“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)
“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)
My generation, whose childhood spanned the decade of the 1960s, might be the last in which even nominally Christian parents sent their children to Sunday School. We were tutored in the more colorful and vivid Bible stories: the parting of the Red Sea, Jonah and the whale, Daniel in the lions’ den, Jesus healing the paralytic.
Jacob and Esau made it into the rotation because of Jacob’s opportunistic fleecings of his brother: Esau’s pathetically foolish trade of his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew (Gen 25:29-34) and the literal “fleecing” where the smooth-skinned Jacob donned animal skins to deceive his father Isaac into believing he was blessing his hirsute brother (Gen 27:1-40).
But the more I read this story, the more I’ve come to realize that it represents, in the life of Jacob, a progression from a nominal faith to a solidly founded, more fully surrendered one. While the more-familiar episodes I cited are vivid and memorable, they’re really just two illustrations of Jacob’s character over a period of many years.
In the realm of spiritualized interpretation, Esau was the ancestor of Edom, a near neighbor of Israel but symbolizing the flesh in opposition to spiritual Israel, the name eventually given to Jacob. Esau shows a complete disregard for the value of his birthright in both spiritual and material terms by his impulsive “bargain” with Jacob for stew.
But if you read the narrative from Genesis 26-32, Jacob isn’t quite so spiritual as his acknowledgment of God at various points might suggest. As with many nominal believers, he surely recognized the opportunities for material blessing inherent in being part of a community of believers. Esau may have despised his birthright, but Jacob harbored, in part, a mercenary interest in the blessing of God.
Second, we know from Proverbs 16:7 that “when a man’s ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.” Alternately, in the history of Israel, when the nation followed God wholeheartedly, he gave them peace or rest on all sides.
But Jacob’s ways, once uncovered by both Esau and then his uncle Laban, while bringing prosperity to him also meant he had to flee from their anger in fear. Jacob was a restless man in more ways than one.
If, as the old proverb goes, God helps those who help themselves, Jacob was keenly attuned to how he could “help himself” in every situation, whether exploiting Esau’s lack of self-control or managing the reunion with his brother years later by sending massive amounts of gifts to appease and mollify him.
Third, while Jacob could discern and appreciate the intervention of God on his behalf at various stages of his life, he seemed to hedge his commitments as if not quite sure God would deliver on his promises.
When he had the “Jacob’s ladder” dream at Bethel (Gen 28:10-21), a couple of details reveal he’s holding back. At the site where the vision took place, he set up a rock as a memorial, but does not do what other biblical figures did at key landmarks in their history: set up an altar and offer a sacrifice. It’s good to remember the acts of God, but a sacrifice means taking from the flock; it’s costly.
(By the time Jacob brokers a treaty with Laban, who has overtaken him after seven days of pursuit, it must have finally dawned on Jacob how great a deliverance had occurred, because at that point he does offer a sacrifice [Gen 31:54].)
And despite this unusual revelation from God, there’s still the slightest hint of reservation. Jacob’s vow is, “If God will be with me and watch over me . . . then the Lord will be my God” (28:20-22). After the vision of continual fellowship symbolized by ascending and descending angels, this is a less than wholehearted response. His was a fair-weather faith which, by biblical standards, was a contradiction in terms.
Fourth, while Esau is quick to realize the significance of Jacob’s name when he is tricked (“Isn’t he rightly named Jacob? He has deceived me these two times.” [27:36]), Jacob insists on his innocence when dealing with Laban, though he has employed the same kind of deception on him in giving Leah rather than Rachel to him. And then, as Jacob complains, Laban “changed my wages ten times” (31:41). There’s no sense at all that he sees the chastening hand of God in this turn of events.
Just as nominal believers may still have a zeal for the truth of God’s word, their righteousness is essentially self-righteousness. As Paul wrote, “if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law . . . You who preach against stealing, do you steal?” (Rom 2:18-21). Others could see Jacob’s sin clearly, but not him.
Finally, it wasn’t until Esau’s showdown with Jacob at the Jabbok that a fundamental change took place. Jacob did all he could do by sending gifts ahead when he heard Esau was coming to meet him. He divided his entourage (to provide a better chance of some escaping?), but was left alone.
And then he wrestled all night with “a man” who asked him his name. At that moment, it probably appeared that he was about to reap what he had sown and that all his striving had left him in a weak, vulnerable, perhaps hopeless, position. He may have imagined the promises of God disintegrating before his eyes.
But the flesh wars against the spirit and never gives up easily. Jacob wasn’t ready to quit. So the man “touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled.” Jacob was incapacitated.
But Jesus said the kingdom belongs to “the poor in spirit” (Mt 5:3). In saying his name, Jacob finally recognized who and what he was—deceiver, of Esau, his father, his uncle, his God, himself.
In that instant, fully aware of his sin and weakness and fully aware of his need for God, he was changed. “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared” (32:30). The running, the fear, the restlessness, the doubts about God’s goodness—gone. He was on solid ground. And because of that, he became Israel.