What does Genesis chapter 32 mean?Jacob has resolved his conflict with Laban and now returns to the land of Canaan. He faces another unresolved conflict, however. He must pass near the region where his twin brother Esau lives to return home.
After being met by some angels of God and declaring that place "God's camp," Jacob begins working a strategy to know if he can make peace with Esau. Twenty years have passed since Jacob cheated Esau out of the family blessing. He did this by pretending to be Esau, fooling their blind father, Isaac. Esau became murderous in response (Genesis 27). When their mother Rebekah learned of Esau's plan to kill Jacob, he had literally run for his life to Laban's household in Paddan-Aram (Genesis 28:1–5).
Now returning to his homeland, Jacob could not know if Esau had forgiven him. Jacob begins by sending messengers to Esau to let him know he is back in the land, that he is wealthy, and that he hopes to find favor in Esau's sight. He calls Esau lord and himself Esau's servant (Genesis 32:1–5).
When Jacob's servant returns from Esau, he brings no message other than that Esau is coming with 400 men. Jacob can't know but must presume that Esau is coming to attack him. He grows greatly distressed and fearful—so terrified that he plans to potentially lose half of his own people. Jacob's first response is to divide everything in his large company into two camps. If Esau attacks one group, perhaps the other half of the company can survive (Genesis 32:6–8).
Though Jacob seems to plan for the worst possible outcome, he prays with great faith and humility. He addresses the God of Abraham and Isaac and reminds God—and himself—that he is in this position because of God. He is obeying God's command to return, and trusting His promise to do good for Jacob. Jacob acknowledges that God has shown his love and faithfulness far beyond what Jacob deserves. Jacob then clearly expresses his fear of Esau and asks God to deliver him, reminding God once more of His promise to make of Jacob a great nation (Genesis 32:9–12).
Next, Jacob prepares an enormous gift, sent ahead to his brother Esau, in hopes of appeasing his presumed anger. The last time these two men spoke, Esau had planned to kill Jacob in revenge (Genesis 27:41–45). The gift includes five herds of animals: goats, sheep, camels, cows, and donkeys, some 550 animals in all. They are to reach Esau, one herd after the other, each with a message to "my lord Esau" that his "servant Jacob" presents these gifts and follows behind (Genesis 32:13–20).
Having sent the gift on its way, Jacob rises in the night. He packs up his family and all he owns, and crosses over the Jabbok River, only to return alone to the other side. There he is unexpectedly—and without any biblical explanation—engaged in a wrestling match, in the dark, with a mysterious stranger. Jacob and this unknown assailant appear to be evenly matched in this physical combat, which continues nearly to dawn. Finally, the mysterious man attains a major advantage over Jacob, dislocating Jacob's hip (Genesis 32:21–25).
Jacob, somehow realizing he has been wrestling God Himself, or perhaps an angel, refuses to release his combatant without a blessing. In a deeply symbolic moment, the man insists that Jacob—infamous for his deception and trickery (Genesis 27:36)—identify himself. Jacob does so, honestly, seeming to admit not only his true self but his position of weakness. In response, the man, now revealed to be God, changes Jacob's name to Israel. Israel means "God fights." The man says that Jacob has fought with God and with men, and has prevailed (Genesis 32:26–30).
The man blesses Jacob and Jacob renames the place Peniel, meaning "face of God." Jacob declares he has seen God's face and been allowed to live. As the sun rises, he limps away to rejoin his family and meet his brother (Genesis 32:31–32).