In our study of Genesis, we have talked about a God who creates; a God who faithfully keeps His promises; a God who sees us, even when we feel overlooked. We have looked at the stories of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac. We’re now ready to move ahead in the story to the twin sons of Isaac and his wife Rebekah. These two sons — Esau and Jacob — are as different as night and day.
Esau was the firstborn and the Bible says that he came out red and hairy, kind of like Elmo I guess. At their birth, the younger brother, Jacob, was clinging to the heel of his older brother. In fact, his name is a take on the Hebrew word for “heel.” It also has the connotation of deception and shadiness. And Jacob will truly live up to his name as a “heel grabber” who can’t be trusted, right up until the moment he receives a new name and a new identity.
When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.Genesis 25:27-28
At this point in the biblical story, we come across a disturbing pattern of parents playing favorites with their children. Esau is a “man’s man” who likes to hunt and fish; we might picture him wearing camouflage and sporting a Duck Dynasty beard. And Isaac favors his oldest son because he was an expert marksman and Dad liked to eat the food Esau provides. But Jacob is quieter and he stays inside — some believe this means he was a scholar. He certainly comes across as more conniving than Esau. The differences between Esau and Jacob are like the differences between Mufasa and Scar or the differences between Sonny Corleone and Michael. Esau is the big, strong athlete of the family whereas Jacob is the academic. And these differences seem to divide their parents: Isaac favors Esau while Rebekah loved Jacob.
And as you might imagine, all of this created something of a rivalry between these two brothers.
One day, Esau comes back to camp after a long day of hunting and, understandably, he’s hungry. I guess the hunt didn’t go so well that day. He smells some stew Jacob is cooking — red stew, according to the Bible — and he tells his little brother to fix him a bowl. Jacob says, “Sure, you can have a bowl of stew…in exchange for your birthright.”
In the ancient world, the oldest son received extra blessing among the children. He was understood to be the one to carry forward the family name; he would inherit the lion’s share of the family estate. As the firstborn, Esau possessed this special status. Remember, God had made promises to bless the entire world through the line of Abraham. This blessing was passed through Abraham to his son, Isaac; and from Isaac to his firstborn, Esau.
If you were Jacob, would you resent the fact that only a few seconds separated you from this blessing? Would you resent your older brother for being the apple of your father’s eye? Every time someone called Jacob’s name, they were essentially saying, “Hey, heel grabber.” That means every time someone called his name, Jacob would be reminded of the fact that he was always in second place next to his brother, always subservient to Esau, always the one “grabbing the heel” of the one ahead of him in line.
So when the opportunity arises, Jacob wrestles the birthright away from his older brother. The Bible says that Esau despised his birthright — meaning he treated this great blessing as if it were nothing at all. He was a slave to his desires. So he trades away something of great value for something as fleeting as a bowl of stew. And Esau’s story is a reminder to us of the dangers of being slaves to our desires.
How many times are we tempted to do the same thing? To forfeit something sacred and special for something fleeting and temporal? I imagine this is a regular temptation for many of us.
Jacob was not content with duping his brother; he goes on to take advantage of his blind father as well. With his mother’s help, Jacob tricks Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing. These kinds of blessings were very important in the biblical story. Because they were essentially prayers addressed to God, they were viewed as helping to shape the future of those who were blessed. Can you think of anything more despicable than taking advantage of someone’s disability for your own personal gain? Yet that’s exactly what Jacob does.
When Esau discovers this, he is enraged; the Bible says he hated Jacob and made plans to kill him. And so Jacob, fearful for his life, goes off to the land of his mother where he lives for many years.
And the years go by: Esau and Jacob marry and have children of their own. Jacob does well in the land of his mother, building up his flocks and accruing great wealth. And in those days, the angel of the LORD appeared to Jacob in a dream and told him to return home.
And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good.’ …. Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children.”Genesis 32:9-11
Here we find Jacob wrestling with his past. He has been away for many years and he worries about how Esau will receive him when he returns. Is he still upset? Has my brother forgiven me? Or does Esau still want to take my life? Jacob’s servants tell him that Esau is coming out to meet Jacob…and he is bringing 400 men with him. Scholars say this was a standard number for a raiding party or a military regiment in the ancient world. Basically, Esau is riding out to meet Jacob and apparently he’s bringing an army. And the Bible says that Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed.
And we know what this is like. We all have those things in our past that cause us shame. Maybe it’s someone you once wronged. Maybe, like Jacob, you deceived someone or took advantage of them. You hurt them by betraying their trust and now you’d just as soon avoid them for fear of how they might receive you. Maybe it’s even progressed to the point of Jacob and Esau’s relationship — to the point where you worry that they might want to inflict harm upon you in retaliation for the way you once hurt them.
Every one of us is familiar with this feeling of fear and distress over the things we’ve done or said.
And to my way of thinking, this is further evidence that the Bible is a word from God rather than man. Because the biblical story does not shy away from the areas of our lives that bring us shame. In fact, the biblical story almost always goes directly to those places of great pain and difficulty, to demonstrate God’s ability to reconcile and redeem. Even in the darkness of Jacob’s guilt and shame, God is at work.
Jacob asks God to deliver him from the mistakes of his past. And then he has an encounter that radically alters the course of his life.
The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.When the man sawthat he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”And he said to him, “What is your name?”And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.”But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.Genesis 32:22-31
Jacob sends his family and his flocks and all of his possessions ahead of him to meet Esau. Maybe Jacob thinks the sight of his wives and children will cause Esau’s anger to relent; maybe he’s simply seeking to protect them by essentially saying, “If it’s me you want, fine. But please don’t hurt my family.” Either way, Jacob finds himself all alone in the wilderness in the middle of the night, awaiting his reckoning with his estranged brother.
And in the night, a man wrestles with him. Of course, by the end of the story, we learn that this is no mere man. Jacob himself seems to think he has encountered the living God in the middle of the night. Some believe that this might well be the angel of the LORD again, a pre-incarnate form of God the Son — and that’s what I’m inclined to believe, although none of that is specified here in the story.
But the story IS clear that Jacob wrestles with this mysterious being all night long.
My oldest son wrestled for his high school team this year and I learned a lot about wrestling as a sport. Prior to Joshua joining the team, my only point of reference for wrestling was the WWF. I learned all about the points, the referee’s hand signals, what constitutes a takedown and a pin. I also learned that each round is two minutes long…and when you’re in the ring one-on-one, those are two of the longest minutes of your life. Two minutes doesn’t sound like a long time, but when the time runs out and the referee blows his whistle, the wrestlers go to their corners exhausted.
And yet this story gives us the impression that Jacob is able to wrestle this divine being for most of the night. Jacob may be a swindler and a deceiver, but he’s also tenacious. He hangs in there no matter what. As day breaks, Jacob’s opponent reaches out and touches his hip — and Jacob’s hip is immediately dislocated. This figure is clearly more powerful than Jacob. He says, “Let me go,” but Jacob refuses. Just as he refused to let go of his brother’s heel at his birth, he refuses to release his opponent here, even with a dislocated hip. He says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
And here we get to the heart of the matter. More than anything else, Jacob desires a true sense of blessing. Jacob thought the good life would be found if he could just get his brother’s birthright, but he doesn’t appear to be any more content after acquiring it all those years ago. So in a sense, Jacob is wrestling with unmet expectations. He got what he wanted and found it to be lacking.
Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever worked so hard for something that it was your total focus — and then once you finally achieved it, it felt sort of hollow? Have you ever found yourself saying, “Is this it?”
Similarly, Jacob probably thought, “If I could just get Dad’s approval, then my life will be complete.” I wonder if Jacob ever received any affirmation from his father or if he was constantly overlooked because of Isaac’s love for Esau. So when Jacob deceives his father and receives the blessing, he finally achieves what has been elusive his entire life: status. He’s officially recognized as the legal head of the family. And yet, this doesn’t seem to satisfy him either. For all of his striving and grappling and wrestling, it seems that Jacob still hasn’t found what he’s looking for. And so he finds himself all alone with a heart full of regret and shame.
And that’s when God shows up.
Jacob’s story bears witness to the God who shows up when we least expect it — the God who shows up in the darkness, in the cold and lonely night when we are racked with shame and guilt. He shows up when we can see no way forward. He shows up here for Jacob just as he showed up for his grandfather, Abraham and his grandmother, Sarah. Surely Jacob had heard the stories growing up:
- How God had promised his grandparents a child…but He waited until Grandpa was 100 years old to deliver that gift.
- How God had then called Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the child of promise…but He waited until the very last moment to stay Abraham’s hand and deliver Isaac.
But at some level, those were just stories for Jacob — just like at some level, those are just stories for us. It didn’t do for Jacob to simply hear about what God did for all of these other people. What Jacob was looking for was an encounter with the living God Himself. That is what our souls most deeply desire. As Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” It is that encounter with the living God that made all the difference for Jacob — and for us as well.
God shows up in the darkness of Jacob’s shame. And He shows up to bless.
If you find yourself in the darkness today — alone, racked with shame, fearful and distressed — take heart. For these often seem to be the conditions God waits for before He acts. God Himself says as much when He asks Abraham and Sarah, Is anything too hard for the LORD? So many of these Genesis stories prove the same point: that God often chooses to wait until there is no other possibility…THEN He chooses to act. Because our God is the God of the extraordinary.
God gives Jacob a new identity — He names him “Israel,” meaning “he strives with God” or “he wrestles with God.” The tenacity Jacob has demonstrated his entire life is finally directed properly — directed toward God. God is willing to work with this flawed man because he refuses to let go.
But then we are forced to realize something else. Jacob is not the only tenacious one here. God likewise has refused to let go of Jacob. Through it all, God has been tenaciously and fiercely clinging to this heel grabber and the shame-filled deceiver — just as I believe He is tenaciously and fiercely clinging to you and to me.
In this, Jacob must realize that he had ALWAYS been blessed. God never let go of him.
Jacob limps away from his encounter with God — which is a bit mysterious. Did he ever heal or was this injury permanent? We simply don’t know. But we do know this much: you cannot encounter the living God without being changed. And from this moment forward, Jacob is a changed man. He is now Israel, the namesake of the people of God.
As a postscript, Jacob returns home and finds that his brother Esau has had a change of heart. Their reunion is one of the sweeter moments in Jacob’s life. The one who wrestles is finally at peace.