A man’s firstborn son gets extra rights, according to the Torah. After his father dies, the firstborn inherits twice as much wealth as any of his brothers, becomes the head of his extended family, and (until the Israelites receive other instructions in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar) serves as the family’s priest1.
Jacob covets the rights of the firstborn so much that he tries to steal them from Esau twice: first by trading a bowl of lentil pottage for the rights,2 later by impersonating Esau to get their blind father’s blessing.3
The first time, Esau is so famished he hardly notices he has lost anything. But the second time, Esau is beside himself with rage, and Jacob flees to his uncle Lavan’s house in Charan, bringing nothing but what he can carry on foot.
One night along the way, at the beginning of the Torah portion Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3), he falls asleep outdoors with a stone for a pillow, and he sees God’s messengers—i.e. angels.
And he dreamed, and hey! A ramp was set on the ground, and its top was reaching to the heavens. And hey! God’s messengers went up and down on it. (Genesis/Bereishit 28:12)
Then God speaks to him in his dream and promises to guard him and return him to the land of Canaan, which his myriad descendants (not Esau’s) will eventually possess.
Is Jacob relieved and grateful when he wakes up? No. He does not trust God to keep a promise. So he sets his stone pillow upright and pours oil on it, then vows that if God really does protect him and return him safely, he will give God a tenth of whatever wealth he acquires.
Jacob acquires no wealth at all during first fourteen years in Charan, only wives and children. He works for his uncle Lavan for seven years in order to marry Lavan’s younger daughter Rachel. When Lavan switches daughters at the wedding, Jacob meekly agrees to work another seven years so he can have both Rachel and Leah. Only after he has served Lavan for fourteen years does he ask for a shepherd’s regular wages: a share of animals from the flock. During his final six years in Charan, Jacob gets rich through clever livestock breeding. When he finally leaves and sets off for Canaan, he is the owner of a great wealth of livestock, and the head and priest of a household.4 Through his own hard work and intelligence, he has attained everything a firstborn son would inherit.
One night along the way back to Canaan, at the end of the Torah portion Vayeitzei, Jacob sees God’s messengers again.
Jacob went on his way, and God’s messengers confronted him. And Jacob said as he saw them: “This is a machaneh of God!” And he called the name of that place Machanayim. (Genesis 32:2-3)
machaneh (מַחֲנֶה) = camp, group of temporary shelters erected in a defensive circle.
machanayim (מַחֲנָיִם) = pair of camps, double camp. (Machaneh + dual suffix -ayim, ־ָיתם.)
This is the first time the word machaneh appears in the Torah. Repeating the word in the dual form is unusual; the Torah often refers to a pair of eyes, for example, but camps do not usually come in pairs. What Jacob observes is that the same place holds two camps: his earthly camp of people and animals, and God’s heavenly “camp” of angelic messengers.
Or does the heavenly camp also belong to Jacob? He is the one who sees angels, whether they stay in the background going up and down between heaven and earth, or they confront him at a campsite. Perhaps the word machanayim also refers to a pair of camps, or roles, within the same person: Jacob as a clan leader focused on wealth and progeny, and Jacob as a priest who sees angels and carries his grandfather Abraham’s blessing and connection with God. Jacob’s two roles are not in conflict yet. His return to Canaan liberates him from the man who took advantage of him for twenty years. At last he is an independent head of household! But his return is also a step toward fulfilling his promise to God.
Two human camps
With both sides of his life going well, Jacob feels confident enough to send his own, human messengers to his estranged brother Esau at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43).
The messengers return with the news that Esau is coming to meet him, accompanied by 400 men—the right size for a fighting unit. Jacob’s new confidence collapses.
Jacob was very afraid, and shaped by distress; so he divided the people who were with him, and the flock and the herd and the camels, into two machanot. And he said: “If Esau comes to the first machaneh and strikes it down, the remaining machaneh might survive.” (Genesis 32:8-9)
machanot (מַחֲנוֹת) = camps. (The plural of machaneh, rather than the dual form.)
Why does he call his two camps simply “camps” (machanot), rather than “a pair of camps” (machanayim)? The two camps at the place he named Machanayim had two different owners: himself and God (or perhaps his materialistic side and his spiritual side). They faced one another like nonidentical twins, like impulsive Esau versus scheming Jacob.
But the two camps at the Yabok River are both Jacob’s property. One group consists of the animals he designates as gifts to Esau, along with the servants in charge of each drove. He sends them ahead to meet Esau and his 400 men on the road.5
The other group consists of the animals, servants, and other belongings he plans to keep for himself, along his own family: his two wives, two concubines, eleven sons, and one daughter. He leads this “camp” across the Yabok River, then returns to the other side to spend the rest of the night alone.6
But before sending his two camps in different directions, Jacob prays, begging God to rescue him and his family from Esau. He introduces his prayer by saying:
“I am too insignificant for all the loyal-kindnesses and all the fidelity that you have done for your servant; for I crossed this Jordan with [only] my staff, and now I have become two machanot.” (Genesis 32:11)
He uses the word machanot again because he is thinking about his two camps of people and animals. But at the beginning of the sentence, he uses the word for “insignificant”7 for two different purposes. On one level, Jacob is thanking God for his fertility and prosperity, enough for two camps of actual people and animals. Saying that he himself is insignificant gives more credit to God for his material success. On another level, Jacob still feels insignificant, not only because he was born second, but also because he knows he is guilty of tricking Esau twice, and his brother’s enmity is justified. Thus Jacob’s language is two-sided, coming from two internal camps.
And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the dawn rose. (Genesis 32:25)
If Jacob is alone, are Jacob and the “man” two psychological camps inside one person? If so, does the wrestling match make Jacob whole? See next week’s post: Toledot & Vayishlach: Face to Face.
We are all like Jacob in some way. I was the older child in my family, and one of my parents’ favorite stories was about when they brought home two treats and let my younger sister choose hers first. She said, “I want Melissa’s!”
Many years later, after my sister published a novel, I wanted the same success. Neither of us would have changed places with the other; we only wanted the same advantages—like Jacob, who wanted all the advantages of the firstborn without being rash and slow on the uptake like Esau.
It is hard to walk your own path in life instead of trying to get what someone else has. And if you try, you might find yourself face to face with a person you did not know was there.
- The Levites replace the firstborn sons of all other tribes in Numbers 3:5-13 and 3:44, when religious worship is professionalized.
- Genesis 25:29-34.
- Genesis 27:1-38.
- Jacob’s wealth and household are described in Genesis 31:17-18, 32:6, and 32:23. He acts as a priest by setting up an altar at Shekhem in Genesis 33:20 and at Beit-Eil in Genesis 35:7.
- Genesis 32:14-22.
- Genesis 32:23-25.
- The Hebrew word is katonti, קָטֺנתִּי = I am small, young, trifling, insignificant.
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