Jacob learns that his brother Esau, into whose territory he and his family are entering, is on his way to meet Jacob, along with four-hundred men.
Jacob is certain that his brother, who had once wanted to kill him, is coming out to fulfill this fond desire. So, the Schemer schemes again, dividing "his people, sheep, cattle, and camel into two camps." Jacob did this so that if Esau fell on one of the groups, at least the other would have a shot at escaping.
2. But then, something very interesting happens. Jacob prays. This, I have little doubt, is an authentic prayer. Regular readers of this blog know that I subscribe to the theory advanced by the late Norwegian theologian Ole Hallesby that for prayer to be authentic, two elements must be present:
First, there must be faith.Without this second element, we may rely too much on our own abilities. In fact, most of what we call prayer probably isn't really worthy of that name because truth be told, we regard God as a back-up plan. Generally, we trust ourselves more than we ever trust God.
Second, there must be helplessness.
But Jacob's words reveal how desperately afraid he was and how utterly dependent on God he saw himself as being in that moment.
Interestingly, in his prayer, Jacob includes reminders to God of His promises to Jacob and his antecedents. God makes promises to us, too. There's nothing wrong with expressing our reliance on them and on God when we pray.
3. Nonetheless, as is true of us, Jacob prayed, "Your will be done" at night and then, prepared gifts for his brother the next day. Jacob thought that he could placate his brother and defuse his anger, by presenting him with wave after wave of gifts. Jacob's fitful dance between surrender and self-reliance isn't unlike my own imperfect following of Christ. Realizing this, I take comfort in remembering that Jesus Christ makes it possible for an imperfect sinner like me to walk with God forever. That's incredible!
4. After Jacob sets everybody and all his possessions on their way across the Jabbok, we come to one of the strangest and most mysterious, as well as one of the most beautifully evocative passages, in all of Scripture.
A man wrestles with Jacob until the break of day. It would have been natural for Jacob to initially assume that this man was Esau or someone sent by Esau, and that his mission was to kill Jacob. One can only imagine the fear and ferocity with which Jacob strove to fend off this attack.
Interestingly, the man can't "get the better of Jacob." At this, he throws out Jacob's hip and then, begs Jacob to let him go.
Jacob's refusal may be somewhat understandable. After all, he seems to have "the man" pinned. But, clearly, Jacob doesn't see himself as "the man's" superior. Why? Because Jacob asks for his blessing.
What happens next shows that the outward appearance of this strange encounter has little to do with what is actually happening. There is something more, something deeper, going on. The man asks Jacob his name, as though Jacob is in a subservient position. Jacob clearly believes himself to be subservient and immediately complies with the request.
The man's response reveals what Jacob has been slowly coming to realize:
The man said, "But no longer. Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it's Israel (God-Wrestler); you've wrestled with God and you've come through."Perhaps somewhat impetuously, Jacob asks God what His Name is. God responds with a question that may be rhetorical, but may also be the heavenly version of, "Duh!" Instead of answering Jacob's most recent question, He grants Jacob's request: He blesses Jacob.
Jacob is incredulous! He can't believe that he has seen God face to face. God's luminescent perfection was deemed by the Old Testament people to be so overpowering, so, to use a phrase employed by theologian Paul Tillich, "wholly other," that no human being could look at his face and live. This is why Jacob called the place where he wrestled with God, Peniel, God's Face.
As the chapter ends, Jacob, newly rechristened Israel, limps to whatever fate may await him in his encounter with Esau.
Now, what are we to make of this incident? I'm not so foolish as to suggest a single answer to that question. But here are a few thoughts, based on my consultation of scholars' commentaries, as well as my own prayerful reflection:
a. Above all, we see God's grace, His unconditional charity toward believers, no matter how imperfect, playing out here. In spite of Jacob's past sins and shaky faith, on hearing Jacob's desperate prayer, God showed up. God still does that for imperfect people who approach Him in the Name of His Son, Jesus (John 14:13-14; First John 5:14-15).[Here are links to the previous installments in this series:
b. Jesus' words about having faith as a mustard seed seem appropo here. As I've pointed out before, we don't need to have big faith in order for God to move in our lives. A little faith will do, because our faith is reposed in the big God of the universe.
c. It's difficult to resist a metaphorical interpretation of this passage which connects prayer to wrestling. Anyone who has ever wrestled with God in prayer will know what this means. Often, when we pray, we struggle with ourselves--with our imperfect perceptions, our impatience, our puny faith--and with God. It's interesting that one interpretation of the meaning for the name of God's people, Israel, is Wrestling with God.
Whenever I read this account of Jacob wrestling with God, I think of Tevye, the main character in the fantastic musical, Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye constantly wrestles with God. Through all this wrestling, Tevye is able to let go of his religious tradtions in order to hold onto God more tightly. He leaves his village of Anatevka for the uncertainties of life in America, believing that God would go with him.
Jacob leaves this encounter with God not knowing what may happen to him, but at peace with the notion that God is with Him. This is precisely the assurance that we can have when we place ourselves in the hands of the God made known to the whole human race through Jesus Christ. Through our faith in Christ, we know that nothing can separate us from the love of God, that Jesus is always with us, and that He will never leave us or forsake us!
d. Jacob's limp puts the lie to the notion that when we come into contact with God, we will be made invincible. God's love is invincible, to be sure. God can impart to us the power to live beyond the grave. But God wants us to learn how to be vulnerable, to depend on Him to complete what is incomplete in us, to acknowledge the reality that we are not omniscient or omnicompetent. Unless we can own our deficiencies--including both our sins and our finitude as human beings, God will have no room to work in our lives. This is why the first-century preacher, Paul, said, "When we are weak, then we are strong."
The believer in God Who came into the world in the Person of Jesus Christ is never so strong as when she or he relies completely on God!