More than one Jewish summer camp director has a jocular placard in his office displaying this half-verse from Psalm 27: “Though a camp be encamped against me, my heart will not fear….” Okay, true, that’s a somewhat wooden translation of the verse, which might be more clearly rendered: “Should an army besiege me, my heart will not fear….” What makes the joke work is that the Hebrew term for camp, machaneh, has a semantic range like that of its English equivalent, extending from the military (“Camp Pendleton”) to the recreational (“Camp Mohican”). In modern Hebrew, it encompasses the political sense of “camp,” as well.
Just after resolving the decades-long unspoken conflict with his father-in-law, Laban, and leaving the place he names Machanayim — “twin camps” — Jacob divides his own entourage into two “camps” in order to ensure the survival of at least part of his family. He has reason to fear that his brother Esau may be planning an attack to settle a long-delayed score. (Genesis 32:8-9)
We can understand Jacob’s “camps” in more than one way. In fact, he himself does so. Instead of remaining focused on the need to travel as two separate camps, Jacob interprets the split as a sign of the abundance of material blessings with which he has been endowed, as he makes explicit in verses 10 and 11. Calling out to the God of his forebears, he contrasts his state when leaving Canaan years earlier with his present riches: “I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have steadfastly done for Your servant. For with [just] my staff I crossed this Jordan and now I have become two camps.” Jacob’s ability to see beyond the danger that led him to split his entourage to a reminder of his material success is noteworthy, perhaps even enviable.
At the same time, though, these are still two camps in the military sense, as well. Jacob has split his retinue into two groups for the tactical purpose of preventing a total loss in case of attack. As military camps, though, these are quite remarkable. They are apparently completely unarmed, and Jacob makes only one provision for their collective defense. That one move is described by a word — mincha — that is an anagram of the Hebrew word for “camp.” He sends a mincha ahead to Esau.
Mincha, too, has a number of meanings in Hebrew. In the Bible, it means “gift,” with uses including “sacrifice” (gift to God) and “tribute” (gift from a vassal to an overlord). As with machaneh, Jacob’s own language in our story points us to a particular shade of meaning. Addressing Esau, he refers to himself as “your servant” and to Esau as “my lord,” making us frame his mincha as a tribute, a token of submission. Jacob is implicitly renouncing the position of superiority over his brother that he had gained in their youth through cunning and deception.
Jacob’s thoughts on this matter are, very uncharacteristically for the Bible, conveyed to us directly as an interior monologue. According to a very literal reading of Genesis 32:21 (following Everett Fox’s translation), Jacob thinks, “I will wipe (the anger from) his face with the gift that goes ahead of my face; afterward, when I see his face, perhaps he will lift up my face.” Or, somewhat less literally (as Robert Alter translates), “Let me placate him with the tribute that goes before me, and after I shall look on his face perhaps he will show me a kindly face.” Alter notes that to look on someone’s face is “a locution generally used for entering the presence of royalty.” The narrator is showing us that the posture Jacob has adopted toward his brother, that of a vassal before a sovereign, is more than just a tactical move; he adopts it even in his thoughts.
As Jacob approaches the last and most fateful encounter on his journey home, it is his brother’s face that comes to mind. He imagines that face inflamed with anger; he imagines it radiating a nostalgic fraternal affection. His response — the choice of mincha over a true military machaneh, of giving gifts over doing battle — could be only the usual response of the crafty trickster who had always avoided confrontation. But this scene comes shortly after the separation forced upon him by Laban. Jacob had sneaked away rather than face Laban, but Laban had tracked him down, forced Jacob to face him and sparked a mutual airing of grievances. Jacob’s choice now to pursue a peaceful reconciliation with his brother seems to reflect a more mature approach. Jacob is ready to face up to his past and to relinquish his jealousies and overcome his rival’s animosity in an attempt at bringing amity where for decades there had been only enmity.
Rabbi Peretz Rodman is a Jerusalem-based writer, translator and editor. He serves as visiting lecturer in Hebrew language and literature at Hebrew College Online, based in Newton, Mass.