The Meaning of Mahanaim (Genesis 32:1)

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20 years have passed since Jacob has left his father’s camp. He’s now married to two different women (with two more concubines), and thirteen total children. He saw God ascending and descending a ladder to Heaven. He’s increased his wealth from that of sleeping with a rock for a pillow to having more flocks and servants than just about anyone else in the region.

Jacob is a different man now.

In a lot of ways, he’s just the same, though. The vision that Jacob had of angels ascending and descending was given, in part, to show him that God will always be at his side.

He’s seen that to be true. Throughout his life, God has blessed him in ways that he probably couldn’t have begun to expect twenty years ago. His relationship with God is more solidified now than it’s ever been.

There’s just one loose end that needs to be tied up: his relationship with Esau.

When we last saw Jacob’s twin brother, he was seething. Esau swore that the next time he saw Jacob, he would kill him (Genesis 27:41). It’s almost time for Esau to make good on that promise.

In Genesis 32, after Jacob has left Laban, he’s met by a contingent of angels. Jacob recognizes their origin and rightfully claims that “This is God’s camp” (Genesis 32:2).

The name that Jacob gives this place — similar to how he named the area Bethel after his previous dream — is Mahanaim. That name may not mean much to us in the 21st century, but the name literally means “two camps.”

Eventually, this place would become an enormously important area. After King Saul’s death, while David reigned in Hebron, Mahanaim would even be the capital under Ishbosheth, Saul’s son (2 Samuel 2:8). Later, when Absalom usurps the throne from his father, David sets up camp in Mahanaim (2 Samuel 17:24).

So why does Jacob name a town “two camps” right before he meets Esau? Immediately after this encounter, Jacob splits his family into two camps in a bid to preserve part of his family if Esau were to attack the other (Genesis 32:7).

But Mahanaim isn’t just about a simple strategic decision. It’s a place where Jacob encountered God, and ultimately, where He saw God’s deliverance. It’s where he put his trust in God to deliver him by choosing to meet Esau rather than avoiding him.

The scene is eerily reminiscent of Elisha in 2 Kings 6, who looks at the heavenly host of angels protecting him and the city of Dothan when an enemy king lays siege. Elisha sees God’s presence, but his servant does not, which prompts Elisha to pray that God would “open his eyes” to see the armies of fire (2 Kings 6:20).

We can’t always avoid our past, but we also need to realize that (prayerfully) we’re not the same person we were when those moments happened. And if we have changed and are now walking with God, maybe what we also need to pray for is “open eyes” to see the presence of God walking with us.