Genesis 32:22-32 The faith that will not let go

Genesis 32.22-32

This is one of the more enigmatic, puzzling passages in the Old Testament.
But it is important.

This is the story of how the people of Abraham, the people of faith, are given the name Israel.
And as the Church, the people of the New Testament, we also carry that name: we are the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16).

It is also, I think, particularly a story for those of you who are second or third children.

Jacob is a second child – and he didn’t want to be second. He wanted to be first.

So all his life, he fought.

He fought his brother
From the womb.
As his brother comes out of the womb, Jacob comes out holding onto his heel.
That is why he was called Jacob, because Jacob means one who takes the heel, one who supplants.

He fought his brother for the birthright. That belonged to the firstborn, but Jacob wanted it.  
He doesn’t fight Esau physically – Esau is much stronger than him. Instead he uses cunning. He waits for his moment. And that moment comes when Esau has been out hunting and is famished. Jacob has been at home helping in the kitchen. Esau asks for some stew, and Jacob – sensing his opportunity – gets Esau to swear over his birthright to him in return for the stew. At the time – as far as Esau was concerned - it meant nothing, it was just words. But it does show how Jacob was desperate to become number one.

He fought his brother and deceived his father for the blessing that should have gone to the older son. His father, Isaac, feels that the time has come to pass on his formal blessing to his two sons. He has two blessings to give. One for his older son and one for his younger son.

This is where it gets significant.
In order to steal Esau’s blessing, Jacob pretends to be Esau. He dresses up as Esau (Isaac is completely blind) and he deceives his father into giving him the blessing that was reserved for Esau. And Jacob gets the blessing that was reserved for the first son, the blessing which speaks of how people will bring him wealth, and of how his brother will bow down to him. And all that is left for Esau is the blessing that was reserved for the second son.
And in a culture which realised that words matter, that was very significant. Esau is furious. He is going to kill Jacob.
So Jacob does what any reasonable person would do. He runs away. He leaves the country; he becomes an expat, and lives with his Uncle Laban.

So Jacob fights his brother and his father.

He fights his father in law.
Uncle Laban welcomes Jacob into his home, and then deceives the deceiver. Jacob falls in love with his daughter, Rachel, and Laban tells Jacob that if he works for him for 7 years, he can marry her. But after the 7 years, when the veil is raised at the end of the wedding, Jacob discovers he has been married to the wrong sister. Moral of the story: if you’re getting married, make sure the veil is raised before you say the vows. Pushkin has got a great story about that. So he has to work for another 7 years to marry Rachel.
And then, when he continued to work for Laban after the 14 years, there were constant battles about whose sheep were whose. And Jacob uses common sense, some primitive and rather dodgy genetic engineering, along with some divinely given inside information, to increase his flock. His flock gets larger; Laban’s flock gets smaller. That makes the sons of Laban mad at Jacob, because they think he is swindling them, and Jacob decides to leave – quickly – with his flocks, wives and his now 11 children. Although this time an angel has told him to return to the land from which he came.

And now we come to the moment of crisis.
As Jacob travels home, Esau comes to meet him. But he has not come with the fatted calf. This is going to be no friendly family reunion. Esau means business with the younger brother who ripped him off. He brings with him 400 men.

And when Jacob hears the news, ‘he was greatly afraid and distressed’ (Gen 32:7).
He is scared. Really scared.
He divides his company into two – so that if one is attacked, the other might survive
He prepares gifts to send on ahead of him to Esau: and it is not just a box of chocolates and a matryeshka. He sends ahead of him 220 goats, 220 sheep, 30 camels, 40 cows, 10 bulls and 30 donkeys.
And that night – having sent his wives and children across the river Jabbok, Jacob remains behind.
And in his distress and fear and isolation, a man comes and wrestles with him.

Who is this man?

The desert fathers and mothers speak of wrestling with demons. But this is no demon.
And it is real, because at the end of the night, Jacob’s hip has been put out of joint.

It is a man – because we are told that it is a man
Hosea, in writing about this passage – describes him as an angel.
[He says of Jacob, “In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and in his manhood he strove with God. He strove with the angel and prevailed; he wept and sought his favour.”]
But Jacob was convinced that he had seen God face to face.
Man – angel – God. Who is he?

He certainly is far more powerful than Jacob.
He just needs to touch Jacob’s hip and it is put out of joint.
And Jacob knows that this man is far more powerful than him. All he can do is hang on in there and not let the man go until the man gives him a blessing. And in the end, he sort of wins the battle, and he gets the blessing, because he does hang on.

There is so much grace in this.
This man-God comes to Jacob in his fear and distress.

This man-God could overwhelm Jacob, but he does not. Indeed, he allows Jacob to overcome him. He allows himself to be overcome so that he might bless Jacob.

This passage reminds me of people who have struggled with God in prayer.

We read of the Syro-Phoenician woman who comes to Jesus to ask him to heal her demon possessed daughter.
She cries to him. Jesus is silent. But she stays.
His disciples tell him to send her away. Jesus is silent.  She stays.
And when Jesus tells her that he has not come for people like her, she says ‘I know. But I’m going to stay – because like a dog I will be content with the crumbs off your table’.
And because she stays, and she perseveres – Jesus blesses her.

Perhaps he had her in mind when he tells the story we read in the gospel about the widow who would not give up with the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8). Day and night, she pesters him. She will not let it go until she has justice. That, says Jesus, is how you can be with God – that is how you know if you have faith. Faith will go on holding onto God, even when all the evidence points away from God.

There are moments when we will find ourselves wrestling with God.

Sometimes becoming a Christian, coming to faith, can be traumatic. In most discipleship/ Alpha courses, early on, we do a session on sin. It is a hard session to do, because people often go away in quite some inner turmoil. We thought we were OK. We thought we were doing enough to be alright with God. But we begin to see ourselves in a new light – we begin to realise that we are not the sort of people that we thought we were. We begin to see the pride and selfishness and self-justification and coldness that is within us. And we become aware that we are cut off from God, that we are lost.
And that is the point when some people choose to walk away. They say, I can’t handle this. I’m not doing this.
But that is when we need to hold on.

Or perhaps, and we were talking about this in a group recently, you are praying for something you desperately want, and it doesn’t happen. Or it happens to someone else – who didn’t really want it. You pray for that job, that contract, that visa, that flat, that partner, that child – and it doesn’t come.
That is when we need to hold on.

Or what happens when sickness or tragedy strikes? Or when we face rejection, deep disappointment, failure? And it seems that God has walked away from you.
That is when we need to hold on.

Or what happens when nothing happens? When it is simply a daily hard slog, when we fight with the doubts, and the temptations, and the daily anxieties. When we long for the presence but there only seems to be absence?
That is when we need to hold on

Or what happens when we face forces far greater than us: forces of loneliness, rejection, shame, fear and death? What happens when it seems that we are dropping into the bottomless pit?

No. God has not left you. God has come to you, and you are wrestling with him. He does not ask you to be brave and heroic. He simply asks you to be honest, and to hold on to him.

This is the call to hold on, even when he touches our hip and it hurts like hell.

Jacob held on to God and in holding on to God, he defeated God!

‘I will not let you go till you bless me’.
And the God-man blesses him.

There is a double blessing here.
First he asks him; What is your name?
That is weird. You would expect God to know Jacob’s name.
But God is not asking Jacob to say his name for his, God’s sake. He is asking him to say his name for his own sake

And in saying his name, ‘Jacob’, Jacob is saying so much:
He is saying that he is the ‘supplanter’: he is confessing to his lies and his deceit.

But he is also making a declaration.
Jacob stole the blessing from Esau, the blessing that belonged to the first-born son.
It was a blessing that said that the other brother would give to him and would serve him.  But (and I owe this brilliant insight to Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi in the UK, in his book, ‘Not in God’s name’), when Jacob finally meets his brother in Genesis 33, he is the one who gives his possessions to Esau, and he is the one who bows seven times before Esau. In effect, he accepts his status as second son. 
So when he says: ‘I am Jacob’, he is also saying, “I do not need to be Esau. I do not need to pretend to be my older brother. I do not need to strive to be my older brother. I can be who God made me to be”.

But that is not all, because God then has a different blessing for him. He blesses him with a new name:
“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

In God’s grace, God comes to us and allows us to overcome him – so that he can bless us

The God-man comes to us and allows us to crucify him – so that he can bless us
The God-man comes to us to wrestle with us.
We can walk away – Jacob could have walked away and tragically many people walk away. But we are invited to wrestle with him, to pray with ‘tears and petitions’, and – like the woman with the unjust judge - to overcome him, so that he can bless us.

It is only when we overcome the one who actually can never be overcome, that we begin to realise the depth of his love for us.
We are set free to face up to the past, to accept ourselves as we are – second or third or fifth or first child, and to discover the unique calling that he has for us.

Jacob becomes Israel.
He becomes the biological father of the people of God, of the twelve tribes of Israel;
But he also becomes the father of the people who strive with the God-man and prevail; he becomes the father of people who have the faith that perseveres, the faith that holds on – and that will not let go, until God blesses us.  


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