Jacob then prepared to meet his brother Esau. It had been twenty years since they had seen one another and Esau had desired to kill Jacob the last time they were together. Had Esau's heart changed? Jacob hoped so, but he wasn't taking any chances. Instead of surprising Esau with an unannounced visit, Jacob believed the wisest course of action was to send messengers ahead first to inform Esau that Jacob had been with Laban all this time and now had "oxen, donkeys, flocks, and male and female servants" (Gen. 32:5). I do not believe that Jacob is bragging here about his possessions but rather wants Esau to know that he has plenty. He is not coming home as a poor man intent on taking anything away from Esau.
The messengers returned to Jacob and said - "'We came to your brother Esau, and he also is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.' So Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people that were with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two companies" (Gen. 32:6,7). If Esau attacked him, Jacob believed that being in two separate groups would minimize his losses. One of the two groups could likely escape.
A terrified Jacob then pours out his heart to God:
"O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, the LORD who said to me, 'Return to your country and to your family, and I will deal well with you': I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth which You have shown Your servant; for I crossed over this Jordan with my staff, and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, lest he come and attack me and the mother with the children. For You said, 'I will surely treat you well, and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude'" (Gen. 32:9-12).
It seems clear that Jacob begins wrestling with God, so to speak, long before he grapples with the "Man" of 32:24. At this point he is struggling in prayer with doubt. He fears he will perish at Esau's hand, so he pleads his case before the One who said it would all work out well! Jacob's faith is weak, though he is humble enough to acknowledge his own unworthiness of God's blessings (which is always a good place to start in prayer).
Jacob then chooses to send many gifts to Esau before seeing him personally, hoping that this would appease him. In total he sent 200 female goats, 20 male goats, 200 ewes, 20 rams, 30 milk camels with their colts, 40 cows, 10 bulls, 20 female donkeys and 10 foals--over 550 animals in all! This is impressive generosity, and Jacob has it sent in successive droves (i.e., not all at one time). Each drove leader was to present the animals to Esau and declare them to be a present from Jacob.
That night, while Jacob stayed in the camp and allowed the droves to go ahead of him, he sent his wives and children over the ford of Jabbok.
"Then Jacob was left alone; and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day. Now when He [the Man] saw that He did not prevail against him [Jacob], He touched the socket of his hip; and the socket of Jacob's hip was out of joint as He wrestled with him. And He [the Man] said, 'Let Me go, for the day breaks.' But he [Jacob] said, 'I will not let You go unless You bless me!' So He said to him, 'What is your name?' He said, 'Jacob.' And He said, 'Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed'" (Gen. 32:24-27).
We learn from Hosea 12:2-4 that this "Man" is actually the Angel of the Lord (who is God Himself in angelic form; cf. our archived lessons from 01/17/07, 01/18/07, and 01/19/07). It's hard for our minds to comprehend how Jacob (who was about 97 years old at this time) could have won any kind of wrestling match--particularly one with an Angel! Such is a testament to Jacob's strength and stubbornness, and the fact that God allowed him to be victorious here. But why did God allow him to win? The best reason may be this: It was only when Jacob continued to cling to God (even while in great pain) that he could expect a blessing from Him. Such is still the case today! Because the great patriarch was injured in the struggle, he would have to rely upon God all the more if combat with Esau became necessary. The name Israel literally means "wrestler with God." Such was a good name for Jacob and his descendants to be known by, as the rest of the Old Testament illustrates so well.