I ran across a fascinating aside as I was doing my daily Bible reading today. In Genesis 32, Jacob is preparing to make his way home after twenty years away. He had tricked his brother Esau out of the birthright and the blessing, and Esau with cold rage had vowed to kill Jacob when their father Isaac died. So Jacob, urged on by his mother, Rebekah, took off for his uncle’s house in far-off Padan Aram.
In the meantime he has grown prosperous, with a myriad of herds and flocks, two wives, two maidservants by which he’s had children, and eleven children. Yet he’s still worried. At the end of chapter 31 Jacob had concluded a dicey meeting with Laban, his uncle, whom he’d taken off from rather suddenly. Laban was determined to bring him back, but the Lord intervened and told Laban to say nothing good or bad to Jacob. With the Lord’s help, Jacob was thus sent on his way.
So Jacob and all those with him are drawing nearer to Esau, and here at the beginning of chapter 32 two brief verses show how God strengthened Jacob and reassured him. Verse 1 records, “And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him.”
What must that have been like? What did it look like? How many of them were there? Was it suddenly glorious, bright and shining, like at Bethlehem? Or did Jacob realize slowly what he was actually looking at? Did they speak with him, or was the sight itself just enough? Did they appear in their glorious form, as they did at Bethlehem or at Jesus’ empty tomb, or did they come as ordinary-looking men? We know from earlier in Genesis with Abraham that angels can take on the form of normal people, and Hebrews 13:2 indicates that we wouldn’t necessarily know someone was an angel right away if we saw them. So many questions, and they’re not always answered by the divine record! I think the Lord does that so we might have a sanctified arena for our imaginations to work…He created us with curiosity too. It’s neat to just sit and think about it for a moment, and try to imagine what Jacob must have seen coming toward him across the desert scrub.
Jacob evidently could recognize that they were angels, for he calls them God’s host, i.e. God’s army. There’s awe and a note of thankfulness in his recognition that God has sent him angels to remind him of His love and care. The next verse has a play on words of sorts in it — Jacob sends messengers after the Lord sends messengers (i.e. angels) to him. Then the chapter moves on to its focus, which is Jacob’s meeting with Esau and his apprehension at doing so — but for a brief moment, we get a glimpse into something God did for one of His own, out of pure kindness, when Jacob was worried and stressed out by this meeting with his estranged brother. Little vignettes, comments, asides like these are part of what makes daily Bible reading so rewarding — there’s so much you forget or don’t remember over time, and it’s worth it to be rewarded.
Visit, we beseech thee, O Lord, this habitation, and drive far from it all snares of the enemy: let thy holy angels dwell herein, to preserve us in peace; and let thy blessing be always upon us. Through Jesus Christ, Thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen. (Collect of the Office of Compline, Brotherhood Prayer Book, 2nd ed., p.72)