When last we saw Jacob, he had finally won his second wife from his duplicitous uncle, Laban. In the ensuing years, Jacob has continued to work for his uncle, becoming a wealthy man because of God’s blessing on his efforts. After a total of 20 years working for Laban, Jacob is finally released from virtual bondage, when God tells him to return to his home territory (Genesis 31:3, 13). The man who had fled alone and emptyhanded from his brother’s understandably murderous anger will now return a wealthy man, married with children. But he must still deal with his angry uncle who has pursued him for 7 days and then that angry brother who looms off in the distance with 400 men.
When we meet Jacob in our text, he is in a place we understand all too well in this troubled summer of 2020—a place of strife between brothers, caused by the mistreatment of one brother by the other and the long simmering rage of the injured brother who has been cheated out of the life to which he was entitled. Esau is justifiably furious and Jacob is rightly terrified at the potential retribution from the brother he has wronged. Careful attention to this story will teach us a crucial lesson for these contentious times.
Jacob’s response to the threat of Esau’s rage is typically Jacob—he develops a plan, a cunning way to mollify that anger, thus protecting his family and flocks and, hopefully, preserving his own life. Jacob sends a message to Esau, explaining where he has been and what he has become, and then pleading for mercy. Upon hearing that Esau is approaching with 400 men, a terrified Jacob divides his family and animals into two groups in hopes of saving at least half of what he has in the event of an attack from his aggrieved brother. Then he sends gifts ahead to Esau, so they arrive before Jacob does, spaced out in a way calculated to win Esau’s favor and maybe even to impress him with Jacob’s wealth and power. Finally, Jacob sends his family and the rest of his possessions over the brook Jabbok to serve as a kind of shield between himself and Esau. Having carried out his complex plan, Jacob spends the night all alone by the brook Jabbok.
Oh, there was one more thing that Jacob did as he prepared to meet Esau, the one thing we don’t see him do very much, if at all. In the middle of all his wheeling and dealing, he prayed (Genesis 32:9-12). It’s a nice prayer, a proper prayer, in which he acknowledges the God of his forebearers, confesses his unworthiness, and begs God to save him from Esau, claiming God’s covenant promises to him.
It is not a stretch of the imagination to see our text for today as God’s answer to Jacob’s prayer. Indeed, the success of all Jacob’s careful planning will depend on God’s answer to his prayer. But God’s first response is one none of us would hope for; God attacks Jacob in the dark of night. This is surely one of the most peculiar and important texts in the Bible. “So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.”
I say that this text is peculiar because it is full of strange and mysterious things, beginning with this “man.” Who is this? Some interpreters suggest that it was Esau, but there is no warrant for that in the text. Jacob doesn’t know who it is at first, but as they wrestle on through the night, it begins to dawn on him that this is God. And then God confirms it in verse 28.
But why would God in the form of a man attack this child of the covenant? And if this is God, why didn‘t he pin Jacob to the ground in a moment? Why did the fight last all night long? Well, perhaps this God/man laid aside his almighty power for this encounter, even as a later God/man would do (cf. Phil. 2). Perhaps for the purpose of saving his chosen one, God had to enter into human history and human flesh in order to experience weakness, as he did in Christ.
Well, maybe, but what is this business about God asking Jacob to let him go because daylight is approaching? Is God afraid of the light, like a vampire? Or, is God afraid for Jacob, because of the truth revealed later in Exodus 33:20. “But you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Desiring to spare Jacob’s life, God asks Jacob to let him go.
Jacob will not let go until this “man” blesses him. Somewhere in this wrestling match, Jacob became aware that he needed God’s blessing more than anything else, more than all his plans, more than all of his efforts. Everything depended on the blessing this God/man could give, so Jacob hung on for dear life, even after the man mysteriously touched him and permanently crippled him. In this peculiar detail we get a glimpse of the power of this man who couldn’t defeat Jacob. He could have beaten him in a moment, but for the sake of Jacob’s salvation the wrestling match had to continue. Jacob had to hold on for dear life in order to receive the blessing he needed.
When Jacob fairly demands the blessing, the man responds with a curious question. “What is your name?” It sounds irrelevant, until the man answers, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel because you have struggled with God and with man and have overcome.” Although God doesn’t give “the blessing” until a few moments later, those words are essentially the blessing. Jacob is given a new identity as “the man who struggles with God” (the meaning of Israel), or, better, the man who struggles with the God who struggles with man.
In that new name we see the complexity of the covenant between God and his people. The almighty, sovereign Yahweh reaches down in grace to take an unworthy people by the hand in order to bless them. But they, in turn, must hold on to God’s hand in order to receive that blessing. Salvation is totally by grace, but it is through faith. God could overwhelm, but chooses to enter our darkness in human form, sometimes attacking, sometimes comforting, sometimes convicting, sometimes converting, but always mixing it up with us. The way of salvation is always the way of incarnation. Yes, it is mysterious, sometimes messy, sometimes miserable, but always miraculous.
And it is the only way we sinful, weak humans can deal with the difficulties of our lives. Let me clarify that last sentence. Before Jacob can deal with Esau, he had to deal with God. He could not face the anger of Esau until he had wrestled with God. Without the blessing of God in the flesh, Jacob could not have peace with his angry brother, no matter how carefully he planned. As the New Interpreter’s Bible puts it, “To go through it with God before we go through it with others provides resources of strength and blessing for whatever lies in the wings of life.” To put it in contemporary terms, this text suggests that we cannot solve the contentious issues of our times until we wrestle with God and hold on to God for dear life. For without God’s blessing, the problems of humanity will simply overwhelm us, leaving us angry and terrified.
There are more curiosities in this text that point to the complexities of the covenant and the necessity of incarnation. For example, when God gives Jacob a new name, Jacob responds by asking what the “man’s” name is. Why would he do that? Is Jacob just being polite or engaging in a tit for tat? I don’t think so. Rather, I wonder if he wants to know God’s name so that he can control God. In the ancient world, if you knew a God’s name, you could call on him and demand a blessing.
That’s part of the reasoning behind the Third Commandment about taking God’s name in vain. Don’t use God’s name the way the pagans use the names of their gods—to control and manipulate them. Wouldn’t that be like Jacob—to try to manipulate God. God refuses to tell Jacob his name. Instead he freely blesses him. God is unimaginably gracious, but he is also completely sovereign.
And God remains mysterious. Jacob’s last words are prophetic and a bit presumptuous. He names the place of his wrestling “Peniel” or “Penuel,” explaining, “It is because I have seen God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” Well, not exactly. He didn’t see God’s actual face, because God was disguised as a man and it was too dark to see at all. Indeed, the text points to that in verse 31 when it says, “The sun rose above him as he passed by Penuel.” Before that the sun had not risen; this was all in the dark. That’s why John’s gospel, in its stunning introduction to the Word becoming flesh, says, “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” We know the God who wrestles with us and blesses us through the Son of God who wrestled in our humanity with all the enemies of human existence.
Even as the Son of God Incarnate is still marked by the wounds inflicted in his battle, so every child of God limps wounded through life, marked by God as one who has struggled with God and prevailed by faith. Our limp might not be as obvious as Jacob’s was, but if we’re honest, we’ve all been touched in some painful way by the God who blesses. Our wounds are a mark of victory, a badge of courage, old war wounds that remind us of C.S. Lewis’ famous words about Aslan: “’course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
In the midst of the racial tensions of this summer, the police chief of Grand Rapids spent much time talking with protesters who were angry about racial injustice. All the talk did not satisfy the protesters, until he took a knee in solidarity with them. That was a turning point in dealing with the complex and painful issue of racism in our town. But the ultimate solution to that and other vexing problems facing us today is to take a knee before our sovereign and gracious God. Or maybe it’s better to say that human ills cannot be solved until we all take a knee with the Son of God who knelt in solidarity with sinners.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 2, 2020
Genesis 32:22-31 Commentary