Jacob: Israel (he who wrestles with God)

I personally relate to the patriarch Jacob in the Old Testament. Why? First, let me summarize his story. It begins with stories you are no doubt familiar with. Isaac and Rebekah have twin sons, Jacob and Esau. Esau was the firstborn but Jacob was trying to pull him back in the womb so that he could be the firstborn. His name Jacob means “he who takes by the heel or supplants”. The Lord predicted that the older (Esau) would serve the younger (Jacob).

Years later, Jacob took advantage of Esau’s hunger by giving him stew and bread for his birthright. What kind of a brother would take advantage of his brother like that? We. begin to wonder why God would choose to make the seed line of the Messiah through a man like Jacob. Hebrews 12:16 may answer that as the writer calls Esau an “immoral and ungodly” man for selling his birthright. Jacob had a lot of flaws, but apparently Esau had no appreciation for the spiritual, which would make it impossible for God to use him in His plans. We wonder even more when later, as an aging Isaiah’s eyes are too dim to see, he steals Esau’s blessing that Isaiah was trying to give Esau. With Rebekah’s help, he lied 3 times to his father, telling Isaiah that he was Esau, not Jacob, and deceived his father into giving him Esau’s blessing. What kind of a man would lie to his father like that and steal from his brother?

So Rebekah sends Jacob to Haran to her brother Laban, supposedly to get a godly wife (Esau had married Hittite women) but really to get him far away from Esau who was going to kill him as soon as Isaiah died. On Jacob’s first night away from his mom, he sees the vision of that ladder to heaven, wakes up and said, “Surely this is the house of God”. He named it Bethel, which means “house of God”. God assured him that He would be with him on his journey, and Jacob promised to give a tenth to God if He did bless him! I guess Jacob thinks he can make a deal with God and get what he wants! But God patiently works with Jacob. I think I know what it’s like to be away from a sheltered home life for the first time. When we got on the plane to go do mission work in Trinidad, West Indies, I remember feeling all alone, just me and my wife, without all the security my mom and dad had provided me. But it was important for Jacob, and me, to find my own faith with God instead of relying on my parents’ faith and protection.

So Jacob spends the next 20 years with Laban: the first 14 working to get his two wives, Rachel and Leah, and then the next 6 working for Laban to accumulate a lot of animal wealth. Laban was Jacob’s equal at trying to outsmart Jacob and take advantage of him, but God always thwarted Laban’s plans (he changed Jacob’s wages 10 times) and blessed Jacob at Laban’s expense. Upon leaving from Laban, Jacob acknowledged that it was God who had blessed him and thwarted Laban, and not Jacob’s own cunning (Gen 31:6-10). Perhaps Jacob is learning to trust in God instead of his own cunning? Have you thought your cunning was making you successful only to realize that it was really God blessing you? It seems like I have always relied more on my own cunning and intellect to get what I wanted and needed, and have been fairly successful at it, only to realize later it was God who made me successful.

If you want to read an inspiring story, read about George Mueller. He ended up establishing 5 orphan homes in late 19th century Bristol at a time when orphans were sent to the. workhouse and treated terribly. But the thing I admire is his philosophy on raising money for the homes. He would take no salary and always relied on God to provide what they needed on a daily basis. He would simply pray and then wait on God to provide. We in America are so blessed with material things and money that it is hard to really just rely on God for our daily bread. We typically have all kind of government and private funds to provide for our futures.

On the way back from Haran (and Laban), Jacob was told that Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men. I know what I would have thought! That Esau was coming to take vengeance on Jacob for what Jacob had done to him. After all, the last he had heard from Esau was 20 years earlier when he was told that Esau was going to kill him. Jacob is not doubt terrified (Genesis 32:7). It is interesting that God’s angels meet Jacob on the way. Jacob called the place, Mahanaim (God’s camp). I assume that was a message from God that He would protect Jacob when he met Esau. Jacob, as we would expect, started his own tactical plan to keep Esau from killing him. He sent droves of animals as bribes and made escape plans. He did pray for protection, so that’s a good step of faith. He sent the animals and his family across the river, but he stayed alone on the other side (was this a cowardly act to preserve his own life if his bribes failed to appease Esau?). A man wrestled with him all night, but then in the morning touched the socket of Jacob’s thigh, dislocating it. Well the man could have done that in the first minute of the wrestling match, or even worst (if he could do that, he could do anything to Jacob). An interesting observation about Jacob’s character appears here. I would have simply backed off wrestling with this man and hoped that he would go away. Jacob, however, realized this man was God Himself in the form of a man. Jacob then demand that the God-man bless him or he would not let him go! As if he could keep the man from getting away? He named the place Peniel (“face of God”). The man changed Jacob’s name to Israel (he who strives with God). Perhaps this is another growth step in Jacob’s faith. He sees a great need to obtain God’s blessings. Again, I can relate to Jacob. I am ashamed to say that much of my life has been striving with God, relying on my own ability, instead of just complete trust in God. At least Jacob seems to be learning spiritual lessons.

The next day, Esau greets him with a hug and kisses, and they both weep. Esau had no desire for vengeance. He doesn’t even mention what Jacob had done to him. Jacob said, “I see your face as one sees the face of God” (33:10). Esau’s forgiveness gave him peace from his past deeds, just as if God had met him, hugged him, and kissed him. That statement has meant a lot to me. One time I was about to have a nervous breakdown worrying about something. I couldn’t sleep and would wake up in panic attacks. Finally, someone took me to a friend whose advice we trusted. I told our friend my worries, and He looked at me and said, “You don’t have a thing to worry about, and if something bad comes out of this, I will help you”. I slept for the first time that night. Seeing that friend’s face was like seeing the face of God and getting peace of mind. But why couldn’t I have just talked to God 2 months earlier and found that same peace? Probably because my faith in God wasn’t what it should be. I was too busy worrying, planning on what I would do if things went bad, coming up with plans B,C, and D, instead of just trusting in God to provide and protect. I have other things from the past that continue to haunt me, and future possibilities that scare me. I am making plans A,B,and C. I hope I can just trust God and be at peace. Even if we have, like Jacob, made mistakes in the past, God and others hopefully will forgive us and restore relationships with us that have been broken.

So Jacob arrives at Shechem and he builds an altar (33:20) and calls it El-Elohe-Israel (God , the God of Israel). That’s quite a change for Jacob. Abraham built altars everywhere he went, it seems. This is Jacob’s first altar that he ever built to God in worship. But then his daughter Dinah is raped by Shechem, a Hivite. Jacob is apparently afraid to confront the Shechemites for fear it would cause all his enemies in Canaan to unite and attack him (34:30-31), so he does nothing. Instead, Simeon and Levi trick the Shechemites into being circumcised and then come in and kill all of them. Jacob rebukes them for doing that. He later withholds blessings for them for what they did. Jacob might be growing spiritually along the way, but his is still controlled by his fears. I can so relate to that as I get older, being controlled in my thinking and actions by my fears. Can I do what is right without being afraid of how others will react? If I trust in God, I can.

You probably know a lot of the rest of the story. His favorite wife Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin. His favoritism toward Joseph and Benjamin causes problems in his family and Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery in Egypt. (Read my blog on “Joseph’s Epiphany” here to summarize how Jacob’s family came to move to Egypt). But let’s fast forward to Jacob’s last days in Egypt. When Jacob met Pharoah, he said, “The days of my sojourning have been few and unpleasant” (47:9). He bemoaned that he had only lived 130 years, which was less than Abraham’s 175 years. But what a sad commentary on your whole life: “few and unpleasant”. His striving with God all his life had robbed him of the joy he could have had. Compare that with Abraham who died “satisfied with life” (25:8). But to Jacob’s credit, when blessing Joseph’s two sons, he said “The God of Abraham and Isaac has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the angel who redeemed me from all evil” (48:15). Apparently in his last days he looked back and acknowledged that it was God shepherding him all along, providing and protecting him. Kinda like the story of the man looking at the footprints in the sand? The two sets of prints became only one set as they went along, and God told the man that was because God started carrying him! Or something like that! Jacob finally maybe finds peace and realizes it has been God carrying him all his life. I hope I can find that in my last days.

His very last days also reveal a growth in Jacob’s faith as he approached his death (47:29-31). He made Joseph swear that he would bury him in the Promised Land and not in Egypt. He then “bowed in worship at he head of the bed”. Hebrews 11:21 “as he was dying, he blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff”. Genesis 49:33 “he drew his feet into the bed and breathed his last”. So in the end he has faith in the promises God made to him, to Abraham and to Isaac. He has faith that God will eventually lead his descendants out of Egypt to the promised land where they can bury him in the cave where his ancestors are buried. So maybe this helps us understand why God chose Jacob to be in the seed line. God knew Jacob’s weaknesses but also knew that, in the end, Jacob would appreciate God’s promises and that God could use him to fulfill those promises. That gives me hope. In spite of my weaknesses and striving with God, God can use me to do some good things for Him. He can use me to save some souls before I die, which is God’s ultimately plan. I hope one day I can look back at my life, even if I didn’t have the joy I should have had, and worship at the top of my bed, anticipating God fulfilling the promise of eternal life that he has for me. I hope this story will bless you as it has me.


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