If you hadn’t already read Genesis, you might feel like Week 6 left you with a cliffhanger. At the end of chapter 28 we’re left wondering what the fate of Jacob will be. His brother Esau is seeking him with a murderous rage and Jacob has to flee hundreds of miles outside the promised land. Would Canaanite robbers kill Jacob on his journey? Would Esau get to him first and kill him? Stay tuned!
Last week and this week’s lesson are a two-part TV series on Jacob. It won’t be the last time we hear of him, but after this section, as Genesis has been doing all along, the camera will focus in on a new character, Joseph. But for now, Jacob is still our man.
Now, Jacob is not your faultless TV series hero. A few nights ago, I was telling my son the story of Jacob and Esau from last week. I told him about how Jacob had stolen the birthright and the blessing from his brother Esau, to which he replied, “oh so Jacob’s the bad guy”. Immediately I respond, “No….well, yes,….well, they’re both bad guys?”. No matter what kind of role we might cast Jacob & Esau in, we know that God is the only true “good guy” here. Jacob prevails in getting the birthright and blessing from Esau and Jacob is godly only because He is chosen by God.
Last week when we were in part one of this series, Mary’s teaching point was “Even when His people sin, God keeps his promises”. This week, our passage teaches us (among other things) “Even amidst struggle and conflict, God keeps his promises”. So note-takers, you can write that down as our two points today : Point 1) Even amidst struggle and conflict and 2) God keeps his promises.
What a comfort to hear last week that our sin cannot thwart God’s plan. This week we will see that neither struggle nor conflict nor trouble nor hardship nor persecution nor famine nor nakedness nor danger nor sword can thwart God’s plan either, or prevent him from keeping His promises. God’s plan of salvation that he promised back in Genesis 3 and his promise to Abraham of descendants and land and God’s own presence is safe from the sin within and the trouble without.
So, first, Even amidst struggle and conflict…
I don’t know if you noticed, but our passage this week is loaded with conflict. Remember last week we began to see conflict in Isaac and Rebekah’s family – they each favored a child and Jacob and Esau were at odds with each other. Well, conflict has multiplied like rabbits, and I saw at least six broken relationships in our passage. I’ll list them quickly. We have brother conflict: Esau continues to have murderous intentions toward his deceitful brother. Then there’s sister conflict: Rachel and Leah vie for sons and the affections of their husband. Then there’s in-law conflict: Jacob and Laban are cheating each other in their shepherding work and Laban cheated Jacob out of the wife he bargained for. There’s also father-daughter conflict between Rachel and Leah and their dad Laban. The girls say he has squandered their inheritance and treated them as foreigners. Probably in revenge, Rachel steals Laban’s household gods. It’s not clear from the passage why she did that, but commentators think that her motives were financial. Household gods in that culture were valuable because they were often made of precious metals. If she felt that he had squandered her inheritance this would be a way to regain some of her lost assets.
Finally, in the climax of our passage, Jacob wrestles with God himself. If you were looking forward to an explanation of what exactly is going on here, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed. I feel like I wrestled with God and commentators over this passage and God prevailed. There are as many opinions on this passage as there are commentators. It is especially difficult because Jacob says here that he has seen the face of God and was delivered, where later in Exodus, God says “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (33:20)”. There are a few explanations. Remember the emphasis on how this episode happened at night and how God was eager to leave when dawn was breaking? One commentator suggests that the darkness veiled God so Jacob could see him and not die3. It also may be that when Jacob talks about seeing God’s face it’s a figure of speech for intimacy with God4 because that’s how that phrase is used elsewhere in scripture. Or, in Hosea 12:3-4 it says of this episode “he strove with God. He strove with the angel and prevailed.” So perhaps God came in angelic form as he has done in other passages, so that Jacob could see Him without dying. Despite the mysterious details, it’s clear that Jacob is engaged in a struggle with God and that encounter was significant in his life and the life of the people of God.
In the midst of all this conflict, it’s easy to miss God quietly at work. And that brings us to point 2. Despite all this struggle and conflict, God keeps his promise. These sinful fallen human beings and all their strife cannot thwart His good plan for them and for the world.
Did you notice the repeated and regular presence of God in our passage this week? 29:31: when the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb…” 30:22: “then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb.” 31:11: God spoke to Jacob in a dream. 31:24: God spoke to Laban in a dream. 32:1 Angels of God met Jacob twice on his way to Esau.
Are you tempted to think that God’s presence in your life means the absence of conflict? Or maybe if you were more godly, or if God were more present in your life there would be less struggle and less conflict? Our passage would prove otherwise. Whether your struggles and conflict are a result of your sin or not, take heart. God has not left you. As we’ll see with Jacob, God is using those conflicts in your life to grow your trust in Him.
God had chosen to use Jacob to fulfill his promise to make the descendants of Abraham into a great nation that would be a blessing to all peoples of the earth. In order to do that, Jacob needed to be changed. When God wrestled with Jacob and asked him “what is your name?” and he said “Jacob” – God was reminding him who he was – he was a deceiver who reaped what he sowed. But a change was about to take place. God humbles Jacob by reminding him of his name and then dislocating his hip. Previously, Jacob schemed and deceived in order to get a blessing that God had already promised him. No more scheming. Jacob now literally hangs on to God to receive the blessing. He now has to be dependent on God alone, not his schemes or efforts. Jacob formerly referred to God as “the God of my Father” (32:9) Now God has become his God. The man who was formerly Jacob, the deceiver, is now Israel, one who struggled with God and received His grace and mercy. Just as God changed Abraham’s name showing His favor on Abraham and that he would keep his promise of generations, he is doing the same with Jacob.
It’s subtle, but we do see evidence of Jacob’s changed heart. In chapter 32 when Jacob started on his journey to meet Esau, he sent his family and possessions in two camps ahead of him. It was almost as if they were a buffer of protection between Jacob and the coming Esau. Jacob is again trusting in something else other than God to protect him. After the wrestling with God, he sees Esau coming and listen now to what he does, (33:2-3) “And he put the servants with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. [Jacob] himself went on before them..”. Jacob is now approaching potential conflict like a man…a man who has seen God face to face and yet his life has been delivered (32:30). Jacob is now walking in faith that God will keep his promise to him. Listen to what he says to Esau when they meet (33:10-11), “For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me. Please accept my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me…” Wait, what?! Now Jacob is giving a blessing?! God’s presence through conflict and struggle has changed Jacob.
Let’s zoom out a little bit. Put yourself in the place of those who originally heard the book of Genesis. You’d be an Israelite, standing on the edge of the promised land, Canaan. In one sense, God had already kept his promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob of many generations. Some speculate there were about a million Israelites who left Egypt for the promised land. Well that’s great, but what about the promise of this land, Canaan, where God’s presence would dwell with his people? Well, that would probably cause you some anxiety if you were an Israelite, because you are outside that land and there are enemies in that land. Those enemies wouldn’t take kindly to you wanting to take their land and who would likely kill you like Esau wanted to kill Jacob. Well, this passage would (or should) give you great hope! “Whenever [Jacob aka Israel’s] descendants heard this name (the name Israel), or used it to describe themselves, they were reminded of its origin and of its meaning that as their father had triumphed in his struggle with men (i.e., Esau, Laban) and with God, so they too could eventually hope to triumph2” Why? Because God keeps his promises.
Let’s zoom out a little further, because we know more of the story. God did bring the Israelites back into the promised land, he did give Abraham a multitude of descendants and God’s very presence dwelt with them in the temple in the promised land. God kept all his promises to the Israelites.
But you know what? They didn’t keep their promises to God, to love and obey Him alone. They couldn’t keep their promises to God. They would later reject God’s law, go after the gods of other nations and God would harden them in their rebellion (Rom 11).
But where Israel failed to keep the covenant, God’s beloved righteous Son – Jesus Christ succeeds where Israel failed. God would keep his promise from Genesis 3:15 to crush the head of the serpent by sending His only Son to bear the punishment that we all deserve. Christ alone makes it possible for God to be with us. And if he has overcome our sin on the cross, how much more will he be able to overcome all conflict in our life to draw us closer to himself? Isn’t what Paul argues in Romans 8?
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?
32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.
34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died– more than that, who was raised– who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers,
39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Rom 8:31-39 ESV)
Because of this, we can have hope in the midst of our conflict. Jacob and the Israelites faced great enemies – murderous Esau, the many Canaanite tribes. We know some great enemies, too – sin, satan, those who would want to persecute us. But if God is for us, who can be against us? We can press on in our conflict looking to Jesus. We can press on in this sinful, fallen world knowing the battle is already won.