Have you ever wrestled with God?
My Dad died when I was 10 years old. I’ve wrestled with God.
My Mother passed away a few years later. And again, I wrestled with God.
And even now, this week, I’ve found myself in this same familiar place, wrestling with God.
My good friend says you can’t help but tell your story. He says if you listen long enough and listen hard enough, you’ll hear people telling you their story. We all tell our story.
Well, this story from Genesis 32 is “my story”. And I suspect, in your own way, you’ll find that this is your story, too. Because this story is a story of grace.
The story of the patriarchs — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — is a story of grace. For it is by grace that the womb of a 90 year-old woman finally bears life. It was God’s grace that made Isaac the son of promise. It was grace that stayed the hand of Abraham on Mt. Moriah when he was prepared to sacrifice this same son. By grace, Isaac crawls down off of the altar, replaced by the ram that the Lord provided. Again, these are stories of grace.
And the story of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, is perhaps the greatest testimony to the grace of God in the entire Old Testament. For there is nothing — absolutely nothing — redeemable in Jacob’s character, at least not early on.
From the moment of his birth, he was attempting to usurp the position of his older, twin brother Esau. In the ancient world, being the firstborn was a really huge deal. Father’s blessing; receiving the birthright. And Jacob is THIS close to it…but he misses it. His name means “heel-grabber” and it comes to also be known as “supplanter” or “deceiver” or “trickster”. From this point forward, Jacob tries his best to supplant Esau as the recipient of the father’s blessing.
It says in Genesis 25:27, The boys grew up, and Esau became a skilful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was a quiet man, staying among the tents.
Esau is a man’s man. He likes the outdoors, likes to hunt, wears camo, shops at Bass Pro, watches Duck Dynasty. Jacob is different; he likes to stay home and rearrange the furniture, watch Days of Our Lives.
Listen to the next verse, though: Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob. All kidding aside, that’s heartbreaking. I think that colors everything that happens in the rest of Jacob’s story; he’s just a kid trying to win dad’s approval.
Jacob acquires his older brother’s birthright; Esau sells it for a bowl of stew. Implication is that Esau isn’t a good steward of this tremendous blessing…exchanges it for something so temporal. Was this a calculated move on Jacob’s part? The Bible doesn’t explicitly say so, but given what follows, it at least seems possible.
The Bible says Isaac grew old; so Jacob deceives him by dressing up in animal hair, taking the blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau. And so Jacob flees, fearful of what his brother will do to him. He runs off to the land of Syria and falls in love with a beautiful woman named Rachel.
But her father, Laban, is a scoundrel, too and Jacob finally meets his match. The deceiver is deceived. Jacob agrees to work 7 years for Rachel’s hand; but on the wedding night, Laban pulls a switcheroo and sends Rachel’s older sister, Leah, to Jacob’s tent. And so Jacob is forced to work 7 more years for Rachel’s hand. And the Bible says that Jacob loved Rachel more than he loved Leah.
And Jacob has children with these wives. After all he’d been through with Isaac, you’d think Jacob would make an extra effort to treat all of his children equally, but he doesn’t. He dotes on Rachel’s children, which the rest of his sons immediately notice. One in particular, Joseph, receives a coat of many colors that we’ll talk to us about next week.
Jacob never forgets all that Laban put him through. So he eventually hatches a plan to swindle Laban, to increase his own flocks at the expense of his father-in-law.
So, if you’re keeping score, that makes Jacob…
- a lousy son
- a lousy brother
- a lousy husband
- a lousy father
- a lousy son-in-law
- and a lousy business partner
He plays favorites with his parents; he plays favorites with his wives; he plays favorites with his kids.
But, as I said before, Jacob’s life is a testament to the grace of God. This is where we find him in Genesis 32.
Jacob reaches a point in his life where his past starts to catch up with him. After 20 years of estrangement, he decides to return home. But first, he must face his brother. Because no matter how far you try to run to get away from your problems, there will always be a reckoning. So Jacob sends messengers ahead of him, tell Esau I want to see him and that I hope to find favor with him. They come back and say, “Esau is on his way. And he’s bringing 400 men with him.”
So Jacob decides to divide up his crew; sends all these animals ahead as a gift to Esau, hoping this will ease years of bitterness and rage.
What he doesn’t realize is that there is someone else he must face before he sees Esau.
The Bible says a “man” approaches Jacob in the night and wrestles him. As the story unfolds, we realize that this is more than simply a man. By the end of the encounter, Jacob himself will say, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered,” (Gen. 32:30).
What captures our imaginations is Jacob’s tenacity. Say what you will about his character, Jacob isn’t a quitter. He doesn’t give up. He wrestles though the night with this figure who proves himself to be God. And this tenacity opens the door for the transformation in Jacob’s character.
After wrestling through the night, this mysterious figure finally reaches down and dislocates Jacob’s hip with a single touch. Under typical circumstances, the wounded would cede victory as a result of this injury, but not so with Jacob. He refuses to release his grip until this mysterious figure imparts some word of blessing upon him. Once again, Jacob is tenacious about holding on until he receives a blessing. And, once again, Jacob receives a blessing that otherwise would not have come his way. Once again, there is grace.
The figure speaks: “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed,” (Gen. 32:28). And for the rest of his days, Jacob is known as Israel. His name becomes synonymous with his descendants. The people of God, the descendants of the one who wrestled with God all through the night.
But we’d be remiss if we only talked about Jacob’s tenacity. In fact, maybe that’s not really even the point. You see, Jacob kind of grew up thinking the only way to receive the father’s blessing was to swindle it, to fight for it. And that seems to be the source of his tenacity. But that’s not the way it works with God.
Maybe this story isn’t so much about the fact that Jacob contended with God through the night without losing his grip. Maybe instead, it’s more about a God who wouldn’t lose His grip on Jacob. Maybe it’s about a God who engaged Jacob that night with the same ferocious tenacity He’d been using at every other point in Jacob’s life.
Up until this point in his story, Jacob doesn’t seem to possess much of a moral compass. And yet God is the One who continues to faithfully pursue Jacob. Who initiates this confrontation in Genesis 32? It seems like God does. And throughout his entire life, God has been the one holding on to Jacob, even when this grandson of Abraham didn’t know it.
You see, it’s not about how long you’re able to hold on; it’s never been about that. But it’s about a God who never lets go. Why? Because God always keeps His promise.
We can now see Jacob, a scoundrel of a man whose life has been transformed. Grace leaves an indelible mark on the human heart. For the rest of his days, Israel walked with a limp, a constant reminder of the night he spent with God that transformed his life.
We are Jacob’s descendants because, like him, there’s really nothing all that redeemable about us. And yet God hangs on to us anyway, keeps pursuing us anyway, transforms our hearts and gives us a new name anyway.
That is what makes this story my story, your story. This is OUR Story…a story of grace.