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David Ben-Gad HaCohen





Jacob’s Journey to Mahanaim and Penuel in J and E





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David Ben-Gad HaCohen





Jacob’s Journey to Mahanaim and Penuel in J and E








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Jacob’s Journey to Mahanaim and Penuel in J and E

The merging of two different accounts of Jacob’s return home is reflected in the double etymologies for Mahanaim and Penuel. Why do both sources have Jacob pass through these two cities one after the other? The answer lies in geography.


Jacob’s Journey to Mahanaim and Penuel in J and E

Jacob Wrestles with the Angel, Jan Luyken, 1698. rijksmuseum.nl

Jacob Sees God’s Camp: Mahanaim

After concluding a treaty with Laban at Gilead, Jacob continues into the Transjordan, where he encounters a group of angels. 

בראשית לב:ב וְיַעֲקֹב הָלַךְ לְדַרְכּוֹ וַיִּפְגְּעוּ בוֹ מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים. לב:ג וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב כַּאֲשֶׁר רָאָם מַחֲנֵה אֱלֹהִים זֶה וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא מַחֲנָיִם.
Gen 32:2 Jacob went on his way, and angels of God encountered him. 32:3 When he saw them, Jacob said, "This is God's camp." So he named that place Mahanaim.

In this story, the place name Mahanaim derives from Jacob having seen God’s camp full of angels at that spot.[1] It then immediately moves on to Jacob’s preparations for meeting Esau.

Jacob’s Two Camps

One of the reasons Jacob left home and went to Aram was because his mother overheard his brother Esau saying that he (Esau) will kill Jacob (Gen 27:41–42). Now that Jacob is returning home, he is afraid that his brother will make good on his promise. Jacob decides to be proactive and sends Esau a message that he lived with Laban for years and is only now returning (32:4-6). The messengers return with the message that Esau is on his way with 400 men (32:7).

Fearing that this is a war party, Jacob divides the people and animals into two camps: 

בראשית לב:ח ...וַיַּחַץ אֶת הָעָם אֲשֶׁר אִתּוֹ וְאֶת הַצֹּאן וְאֶת הַבָּקָר וְהַגְּמַלִּים לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת. לב:ט וַיֹּאמֶר אִם יָבוֹא עֵשָׂו אֶל הַמַּחֲנֶה הָאַחַת וְהִכָּהוּ וְהָיָה הַמַּחֲנֶה הַנִּשְׁאָר לִפְלֵיטָה.
Gen 32:8 …He divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, 32:9 thinking, "If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape."

Jacob then prays to God for protection (32:10-13), emphasizing that he has two-camps worth of followers and property: 

בראשית לב:יא ...כִּי בְמַקְלִי עָבַרְתִּי אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה וְעַתָּה הָיִיתִי לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת.
Gen 32:11 …with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.

The emphasis on the two camps seems artificial, since he did not divide them because of their size, but as part of an escape plan. It is, therefore, strange for him to mention this as something for which he is grateful to God. Moreover, the continuation of the story makes no explicit mention of this division again. Why is the text harping on two camps here?

Mahanaim Again?

It seems that this story too functions as an etiology for the name Mahanaim, which means “a double-camp.” In other words, this story offers a folk-etymology of the place called Mahanaim, understanding it as the place where Jacob divided his camp into two camps when he was preparing to meet his brother Esau.

Of course, the dual ending ָיִם “aim” in place names does not necessarily express the concept of two but is a standard ending for geographical locations: Yerushalaim, Shaaraim, Einaim, Kiryataim, Naharaim, etc.[2] Nevertheless, such playful interpretations of names is standard in folk-etymologies.

Two Names, Two Sources

Why does Mahanaim have two etymologies? The simple answer is because each comes from a different source.

Meeting Esau – The J Story

Whereas the story of Jacob’s encountering the encampment of angels is from the E source, the account of Jacob’s meeting with Esau, and the extensive preparations for it, is part of J.[3] This is clear from a number of elements: 

  1. The name for maidservant is שפחה (vv. 32:6, 23, 33:1-2, 6), as is standard for J, as opposed to E’s preferred term,[4] אמה;
  2. Jacob’s prayer uses the name YHWH (32:10);
  3. Jacob’s prayer has a literary connection with YHWH’s message to Jacob in Gen 28:13-14 (J), including the promise to make Jacob’s descendants as numerous as sand and to ensure his safe return to the land;[5]
  4. Jacob’s reference to the presents he sent to Esau as “my blessing” (ברכתי; 33:11) almost certainly invokes the J story of Jacob stealing Esau’s blessing.[6]

Accordingly, although J’s story does not include a naming of Mahanaim, “the place where Jacob split his camp” is almost certainly J’s folk-etymology for this toponym.[7] The complier of the Pentateuch often included only one reference to a specific detail such as naming, birth, or death, and deleted the doubled language.[8]

The Night In Mahanaim: Verses 14 and 22

After his prayer, Jacob continues by sending gifts to placate Esau (32:14b-22). Before he does this, the text surprisingly interrupts Jacob’s furious action by stating that he rested there for the night: 

בראשית לב:יד וַיָּלֶן שָׁם בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא וַיִּקַּח מִן הַבָּא בְיָדוֹ מִנְחָה לְעֵשָׂו אָחִיו.
Gen 32:14 And he spent the night there. He selected from what was at hand these presents for his brother Esau.

The traditional commentator, R. Moses Alshich (1508-1593, Safed), already noted how problematic this interruption of the action is (commentary on Genesis, ad loc.): 

הנה אומרו וילן שם יראה בלתי מתקשר לא למעלה ולא למטה. וגם נאמר לבלי צורך.
The statement that “he spent the night there” seems unconnected to what comes before and after it. And it seems to have been written without purpose.

After Jacob finishes organizing the gifts he was sending to Esau, the verse repeats that he stays overnight: 

בראשית לב:כב וַתַּעֲבֹר הַמִּנְחָה עַל פָּנָיו וְהוּא לָן בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא בַּמַּחֲנֶה.
Gen 32:22 And so the gift went on ahead, while he remained in camp that night.

This is an almost exact repetition of the previous mention in v. 14, though this time without interrupting the flow of the narrative. Why is 14a included in the first place? I suggest that this is the ending of meeting the angels of Elohim in the E story. Thus, in both E and J, Jacob spends the night in Mahanaim.

The Penuel Stories

The next episode in Jacob’s journey continues in v. 15, when Jacob wakes up in the middle of the night, and crosses his family over the Jabbok Stream, remaining on his own on the south side of the stream, where Esau will ostensibly appear the next morning in the J narrative. At this point, Jacob is attacked and wrestles with a man/angel. The timeline of the fight is problematic. The two wrestle. The man/angel sees he cannot defeat Jacob, so he wrenches Jacob’s hip at the thigh (v.26), which would imply that the man now has the advantage, but then he begs to be let go because dawn is breaking, as if Jacob has the advantage (v.27). This story seems to explain two separate points in tension with each other: 

  1. How and why Jacob (and thus his descendants) was named Israel (32:29).
  2. Why the children of Israel do not eat the thigh muscle (32:33).

The first celebrates Jacob’s victory over his assailant, the second remembers his injury. The image of Jacob limping away implies that he was lucky to have survived at all. Here too, two traditions have merged to explain the name of a site. In this case, the play is taking two things into account, the name of the site “El’s face” and the name of the river, Jabbok, which is similar to the Hebrew word for “struggle” (א.ב.ק). Below is the division of the story into two sources, with one phrase (boldfaced) being reused by both, as often happens in the combination of similar stories: 

בראשית לב:כג וַיָּקָם בַּלַּיְלָה הוּא וַיִּקַּח אֶת שְׁתֵּי נָשָׁיו וְאֶת שְׁתֵּי שִׁפְחֹתָיו וְאֶת אַחַד עָשָׂר יְלָדָיו וַיַּעֲבֹר אֵת מַעֲבַר יַבֹּק. לב:כד וַיִּקָּחֵם וַיַּעֲבִרֵם אֶת הַנָּחַל וַיַּעֲבֵר אֶת אֲשֶׁר לוֹ. לב:כה וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב לְבַדּוֹ וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ
Gen 32:23 That same night he arose, and taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 32:24 After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions. 32:25 Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him
וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ
And a man wrestled with him
עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר. לב:כו וַיַּרְא כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ
until the break of dawn. 32:26 When he saw that he had not prevailed against him,
וַיִּגַּע בְּכַף יְרֵכוֹ וַתֵּקַע כַּף יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ.
and he wrenched his hip at its socket, so that the socket of Jacob’s hip was dislocated as he wrestled with him.
לב:כז וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ כִּי אִם בֵּרַכְתָּנִי. לב:כח וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו מַה שְּׁמֶךָ וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב. לב:כט וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ כִּי אִם יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי שָׂרִיתָ עִם אֱלֹהִים וְעִם אֲנָשִׁים וַתּוּכָל. לב:ל וַיִּשְׁאַל יַעֲקֹב וַיֹּאמֶר הַגִּידָה נָּא שְׁמֶךָ וַיֹּאמֶר לָמָּה זֶּה תִּשְׁאַל לִשְׁמִי וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ שָׁם. לב:לא וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם פְּנִיאֵל כִּי רָאִיתִי אֱלֹהִים פָּנִים אֶל פָּנִים וַתִּנָּצֵל נַפְשִׁי.
32:27 Then he said, "Let me go, for dawn is breaking." But he answered, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." 32:28 Said the other, "What is your name?" He replied, "Jacob." 32:29 Said he, "Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed." 32:30 Jacob asked, "Pray tell me your name." But he said, "You must not ask my name!" And he blessed him there. 32:31 So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.”
לב:לב וַיִּזְרַח לוֹ הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ כַּאֲשֶׁר עָבַר אֶת פְּנוּאֵל וְהוּא צֹלֵעַ עַל יְרֵכוֹ. לב:לג עַל כֵּן לֹא יֹאכְלוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת גִּיד הַנָּשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר עַל כַּף הַיָּרֵךְ עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה כִּי נָגַע בְּכַף יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב בְּגִיד הַנָּשֶׁה.
32:32 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip. 32:33 That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the sinew that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle.

The E Story

The E story begins with what may be an ancient poem, with a simple chiastic structure:

וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹAAnd a man wrestled with him 
וַיִּגַּע בְּכַף יְרֵכוֹBAnd he struck his hip at its socket,
וַתֵּקַע כַּף יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹבB’The socket of Jacob’s hip was dislocated,
בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ.A’As he wrestled with him.

The fight itself takes place not in Penuel, but in Mahanaim, where Jacob had been resting for the night (32:14a). But having escaped with his life, Jacob limps away and passes by a place called Penuel, God’s face. As the text does not explain the name of this second site explicitly, the reader is left to infer the meaning from the wrestling with the “man,” who had likely been a part of the camp, and the fact that it is the ending of the Mahanaim story, where he saw an encampment of God (more on this later.)

Perhaps Jacob did name the place in E, but this section was cut in favor of J’s naming. Either way, the story is used here to explain an Israelite taboo—not eating the sinew of the thigh.

The J Story

J’s story is significantly longer, and is meant to explain the name Israel in a midrashic way.[9] The name Israel actually means: "El will rule (ש.ר.ר)," but the Judahite author of J, who was a stickler for the name YHWH, might have found that meaning objectionable, and thus demoted el here to a divine being by attaching it to what was probably a famous story about Jacob facing an angel in Penuel. Jacob then names the site, though the spelling is slightly variant to its usual spelling (Peniel instead of Penuel).

J’s story also contains the final preparations for the coming of Esau; that night he crosses his family and personal belongings to the other side of the stream, and remains behind on his own to face his brother. This would give them even more time to escape in case Esau and his 400 men meant mischief.

Tulul adh-Dhahab

Why is it that both E and J connect the Mahanaim and Penuel stories? The answer lies in the geography of these two cities: they are located on opposite sides of the Jabbok, in close proximity to each other. Thus, standing at the stream between the two cities, one could refer to both.

About 6 km. east of Tell Deir Alla, biblical Sukkot, the Jabbok Stream (Wadi az-Zarqa) forms a deep loop to the south immediately followed by another deep loop to the north. On the land at the center of each loop stands a site that goes back to biblical times.[10] Together, the sites are known as Tulul adh-Dhahab, literally, “the mounds of gold.” Biblical archaeologists have long identified these two sites with the biblical cities of Mahanaim and Penuel.[11] This being the case, it is hardly surprising that the midrashic etiologies about the origin of their names come together in both sources.

The proximity of the two sites, on opposite sides of the stream, also helps us understand the meaning of Penuel in E. If Mahanaim is God’s camp, then Penuel, which is just across the stream from Mahanaim, is “facing God,” a folk-etymology of the city’s name. In other words, in E, it isn’t just that Jacob “faced God” when he wrestled with an angel,[12] but that the city of Penuel faces the city of God’s camp, Mahanaim. 

Why Does Jacob Not Build an Altar in Penuel (E)

The continuation of J is clear. The Mahanaim and Penuel episodes are part of the larger story about Jacob meeting Esau, and the story continues with the meeting between the brothers. After this meeting, and Jacob’s promise to meet Esau in Seir, Jacob instead heads west to Sukkot (Deir Alla) and then across the Jordan River, to Shechem (33:17-18),[13] near which he buys a plot (v. 19).

The continuation of the E story, however, is less obvious. Ostensibly, the E account should continue with the next stage of Jacob’s return to the land, which is when God tells him to return to Beth-el and set up an altar (Gen 35:1–7). Nevertheless, a comparison of E’s story of Jacob’s return with its earlier account of Jacob’s leaving the land (Gen 28) would suggest that E’s Mahanaim/Penuel story as outlined above is incomplete.

As Jacob is leaving Canaan, he sleeps in a place called Luz, and dreams of angels going up and down a staircase (Gen 28:11-12). When he awakens, he realizes that that the place is “the house of God,” calls it Beth-el, and sets up a pillar there.[14]

In the Mahanaim account, as Jacob is returning home, he again sees a camp of angels, where he wrestles a person or angel (איש). But if he has again encountered a divine camp, why doesn’t he set up a pillar or do some kind of ritual there as he did in Beth-el? I believe he does.

The Missing Altar

After Jacob buys the plot of land near Shechem, a J text (33:19), he builds an altar there (33:20), but why?

Altars are often built in response to an encounter with God, such as Abraham does in Shechem (Gen 12:7) and Mamre (Gen 13:18),[15] Isaac does in Beer-sheba (Gen 26:25), and as Jacob does in the Beth-el story with a pillar.[16] Other times, altars are built in preparation for a sacrifice, as Noah does after the flood (Gen 8:20) and Abraham does to sacrifice Isaac (Gen 22:9). In contrast, nothing about Jacob’s purchasing a plot of land near Shechem explains why he would build an altar there.

But this is not the only problem. According to J, Abraham already built an altar in Shechem; this story doesn’t seem to know about that. Moreover, if this altar building is indeed part of the J text, it is more than a little surprising that instead of YHWH, the name El is used.

This leads me to suggest that the building of the altar in 33:20 is not part of the J text and is unconnected to Shechem. Instead, I would argue that this verse is part of E, and that it does an excellent job of supplying the missing ending to E’s brief Mahanaim/Penuel account, which would then read, in its totality, as follows (the italicized explanation of the taboo should be understood as a parenthetical, though original, comment in E): 

בראשית לב:ב וְיַעֲקֹב הָלַךְ לְדַרְכּוֹ וַיִּפְגְּעוּ בוֹ מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים. לב:ג וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב כַּאֲשֶׁר רָאָם מַחֲנֵה אֱלֹהִים זֶה וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא מַחֲנָיִם. // לב:יד וַיָּלֶן שָׁם בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא // לב:כה וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ // לב:כו וַיִּגַּע בְּכַף יְרֵכוֹ וַתֵּקַע כַּף יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ.// לב:לב וַיִּזְרַח לוֹ הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ כַּאֲשֶׁר עָבַר אֶת פְּנוּאֵל וְהוּא צֹלֵעַ עַל יְרֵכוֹ. לב:לג עַל כֵּן לֹא יֹאכְלוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת גִּיד הַנָּשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר עַל כַּף הַיָּרֵךְ עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה כִּי נָגַע בְּכַף יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב בְּגִיד הַנָּשֶׁה. // לג:כ וַיַּצֶּב שָׁם מִזְבֵּחַ וַיִּקְרָא לוֹ אֵל אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Gen 32:2 Jacob went on his way, and angels of God encountered him. 32:3 When he saw them, Jacob said, “This is God’s camp.” So he named that place Mahanaim. // 32:14 He slept there that night // 32:25 and a man wrestled with him, and he struck his hip at its socket, the socket of Jacob’s hip was dislocated, as he wrestled with him. // 32:32 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip, (32:33 That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the sinew that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle) // 33:20 and he set up an altar there, and called it El-god-of-Israel.

Jacob named the altar אֵל אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל (El-god-of-Israel), or possibly El (is) my God.[17] The name of the altar implies E's understanding of the name Israel: “El is the (or “my”) Ruler” (ש.ר.ר). This passage is the first time that Israel is mentioned in E. It thus, marks the point when Jacob adopts the name for himself upon his return to the land, following his encounter with the camp of Elohim.[18]

Where Should the Altar Be?

The fact that Jacob builds the altar after limping away to Penuel is curious. The proper place to thank god (El) was immediately after meeting the angels at Mahanaim (32:2–3) and before he spends the night there (v. 14a). Perhaps Jacob was assaulted by the man/angel because he failed to build the altar immediately?[19]

In any event, directly after Jacob builds the altar in Penuel, God tells him that the true culmination of his homecoming is not building the altar in Mahanaim or Penuel, but his return to Beth-el, the original place where he saw the stairway, and the building of an altar (instead of a pillar?) there.

Detaching the Story from Its Context

Why did the compiler of the Torah detach the altar from Mahanaim/Penuel and move it to Shechem? Perhaps he did not feel that an altar in a Transjordanian city was appropriate (see Josh 22). In addition, he may have felt that building such an altar was premature, since it would not fulfill the promise of the combined text of Genesis 28, in which Jacob’s promise to make YHWH his God is contingent on God’s promise to bring Jacob back “to the land” (28:15), which the compiler thought of as only including the Cisjordan.

The Holy Twin Cities

In sum, according to E, Jacob’s journey away from his home begins with Jacob encountering a sacred place, where God and his entourage dwell, and naming it Beth-el. The journey ends with his return to the land, where he encounters a similar sacred place, the twin cities of Mahanaim and Penuel, and names them as well.

In Beth-el, Jacob set up a pillar to acknowledge the stairway to heaven he saw there in his dream. In Mahanaim and Penuel, however, Jacob commemorates his encounter with God’s camp of angels, and his struggle with a “man” by building an altar to El in Penuel, forever establishing the twin cities of Mahanaim and Penuel as holy sites for Israel.


November 23, 2018


Last Updated

June 12, 2024


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Dr. David Ben-Gad HaCohen (Dudu Cohen) has a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from the Hebrew University. His dissertation is titled, Kadesh in the Pentateuchal Narratives, and deals with issues of biblical criticism and historical geography. Dudu has been a licensed Israeli guide since 1972. He conducts tours in Israel as well as Jordan.