Jacob’s Next Twenty Years (29-31)
Jacob travels to Laban, who is his uncle, so that he can find a wife and not marry any of the Canaanite women. Laban takes him in and Jacob begins working for him. Laban tells Jacob that he must not work for him for free. So Jacob asks to work for Rachel so that he can marry her. Jacob loved Rachel and agrees to work for seven years for her. The text tells us that working those seven years “seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her” (Genesis 29:20). When the seven years were over, Jacob asks to marry Rachel. So the wedding festival is put together but when Jacob wakes the next morning he finds out that he had been given Leah, which was Rachel’s older sister, rather than Rachel. Jacob runs to Laban, asking why he would be deceived by him. The irony of this deception cannot be missed since we have seen Jacob be the deceiver throughout his life so far. Laban says he could not give the younger daughter before the older daughter. So Jacob agrees to work seven more years for Rachel, but he only must wait a week to marry her. It is between these two women and their handmaids that the baby wars begin. You will notice in Genesis 29:31 that God is behind this. “When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.” Back and forth these two go so that there are 11 boys born to Jacob at this time. Jacob is ready to leave Laban at this point but Laban wants Jacob to stay because he realizes that God is blessing Jacob (30:30). So Jacob agrees to work six more years for Laban and in return Jacob will take the speckled, spotted, and black lambs and goats from the flock. Laban tries to cheat Jacob again by taking out the striped and spotted of the flock, giving them to his sons and putting them out a distance of a three day journey. So Jacob peels fresh sticks so that the strong animals would breed among the sticks, so that they became striped, speckled, and spotted. God is continuing to bless Jacob even though his uncle is trying to deceive. In chapter 31 God tells Jacob to return to the land of his inheritance and God will be with him (31:3).
Preparing To Encounter Esau (32:1-23)
There is one big problem about going back to the land: Esau. Remember that Jacob had swindled Esau out of the birthright and blessing over 20 years ago. He has not seen Esau in all of that time. Esau openly declared that he was going to kill Jacob the next time he saw him. So Jacob sends messengers ahead of him to tell Esau that he is coming and desires to find favor in his sight (32:3-5). The messengers return and say that they came to Esau. Esau is coming to meet you and he is bringing 400 men with him. Look at Genesis 32:7. “Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed.” So Jacob prays to God.
And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.'” (Genesis 32:9–12 ESV)
You will notice that we have a humbled Jacob. The conniving deceiver has been transformed by the relentless grace of God. He recognizes that he is not worthy of all the deeds of steadfast love God has displayed to him. Jacob left with nothing but a staff (remember that we saw him sleeping on a rock for a pillow) and has now returned peoples, riches, and possessions. Jacob pleads with God to deliver him on the basis of the promise God made to him. You said, Lord, that you would do me good and make my offspring as the sand of the sea. Therefore, deliver me from my brother who is coming with 400 men. Remember that God had promised, “The older will serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). Jacob starts sending messengers bearing a great amount of gifts, trying to soften Esau’s heart (32:13-21). Then Jacob sends Rachel, Leah, their servants, and his 11 children across a river with his possession to protect them from attack and spends the night alone, waiting for Esau to come. Jacob thinks he is doomed.
Wrestling With God (32:24-32)
Now we come to an unusual scene. While alone, a man comes and wrestles with him until daybreak. The man was not prevailing against Jacob, so he touched Jacob’s hip socket, putting Jacob’s hip out of joint while they wrestled. The man asks Jacob to let him go but Jacob refuses until the man blesses him. By merely touching Jacob’s hip, it becomes evident to Jacob that he is wrestling with more than a man and asks for a blessing. So listen to what the man says to Jacob in verse 28. “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Now Jacob truly knows what has happened in this wrestling match. Listen to what Jacob says in verse 30. “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” Jacob realizes that he was wrestling with God.
Now instead of being perplexed by this scene, we need to ask why God does this. Why does God wrestle with Jacob? Why does he allow Jacob to struggle equally? While Jacob is clearly strong, God could have whipped him if he wanted to. So why doesn’t he? What is the message God is communicating to Jacob? Let’s reset our scene. Jacob is fearful about meeting his brother Esau. God said that Jacob would be blessed, that God would be with him, and that the older will serve the younger. Jacob is praying for help and this is God’s answer. God changes his name from “deceiver/cheater” to “God strives” or “God fights.” He strives with God and with people and have prevailed. Jacob, you are now called Israel because you have struggled with God and people and prevailed. How can Jacob be winning these encounters? Because God is fighting for Jacob. God is with Jacob. God fights for him. Jacob was to take hope in this encounter that God is with him and is fighting for him and prevailing. You have nothing to worry about with your brother. You will prevail.
This message continued to the nation of Israel. Please consider that the name of the nation of God’s chosen people was Israel, “God fights.” Israel’s power and existence was not by its own strength but through the blessing and power of God. They exist not by self-sufficiency but by striving with God to receive the blessing. To sum up the message to Jacob: continue to strive with God for he strives for you.
God’s Message To Strive
Now we may consider this and think of striving with God as completely negative. We shouldn’t struggle with God! We shouldn’t strive with God, right? But we see many people in the scriptures who in humility strive with God and receive a blessing. There are many times where Moses strives with God. Think about how often Moses would act as a mediator between God and the people. Moses would act as an advocate on behalf of the people and would also act as an advocate for God to the people. Abraham strives with God when he discusses the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah and the number of righteous people in the city and if these cities would be spared. Habakkuk struggles with God when God reveals that he is going to use the Babylonians to judge and destroy the nation of Judah. Ezekiel struggles with God when God tells him to cook his food over human dung and Ezekiel requests to that he use animal dung instead. Job struggles with God.
Why should I take my flesh in my teeth and put my life in my hand? Though he slay me, I will hope in him; yet I will argue my ways to his face. This will be my salvation, that the godless shall not come before him. (Job 13:14–16 ESV)
This event in the life of Jacob was something for Israel to put their hope and trust in — that God strives for them. Notice this in Hosea 12.
The Lord has an indictment against Judah and will punish Jacob according to his ways; he will repay him according to his deeds. 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 favor. He met God at Bethel, and there God spoke with us— the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord is his memorial name: “So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God.” (Hosea 12:2–6 ESV)
Do you see the point? Hosea tells Israel that God is striving for them. So return and wait for your God. God is on your side. The New Testament teaches us this same principle.
Jesus taught a parable teaching us to do similarly in Luke 18.1 And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3 And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ 4 For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.'” 6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7 And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8 I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:1–8 ESV)
What else is God telling us to do but to strive with him? The teaching of the parable is to be persistent in prayer to God and not lose heart. Keep telling God what you need. Keep placing your requests before his throne. We do not look to ourselves in difficult or in uncertainty but strive with God for a blessing. Please consider that God did not remove the reasons for Jacob to fear. Rather, God tells Jacob to depend on him. In the same way, God does not remove our reasons for fear or uncertainty. But God tells us to depend on him. There is no room for self-sufficiency but for persistent dependence on God who fights for us.
This is the love of God and a great blessing to us. God gives himself in such a way that Jacob can wrestle with him and win so that he knows that God is with him and he will be victorious through God. But we should know this because this is the message of cross. What did God do? God became flesh and let himself lose to our wrestling with him, putting nails in his hands and feet and hanging him on a cross. God did this because he fights for us. Yet he fought for us. How amazing is it that God strives with us! This is the relentless grace of God on display. His grace must move us from deceivers and cheaters to humble faith in God. God continues to be gracious so that we would see that God is for us. The child of God remembers that God fights for him, allowing him to live in confidence and fearlessness.