Bereshit 32 describes Yaakov's preparations for his encounter with Esav. After hearing that his brother is approaching with 400 men, Yaakov is filled with fear and decides to split his camp into two parts:
(ח) וַיִּירָא יַעֲקֹב מְאֹד וַיֵּצֶר לוֹ וַיַּחַץ אֶת הָעָם אֲשֶׁר אִתּוֹ וְאֶת הַצֹּאן וְאֶת הַבָּקָר וְהַגְּמַלִּים לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת. (ט) וַיֹּאמֶר אִם יָבוֹא עֵשָׂו אֶל הַמַּחֲנֶה הָאַחַת וְהִכָּהוּ וְהָיָה הַמַּחֲנֶה הַנִּשְׁאָר לִפְלֵיטָה.
(8) Then Jacob was greatly afraid and was distressed. And he divided the people that was with him, and the flocks, and the herds, and the camels, into two camps. (9) And he said: 'If Esau come to the one camp, and smite it, then the camp which is left shall escape.'
Surprisingly, though, shortly thereafter, when Esav approaches at the beginning of Chapter 33, we read about another division (using the same word "וַיַּחַץ"), this time into three groups:
(א) וַיִּשָּׂא יַעֲקֹב עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה עֵשָׂו בָּא וְעִמּוֹ אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת אִישׁ וַיַּחַץ אֶת הַיְלָדִים עַל לֵאָה וְעַל רָחֵל וְעַל שְׁתֵּי הַשְּׁפָחוֹת. (ב) וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת הַשְּׁפָחוֹת וְאֶת יַלְדֵיהֶן רִאשֹׁנָה וְאֶת לֵאָה וִילָדֶיהָ אַחֲרֹנִים וְאֶת רָחֵל וְאֶת יוֹסֵף אַחֲרֹנִים.
(1) And Jacob lifted up his eyes and looked, and, behold, Esau came, and with him four hundred men. And he divided the children unto Leah, and unto Rachel, and unto the two handmaids. (2) And he put the handmaids and their children foremost, and Leah and her children after, and Rachel and Joseph hindermost.
What is the relationship between Yaakov's two different acts of dividing his camp – are they for similar or completely different purposes? Additionally, from the latter verses, it sounds as if Yaakov's entire camp is waiting together in one location to meet Esav, and it is simply a question of the order in which to arrange them. But, if so, what happened to the original two-camp plan?
Who and Why?
While the latter verses specify that it was Yaakov's wives and children who were divided up, there is some ambiguity in the words "וַיַּחַץ אֶת הָעָם אֲשֶׁר אִתּוֹ" of the earlier division. Does the word "הָעָם" include Yaakov's family1 or merely his entourage? Did Yaakov split his family and possessions evenly between the two original camps, did he place his wives and children in one camp and his property in the other, or was his family in an entirely separate third camp? These various options bear on the objective of Yaakov's plan. Was Yaakov preparing for fight or flight? What does he mean when he says "וְהָיָה הַמַּחֲנֶה הַנִּשְׁאָר לִפְלֵיטָה" – does this phrase refer to survival by escaping before Esav arrives or to survival due to an effective military strategy?
In order to fully understand Yaakov's plan, one must also consider it in light of his other actions in Bereshit 32:
- Notifying Esav in Seir – If Yaakov was so afraid of an encounter with Esav, why did he send messengers to him in Seir in the first place? Could he not have simply headed directly back to his father in Chevron and completely avoided an encounter with Esav?
- Unanswered prayer – After splitting his camp, Yaakov prays to Hashem but receives no immediate answer or reassurance that all will end well. Why does Hashem not respond to Yaakov's prayer?2 What does this suggest about how Hashem viewed Yaakov's preparations for the meeting?
- Sending tribute to Esav – What was the purpose of sending gifts to Esav? Were they intended to simply appease or compensate Esav? Or could they have been a ploy to get close enough to gauge his inner feelings, or perhaps even a decoy which was part of a more calculated military strategy?
- Crossing the Yabbok – What was the pressing need for Yaakov to ford the Yabbok River on the very night before the encounter with Esav? Why take such an unusual step with his wives and young children in the darkness of the night; would it not have been far safer to wait until daylight to do so?
- Nocturnal encounter – What was the significance of Yaakov's struggle with the man / angel, and why did it need to occur on the eve of his meeting with Esav?3 Did the duel have any ramifications for Yaakov's plans or preparations?