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Jacob’s spiritual crisis
Genesis Chapter 32, verses 1 and 2
Jacob also went on his way, and the angels of God met him. When Jacob saw them, he said, “This is the camp of God!” So he named that place Mahanaim.
Jacob had been enrolled in the Lord’s training school for 20 years. The master teacher had worked persistently and purposefully with his problem student. He patiently sought to purify Jacob’s faith of the impurities that weakened it, impurities like deceitfulness and self-reliance. Although throughout those years of God’s training Jacob had been constantly tempted to revert to his old ways of thinking, the chapter before us offers convincing evidence that God’s training program was successful.
After Laban headed back to his home north of Canaan, Jacob and his large caravan continued their journey south. Now Jacob’s thoughts turned to his reunion with his brother, Esau, a confrontation that promised to be far more
dangerous than the one with Laban had been. Would Esau meet him with love in his heart or with blood in his eyes and a dagger in his hand?
Twenty years earlier, when Jacob had first left home, God had permitted him to see angels in a dream at Bethel. There Jacob had seen angels carrying his prayers to God and returning with God’s help. Now Jacob was returning home, and God again let him see angels, except this time not in a dream. Jacob was wide awake when “the angels of God met him.” Angels are normally invisible; they don’t have flesh and bone and blood. But at this critical juncture in Jacob’s life, God wanted to reassure him that he was not heading into an uncertain future all alone. He therefore let Jacob see two encampments of angels (to his left and his right or ahead of him and behind him). Though unseen, “the angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him and he delivers them” (Psalm Chapter 34, verse 7).
Genesis Chapter 32, verses 3 through 6
Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. He instructed them: “This is what you are to say to my master Esau: ‘Your servant Jacob says, I have been staying with Laban and have remained there till now. I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, menservants and maidservants. Now I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favor in your eyes.’”
When the messengers returned to Jacob, they said, “We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.”
While still in Haran, Jacob must have learned that Esau had moved away from his father’s household and settled in the land of Edom. That was south of the Dead Sea, perhaps a hundred miles from where Jacob was now encamped. Esau had apparently gathered a group of family, friends, and followers who later conquered the inhabitants of Edom and took possession of their land.
Jacob sent messengers to bring this double message to his twin brother: “I, your brother, am coming to meet you” and “I, your servant, humbly request your goodwill.”
Jacob’s reference to his livestock holdings would assure Esau that Jacob’s purpose in returning home was not to file his claim for a double share of his father’s possessions. He didn’t need that, and he didn’t want that.
The messengers brought back no reply from Esau. They did, however, bring Jacob the ominous report that Esau was on his way to meet him with four hundred men. Apparently, then, Esau still bore a grudge.
Genesis Chapter 32, verses 7 through 12
In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well. He thought, “If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape.”
Then Jacob prayed, “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O LORD, 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 groups. 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.’”
When Jacob heard the news his messengers had brought back, he anticipated a hostile confrontation with Esau. He immediately took steps to minimize his losses if the meeting with his brother turned ugly and led to bloodshed. He divided the people who were with him, as well as his livestock, into two groups. If Esau’s men attacked one group, perhaps the other could escape.
And then he had a talk with God. Throughout the last few chapters of Genesis, we have repeatedly observed attitudes and actions of Jacob that we would not want to imitate. Not so here. Jacob’s prayer to God before meeting Esau is a model prayer that can teach us much that will improve our prayer lives.
He first confessed his unworthiness to have God answer his prayer. “I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant.” The word translated “kindness” stresses God’s covenant mercy, the kindness he
shows people not because they deserve it, but because in his covenant God has placed himself under obligation to them. What a far cry this humility is from the attitude Jacob had displayed earlier in life, when his motto seemed to be
“I’m entitled to this, and I’m going to make sure I get it!” When in his prayer Jacob referred to God’s “faithfulness,” he couldn’t help contrasting it with the fickleness he had given God in return. Jacob realized very well that he had no right to come barging into God’s throne room and expect God to hear him out.
A second characteristic of effective prayer that we can learn from Jacob is to admit our inability by ourselves to handle the problems that face us and to declare our total dependence on God. Twenty years earlier Jacob wouldn’t
have been ready to say that. At that time in his life, he might instead have said: “Let’s see, I’ve got to think of a way to outsmart Esau. That shouldn’t be too difficult. I did it once; I ought to be able to do it again.” But not now. Now his prayer was “Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother.”
A third aspect of God-pleasing prayer that we can learn from Jacob is to remind God of his promise. Listen to Jacob’s prayer: “LORD, you promised me: (1) ‘I will surely make you prosper and (2) I will make your descendants like the sand of the sea.’ If Esau comes here tomorrow and puts my household to the sword, your promise would fail. LORD of the covenant, keep your promise!”
What a marvelous prayer! Jacob was not bitter. (“Lord, Esau is an unspiritual fellow, and a mean one at that. Put him in his place.”) There was no feeble attempt to excuse his own sin. (“Lord, I know I probably shouldn’t have lied to my father, but under the circumstances can’t you understand why I did?”) Simply, “Lord, you promised!” Martin Luther said it well: “The only ground on which godly men can stand in times of trouble is God’s word.”
Genesis Chapter 32, verses 13 through 21
He spent the night there, and from what he had with him 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. He put them in the care of his servants, each herd by itself, and said to his servants, “Go ahead of me, and keep some space between the herds.”
He instructed the one in the lead: “When my brother Esau meets you and asks, ‘To whom do you belong, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?’ then you are to say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us.’”
He also instructed the second, the third and all the others who followed the herds: “You are to say the same thing to Esau when you meet him. And be sure to say, ‘Your servant Jacob is coming behind us.’” For he thought, “I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.” So Jacob’s gifts went on ahead of him, but he himself spent the night in the camp.
Jacob was not a fatalist (“What will be will be”). He knew God often uses human means to carry out his good will. Jacob therefore took one more significant action that he hoped God might use to produce a change in Esau’s attitude.
He assembled whatever livestock he could quickly lay his hands on into five herds, one each of goats, sheep, camels (“the Cadillac of the desert”), cows, and donkeys a total of 580 animals. He appointed drivers for each of the herds and directed them to offer the herds, one at a time, to Esau as a gift. The first group of animals to meet Esau would be a herd of 220 goats a very generous gift in itself. Some time later another herd would appear on the scene, and another, and another. Each time, when Esau would ask about the herd, he was to be told, “They’re a gift from your servant Jacob, and he is coming behind us.” If each of the five herds came separately, the size of Jacob’s gift would be more likely to impress Esau. Jacob also hoped that this procedure would delay Esau’s arrival and would allow more time for his anger to cool down.
Genesis Chapter 32, verses 22 through 32
That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”
Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.
Jacob and his caravan had reached the Jabbok, a stream that flows into the Jordan from the east just about midway between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. After leading family and flocks south across the Jabbok under cover of darkness, Jacob himself went back across the stream, apparently to spend some time alone with the Lord in prayer. As he began once again to pour out his heart to God, he suddenly became aware that out of the darkness someone had grabbed hold of him and was wrestling him to the ground. The mysterious struggle continued—for hours—until the first streaks of dawn appeared in the eastern sky.
In commenting on this passage, Martin Luther said, “This text is one of the most obscure in the Old Testament.” Although there are elements of this wrestling match that are difficult to understand and to explain, there are some basic truths that are immediately clear.
Jacob was struggling with God in earnest prayer. This struggle involved a spiritual striving with God for his blessing, but it involved a physical struggle as well. Jacob’s opponent, referred to as “the man,” later identified himself as God.
But why should God appear to one of his children as an opponent, as an enemy fighting against him? Surely not to crush the life out of him. If God had been minded to crush Jacob, the wrestling match would have been over in half a second. In the heat of the struggle, Jacob may have been tempted to think of God as his enemy; in that case God would not have wanted to bless Jacob. But God had promised to bless, and Jacob knew that God cannot lie.
The struggle continued until Jacob’s divine opponent, by merely touching Jacob’s hip, threw the entire hip socket out of joint. Now Jacob couldn’t continue the painful struggle any longer, so he threw his arms around his opponent and held on to him. His opponent said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” He was delighted to hear Jacob answer, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” God didn’t want Jacob (and he doesn’t want us) to be timid with him. He delights to let us win victories over him on the basis of humble, believing prayer. Jacob clung in faith to God and to God’s promise, and he received the blessing he desired.
“What is your name?” the Lord asked him, not because he had forgotten but because he wanted to remind Jacob that he had been a “heel-grabber,” one who took unfair advantage of a rival. That old name no longer fit this man, and so God gave him a new one. “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” Bible names often serve as more than convenient labels for people. Here Jacob’s new
name describes the new nature and character the Spirit of God had patiently and painstakingly created in him. No longer would he rely on his own cleverness to overcome anyone who opposed him. The heel-grabber had become the persistent fighter who clung to God’s promise and won God’s blessing legitimately. He had learned to lean on God.
God apparently felt that Jacob needed a memento of his victory, as a warning against relapsing into his old nature. So as Jacob left the scene of the wrestling match, he was limping. All of God’s children need to learn that in and of ourselves we have no strength, no power with God or man. Our only strength, like Jacob’s, lies in holding firmly to what God has promised.
For Jacob another blessed fruit of the mysterious struggle was that he was free from the terror that had gripped his heart when he learned Esau was coming for him with four hundred men. With the Savior’s promise ringing in his ears, he was now ready to meet Esau, ready for whatever surprises that new day might bring.
God still appears to his people on occasion as though he were an opponent. Each of us has known dark hours when we were unable to see God’s mercy and saw only a face that looked angry. Jacob held on to God even when he appeared as his opponent, and he won a blessing. We will have that same experience when in faith we learn to say, “My Savior, I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Reunion with Esau and return to Canaan
Genesis Chapter 33, verses 1 through 4
Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men; so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two maidservants. He put the maidservants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother.
But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.
During the eventful night Jacob had spent at the Jabbok, he had been separated from his family and flocks, since he had sent them on ahead. Now he rejoined them, and the caravan resumed its southward march. Suddenly a cloud of dust on the horizon signaled the approach of a band of riders. Nobody had to tell Jacob who they were.
He lined up his children with the four sons of the maidservants in front, then Leah with her seven, and finally Rachel and her son, Joseph—perhaps the order in which he planned to introduce them to Esau. Then came the moment of truth. Jacob stepped forward to meet his brother, not knowing what kind of reception he would receive.
It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the drama of the scene. A comparison of several passages in Genesis (47:9; 41:46; 45:11; 29:27; 31:38) reveals that Jacob and Esau were in their 90s when they met here. Here were two grey haired men, twins who had not seen each other for 20 years.
As Jacob stepped toward Esau, he fell to his knees with his forehead to the ground, got up, walked a step or two, and bowed again. He did this seven times. Although he knew God had announced that the older twin was to serve the younger, Jacob repeatedly referred to himself as “servant” and to his brother as his “lord,” treating him with the utmost respect. If in years gone by Esau had detected arrogance in his twin brother, he saw none now. At the sight of his brother humbly bowing before him, Esau’s bitterness melted.
And suddenly any unanswered question that Jacob might have had about how Esau would receive him was answered. Moved by Jacob’s evident humility, Esau dismounted from his camel, ran to his brother, threw his arms around him, kissed him, and wept. Amazing! We have noted that God’s powerful grace had produced changes in Jacob: we see here that the same powerful grace had brought about changes in Esau. Although Jacob had done everything humanly possible to assist in the reconciliation, finally it’s only God who can change hearts. He used Jacob’s prayers, his generous gifts, and his deferential attitude, but only God can soften a hard heart.
Genesis Chapter 33, verses 5 through 11
Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. “Who are these with you?” he asked.
Jacob answered, “They are the children God has graciously given your servant.”
Then the maidservants and their children approached and bowed down. Next, Leah and her children came and bowed down. Last of all came Joseph and Rachel, and they too bowed down.
Esau asked, “What do you mean by all these droves I met?”
“To find favor in your eyes, my lord,” he said.
But Esau said, “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.”
“No, please!” said Jacob. “If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably. Please accept the present that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have all I need.” And because Jacob insisted, Esau accepted it.
Esau saw more than a dozen children with their mothers and wondered out loud, “Who are all these people?” He pointed to the hundreds of cattle Jacob had sent ahead as a gift and asked, “What’s this army of animals supposed to mean?” The answer he received was, “Please accept them as a token of my gratitude that in your face I can see God’s love reflected.” What a change God had brought about in Jacob over a 20-year period! Instead of wanting to deprive Esau of a blessing, Jacob almost had to force Esau to accept this tangible evidence of the Lord’s blessing.
Genesis Chapter 33, verses 12 through 15
Then Esau said, “Let us be on our way; I’ll accompany you.”
But Jacob said to him, “My lord knows that the children are tender and that I must care for the ewes and cows that are nursing their young. If they are driven hard just one day, all the animals will die. So let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I move along slowly at the pace of the droves before me and that of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.”
Esau said, “Then let me leave some of my men with you.”
“But why do that?” Jacob asked. “Just let me find favor in the eyes of my lord.”
Esau had undergone a change of heart, and he showed that not only with words but with actions. He realized that marauding bands hiding out near the desert edge threatened a caravan as large and vulnerable as Jacob’s. He therefore offered to be their bodyguard, to escort them wherever they were going.
Jacob declined his brother’s offer for several reasons, only one of which is stated. “My group, with its young children and young cattle, can’t travel as fast as yours can. If we were to drive them hard for just a single day, we could lose them.” Jacob had other reasons for declining Esau’s offer of protection. A few days earlier, God had opened his eyes to let him see the angel host surrounding him (Chapter 32, verse 1). Even though that angel escort was invisible to him now, it was the only escort he needed.
Perhaps to avoid hurting Esau’s feelings, Jacob was silent about still another reason for not inviting Esau to accompany him back to Canaan. Esau had shown little appreciation for the messianic covenant. Two of his wives were heathen Canaanites; the third was an Ishmaelite—all three outside of the family of promise. Jacob wanted his descendants to remain separate from those who despised their heritage.
And so the brothers parted, but they remained united in heart. Moses informs us later that when Isaac died, Esau and Jacob buried their father (Chapter 35, verse 29). We conclude from this that the brothers’ reconciliation was not only genuine; it was permanent.
Genesis Chapter 33, verses 16 through 20
So that day Esau started on his way back to Seir. Jacob, however, went to Succoth, where he built a place for himself and made shelters for his livestock. That is why the place is called Succoth.
After Jacob came from Paddan Aram, he arrived safely at the city of Shechem in Canaan and camped within sight of the city. For a hundred pieces of silver, he bought from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem, the plot of ground where he pitched his tent. There he set up an altar and called it El Elohe Israel.
Esau said good-bye to his brother and returned to his home in the land of Edom, south of the Dead Sea. Jacob settled temporarily near the east bank of the Jordan River, in the valley of the Jordan known as the Arabah. Here he and his household enjoyed relief from the exertion and tension of the long march from Haran. Jacob built a dwelling for himself and shelters for his cattle near the site where the city of Succoth (“shelters”) later stood.
It is interesting that Jacob did not immediately head west across the Jordan and south to Hebron, where his father was living (Chapter 35, verse 27). After staying in Succoth for several years, he crossed the Jordan and settled in Shechem, in central Canaan. He made it clear, furthermore, that he wanted to live not as an alien but permanently as a landowner. He therefore purchased a piece of property, establishing legal residence in the land. He was the ancestor of a nation that would bear his name, the people of Israel, who would one day possess this land as their homeland. Just as Abraham had insisted on purchasing a burial plot for Sarah in the land of promise, so Jacob wanted to pitch his tent on land he owned. His descendants were to know he believed God’s promise that the Israelites would one day own this land. And by establishing a household independent of his father Isaac’s, Jacob demonstrated that he was a patriarch in his own right.
The statement “He arrived safely at the city of Shechem in Canaan” offers an example of what has been called internal evidence that Moses is the author of Genesis. If, as some Bible critics claim today, Genesis was not written until long after Israel entered its Promised Land, this phrase “in Canaan” is superfluous. After the Israelite conquest, what Israelite would need to be informed that one of the most prominent of Israelite cities, the nation’s first capital, was located in the land of Canaan?
There are two interesting sidelights in later Israelite history to the real estate transaction recorded here. Several centuries later, after the Israelites had occupied the land of Canaan, they buried Joseph’s mummified remains in Shechem, as he had requested (Chapter 50, verse 25; and Joshua Chapter 24, verse 32). And one of the most interesting conversations the Lord Jesus had was with a Samaritan woman whom he met at a well in Sychar (Shechem), on the piece of property Jacob had bought (John Chapter 4, verse 5).
A very eventful and highly significant chapter of Jacob’s life had come to an end. Jacob felt this called for special recognition. He therefore established an altar at Shechem, a place of public worship. There he proclaimed the name of the mighty God, the God of Israel, using the new name God had given him. Through the might and mercy of the covenant God, a tumultuous 20-year period of Jacob’s life had reached a victorious conclusion.