I hope that reading the Bible as the story of the God’s kingdom is helping unfold its core message to you. It really does make a huge difference. Even those who write commentaries on the Bible have difficulty making sense of the text if they miss this perspective.
Take Genesis 32 for example. As Jacob is returning after 20 years away, he stumbles across a camp of angels (32:1). If that’s not odd enough, he names the place Mahanaim, meaning Two Camps (32:2). Why two camps? Wenham (a very good commentator) wonders if Jacob saw two armies of angels (WBC, 281). Harley wonders whether it referred to two camps of angels or to the camps of Jacob and of the angels (UBCS, 281). Kidner leans towards the latter (TOTC, 179). Matthews considers that too, or the possibility or that one of the camps may be Laban’s (NAC, 548). Others such as Walton (NIVAC), Roop (BCBC), and Westermann (Continental) just ignore the question.
Let’s try from a kingdom perspective. Jacob is the earthly representative of the heavenly ruler. The sovereign has revealed his long-term plan to restore his reign over rebellious humanity by establishing a representative nation from Jacob’s descendants, in this land. Jacob fled to live elsewhere. As he did, the sovereign revealed that he had his house—his palace—in this place, that the portal to his throne was open here, that despite Jacob’s disobedience and resultant absence, the king’s messengers were fulfilling their commissions here (Genesis 28:10-17). If we have understood the revelation of the king in the land, then it would not be surprising for Jacob to discover the king’s agents (angels) were still there, like an army protecting the boundary of his land.
That’s what Mahanaim is: it’s the eastern boundary of the Land (compare Joshua 13:26, 30), and it is a strategic eastern outpost in David’s kingdom (2 Samuel 2:8, 12, 29; 17:24, 27; 19:32; 1 Kings 2:8). What Jacob is amazed to discover is that the heavenly sovereign has been here all along, and his servants are protecting the border of the Land. A border patrol “meeting” Jacob is somewhat confronting: “Halt! Who approaches?”
But as he realizes who this is—the border guards of King YHWH, the sovereign who has been living in and protecting this space while Jacob was absent—Jacob is amazed and encouraged. The God of Bethel has been here with his army all along. Jacob is not alone. He has brought his wives and servants and flocks and herds and set up camp, but God’s camp has been here all along. God has been with him on his journeys (Genesis 28:15), and now Jacob is with God in the Land again. The two camps—Jacob’s and God’s—affirm to Jacob the partnership he has with the faithful sovereign he represents. Two Camps (Mahanaim) is the name that encapsulates that partnership.
The kingdom of God is that partnership—the union between the divine sovereign and humanity living under his kingship. That’s the goal of the whole story: the two camps reunited, the heavenly king dwelling in peace with mankind (Revelation 21:3). In returning to the Land, Jacob has a micro-experience of that larger goal.
Once you understand this, it makes sense of how the rest of the story is told. His partnership with God now shapes what Jacob does:
- After encountering God’s messengers, Jacob sends out his own messengers (same word in 32:1 and 32:3).
- The Two Camps experience inspires Jacob to divide his own troop into two camps (32:2 and 32:7, 10).
- Jacob is terrified by the prospect of facing the brother who wanted to kill him, especially when he learns that Esau is coming with 400 men (31:6). Facing God’s army is the essential preparation for facing Esau’s.
- The Mahanaim revelation inspires Jacob to call on his heavenly sovereign for deliverance from his brother—the most powerful and impassioned prayer he ever prays (32:9-12).
As Jacob soon discovers, the real fight is not with his brother, but with God (32:24-30). It’s always that way in the kingdom.
What others are saying
K. A. Mathews, Genesis 11:27–50:26, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005), 538–539:
The author of the passage employed several wordplays in addition to the site names, Mahanaim (“two camps”) and Peniel (“face of God”). The text especially by the shared sounds ḥ and n connects the frequent terms “camp/ group” (maḥăneh, vv. 2, 7, 8, 10, 21; 33:8), “gift” (minḥă, vv. 14, 19, 20, 21, 22; 33:8, 10), and “favor” (ḥēn, v. 5; 33:8, 10; also “graciously given,” ḥānan, 33:5, 11). The phonetic links of y-q-b and y-b-q occur for the names “Jacob” (yaʿăqōb) and “Jabbok” (yabbōq) with the key action of the story, “wrestled” (yēʾābēq, v. 24; cf. v. 26). There is a further parallel created between Jacob’s encounters with the mysterious “man” and with Esau, in which God “wrestled” (ʾ-b-q) with Jacob but Esau “embraced” (ḥ-b-q) him (33:4). God must fight with Jacob before Jacob can survive Esau, indicated by the reconciling embrace of his brother. The imagery of “face” (pānîm) in v. 30 and 33:10 reinforces this apparent connection between the two events (also the related terms pĕnê/lipnê, “before, ahead of,” vv. 3, 16, 17, 20, 21; 33:3, 14, 18). Also important is the term ʿābar, variously translated in this narrative as “crossed/go/went on/ passed,” conveying the idea of movement from and toward Canaan (vv. 10, 16, 21–23, 31; 33:3, 14). Central to the narrative’s historical perspective is the naming “Israel” (yiśrāʾēl), in which the sound yśr is reversed by śry in the explanation “you have struggled [śārîtā] with God and with men and have overcome” (v. 28).
Read Genesis 32:1-12.