We continue our series on the Genesis genealogy of Jesus this week with one of the more interesting, entertaining, and compelling stories of the Old Testament. We’ve seen the sin of Adam and Eve, the faithfulness of Noah, the covenant promise to Abraham, and the promised child Isaac. We come now to Jacob.
Jacob’s story opens with the episode we read earlier about him and his brother Esau. Even though they were twins, Esau was the firstborn and by rights would receive the full inheritance of their father Isaac. Esau is a hunter and Jacob more of a farmer. Esau is also more impulsive, strong, a “man’s man.” Jacob knew his older brother’s weakness and exploited it—extorting the birthright from Esau in exchange for some stew. When it came time for Isaac to deliver the blessing to his oldest son, Jacob and his mother, Rebekah, conspired to seal the deal by having Jacob pretend to be the hairier Esau in front of their blind father. Esau comes in from hunting to get his blessing, but discovers that Jacob has cheated him out of it. The hunter resolves to kill Jacob after their father passes away.
So, Jacob runs for his life. He goes back to the ancestral home in Paddam-Aram to live with his uncle Laban, and on the way he has a dream about a stairway to heaven with angels ascending and descending (Genesis 28). Dreams will play a big part in the rest of Genesis as the ancients believed that God communicated through dreams (and still does). In Jacob’s dream, God repeats to him the promise of Abraham—the promise of land and descendants—the promise that Jacob now carries. It is curious, isn’t it, that God would offer such an amazing vision to one who already has a bad reputation!
Jacob goes back to his family’s ancestral home and there meets Rachel who he wants to make his wife. Rachel is Jacob’s cousin on his mother’s side—the daughter of his uncle Laban, who’s a bit of a schemer himself. Laban agrees to the marriage but only if Jacob will work for him for seven years. Jacob does so, and finally has his first night with his beloved—only to wake up in the morning and discover that he hadn’t slept with Rachel but with her older sister, Leah (how this happened, well, it has something to do with veils and heavy drinking). Jacob, the deceiver, had been deceived. He confronts Laban, who agrees to finally give him Rachel, but only if he’ll promise to work another seven years for her.
Jacob now has two wives who are sisters and this works out badly. Leah, who is “unloved,” has seven children by Jacob—Rachel has none. She is barren, like Rebekah and Sarah before her. She blames Jacob (“Give me children or I’ll die!”) and enters into a contest with Leah by having her servant girl sleep with Jacob to produce children for her. She eventually does bear a child, Joseph, who we’ll talk about next week.
That’s just a taste of the story…I’d encourage you to read it for yourself. There’s no soap opera that can compare with this! Hard to imagine what the film adaptation would look like. There is an interesting novel about all this, though. Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent” is a fascinating biblical fiction that puts a different spin on the story. I’d recommend it as a good read, though it takes a lot of license with the biblical text.
Eventually, Jacob is so good at tending the flocks that becomes very prosperous in comparison to his uncle, and God calls Jacob to go back home to Canaan and the land of his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham. In returning, Jacob knows that he will have to confront his brother Esau—the one whom he had wronged so terribly. So afraid is Jacob that he sends his whole family ahead of him, along with a whole caravan of gifts, to try and “soften up” his older brother (Honey, you go talk to him first, ‘kay?)
Now, here in the middle of the night by the ford of the Jabbok River, Jacob instantly finds himself in a wrestling match. The text calls the unexpected opponent a “man,” but when the nocturnal brawl ended, Jacob said he had “seen God face to face.” Whomever Jacob struggled with, Jacob thought he’d gone 15 rounds with God.
Certainly in a contest between a mortal and an immortal, God is the heavyweight favorite. But in this night-long struggle, we find no indication that God could wipe up the ground with Jacob at any given moment. Rather, God seems to limit his power so that the fight is a fair one, and Jacob holds his own. He isn’t whipping the celestial combatant, but he’s not embarrassing himself either.
As dawn breaks, this mysterious adversary knocks Jacob’s hip out of joint and insists that Jacob let him go. But Jacob refuses — unless this God-man will bless him. Jacob needs the assurance that he is the one to carry the promise because when he crosses that river the next day he could be facing certain death.
But rather than simply bless Jacob, the antagonist gives Jacob a new name, Israel, “the one who strives with God.”
Notice what the name implies. It’s the name for a whole nation—a people who would wrestle with God and with itself over the whole issue of covenant. From Jacob onward, Israel would engage in a constant battle against the desire to be like everyone else. They would struggle, suffer, wrestle, even limp about in their efforts to follow God’s leading. But God wouldn’t let them go, even as Jacob wouldn’t let God leave without blessing him.
Having received his own new name, Jacob asks his opponent for his name. This was no small request. Jacob wants to understand the mystery of heaven and earth. You may recall that God’s “name” was so holy that no one in ancient Israel would dare speak it (hence the commandment, “Do not take the Lord’s name in vain”). There was also a sense that if you knew a deity’s name, you could somehow manipulate that deity (like an incantation). But the God of Israel will not be so manipulated.
So the stranger will not give up that name. The opponent blesses Jacob, but will not give Jacob all that Jacob seeks. Some things have changed, but others will remain as unsettled as they were before the match began.
As the sun comes up, the stranger disappears, and Jacob limps away with less than he sought from the all-night battle. He survived seeing God face to face, and received a blessing, but he did not get God’s name.
Still, Jacob does not head for the locker room to sulk. Jacob is sore — literally — but not a sore loser, for he has received more than he ever expected. He is no longer merely Jacob, the deceiver; he is now Israel, the one who strives with God.
While on a literal level this whole story is strange to us, it is not that difficult to relate to when we plug in our own experiences. How many of us have had a sleepless night struggling with our conscience or trying to justify ourselves for some hurt we inflicted? How many of us have suspected God was calling us to something we weren’t keen on and found sleep elusive while we tried to rationalize the whole business away? And how many of us have sought God’s blessing, and been given it, but left without a clear sense of what to do next?
That leaves us with an interesting theme – God the Attacker. Even the disquieting picture of God as the attacker isn’t that hard to comprehend. Haven’t we sometimes experienced God as the one who needles us to change, who provokes us to try harder, who bullies his way through our defenses to demand our commitment, who hounds us to surrender to him? This is no namby-pamby God who sits quietly on the sidelines of life waiting for us to notice him. When it suits his purposes, God is an in-our-face figure who confronts us through our conscience, through other people, through Scripture, through worship, through gut-wrenching situations or through other means to pressure us to deal with him. In those times, it is not that we cannot find God; it’s that we cannot get him off our back.
It’s an interesting irony of scripture that God doesn’t just attack those who are coming against him. In many cases, the people whom God “attacks” are not enemies of God. Rather they are people who were either actively attempting to do God’s will or who are at least expected to play a crucial role in passing on the divine covenant.
But the fact that God takes action against those who are obediently loyal to him suggests that there is a tough-love component to God’s compassion. Perhaps one aspect of God’s love is like that of a parent who puts obstacles in the way of an obedient child to make the child learn the hard but necessary lessons that enable movement toward maturity. Or, as the writer of Proverbs puts it, “for the Lord reproves the one he loves” (Proverbs 3:12).
A similar dynamic must have been going on during Vince Lombardi’s reign with the Green Bay Packers. Sports writers noted that one particular player seemed most often the object of Lombardi’s anger. A Green Bay pastor had a team member in his congregation and asked him if the sports writers were right. “Definitely,” said the player-parishioner. “He’s Coach Lombardi’s favorite.”
We have to remember, too, that God’s own son was not immune from wrestling with God. Jesus wrestled with his call and wrestled with those who would oppose his message of grace. Jesus had, in fact, taken on the role of Israel in his own person and showed the way out the other side—what it means to triumph, even over the grave.
Jacob’s glory in this dusk-to-dawn duel is not that he went looking for trouble, but rather that when it found him, when he was faced with the most formidable of foes possible, he stayed with the struggle until he received God’s blessing.
And that’s where our glory comes in, too. When God assails us with guilt or doubt or menaces our comfort with an unwanted challenge, we always have the option to deny the reality of the experience, to attribute it to “crazy thoughts” or an over active imagination. Better than denial, however, is to go on the mat with God and stay in the struggle until we have wrung from the Divine Adversary/Lover the blessing he wanted us to have all along.
The fourth-century church father St. Augustine gives us one flavor of that experience when he tells of the brutality of God’s call. Augustine says that God attacked him through his senses:
You called and shouted and burst my deafness. You flashed, shone, scattered my blindness. You breathed odors, and I drew in breath and panted for you. I tasted, and hungered and thirsted. You touched me and I burned for your peace.
For another flavor, consider how one 21st-century man describes his call into the ministry. He had been feeling the quiet tug of God for quite some time, but he wasn’t interested. Then, he says, “God started to shout at me.” It seemed that he could hardly get through a day without something in his usual routine suddenly taking on new confrontational meaning — and what had been a gentle “Please respond” became a provocative “Well, what are you going to do about this?” The man says that when he finally yielded, he was blessed with great peace and joy.
We might say that differently. Some might discuss this in terms of perspective. When we encounter God, we undergo a perspective change, an attitude adjustment. Jacob could’ve said, “Well, I got whupped.” Or he could say, “Hey, I got a new name.”
It’s clear from the text, too, that Jacob/Israel had learned from his mistakes. He came clean and threw himself at the mercy of his brother Esau…fully expecting to be rejected at best or killed at worst. Instead, when Esau sees his brother coming, the older brother “ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept together” (Genesis 33:4). The struggle had a pay-off. From pain often comes reconciliation—with God and with each other.
God is in the business of perspective change. We encounter God and we’re a different person, with a different name. We might have asked for this, but we got that. We might not have gained what we wanted, but we got what God wanted for us.
We might be sore losers in all of this. No struggle is pleasant. Our pride may be wounded, our bodies may be tired, our minds may be abuzz with new possibilities.
But when we stay with the struggle, we can come out the other side, like Jacob, with a new name — “one who strives with God.”
A lot of people expect faith to yield easy answers…to be a panacea against problems. The truth is that following God is often more like a wrestling match than a walk in the park. If you’re going to follow, expect there to be some measure of struggle.
And if you’re struggling now, know that there’s a purpose to that wrestling. Jacob shows us that often it’s the only way we can truly experience the blessings God has in store for us.
See, if you wrestle with God…there’s no such thing as a sore loser!
(Excerpts gleaned from Homiletics, “Sore Losers” July 31, 2005)