endings, but also in some cases a specifically dual ending to indicate two). The context leads to three possible answers that I can logically deduce from the context:

  1. There were two encampments of angels, the whole perceived as God's camp (singular). This seems like an odd conclusion, however.
  2. Jacob is referring to both his own camp, as well as God's camp of angels. Some idea recognizing that God is with him. This is possible, but I don't think the most likely.
  3. This singular angelic camp is a "second base of operations" for God. This last I will argue for as follows.

The phrase "angels of God" (with angels plural) is found only one other time in Genesis (28:12). That seems significant, because the reference is to when Jacob dreams of the ladder with the "angels of God" both "ascending and descending." It is when the Lord makes the promise about Jacob's descendents (28:13-15) to which Jacob will refer in Gen 32:12. In Gen 28:17 Jacob recognizes that place as "the house of God ... the gate of heaven." That is, God's first (and perhaps chief) base of operations from Jacob's perspective anyway.

So in this next encounter with "angels of God" here in Gen 32:1, it seems to be a similar sized "host" as that of Gen 28:12. So when Jacob sees this, he names the place "camp two" or "second camp" (so to speak). He apparently does not believe God moved His main base of operations from His house, Bethel (Gen 28:19), but has a host large enough to maintain a second base of operation, here termed a "camp."

Gen 32:3-6

I do not believe there is any warrant to take the "messengers" of this verse as being angels. The term malak (מַלְאָךְ) in Hebrew means "messenger" or "ambassador" and is regularly translated so of human's in that role. It is only translated "angel" when it is deemed warranted that the messenger being referred to is a spiritual being sent as a messenger from God. So to mix the malak reference of v.3 with v.2 (which states are messengers of God) to argue either both are referring to angels or both referring to men would be wrong. Verse 2 is angelic, v.3 human.

Gen 32:7-8

Jacob here splits his forces into "two camps" because of fear of Esau (lacking faith in God? Maybe, but...). It seems logical that he conceived of the idea because of having just encountered God's second camp. If its good for God, why not himself? Here the word is not in the dual form as in v.2. It is instead the numeral two and then the plural form of camp (שְׁנֵ֥י מַחֲנֽוֹת).

Gen 32:9-12

Here we find Jacob's prayer, in which he acknowledges God as the same God of his fathers, the God who called him back to his homeland (v.9).

Jacob shows humility (v.10a), but more importantly to the discussion here is his reference again to "two camps" (numeral with plural as v.7) in v.10b. How he states it is important. All that God has done for him he is in deep, humble thankfulness for it. For "for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan," that is, when I left my home, all I had was my staff with me (i.e. I had nothing). But "now I have become two camps," that is, you God, have blessed me so much that, just as you have enough angels in your command to have two large groups, I myself have been given enough to split my forces into two large camps, without much worry if one gets taken out (v.8).

He then calls upon God to fulfill His promise made at "camp one" (so to speak), Bethel, the promise of multiplying Jacob's offspring (Gen 28:13-15), by protecting himself and his family (v.11-12).

Gen 32:13-21

These verses seem to be an expanded explanation perhaps of the two camps Jacob split into. This seems so in that he sends a number of servants and property ahead as an offering to Esau (vv.13-21), which may be "camp one." Meanwhile, "he himself stayed that night in the camp." Camp is singular here, indicating one of the two, which would seem to then be "camp two."

Gen 32:22-32

This second camp, Jacob sends "across the stream" that night (v.22-23), and he is "left alone" to wrestle that night (v.24-25), with God (v.28, 30), gaining another blessing (v.26, 28). The ESV notes say "Israel," Jacob's new name, means "God strives," but also evidence it means "God prevails" or "God rules." It seems any of these ideas could be relevant to Jacob's situation--God fights both with and for Jacob, God prevails/rules over Jacob in wrestling and Esau in the directing of the upcoming circumstances.

Conclusion

If my analysis is accurate, the reference then to "two camps" is primarily a reference to the abundance of property/servants that both God has and now Jacob has through God. And Jacob recognizes this. Additionally, it would be a case illustrating the interaction of both a dependence upon God, as well as reasonable measures to protect oneself. Jacob depends upon God in two ways here: (1) His prayer asking for God to fulfill what He promised, and (2) modelling his own strategies after what he perceives God does by having two bases of operation. The second dependence leads to the reasonable measures of splitting his own forces in two, while the first dependence leads to the reasonable measures of securing extra protection for his immediate family and one set of his forces (vv.22-23).

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In searching the text in the Hebrew Bible I found this Rashi commentary:

Mahanaim: Two camps, [one of the angels] outside the land, who came with him up to here, and [one of the angels] of Israel, who came to greet him. — [from Tanchuma Vayishlach 3]

This corresponds to vs 4(HB):

Jacob sent angels ahead of him to his brother Esau, to the land of Seir, the field of Edom.

Jacob sent angels: Heb. מַלְאָכִים, literally angels (Gen. Rabbah 75:4). וישלח יעקב מלאכים: מלאכים ממש:

to the land of Seir: Heb. אַרְצָה שֵׂעִיר [like] לְאֶרֶץ שֵׂעִיר, to the land of Seir. [In] every word that requires the prefix “lammed” [to] at the beginning, Scripture placed a“heh” at the end. — [from Yev. 13b] ארצה שעיר: לארץ שעיר, כל תיבה שצריכה למ"ד בתחילתה הטיל לה הכתוב ה"א בסופה:

I'm not a Hebrew scholar, but the text seemes to suggest that the "angels" were the "messengers", and they 'came together' to help him 'win over' his brother Esau, whom he had surplanted, then fled because of his anger towards him.(Gen. 27)

When the "angels" tell him of the number of men that are with his brother(400), Jacob gets distressed and divides his camp in two, which seems to agree with the number of angels(messengers) with him: if his brother should attack one group, the other will be preserved and vice versa.

His plan is one of appeasement-as he has aquired wealth at the hand of Laban, so he is willing to offer it to Esau, and appease his anger. He sends his flocks ahead of him in waves, and at the end, reminding those who tend them that "they belong to your servant Jacob, and they are yours". "Your servant Jacob is behind them."

He lodged in the camp at night(vs 22), and then at night he took his 2 wives, maidservants, and eleven children and went across the River Jabbok(vs 23).

In vs 24(25 in the HB) he wrestles with a man until daybreak. The Rashi says:

And Jacob was left: He had forgotten small bottles and returned for them. — [from Gen. Rabbah 77:2, Chullin 91a]

This of course is his wrestling with the angel-one of the "messengers" of Mehanaim. He needs his blessing to face his brother Esau, and he won't leave him go until he does.

The angel does an amazing thing-1st, he injures him in the sciatic nerve, giving him a limp he would carry the rest of his life, then asks him his name, which he changes to Israel. And he said,

"Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have commanding power with [an angel of] God and with men, and you have prevailed."

The angel who accompanied him in his travels accompanied Jacob, the surplanter. The angel of Mahanaim who sends him back into the land with God's blessing names him Israel, the prevailer, the one who has strength to prevail with God.

Furthermore, we see in Chapter 33:4,

And Esau ran toward him and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.

In fact, he states:

But Esau said, "I have plenty, my brother; let what you have remain yours."

But Jacob(Israel), fresh from the encounter with the angel says:(vss 10-11 HB)

Thereupon Jacob said, "Please no! If indeed I have found favor in your eyes, then you shall take my gift from my hand, because I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of an angel, and you have accepted me.

Now take my gift, which has been brought to you, for God has favored me [with it], and [because] I have everything." He prevailed upon him, and he took [it].

The favor of God rested upon him in the land God told him to return to, and he had 'prevailed' over the anger of his brother, rightly deserving the name of Israel the angel had given him.

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