Bible studies with Don Isaac Abravanel’s commentary (also spelled Abarbanel) has withstood the test of
time. For over five centuries, Abravanel has delighted – and enlightened – clergy and layman alike,
offering enduring interpretations of the Bible. Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) was a preeminent Jewish thinker, scholar, and prolific Biblical
commentator. In Genesis chapter 32, Jacob begins his trek home. The first leg of his journey starts
auspiciously; angels huddle around him.
“And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. And Jacob
said when he saw them, This is God’s camp, and he called the name of
that place Mahanaim. And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau
Abravanel probes Jacob’s mindset, as he parted ways with Laban, a most trying man. “And Jacob went
on his way, and the angels of God met him.” Long years under Laban’s roof and employment had sapped
the patriarch’s strength. Seeing Laban and company shrink into the horizon gladdened Jacob’s heart and
put a bounce in his gait. He breathed a sigh of relief. Unburdened.
Invigorated in body and soul, Jacob regained his prior energy level. Elated, he received prophecy, the
same as he had experienced when he left the Holy Land. At that time, he beheld a vision with a ladder.
Now Jacob saw something else. “This is God’s camp”, the patriarch declared. Abravanel deciphers the
telling image, explaining that “God’s camp" refers to divine providence – and more. “Camp” carries
military overtones. According to Abravanel, the vision boosted Jacob’s morale. “And he called the name
of that place Mahanaim.” In Hebrew, “Mahanaim” means camps, in plural. Heavenly agents would join
forces with Jacob’s men. Together both camps would rally to defend and protect Jacob and family.
Abravanel investigates our verse more thoroughly. “And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God
met him.” He asks: Who were these angels of God? Were they, as we posited above, the heavenly sort
of beings, relaying the Creator’s message to the patriarch? The problem is, as Abravanel notes, they
didn’t relay anything to him. Furthermore, the verb “met” seems peculiar. Better, the verse should have
said that these angels appeared to Jacob.
Abravanel suggests the following. When Jacob bid farewell to Laban, he didn’t know that the road he
chose to take him home was on a collision course with Esau, his brother. Had Jacob known, Abravanel
writes, Jacob would have opted for an alternative route so he could avoid the fraught confrontation.
Abravanel provides two distinct approaches in determining the identities of the “angels of God.” One,
the patriarch beheld a divine image. It was of the Maker’s angels converging upon him. They encircled,
giving Jacob a sense of safety. Silently, they surrounded him. No enemy would penetrate God’s lines of
defense. “And Jacob said when he saw them, This is God’s camp.” After Jacob saw the angel’s formation,
he felt less apprehension about the imminent encounter with Esau. Jacob’s side outnumbered Esau’s.
Here is Abravanel’s second approach to reveal the identity of the “angels of God.” These angels weren’t,
well, the angelic type. They were merely passersby. As is the wont of travelers, Jacob struck up a
conversation with them. One thing led to another. It came out that these travelers casually mentioned
to Jacob that just down the road, in the direction Jacob was heading, they had seen a band of soldiers.
When Jacob questioned his new friends further, he ascertained that the warriors were none other than
Esau and his men. For Jacob, the “casual” meeting with these travelers proved invaluable and timely.
And as we shall see later in this chapter, Jacob will prepare himself accordingly. For the religiously-
attuned patriarch, these travelers were indeed angelic.