Standing in God's Faithfulness
Topic: The Faithfulness of God Passage: Genesis 32:1–21
STANDING IN GOD’S FAITHFULNESS
An Exposition of Genesis 32:1-21
By Pastor Brian Wilbur
Date: November 5, 2023
Series: The Book of Genesis
Note: Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Jacob is on the cusp of reuniting with Esau, but what kind of reunion will it be? Twenty years earlier Jacob stole his brother Esau’s blessing by deceiving their father. (Genesis 27:1-40) Esau was so angry that he intended to kill Jacob. (Genesis 27:41) Jacob fled to Haran where he spent the next twenty years with Laban (Genesis 27:42-31:2) After these twenty years, the Lord told Jacob to return home. (Genesis 31:3) As we come to Genesis 32, Haran and Laban are in Jacob’s rearview mirror. But Jacob’s brother Esau, the one who wanted to kill Jacob twenty years earlier, is about to re-enter the story.
THE SCRIPTURAL TEXT
Holy Scripture says:
1 Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. 2 And when Jacob saw them he said, “This is God's camp!” So he called the name of that place Mahanaim.
3 And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother in the land of Seir, the country of Edom, 4 instructing them, “Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have sojourned with Laban and stayed until now. 5 I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male servants, and female servants. I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight.’”
6 And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” 7 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, 8 thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, then the camp that is left will escape.”
9 And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’ 10 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. 11 Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. 12 But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’”
13 So he stayed there that night, and from what he had with him he took a present for his brother Esau, 14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 15 thirty milking camels and their calves, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. 16 These he handed over to his servants, every drove by itself, and said to his servants, “Pass on ahead of me and put a space between drove and drove.” 17 He instructed the first, “When Esau my brother meets you and asks you, ‘To whom do you belong? Where are you going? And whose are these ahead of you?’ 18 then you shall say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a present sent to my lord Esau. And moreover, he is behind us.’” 19 He likewise instructed the second and the third and all who followed the droves, “You shall say the same thing to Esau when you find him,20 and you shall say, ‘Moreover, your servant Jacob is behind us.’” For he thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me.” 21 So the present passed on ahead of him, and he himself stayed that night in the camp. (Genesis 32:1-21)
THE BIG PICTURE
Will you stand on God’s promises when you are afraid and distressed? “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” (Psalm 56:3)
The big picture storyline of this passage is easy to grasp: Jacob’s return to Canaan, in obedience to God’s instruction, puts him on a collision course with Esau, the brother he had enraged twenty years earlier. The question is: what is going to happen when they collide? Looking upward to heaven, Jacob has the promise that God is with him (Genesis 28:15, 31:3). But looking ahead to the land of Seir, Jacob fears that Esau might attack him. How is it all going to shake out?
Although our everyday lives are typically less dramatic than the circumstances that are unfolding in Genesis 32, nevertheless we live in the same tension. If we are believers, then we look upward to heaven and remember that God has promised good to us. But looking out at our earthly troubles, we fear that those troubles might ruin us – people troubles, economic troubles, health troubles, troubles from past failures, troubles from future unknowns. Will these earthly troubles cloud our spiritual vision and weigh us down? Or will God’s promises shine forth as a light to our path and enable us to see our trials as God-appointed pathways on our earthly pilgrimage?
There is a rhythm in Genesis 32-33 that helps us to see the reality of walking with God in the midst of life’s trials. In Genesis 32:1-2, God’s angels meet Jacob. In Genesis 32:3-8, Jacob jockeys for safety as he anticipates a possibly dangerous collision with Esau. In Genesis 32:9-12, Jacob stands on the promises of God. In Genesis 32:13-21, Jacob manuevers for safety as he fearfully anticipates a dangerous collision with Esau. In Genesis 32:22-32, Jacob wrestles with God. In Genesis 33:1-17, Jacob meets Esau. Do you see the rhythm? God’s angels – fear of Esau – God’s promises – fear of Esau – encounter with God – encounter with Esau. God goes before His servant in order to prepare His servant for the challenge that lies ahead.
JACOB’S FEAR OF ESAU (v. 3-8, 13-21)
Let’s take a closer look at Jacob’s fear of Esau (v. 3-8, 13-21). Jacob initially expresses a measure of caution in verses 3-5, where he sends a delegation to Esau. Jacob instructs his delegation to report his very own words to Esau: “Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have sojourned with Laban and stayed until now. I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male servants, and female servants. I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight.’” Jacob didn’t have favor in Esau’s sight twenty years ago, but he hopes that his relational overture and the report of his wealth makes him favorable in Esau’s sight. It is striking that Jacob refers to Esau as “my lord Esau” and to himself as “your servant Jacob”. If you go back to Genesis 27, we learned that Jacob was destined to be “lord over [his] brothers [including Esau]” and that Esau was destined to “serve [his] brother [Jacob]” (Genesis 27:29, 40). While Jacob may be compelled to speak this way because he fears Esau, it is worth pointing out that when a man walks with God, God takes pride out of the man. Jacob had learned humility these past twenty years, as becomes evident in his prayer. Jacob got firsthand experience that those who are enrolled in ‘God’s school for the formation of great men’ must first go through many years of ‘wilderness training’ when their character gets hammered out in obscurity, suffering, and trial. Only humble servants are qualified for greatness.
Jacob’s delegation reports back that Esau is coming to meet Jacob and that Esau is coming with four hundred men. This report puts fear in Jacob’s heart: “Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed.” (v. 7) Jacob has no confidence that Esau is coming in peace, but fears instead that Esau might be coming in hostility. In light of this fear, Jacob makes a tactical maneuver: he divides his people and livestock into two camps, in hopes of cutting his potential losses in half: “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, then the camp that is left will escape.” (v. 8) Although there is nothing inherently wrong with responding practically to perceived dangers and to act tactically in order to preserve life and minimize losses, such practical tactics are not nearly as important as the more fundamental issue of calling on the name of the Lord, which Jacob does in verses 9-12.
We will return to Jacob’s prayer, but since we’re discussing Jacob’s practical tactics, I want you to see what Jacob does practically in verses 13-21. The basic action he takes in these verses is to prepare a present for Esau: “from what he had with him he took a present for his brother Esau” (v. 13). This is not a small present, but a large gift of 580 animals, assuming that each milking camel had her own calf. This large gift testifies to the vast wealth that Jacob had accumulated during his last six years in Haran.
In preparation to give this gift to Esau, Jacob handed over the animals “to his servants, every drove by itself” (v. 16), thereby creating a line of animals, a procession of gifts, with each group of animals under the care of a servant. Jacob instructed these servants what to tell Esau as each servant encountered Esau: “They [these animals] belong to your servant Jacob. They are a present sent to my lord Esau. And moreover, he [your servant Jacob] is behind us.” (v. 18; also see v. 20). Jacob’s intention was for the large gift to pacify his brother Esau: “For he thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me.”” (v. 20) Jacob is attempting to win Esau’s favor by giving a large gift. While gift-giving should never be done to pervert justice, it is legitimate to gift gifts in order to make peace, to appease one who is angry, to show goodwill to a brother who has been offended, and to win favor in the sight of someone who is apt to view you unfavorably. When done righteously, giving a large gift to someone that you have offended may be understood as an act of restitution, or as an act of sacrifice that costs you something of value because you place even more value on making peace with the person that you have offended.
Having prepared the present for Esau, “the present passed on ahead of him [Jacob], and he [Jacob] himself stayed that night in the camp.” (v. 21)
JACOB IS IN GOD’S CAMP
Speaking of camp, let’s return to the beginning of Genesis 32. When “Jacob went on his way” after departing from Laban, “the angels of God met him” (v. 1). Before Jacob sent his messengers to Esau, God sent his messengers to Jacob! If you have ever heard the phrase, ‘God goes before us’, that idea is right here in Genesis 32. God’s attentiveness and care are made known through His angels, who meet Jacob on the way.
Twenty years earlier, when Jacob was about to leave Canaan, the Lord revealed Himself to Jacob at Bethel. And angels were part of that revelation: “And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!” (Genesis 28:12) Thus, within the context of the revelatory dream that the Lord gave to Jacob twenty years ago when he was leaving Canaan, Jacob saw the angels of God. Now as Jacob is returning to Canaan, he once again sees the angels of God. And Jacob is able to put two and two together: if God’s angels are here, then the Lord Himself must be near. That’s how his dream had unfolded in Genesis 28: he saw the ladder, he saw the angels of God, and then he saw the Lord. After the dream concluded and he got his bearings, he named that place Bethel, meaning ‘House of God’. Here in Genesis 32, the angels appear to Jacob in verse 1, and the Lord will appear to Jacob in verse 24. But even before the Lord appears to him, Jacob recognizes that the presence of God’s angels bear witness to the presence of God. So Jacob calls the place ‘Camp of God’: “And when Jacob saw them he said, “This is God’s camp!” So he called the name of that place Mahanaim.” (Genesis 32:2) The English translation obscures the fact that the words “camp” and “Mahanaim” are closely related. The word translated camp is machaneh and the word translated “Mahaniam” is Machanayim. “And when Jacob saw them [the angels of God] he said, “This is God’s machaneh!” So he called the name of that place Machanayim [which means two camps].” After recognizing that “This is God’s camp!” he named that place ‘Two Camps’.
The two camps of verse 2 should not be confused with the two camps of verse 7. Jacob divided his own camp into two camps in verse 7 in order to minimize losses against a possible attack from Esau. But something else is in view in verse 2.
Although the text doesn’t come out and tell us plainly, I strongly suspect that the meaning of ‘two camps’ is clear enough. Jacob obviously has his own encampment: his own family, his own servants, his own possessions, his own tents. But in verses 1-2 Jacob realizes that there is another encampment in his midst: the camp of God, the encampment of Elohim. These two camps are indeed two camps that can be differentiated from one another, and yet in this particular place the two camps have converged. Jacob’s earthly camp of human beings, livestock, physical tools, and earthly dwellings is in “that place”, but God’s heavenly camp of holy angels and divine resources are also in “that place”. Although God’s heavenly camp is often hidden from our sight, it is never far away, for God’s heavenly camp moves upon the earth to do God’s bidding:
- “The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.” (Psalm 34:6)
- “Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place – the Most High, who is my refuge – no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.” (Psalm 91:9-13)
- “Are they [the angels] not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” (Hebrews 1:14)
None of this should cause us to be obsessed with angels. People who are obsessed with angels, or who seek to initiate encounters and conversations with angels, or who are always giving credit to the protection of guardian angels, have drifted far from what the Bible teaches. On the other hand, people who regard angels as irrelevant or unimportant are also out of step with biblical teaching. The holy angels are the messengers and ministers of the Lord, and He has appointed them to do things upon the earth for our benefit, and they do whatever the Lord tells them to do. We must not worship them or pray to them, but we must have regard for their God-assigned role.
And take this to heart: either you are going through this life with God and His encampment for you, or you are going through this life with God and His encampment against you. Make sure that your camp has the support of God’s camp. Make sure that God’s favor is upon you. Make sure that the Lord is with you and fights for you, and that the Lord goes before you and is your rear guard.
STANDING ON GOD’S PROMISES
Now if we were perfected in faith, the knowledge that God’s camp is with us and for us should be more than enough to allay any fears that we might have. But we have to be honest about the fact that we are often weak in faith, and our confidence in God’s protection is not as strong as it ought to be. In other words, we are very much like Jacob. Jacob knew that God’s encampment was in his very midst, and yet “[he] was greatly afraid and distressed” (v. 7) at the prospect of an attack from Esau. We often live within that tension: we know that the Lord is for us, and yet we fall into many and diverse fears. We shouldn’t, but we do. Is anyone greatly afraid or distressed this morning? Don’t lose heart, but draw encouragement from Jacob’s example.
Indeed, what Jacob does in verses 9-12 is a great example for us: when we face many and diverse fears, we must stand on the promises of God. We must fight the good fight of the faith by clinging to God’s promises in the midst of the battle.
Jacob begins his prayer by remembering that the Lord is the God who had made covenant with his ancestors: “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac” (v. 9a). Jacob stands in the stream of God’s covenant promises.
Jacob then recalls God’s instruction and God’s promise: “… O LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’” (v. 9b). Jacob is on the road back to Canaan because that’s what the Lord told him to do. The challenge that Jacob is facing is a challenge that has come to him on the path of obedience. Jacob remembers that God’s command was designed to bless Jacob: “that I may do you good”. How easy it is to forget that God’s commands are for our good always!
Next, Jacob remembers that he has been the undeserving recipient of abundant grace: “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.” (v. 10) Twenty years earlier, Jacob had left Canaan and gone to Haran as a single man with hardly any possessions, except the clothes on his back and the staff in his hand. Now he had increased greatly to the point that he was able to divide his servants and possessions into two camps. The Lord had been with him and cared for him these past twenty years; the Lord had provided for him in terms of both family and possessions; and the Lord had preserved him through the Laban years and recently delivered him from Laban. If Jacob felt self-righteous or entitled to God’s care twenty years ago, that self-righteousness was gone, that sense of entitlement was gone. Jacob now saw himself as a humble servant of the Lord who didn’t deserve any of the loving care that he had received from the Lord. You will not make any progress in your spiritual life unless you stop being full of yourself. Jacob knew that he wasn’t worthy “of the least” of God’s favors – neither am I, and neither are you. The sooner you realize it, the better.
Thus standing in humility in the generous stream of God’s covenant faithfulness, Jacob offers his petition to the Lord: “Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children.” (v. 11) If you are afraid, tell the Lord. If you are afraid for yourself, tell the Lord. If you are afraid for your loved ones, tell the Lord. Name the fear. Be specific. Ask the Lord to deliver you from the specific thing or person that you fear. If you are anxious, don’t make peace with your anxiety, but instead learn to “not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6)
When Jacob offers his petition, it isn’t some ‘pie in the sky’ request. Instead, Jacob’s petition is anchored in God’s promise to him: “But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’” (v. 12) You have to battle against the fears that threaten you with faith in God’s promise to do you good, protect you, and prosper you.
STAND HUMBLY IN GOD’S WONDERFUL GRACE
Jacob was met by God’s angels in verses 1-2, so Jacob knows that God’s camp has descended upon his camp. God is not far off, but hears and answers the prayers of His people. Jacob prays to God and stands in God’s promises in verses 9-12. God is not far off, but is about to draw Jacob into a wrestling match that very night, as verses 22-32 await.
But for now, I leave you with a poem to help verse 10 sink in. Like Jacob, we are “not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love” that the Lord has done for us. Hear this poetic hymn written by Beatrice Bixler:
“I am not worthy the least of His favor,
But Jesus left heaven for me;
The Word became flesh and He died as my Savior,
Forsaken on dark Calvary.
“I am not worthy the least of His favor,
But "In the beloved" I stand;
Now I'm an heir with my wonderful Savior,
And all things are mine at His hand.
“I am not worthy the least of His favor,
But He is preparing a place
Where I shall dwell with my glorified Savior,
Forever to look on His face.”
“I am not worthy this dull tongue repeats it!
I am not worthy this heart gladly beats it?
Jesus left heaven to die in my place
What mercy, what love and what grace!”
 See both Fruchtenbaum, The Book of Genesis, p. 434; and Steinmann, Genesis, p. 306 (full bibliographic information is below).
 See Bible Hub entries for both “4264. machaneh” and “4266. Machanayim”. Available online at https://biblehub.com/hebrew/4264.htm and https://biblehub.com/hebrew/4266.htm respectively.
 Beatrice Bush Bixler, “I Am Not Worthy.” According to Hymnary.org this hymn is still under copyright: © 1949 by Beatrice Bush Bixler. Assigned to Singspiration, Inc.
Fruchtenbaum, Arnold G. The Book of Genesis (Ariel’s Bible Commentary). Fourth Edition. San Antonio: Ariel Ministries, 2020.
Steinmann, Andrew E. Genesis (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.