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Spiritual Meaning of Mahanaim

Below, we will explore the Spiritual meaning of mahanaim, meaning of mahanaim in the bible and the symbol of spiritual growth.

You may be surprised to learn that Mahanaim has a spiritual meaning in addition to its name. In the Bible, Mahanaim means “two camps,” and it’s a word used six times by King David, once by King Saul, and twice by King Hezekiah. It appears in 1 Chronicles 12:34; 2 Samuel 2:8; and Joshua 17:3-4—all verses that deal with war or conflict. This may be a coincidence since Mahanaim means “two camps” and not “combat,” but both mean the same thing: two armies facing each other. There may be some truth here with regard to your question about what the spiritual meaning of Mahanaim is. The root word for camp is MACHAN

The word Mahanaim is a Biblical place name, meaning two camps . In the sense that God sits in two places at once, it means presence, or where presence is felt. As a verb , it means to encamp, to set up shop and to be firm. This can imply an outward move towards the world or an inward movement towards God. It can suggest restful action. While it may be tempting to draw spiritual meaning from Mahanaim only from its context within the story of Jacob and Esau (though it has many other uses), let’s take our time today and closely look at the passage itself:

Meaning of Mahanaim In The Bible

The spiritual meaning of the word mahanaim is “double camp.” This word appears in the Bible, where it is used to describe an area where Jacob set up his camp.

The first use of the term is in Genesis 32:1-2, where Jacob is recounting his meeting with angels while he was traveling back to Canaan after a long time away. He says that he met “a stranger,” who asked him what he was doing there. The stranger then told Jacob that he should stay there and then left.

Jacob stayed at this place for a while, but eventually decided to return home. When he left, he named the place Mahanaim—meaning “double camp”—because he had camped there twice: once when he arrived and again when he left (Genesis 32:4).

The word mahanaim is a Hebrew word meaning, “two camps.” It is a reference to the location where Jacob and his family camped before entering the land of Israel. Jacob was on his way to meet Esau, his brother who had threatened to kill him.

The people who lived in the area were afraid of Jacob’s family because they were so large and had so many camels, donkeys, and cattle with them. They were afraid that they would be attacked by Esau’s men when he found out that Jacob had returned. So they asked Jacob if they could camp near him so they could protect themselves from attack.

Jacob agreed, but only if they would help defend him if he needed it. This is why God’s presence appeared as two camps: one camp with Esau’s people and one camp with Jacob’s people.

Spiritual Meaning of Mahanaim

Mahanaim is certainly not a household word. Even if you are a student of the Bible it may not be a familiar place to you. Don’t feel bad, my spell corrector doesn’t recognize it either! In spite of its relative obscurity, Mahanaim is an excellent example of important lessons that can be learned when biblical places are traced through the Bible (as advocated in my previous post Using Geography to Study the Bible). Mahanaim is mentioned thirteen times in the Bible (Gen. 32:1; Josh. 13:26, 30; 21:38; 2 Sam. 2:8, 12, 29; 17:24, 27; 19:32; 1 Kgs. 2:8; 4:14; 1 Chron. 6:80; and possibly Song of Songs 6:13). As this list shows, nearly half of the references occur in 2 Samuel.

Mahanaim in Genesis 32

Jacob meets Esau
Jacob’s meeting with Esau is dramatized in this painting by Frans Francken II dating from the 1620s.

The first occurrence of Mahanaim occurs in Genesis 32:1 in the story of Jacob’s return to the land after having spent 20 years with his uncle Laban in Haran (located in modern Syria). Jacob had fled to Haran because of his brother Esau’s threat to kill him for stealing the blessing from their father Isaac (Gen. 27:35-45). Jacob was fearful and apprehensive on his return, wondering if his brother still desired revenge (Gen. 32:6-7). The word “Mahanaim” is a dual form of the Hebrew word “Mahaneh,” which means “camp.” Therefore, Mahanaim means “two camps.” The meaning of this word is played on throughout the text. In Genesis 32:7 we are told that Jacob divided his family into two camps, hoping that if Esau attacked one part of the family, the other might escape (Gen. 32:8). The idea of two camps is also played upon by the mention of “God’s camp” which refers to Jacob’s encounter with some angels as he enters the land (Gen. 32:1-2). Jacob’s camp and Esau’s camp is yet a third reference to the idea of two camp’s in the story. The main point of this story, which extends into Genesis 33, is the reconciliation of two estranged brothers. The emphasis on two camps throughout suggests division and estrangement, but Esau’s warm and gracious welcome of his brother Jacob (Gen. 33:4), brings this reunion to a happy conclusion.

Jacob wrestles with the Angel
Jacob wrestles with the Angel–a painting by Gustav Doré 1885.

God’s place in the story is noted, not only through the mention of God’s camp (32:2), but also in Jacob’s wrestling with the Angel (Gen. 32:24-32). During this wrestling match, which happens at a place Jacob names Peniel (face of God–more on this below), Jacob receives a new name (Israel), which is suggestive of the change that has taken place in him. The theme of brother reconciled to brother in the sight of God is brought together in Jacob’s statement in Genesis 33: 10: “I have seen your face as though I had seen the face of God.” The word “face” occurs throughout Genesis 32-33, sometimes referring to God (as in Peniel) and other times referring to Esau. The point of this story can be summed up in a statement made by the apostle John in another context where he writes, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also” (1 John 4:20-21).

The Jabbok River
Located in modern Jordan, the area around Mahanaim contains the Jabbok River (the modern day name is the Zarqa River). Photo from

Mahanaim in the Books of Joshua and Samuel

Mahanaim is not connected with any particular story in the Book of Joshua, but we do learn several important things about it.  First, it was located on the border of the tribes of Gad and Manasseh (Josh. 13:24-30–Recall that Gad, Reuben, and 1/2 the tribe of Manasseh settled on the eastern side of the Jordan). Joshua 21:34-42 also informs us that it was a Levitical city, as well as a city of refuge.

2 Samuel contains two important stories in which Mahanaim plays a key role. Both stories in 2 Samuel concern a civil war within Israel. In 2 Samuel 2 David becomes king in Hebron of Judah, but rather than unite the kingdom under David, Abner (the commander of Saul’s army) takes Ish-bosheth (Saul’s son) and makes him king in Mahanaim (for more details on this story see my post here, or check out my book Family Portraits chapters 11 & 12). Abner and Ish-bosheth’s move to Mahanaim is probably a strategic one. It puts some distance between them and the Philistines (who have taken over a lot of Israelite terrritory–1 Sam. 31), and it also puts distance between them and David. The Lexham Bible Dictionary also suggests two other advantages: 1) It was in close proximity to Saul’s closest allies (the people of Jabesh-Gilead; see 1 Sam. 11); and 2) it gave them control of the iron ore industry which this area was famous for.

Mountains of Gilead
Although the exact location of Mahanaim remains uncertain, we do know that it is located in the mountainous area of ancient Gilead. Photo by Jim Greenhill at

Mahanaim becomes important later again in 2 Samuel chapters 15-19, when David’s son Absalom rebels again him. Ironically, Absalom has himself proclaimed king in Hebron (where David was originally anointed), and when he marches on Jerusalem, David flees to–you guessed it–Mahanaim. Eventually David’s forces defeat Absalom and David returns to take up the throne again in Jerusalem. But it is in the chamber over the gate in Mahanaim where the memorable scene of David weeping for his slain son occurs. There we read of his gut-wrenching grief over the death of his son as he cries out, “O my son Absalom–my son, my son Absalom–if only I had died in your place! O Absalom my son, my son!” (2 Sam. 18:33/Hebrew text 19:1).

When one recalls the story of the reconciliation of brothers at Mahanaim told in Genesis 32-33, the sad stories of 2 Samuel become even more poignant. Both stories about civil war in 2 Samuel emphasize important family language and connections. When Joab pursues Abner and the forces of Israel in 2 Samuel 2 after inflicting a severe defeat on them, Abner pleads, “Shall the sword devour forever? Do you not know that it will be bitter in the end? How long will it be then until you tell the people to return from pursuing their brethren?” (2 Sam. 2:26). Notice the key word “brethren.” This is not simply a battle between two enemies; it is a family battle between brothers of the tribes of Israel. This same tragic message is enhanced further when David’s own son rebels against him. When the dust settles there is no victory celebration for David, but only the anguished cries of a father bereft of his son. The legacy of Mahanaim has turned from the shining legacy of brothers reuniting under God, to the nation of Israel and the family of David torn apart by hatred and enmity. It is making the geographical connection in these stories that highlights this important theme.

Symbol of Spiritual Growth

Mahanaim is a city in the bible that has spiritual meaning. The word mahanaim means two camps. In this case it refers to heaven and earth, or God and man.

The story of this place begins with Jacob’s dream where he sees an angel of God and the ladder connecting heaven and earth. The angel tells him his name is “God” (Genesis 28:16). Later Jacob meets up with his brother Esau, who is hunting for food. After they meet, Esau offers Jacob food and shelter at Mahanaim (Genesis 32:1-2). Jacob asks Esau to meet him there again in four years, so they can make peace between them (Genesis 32:3-4).

In the New Testament we see that Jesus calls himself “the light of the world” (John 8:12), which refers back to Genesis 28:17-19; when Jacob saw a light standing on the ground before him; when he awoke from his sleep he thought it was a man; but then he realized it was an angel of God who was standing there.

The Remaining Occurrences of Mahanaim

As a way of summarizing the other occurrences of Mahanaim, the reference in 1 Kings 2:8 refers back to the story of Absalom’s rebellion, while the reference in 1 Kings 4:14 notes that it was the seat of one of Solomon’s districts (he had 12 in all). The mention of Mahanaim in 1 Chronicles 6:80 is another geographical list stating that it belonged to the tribe of Gad. Finally, the use of “Mahanaim” in Song of Songs 6:13 (Hebrew text, 7:1), seems to be a reference to a particular kind of dance.

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