Having angered the people behind him, Jacob now remembers that he’s angered the people in front of him as well. With nowhere else to go, he sends some messengers ahead to Esau.
But first, he sees a bunch of angels – just hanging out, I guess – and decides that they must be God’s army. That’s it, end of reference. The passage seems to have been stuck in haphazardly just to give the ‘just so’ story for the naming of Mahanaim.
Back to Esau. Jacob’s message starts off well with a nice little bit about Esau being Jacob’s lord, but then veers off into a list of all the stuff Jacob owns. It just goes to show that my old New England Protestant family culture couldn’t be more dissimilar from the culture that penned the Old Testament.
Predictably, given their somewhat dysfunctional upbringing, Esau isn’t thrilled to hear that his brother is returning after all these years. The messengers come back to Jacob, saying that Esau is on his way with 400 men.
Jacob divides his people and livestock into two companies, hoping that if Esau comes after one, the other may still escape.
Next, he whines to God that he totally promised to be nice to him if he returned to Canaan.
Just in case plans A and B fail, Jacob then sends a bunch of gifts ahead in the hopes of appeasing his brother. But we’re dropping Esau for now, because…
The epic wrestling match
That night, Jacob is left alone “and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day” (Gen. 32:24), as one does. The man, realizing that he can’t beat Jacob, uses his magical powers to lame him – touching his inner thigh (!!) to knock his hip out of joint (Gen. 32:25).
But Jacob is still winning, prompting the mystery wrestler to beg: “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” To which Jacob replies: “I will not let you go, unless you bless me” (Gen. 32:26).
In case you hadn’t guessed, the mystery man Jacob has been wrestling with all night is God himself! Forget rocks so heavy that even God cannot lift them, God can’t even beat Jacob in a wrestling match! Worse yet, when he finds himself losing, he uses magic to cheat – and still loses!
And did that business about letting him go before daybreak remind anyone else of Cinderella?
Back to the story. God renames Jacob, calling him Israel (which means “He who strives with God” – an interesting choice for God’s chosen people to name their country, I’d say).
Because of the injury God inflicted on Jacob (with magic, because he was losing what was otherwise a fair wrestling match), the Israelites don’t eat the sinew of the hip. Well, I guess if you really need a reason not to eat sinew, ‘some guy was once injured there’ is as good as any…