Gen 32:1-2 Jacob sets off from Mizpah in the hill country of Gilead and is met en route by angels (messengers) sent by God. Jacob exclaims, “This is the camp of God” and calls the place Mahanaim (see 8 on Map 41).
Mahanaim was one of the principal cities in the Transjordan – the Israelite territory on the east bank of the River Jordan. It was located in Gilead on the north bank of the River Jabbok (now called the River Zarqa), one of the few tributaries of the Jordan that flows all year round.
Valley of the Zarqa River, Jordan (Jim Greenhill)
Mahanaim is first mentioned in the Bible when Jacob, returning to Canaan from Haran, camped here and saw a vision of angels (see Genesis 32:1). The site was probably a Canaanite place of worship, so Jacob renamed it Mahanaim, or ‘two camps’ – referring to his own camp and the camp of the heavenly hosts.
When the Israelites moved north into Gilead in c.1407 BC, Mahanaim was one of the cities conquered when Joshua defeated King Sihon, the Amorite king of Moab and King Og of Bashan (see Numbers 21:21-35). After the conquest was completed, Mahanaim became a settlement for Levites and a ‘city of refuge’ where those who had killed a person accidentally could take refuge (see Joshua 21:38).
On the death of King Saul in 1011 BC, Ishbosheth, Saul's son, was taken to Mahanaim by Abner, the commander of Saul’s army, and proclaimed King of Israel. Ishbosheth ruled from Mahanaim for two years until he was murdered by two of his own men, Rechab and Baanah. Following this, David became king of both Israel and Judah in 1004 BC (see 2 Samuel 8:8-11, 4:5-8 & 5:4).
When David escaped from Jerusalem in 995 BC during Absalom’s revolt, he escaped to Mahanaim – where he was assisted by the local people and surrounding kings, and was able to gain additional support before defeating Absalom at the Battle of Ephraim in 984 BC (see 2 Samuel 15:13-14 & 17:24-29). When the death of Absalom was reported to David, he retreated to the room above the city gate at Mahanaim to mourn his son (see 2 Samuel 18:24-33).
Mahanaim remained an important regional centre during the United Monarchy, and the erotic ‘dance of Mahanaim’ is mentioned in the poetry of Solomon (see Song of Songs 6:13).
Mahanaim prospered because it was situated at the junction of the main north-south route (the ‘King’s Highway’) and the trading route coming up the Jabbok Valley from Succoth on the River Jordan (see Map 33). The exact site of Mahanaim is uncertain. Two possible locations have been suggested on the north bank of the River Jabbok – the more probable site is 10 miles / 16 km north east of the Jabbok’s confluence with the River Jordan near Tulul ed-Dahab, while the other is a further 9 miles / 15 km upstream.
Gen 32:3-21 Jacob remembers that, when he left Canaan twenty years earlier, his brother Esau had threatened to kill him. So he sends messengers to Esau in the land of Seir (Edom), and prepares a gift of goats, sheep and camels to pacify him (see 9 on Map 41).
Gen 32:22-23 Jacob crosses the ford of the River Jabbok (the modern River Zarqa) at Mahanaim under cover of darkness.
Gen 32:24-32 Jacob wrestles all night alone with God, seeking his blessing. God gives Jacob the name ‘Israel’, meaning ‘He struggles with God’. Jacob calls the place Peniel (‘face of God’) as he has seen God face to face (see 10 on Map 41).
A ford on the River Jabbok (Dr.Meierhofer)
Jacob’s momentous encounter with God, at the ford across the River Jabbok (the River Zarqa) near Tulul ed-Dahab, south of Mahanaim, marked a turning point in Jacob’s life. Having been forced to flee the land that God had promised him at Bethel some twenty years earlier (see Genesis 28:10-19), God confirmed that Jacob would indeed become the father of a great nation in the land of Canaan.
After this momentous struggle, God gave Jacob the name ‘Israel’ (which sounds like the Hebrew for ‘He struggles with God’). Jacob called the place Peniel (or Penuel) (meaning ‘the face of God’) because he said “I have seen God face to face, but my life was saved” (Genesis 32:30).
From this time onwards, the twelve sons of Jacob are called the sons of Israel, and their descendents will be known as the ‘Twelve tribes of Israel’.
Jacob met his brother Esau at Peniel. Jacob feared that Esau might kill him in revenge for cheating him out of his birthright twenty years earlier. But Esau was now prosperous and had forgiven his twin brother long ago, so Jacob was able to proceed peaceably to Canaan.
Gen 33:1-15 Jacob meets Esau by the River Jabbok. Jacob is scared because, when he was younger, he cheated Esau out of his birthright (see Genesis 27:1-40). But Esau has long since forgiven Jacob and is delighted to see him. He is persuaded to accept Jacob’s gifts.
Gen 33:16-17 Esau returns to Seir (Edom), but Jacob follows the track downstream and erects shelters for his cattle at Succoth (meaning ‘shelters’) on the floor of the Jordan Valley (probably at Tell Deir Alla – see 11 on Map 41).
Gen 33:18-20 Jacob arrives at Shechem in c.1695BC (see Genesis 12:6-7) where he buys some land for a tomb from the sons of Hamor and sets up an altar called El Elohe Yisrael (Hebrew, meaning ‘God, the God of Israel’ or ‘God, the God of Jacob’). Jacob’s son Joseph is later buried in this tomb when his body is brought back from Egypt in c.1405BC (see Joshua 24:32). Joseph’s tomb can still be seen today in Shechem (modern-day Nablus).
Joseph's Tomb at Shechem (Nablus) ( עדירל )
Gen 34:1-31 Jacob’s sons take revenge on the people of Shechem when their sister Dinah is raped.