Wrestling With God
May 10, 2015
Wrestling with God
May 10th, 2015
Last week I introduced you to a set of twin brothers. If you remember, the first-born was named Esau by his parents, a name which means Hairy, since he was covered in hair like a monkey when he was born. Esau also had a nickname - Edom, which is the Hebrew word for Red, since he had a reddish complexion. The second-born, was called Jacob, a name which literally means, “he who grasp the heal,” an idiomatic expression for someone who is a deceiver.
So you have these two brothers, Hairy and Sneaky. And, if you remember, Sneaky got the better of Hairy. Those of you who were here may remember that Jacob insisted that his famished brother swear an oath to transfer the rights of the first-born to himself before he would give him any food.
Subsequently, with the help of the boy’s mother, Rebecca, Jacob was also able to trick their near-blind father, Isaac, into bestowing Esau’s blessing on him. The mother had made a dish of goat that tasted like a dish of game, which was Isaac’s favourite, Jacob wore his brothers clothes and covered his hands, arms and neck with goats hair so that he felt like Esau. Jacob lied unashamed about his identity.
Subsequently, Jacob, the deceiver, had to run for his life because Esau planned to kill him. And Jacob was away for a long time … 20 years to be exact.
He went to his uncle Laban, the brother of his mother, an Aramean who lived on the East side of the Euphrates River, in the city of Haran – where years previously, Jacob’s grandparents, Abraham and his wife Sarah had lived with Abraham’s father and nephew until Abraham’s father’s death, and from where Abraham was told by God to journey to Canaan.
Jacob feel in love with his cousin Rachel, the younger daughter of his uncle Laban’s and agreed to work for him for 7 years for free in order to be able to marry her.
But the deceiver was himself deceived because Laban, on the wedding night, had his older daughter, Leah, the one who wasn’t so beautiful and had weak eyes, in the wedding tent. The next morning, to Jacob’s surprise, “behold it was Leah!” So Laban told Jacob that he could marry Rachel as well, but afterward he would have to work for another 7 years for free.
That was a dirty trick, but Jacob got his revenge. After the 14 years he made a deal with Laban that he would be paid with spotted goats and black lambs, and then went to some shinanigans to make sure that the good yews would bear black lambs and the good goats would bear spotted kids.
In this way he made his own herds increase at the expense of Laban’s herds. As a result, he became extremely rich, until Laban and his sons were not happy with him. So he outlived his welcome at Laban’s.
At the same time God told Jacob (not told how) that he was to return to Canaan, in essence, to rejoin his father and the rest of the family. The passage we are looking at this morning is one where Jacob’s in about to cross the Jordan to return to the land of Canaan.
We find Jacob, his family and his herds at the south shore of the Jabbok River, the second largest tributary to the Jordan River, merging 40 km almost due east from Shechem, the area where Isaac still lived.
Esau, who had already moved south, below the Dead Sea, to Edom, had heard that his brother Jacob was returning to Canaan. During Jacob’s absence, he too had become a rich and powerful man, and he went to meet Jacob with what would have been a considerable fighting force – 400 men – a small army for that time.
When Jacob heard about it, he had no way of knowing if his brother Esau was coming to welcome him or to kill him and his family. He feared the worse. We are told that Jacob was scared spit-less.
In response to the news of Esau’s arrival, he did a number of things. First, he divided the people and livestock into two camps. He thought, that if Esau found and wiped out one camp, he may not be aware of the second camp and the people there would survive and half of Jacob’s wealth, his livestock and possessions would not be lost.
Second, he prayed one of those prayers of desperation:
“God, I’m not worthy of all the ways that you have shown mercy and faithfulness you have shown me. You told me to return to Canaan [Gen 31:3] and promised to bless me in the land and make me into a nation [Gen 28:13-15]. If that’s going to come true, please rescue me from Esau who, I am afraid is coming to kill me, my wives, my kids and all others.” [Gen 32:10-13]
This is the kind of prayer that reflects a deep sense of desperation. We sometimes pray these kind of prayers when someone we love faces death, when our job is terminated and we don’t know how to pay our bills, when our spouse threatens to leave, when the bottom drops out of our lives. We come to God in tears, often promising our undying devotion, that we’ll never ask for anything again in our whole lives, or we promise to change, if God would only rescue us this one time.
Third, Jacob decides to send Esau gifts to placate him. And he thought it would be most effective if he did so in waves:
First: a herd of 200 female and 20 male goats
Second: a herd of 200 sheep and 20 rams
Third: a herd of 30 female camels and their young
Fourth: a herd of 40 cows and 10 bulls
Fifth: a herd of 20 female donkeys and 10 male
Each one of those herds was a considerable fortune. In combination, they are truly a king’s ransom. Each time that a herd arrived at Esau’s, he was to be told that this was a gift from his slave Jacob.
It is in the evening of that day when our passage begins:
23 That night Jacob got up, took his two wives, two slave-concubines, eleven sons, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok River. 24 He took them and let them cross the river. Then he sent everything else that belonged to him across as well.
Jacob was approaching the Jabbok River from the north, while Esau was coming from the south. Why Jacob decided to ford the river to the side Esau was coming from is a bit of a mystery since he could have crossed the Jordan north of the Jabbok as well.
Perhaps there was no place shallow enough for humans and animals to get across without the aid of a bridge.
Neither do we know why Jacob waited until it was dark to send across his family, remaining herds and possessions. It would have been much easier during daylight hours. Perhaps he simply wasn’t thinking very straight, or decided to do this in the middle of the night.
These are the wives, concubines and sons that Jacob had cross.
Jacob’s Wives and Concubines
Leah Rachel Bildah Zilpah
1. Reuben 11. Joseph
- Manasseh 5. Dan 7. Gad
2. Simeon [12. Benjamin] 6. Naphtali 8. Asher
Rachel - had only 1 son at this point, Joseph. Benjamin has not been born yet.
As Rachel was Jacob’s favourite wife, the one he was deeply in love with, so Joseph, was his favourite son
Bilhah was a former slave-girl of Rachel’s who she had given to Jacob as a concubine in order for Bilhah to bear Jacob the children she could not.
The same is true of Zilpah. She had been a former slave-girl of Leah’s, who also had given her to Jacob as a concubine.
The descendants of Levi ended up being the priestly tribe which did not receive their own section of land in Canaan. When the land was divided into 12, the 2 clans that descended from Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, each received a share. The whole northern portion of Canaan became known as Ephraim during the time of the prophets, as the whole southern section became known as Judah.
[In this sense, Joseph would receive the double portion even though he was the 11th son.]
Everyone crossed at a ford of the Jabbok River. This is where the river widens and therefore becomes shallow enough for humans and animals to cross without the need for a bridge.
While Jacob sent over his family and his flocks and his possessions across the Jabbok, he himself did not cross and remained on the north side of the river to stay the night. Again, we have no idea what might have motivated him to do so.
25 And Jacob was left by himself, and a man struggled with him until dawn broke. 26 Since the man realized he could not win, he touched Jacob’s hip socket as he was struggling with Jacob, and Jacob’s hip was dislocated. 27 The man said, “Let me go, for dawn has broken.” Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 28 The man asked Jacob, “What is your name?” and he replied, “Jacob.” 29 The man said, “You will no longer be called Jacob, but Isra’el, for you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”
In the whole of the Bible, this is one of the weirdest encounter between – as we will find out – God and a human being. By the way, it isn’t unusual that God appeared in human form. What is unusual is that God initiated a physical wrestling match, and, what seems even more unusual, that he couldn’t beat Jacob, and had to ask to be released.
So why did God initiate this encounter and what was he hoping to achieve with it? Did God know that this was Jacob’s only chance to turn from a deceiver to the founder of a nation? Was it Jacob’s only chance to leave the past behind and start as a changed man, as signified by his name-change?
Sneaky Jacob saw another chance to turn things in his own favour, to get something for himself, even though he must have been exhausted by morning. He wants a blessing before he’ll release the man. Instead the man asks his name.
Who are you?
And Jacob is honest, “I am the one who deceives”.
No, no, says God. That is in your past. You will no longer be the deceiver. Instead you will be the one who struggles with or for God.
These verses really deal with the momentous transformation of Jacob into Isra’el, a change of identity, personality, way of life, and destiny. The deceiver is the one that Esau wanted to kill. The deceiver is the one that Laban was angry with. That person is no more.
In any case, here we already get a hint at the identity of the man, “you have struggled with God.” Jacob had struggled with men, particularly his uncle Laban, but this wrestling match is different.
Now it’s Jacob’s turn to ask for the identity of the man fighting with him.
30 So Jacob asked, “Please tell me your name.” The man replied, “Why do you ask my name?”, and blessed him there. 31 So Jacob named that place Penu’el [= face of God] because (he said to himself), “I have seen God face to face and yet my life was spared.” 32 The sun had already risen when he travelled on from Penu’el, but he was limping.
While Jacob answered the question directly, the man answered with another question, which Jacob understood to be an indirect answer to his identity. “Why do you ask my name?”, in other words, “You should not have to ask who I am, because who else but God would rename you ‘contender for God’?” And then the man blesses Jacob as Jacob had demanded, even though we don’t know the exact nature of that blessing.
God’s identity is confirmed in how Jacob names the place – Penu’el means literally “face of God” because Jacob had seen God face to face in the form of the human he had wrestled.
Now this is an interesting point. Notice that generations into the future Moses was said to have spoken with God face to face as well.
YHWH would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend. … Moses said, “Let me see your glory.” YHWH answered, … “You cannot see my face because no one can see my face and live.” Exodus 33:11,18,20
There are two points here. On the one hand, no one can see God as he truly is, in his actual glorified state and live.
For those of you who watched “The Raiders of the Lost Ark,” maybe you remember the scene when the bad guys opened up the Ark of the Covenant and died horrible deaths. Somewhat inaccurate, in that God’s glory, his actual being, was not in the Ark ... but this was Spielberg’s take on what it would be like to see God’s glory, to even get a glimpse of God in his spiritual state.
The fact that humans cannot see God as he is and live is reiterated by some NT authors.
The gospel writer John makes that point that …
No one has seen God (except for the pre-incarnate Jesus) …. John 1:18
Paul noted the very same thing in his letter to Timothy
God, the blessed and only ruler, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see – to him be honour and might forever. 1 Timothy 6:15-16
And yet, it is quite possible to see God face to face either in a vision or dream (i.e., Isaiah, Daniel).
Also, God can be seen face to face when he speaks from flames, as he did with Moses, both in the form of a burning bush and in the form of a pillar of fire – or when he speaks out of the pillar of smoke.
Lastly, God can be seen face to face when he enters the physical dimension as a man, as he did with Jacob … or, when he came millennia later as Jesus. And in this form, God seems to place real physical limitations upon himself, so that the man who wrestled with Jacob didn’t have the physical strength to beat Jacob, and Jesus similarly got tired, hungry and thirsty.
And so Jacob, in a sense, was the victor of this wrestling match. However, he was left with a limp, a reminder of his struggle with God.
As it turns out, Esau had come with his little army to welcome Jacob, not to kill him. When the two brother’s met they embraced. And even though Esau told his brother that he really didn’t need Jacob’s generous gifts, nevertheless, Jacob insisted that Esau keep his gifts and both brothers return to their father Isaac.
For us, reading the story today, there seems to be no correlation between Jacob’s experience and ours. It is unlikely that we will ever have a physical wrestling match with God in human form. In this way, it is hard to find a direct application for us.
However, most of us can relate when we are in a desperate situation and we cry out to God, as Jacob did. We may even be up all night, struggling to find God’s blessing, God’s protection, God’s help, in the desperate situation we find ourselves.
And if we are truly seeking him, and we don’t give up immediately because we think that God doesn’t care or won’t help us, we can in fact find God doing something – sometimes about the situation we are facing, but more often, something about us, about how we think about a situation, or how we act or react to the situation – in fact, our identity can change and that changes everything else.
My identity before I met God in and through Christ, was someone who always thought of himself as incompetent and therefore as unloved. However, my identity became “a beloved child of God.” It made a massive difference.
When we pray for the Spirit’s help … it means falling down at God’s feet in recognition of our own limitations. It is there that we meet God. And when we meet God, when we are touched by God, even in a very limited sense, we should be reminded of just how different we are: mortal beings who have encountered the immortal creator God.
I think that this story is also a reminder that we cannot think of God simply as human – possibly as a kindly but somewhat slow and indulgent grandfather in the sky. Someone from who we can hide our true feelings and thoughts, hoodwinking him into patting us on the head and blessing us. If this is how God is, then he is someone we do not have to fear, who doesn’t punish anyone, who is not very concerned with how we conduct ourselves.
If we cannot see the sun, we’ll be impressed with a street light. Put another way, if we do not see the greatness of God, then all the things that money can buy become very exciting. We’ll fall in love with the world of shadows.
We often speak of God’s love … but maybe we should equally think about God’s terrible majesty and glory, before which we cannot hope to exist. Not at all a comfortable thought, a comfortable Creator, a sissy God.
We sometimes forget that God does not exist for us and it is not his duty to bless us. Neither do we exist simply for our own sake. We were created to connect with and live our lives for God. Yes, we were created to become objects of God’s love, but also to be those who honour the Creator with their lives.
Perhaps the greatest challenge we face today, unlike Jacob and Esau, is that we simply don’t think about God at all. We no longer recognize creation, including ourselves and other human beings, as manifestations of God’s glory. Self or something else has become the focus of our lives.
And so we have become a prayer-less people. We no longer know what it means to truly seek after God, to call out to him with our whole hearts.
We may go to church and say grace at the dinner table, and the odd time we pray a prayer like that of Jacob, but otherwise we don’t speak to him. We go through our lives and never give him a thought, never communicate with him. And we are spiritually dry as a result.
I wonder if that can change? If we can be those who constantly speak with God. Who spend time alone and with others, really praying.
I wonder if we can be those who have a single eye for the glory of God. To have a vision that God is all. To put his glory on display in our lives.
Yes, our vision of God and his work can blur from time to time. Yes, we can be distracted, deceived or tempted into seeking other things more than we seek after Him. But despite all these things, we can become those who put our attention on him consistently through our days and weeks and months and years.
Remember the Lord’s Prayer:
Our father in heaven
Your name be held holy
Your kingdom, your rule, come
Your will be done – on earth, in my life, as it is in heaven.
The beginning of this prayer is something that we should ever be aware of … the fact that God is our heavenly father and we are his children. But the second is really the center of the prayer … that, at the core of our being we need to honour him as holy, as completely other, as utterly glorious. And as a result we surrender to his rule and his will for our lives
HAVE I ENCOUNTERED GOD AND HAD MY IDENTITY CHANGED?
IF NOT, WHY COULD THAT BE?