The first time God appeared to Jacob, Jacob was alone, in the wilderness and traveling. Jacob’s second encounter with God follows the pattern of the first: in the wilderness, while traveling, and again, on his own.
The script is similar, but the context is completely different. In the former story, Jacob was fleeing from his brother Esau. In the latter, he is returning to meet Esau.
Cowardice plays a major role in each story. Jacob ran from his brother because he stole Esau’s blessing by deceiving their aged father Isaac.
Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”
Fear helps us to understand why Jacob left his father’s house with nothing but the clothes on his back and the staff in his hand.
Cowardice also shows up in Jacob’s journey home. As his caravan neared Esau’s territory, he instructed his family and his servants to divide into two groups. He reasoned, “If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape.”
Fear is not faithless as long as it reminds us to turn to God. In his fear Jacob turned to God and prayed:
“O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, Lord, you who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two camps. Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.’”
Remembering Esau’s anger, Jacob prepared a gift large enough to bury the deepest animosity for his brother.
…he selected a gift for his brother Esau: two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys.
Between the gifts and the prayers, surely Jacob would be spared.
After Jacob arranged his groups, designated his gifts, and said his prayers, he took his family across the river named Jabbok. When they were safely encamped, he returned to the far side of the river. Perhaps he needed to find his strength before meeting Esau. Maybe he wanted to escape the excitement of the camp in order to process his thoughts. For any number of reasons, Jacob chose to remain alone.
Traveling, Alone, in the Wilderness: Common elements in two stories that occur 20 years apart.
For 20 years, God proved himself faithful to Jacob. He protected Jacob, provided for him, increased his family, and made him prosperous. Jacob was not the skeptic he was after his last meeting with God.
His faith in God matured to the point where God could meet with him in a new way.
So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.
To read this as a contest is an unimaginative reading of the text. The mysterious man did not come to conquer Jacob, he came to commune with him. Jacob could not prevail against this opponent and his opponent had the ability to gain the upper hand at any moment.
So what was the purpose of this wrestling match?
Jacob was in need of a new identity.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
Jacob’s victory was in his identification with God. For the past 20 years, he learned that God is faithful. During a night-long bought of wrestling, he learned that God is personal. And as a prize for striving with God, Jacob received a new name.
As a bonus, Jacob also left the wrestling match with a permanent limp. As morning approached the man wrenched Jacob’s hip, causing damage he would never recover from. Jacob received this injury without complaint and endured it for the rest of his days without commenting on it.
Even though Jacob was injured, the wrestling match made him stronger. His sleep was stolen, but he was prepared to meet with his brother. Jacob limped away from the scene of the bout, but his walk was proof of his relationship with God.
At some point, it dawned on Jacob that he was in the presence of God and not a man.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
So I raise the question I left you with in my last post…How does God respond to our skepticism and faithlessness?
God remains true to his word, true to his nature, and true to his people.
God does not change. He is good. He is love. He is holy.
And when we are ready, God comes to us and wrestles with us. He strengthens us. He changes our name and sends us walking forward in a new way.
Jacob was not at the end of his journey. He had miles to go. The reason Jacob was traveling in the first place was because God called him to return to Bethel. After 20 years of learning and growing, it was time to revisit the place where God first spoke to him. What can we learn from Jacob’s return to Bethel…
…come back and find out in the next post.