At the end of Genesis chapter 31, we read how Jacob agreed to make a treaty with his uncle Laban. Jacob and Laban both agreed to set up a "demilitarized zone" that neither one could cross. Then they piled up some rocks to serve as a border and Laban said, "This heap… stands between us as a witness of our vows that I will not cross this line to attack you and you will not cross it to attack me" (Genesis 31:51 TLB).
So the good news was that Jacob didn't have to worry about Laban anymore. The bad news was that there was still a dangerous enemy ahead of Jacob: his brother Esau. You may remember that Esau had once threatened to kill Jacob, and his anger toward him had now had 20 additional years to smolder and grow. This meant that Esau represented a very serious threat to Jacob and that may be why God provided Jacob with some additional encouragement...
"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" (Genesis 32:1-2).
Jacob's encounter with these angelic beings gives us a good opportunity to talk about these often misunderstood servants of God.
To start, what exactly is an angel? Well, an "angel" is a being created by God who is superior in power and intelligence to human beings. The word "angel" simply means "messenger" and it seems that the main job of an angelic being is to act as an representative or agent for God. A good example of this occurs in the New Testament book of Luke where the angel Gabriel appears with news concerning the births of John the Baptist and Jesus (see Luke 1:13 and Luke 1:30-31).
Although they have done so from time to time, angels do not normally communicate directly with human beings. But on this occasion, it seems that God wanted to encourage Jacob through this angelic show of support because Genesis 32:2 tells us that after Jacob saw these angelic beings, he said, "...This is the army of God: so he gave that place the name of Mahanaim" (BBE).
This word Mahanaim means "two camps." The first camp consisted of Jacob and his group but Jacob realized that a second camp of angelic beings was also there with him too. So Jacob had God's promise to bring him safely back home, but now he also had a group of God's angels there with him as well.
One big problem that existed between Jacob and his brother Esau was the fact that Esau held a grudge against Jacob over the inheritance that Jacob had received from his father. Esau felt that he should have received this inheritance so he responded by saying to himself, "...My father will soon be gone, and then I will kill Jacob" (Genesis 27:41 TLB).
Fortunately for Jacob, his mother Rebekah found out about what Esau was planning...
"...when Rebecca heard about Esau's plan, she sent for Jacob and said, 'Listen, your brother Esau is planning to get even with you and kill you. Now, son, do what I say. Go at once to my brother Laban in Haran, and stay with him for a while, until your brother's anger cools down and he forgets what you have done to him. Then I will send someone to bring you back...'" (Genesis 27:42-45 GNB).
The problem was that it was now 20 years later and the messenger who was supposed to come and tell Jacob that it was OK to come back home never arrived. So just to be safe, Jacob decided to send some advance scouts to check things out before heading back home...
"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'" (Genesis 32:3-5).
It's clear that Jacob was making a real effort to be humble and courteous with Esau. In fact, notice that Jacob didn't identify himself as "your brother" in this message to Esau. Instead, Jacob humbly referred to himself as "your servant." Then Jacob went on to say, "...now I own cattle, donkeys, flocks of sheep and goats, and many servants, both men and women" (Genesis 32:5 NLT). While its possible that Jacob was boasting about everything he owned, it's more likely that he was trying to communicate something else to Esau: "I've got plenty of stuff of my own; I'm not coming to ask you for anything or take anything from you. I just want to be on friendly terms when we meet."
Now remember that Jacob hadn't seen or spoken to Esau for 20 years. For for all he knew, Esau might be dead. However, Jacob is about to find out that Esau was still very much alive.
"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'" (Genesis 32:6).
This was definitely not what Jacob wanted to hear. When Jacob heard this news, it's easy to imagine that his thought process went something like this:"I left home because my brother was making plans to kill me. Now he is coming to meet me with 400 men- and those guys probably aren't part of the welcoming committee."
While Genesis 32:6 doesn't specifically say that Esau was coming out to fight with Jacob, this news must have sounded like Esau was coming to confront him with a small army. On the other hand, let's look at this meeting from Esau's point of view. Remember that Esau hadn't heard anything from Jacob for 20 years either. Jacob certainly didn't have the best reputation in the world and for all Esau knew, Jacob might have been planning to trick him, just as he had tricked their father so many years earlier. So Esau probably felt that he needed to be ready to meet with Jacob as well- and that meant bringing out 400 additional men to help out just in case Jacob was planning something.
"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'" (Genesis 32:7-8).
Unfortunately, it seems that Jacob had totally forgotten that God had promised to be with him on his return back home. And remember what we read at the beginning of this chapter about the angels who were there with Jacob and how he exclaimed that, "This is the camp of God" (Genesis 32:2)? Well, it doesn't seem like Jacob feels that way anymore. In fact, the only thing that Jacob seems to have in mind now is, "I better be prepared for the worst."
Jacob's example also reminds us of something very important. You see, if you are someone who says, "I trust and believe in God," then don't be surprised if God places you in a position where you will have the opportunity to demonstrate that commitment. For example, it's not unusual for someone to go through struggles, trials, or difficulties after making a decision to live the kind of life that honors God, just as Jacob did. Remember that any decision to lead a God-honoring life may result in conflict with others who have no interest in Him.
"Jacob was frantic with fear. He divided his household, along with the flocks and herds and camels, into two groups; for he said, 'If Esau attacks one group, perhaps the other can escape'" (Genesis 32:7-8 TLB).
Jacob's experience in these verses gives us an opportunity to talk about how people might apply the lessons of his example today.
For instance, anyone who is involved in athletics is probably familiar with the idea of "training camp." In training camp, coaches help athletes learn the fundamentals of their position, practice their skills, and learn new techniques that are designed to help that player become the very best that he or she can be. In one sense, life is also like a training camp and God is like a "head coach," so to speak. And if you haven't realized it by now, there are times when the Head Coach may push you a little to help bring your spiritual game to the next level.
How would God do something like that? Well, He might choose to bring a circumstance or situation into your life that is difficult or painful, just as He did with Jacob. When that happens, you can respond by saying, "Why did God let this happen to me?" or you can choose to say, "This is my opportunity to demonstrate the kind of faith that is pleasing to God."
Of course, it's never easy to go through times when God is stretching you and training you spiritually. But once that training period is finished, it's possible to look back and see the positive results that God intended. In fact, it's not unusual for someone to look back on a period of spiritual training and think, "That wasn't fun at the time, but that experience really helped me." The New Testament book of Hebrews explains it like this...
"No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it" (Hebrews 12:11).
Remember that God always has an ultimate purpose for those difficult situations that you may experience in life. You can also be confident that He will bring something good from that situation if you trust Him to bring you through it.
So Esau and 400 other men were on their way to meet with Jacob. When Jacob heard that Esau and this small army was on the way to meet with him, he thought, "I better split up the camp so I can be prepared for the worst" (see Genesis 32:7-8). Now it's wise to be prepared for a situation like this, but what Jacob did next is what he should have done first- and what Jacob should have done first is what comes next.
While it was certainly a good idea for Jacob to be prepared for his meeting with Esau, the first thing that Jacob should have done was to pray and ask God for his direction. And that's exactly what he did next...
"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'" (Genesis 32:9-12).
There are some really important things that we can learn from Jacob's prayer in these verses. For instance, look how Jacob addressed his prayer: "...Jacob prayed, "O God..." (Genesis 32:9). Notice that Jacob didn't look for guidance from some cosmic force or power. He also didn't seek to depend on "luck" or some material thing to make him successful. Instead, Jacob went to the "...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...'" In other words, Jacob spoke to a Person. He addressed his prayer to a specific Being who was able to think, feel, and communicate.
Next, Jacob approached God in a spirit of humility by saying, "I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant" (Genesis 32:10). Notice that Jacob didn't start his prayer with a list of things that he wanted God to do for him. Jacob didn't treat God as if He were some kind of mystical servant and he didn't make demands or issue threats in his conversation with God. Instead, Jacob spoke to God with the kind of respect that the all powerful Creator of the universe deserves.
Jacob also showed his appreciation to God by saying, "When I first crossed the Jordan, all I had was my walking stick and now I have two camps of people..." (CEV). Even though Jacob worked hard for 20 years to earn what he had, he still realized that God was the One who allowed him to have everything that he worked to get.
"He spent the night there, and from what he had with him he selected a gift for his brother Esau..." (Genesis 32:13).
If you go on to read the next two verses, you'll find that Jacob's gift to Esau turned out to be 550 farm animals of all different types plus some camels as well. So it's clear that God had blessed Jacob with a large number of valuable possessions. After all, if Jacob had the ability to offer that many animals as a gift to his brother, how much else did he have?
"He put (the animals) 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" (Genesis 32:16-21).
What Jacob did in these verses gives us an opportunity to look at the idea of principle and practice when it comes to understanding and applying the Scriptures in our daily lives. To get a better understanding of this concept, let's start by defining our terms first.
A "principle" is defined as, "a rule or standard, especially of good behavior." (1) The word "practice" in this context refers to what someone does in a particular situation. So the idea of "principle and practice" refers to a rule or standard that tells people how they should respond in a particular situation.
So how does this idea apply to the story of Jacob and Esau? After all, most people probably don't have hundreds of farm animals to offer someone as a gift as Jacob did here. Does that mean that we can't learn anything from the action that Jacob took in these verses? Well, that's what we'll talk about next.
(1) The American HeritageŽ Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
So how can we apply this idea of "principle and practice" in looking at this situation involving Jacob and Esau?
Well, let's look at what Jacob did first. Genesis 32:9-12 tells us that Jacob first prayed to God; then he "...elected a gift for his brother Esau..." just as we read in the verse quoted above. So Jacob prayed for God's direction first and then took a reasonable, justifiable, God-honoring action to deal with his situation. In this instance, the general principle that we can learn from this Scripture is that we should first pray and then ask God for His direction in our decision making, just as Jacob did here. Once we've taken the time to do that, we can then say that it's OK to follow Jacob's good example and prayerfully make a Godly, sensible, and well thought out response.
For Jacob, that response involved giving his brother hundreds of farm animals as a gift. However, people today might choose a very different response depending on their circumstance, culture, and or any number of other factors. In this instance, the principle (asking for God's direction and then making a careful, God-honoring response) remains the same, but the practice may change according to the elements of each particular situation.
This idea can be very helpful for anyone who is looking for ways to understand and apply God's Word in their daily life. Remember, the Scriptures tell us that when it comes to events like this, "...these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction..." (1 Corinthians 10:11 ESV).
So Jacob prayed and then took a reasonable, justifiable, God-honoring action. It also seems that Jacob also wanted to make it completely clear to Esau that he did not need or want anything from him. In fact, Jacob specifically set things up so that Esau would receive five different gifts, one right after the other in order to show that he didn't intend any harm. But would it be enough to convince Esau?
"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" (Genesis 32:22-23).
Before Jacob has the opportunity to find out Esau's response to his gift, he is about to have one of the strangest and most interesting encounters in the Scriptures. We'll look and that encounter (and talk about what it meant) next.
So Jacob got up, prepared his family, and sent them all across the Jabbok river on the way back to his childhood home. Then he sent all their possessions over as well (see Genesis 32:22-23). That left Jacob as the only remaining person left on the other side of the river. But before Jacob could cross over and join the rest of the group, a mysterious stranger suddenly appeared...
"So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak" (Genesis 32:24).
Now what is this all about and who is this person that seemingly appears out of nowhere to wrestle with Jacob?
Well, the verse quoted above simply identifies him as "a man." But a little more investigation makes this mysterious stranger even more mysterious. You see, when the Old Testament prophet Hosea wrote about what happened here, he identified this person as "...the angel..." in Hosea chapter 12, verse 4 (12:4). But later on in verse 30, Jacob will say, "...I saw God face to face..." regarding this event.
So which one is it- a man, an angel, or God? Well, some scholar-types have studied this passage and come to the conclusion that Jacob was wrestling with none other than Jesus Christ before He became a human being.
Here's how they come to that conclusion: first, the person that Jacob was wrestling with is called "a man" because that's what he looked like in his physical appearance. Next, he is also referred to as "an angel" because Jesus in His "pre-incarnate" (1) form is thought to be associated with the "Angel of the Lord" that we saw earlier in Genesis 16:7. This "Angel of the Lord" will also appear to Moses later on in Exodus 3:2 and to another man named Gideon in the Old Testament book of Judges (see Judges 6:11-12) as well. Finally, this mysterious wrestler is also referred to as "God" because Jesus was, and is, God (see John 20:28-29, Titus 2:3, and Hebrews 1:8).
Another question involves this wrestling match itself. For instance, wouldn't it have been easier for Jacob to just sit down and talk with this stranger instead of wrestling with him all night? Well, one possible explanation for this all-night wrestling match is that God was using this experience to teach Jacob an important lesson. For instance, notice who started this wrestling match. We're told that "...a man wrestled with (Jacob)" and not the other way around. In other words, Jacob wasn't looking for anything from this man, but this man was obviously looking for something from him.
So what was that "something"? We'll look at the answer to that question next.
(1) The term "pre-incarnate" refers to an appearance of Jesus before His physical birthIX
"This left Jacob all alone in the camp, and a man came and wrestled with him until the dawn began to break" (Genesis 32:24 NLT).
What was God looking to accomplish through this sudden wrestling match with Jacob?
Well, Jacob had always been someone who had been able to make it through life by the use of his own skill and resourcefulness. But it seems that God was not willing to allow Jacob to go any further without the clear understanding that his dependence had to be on God and not on himself anymore. The way that God chose to communicate this lesson was by having an all-night wrestling match with Jacob. This was a wrestling match with no bright lights, no reporters, no cameras, and no audience- it was just God and Jacob wrestling alone, hand to hand, one on one.
But why would God want to get involved in a wrestling match of all things? Why couldn't God and Jacob just sit down together and talk things over? Well, this kind of physical encounter served to demonstrate to Jacob that God was absolutely determined to remove the manipulative, deceptive, and self-reliant nature that his name implied. It also showed Jacob that God was willing to use to use force to accomplish this if He had to.
So Genesis 32:24 tells us that this match went on throughout the night until the daylight began to appear- and that's when this mysterious stranger decided to say "game over..."
"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" (Genesis 32:25).
Some translations of Genesis 32:25 (like the New International Version [NIV] seen above) seem to imply that this man was unable to defeat Jacob during this wrestling match. But it's not that the man could not overpower Jacob; it's that he did not overpower Jacob. In other words, it was not that this man couldn't overpower Jacob because he lacked the ability to do it- it simply refers to the fact that Jacob refused to give up during this wrestling match.
You see, it appears that Jacob was giving it everything he had during this wrestling match. It also appears that this match was a draw until the man dislocated Jacob's hip by simply touching it. Now if this man had the ability to disable Jacob just by touching his hip, then its clear that he also had the ability to defeat Jacob at any time during this match if he really wanted to.
"When the man saw that he could not win against Jacob, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that it was dislocated as they wrestled" (Genesis 32:25 GW).
So if all this man had to do was touch Jacob on the hip to disable him, then why didn't he just do that right in the beginning?
Well, the best answer seems to be that God let Jacob wrestle all night to demonstrate that he could never succeed through the use of his own strength and ability. Remember that Jacob was a very shrewd, cunning, and clever guy, but God used this wrestling match to show him that he would never make it simply by using those qualities alone. In fact, what God demonstrates to Jacob in these verses is the exact opposite of something that many people are taught today, and that is that people should be taught to "believe in themselves" and use their own strengths and abilities to overcome life's difficulties and challenges.
While this idea of "believing in yourself" sounds like a good idea at first glance, there are some serious problems with this concept when you take a closer look. The first big problem is that the idea of "believing in yourself" is just not taught in the Scriptures. In fact, the idea of "believing in yourself" is really more of an anti-Biblical philosophy when you really stop to think about it.
You see, this concept of "believing in yourself" is something that is characteristic of a humanistic (or human-centered) worldview, an idea that is in direct opposition to the teachings that we find in the Scriptures. One explanation for this conflict can be found by looking at something that Jesus once said in John 15:5...
"I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing."
When people are taught that they should just "believe in themselves," then they are also being told that they should depend on whatever personal skill or ability they possess. But if people are believing in themselves, then they are not believing in Jesus- and without Him, they can do nothing, just as we read in the verse quoted above.
So rather than teaching people that they should believe in themselves, it would be better to teach people that they should believe in Jesus and in His ability to work in their lives. This idea is summed up in the New Testament book of Philippians where we read, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." (Philippians 4:13 NKJV).XI
So even though Jacob's opponent had the power to easily defeat him, it seems that God wanted to demonstrate to Jacob that he could no longer depend on his personal skill or ability for success. From this point on, Jacob was going to have to place his faith in God alone.
"Then the man said, 'Let me go, for it is daybreak.' But Jacob replied, 'I will not let you go unless you bless me'" (Genesis 32:26).
In saying to Jacob, "Let me go..." this man implies that Jacob was preventing him from leaving in some way. Perhaps Jacob was grasping or holding on to him even while struggling with his dislocated hip. But there's something unusual about this statement when you think about it. For instance, if you were in a wrestling match with someone who had the ability to disable you with one touch, would you try to hold on to that person?
Well, if you are like most people, the answer is probably not. In fact, the chances are good that most people would rather try to get away from a person like that. It's also unlikely that someone would seek a blessing from a stranger following a wrestling match- but Jacob clearly realized that this was no ordinary man.
You see, Jacob made an important statement when he said, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." This is important because the Scriptures specifically tell us that a person of lower rank always seeks a blessing from a greater person, and not the other way around (see Hebrews 7:7). So this statement reveals Jacob's understanding that this man was more than just someone who seemingly came out of nowhere just to wrestle with him.
Of course, if this man had the ability to knock Jacob's hip out of joint merely by touching it, he surely had the ability to get away from Jacob if he really wanted to. But he didn't- instead he said this...
"The man asked him, 'What is your name?' 'Jacob,' he answered" (Genesis 32:27).
In his play Romeo and Juliet, the famous author William Shakespeare asked, "What's in a name?" So let's think about that for a moment and apply this question to the meaning of Jacob's name. Remember that the meaning behind Jacob's name carried the idea of someone who was a swindler, deceiver, cheater, thief, or con-man. That's a bad name to live with, but God is about to fix that problem for Jacob- and He's going to do it by giving him a new identity.
Jacob clearly understood that the man he had been wrestling with throughout the night was no ordinary person- and now this mysterious wrestler was about to provide Jacob with some positive identification...
"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'" (Genesis 32:28).
So the man that Jacob had been wrestling with revealed the truth about his identity by telling Jacob, "...you have struggled with God..." Despite His appearance as a human being, the man that Jacob had been wrestling with was actually God- and because this man was God, it meant that he had the authority to change some things in Jacob's life. Those changes included giving Jacob a new and different name because Jacob was told, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel..." In other words, Jacob was told, "You will no longer be known as a con-man, a cheater, and a deceiver; I'm giving you a brand new name."
This new identity took the form of the name "Israel" a name that can mean, "governed by God." This certainly represented a big difference from Jacob's previous identity and God's reason for this change was seems pretty straightforward: "...you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."
But wait a minute- didn't Jacob supposedly lose this wrestling match? After all, Jacob was the one with the dislocated hip, right? And he was also the one who was left hanging on to his opponent at the end of their match as well. So how is it that Jacob was said to have "overcome" when he was the one who ended up limping home?
Well, the answer is that Jacob "won" by losing. While that might sound a little strange, the fact is that this is the way that people have always "won" with God. But how could that be? Well, people can become winners with God by doing the same three basic things that Jacob did:
The way to "win" with God is by losing just as Jacob did here. It's just as Jesus said in Luke 9:24-25: "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it."
"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" (Genesis 32:29-32).
So Jacob had been wrestling throughout the night with a man who turned out to be God in human appearance. But now that the wrestling match was over, Jacob decided to ask a question: "What is your name?"
It's interesting to see how God chose to respond to this question. Instead of giving Jacob a direct answer, God simply responded to him with a question of his own: “'Why do you want to know my name?' the man replied" (Genesis 32:29 MSG). Is there a reason why he would respond with such a seemingly evasive answer like this? Well, the idea behind this statement may be something like this: "Why are you asking about my name- you should already know it."
You see, Jacob's question had already been answered by the new name that he had just received- Israel, meaning he who is "governed by God." This is also why Jacob chose the name Peniel to commemorate the spot where this action took place. That's because the name "Peniel" means "face of God" (1) and Jacob had no doubt that the person that he had been wrestling with all night was actually God in human form.
But just as importantly, this would not be the last time that such a thing would occur. Many years later, God would take human form once again- but this time, He did not arrive not as the powerful adult wrestler who appeared to Jacob for a single night. Instead, He chose to enter the world as a helpless infant through the process of a normal human birth in much more humble circumstances.
So the question for us today is this: are you willing to align yourself with God and go in His direction for your life or would you prefer to make Him wrestle with you? Remember that Jacob limped away from his wrestling match with God but you can avoid a similar experience by following God's direction and plan for your life now.
(1) Fausset's Bible DictionaryNext