By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
August 06, 2023
Genesis 32:22–31 (ESV)
22 The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 24 And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
I have mentioned often that I struggle with the Old Testament. I say this because there is so much within these words. Every word, every story, every name bears meaning in the larger story. Today’s story illustrates just how important every aspect of the story is.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned that Jacob was not exactly a person we should strive to resemble. This might have caused some of you to take a sharp breath and ask yourself, why I would say such a thing. Jacob, as I mentioned before means heel grabber. This name was given in playfulness, but names mean something. In ancient cultures names were not just given without deeper though, because people believed that a name held power. Even today, when someone uses your name in a greeting, we have a different perception about that person than we have for those that do not use our name. We develop a deeper connection with those we call by name, or with those who call us by name.
This bothers me. I do not use names as much as I would like. I want you all to know the deep care I have for you all, but I am not perfect. I have weaknesses, and one of those weaknesses is a difficulty to learn names. This in some ways comes from my limited ability to hear properly, and a learned hesitancy to speak unless I am sure I am speaking properly. I have called people by the wrong name because I miss heard their names. And in my weakness, instead of trying harder, I have taken a step back. I apologize for this. Because I know the power of a name.
Jacob’s name means heel grabber. He was given this name because he was holding onto his brother’s heel as he emerged in birth. Yes, I believe that his parents gave the name in fun, but I also believe that they had a perception about this child that he would eventually live into. Jacob, throughout his life tripped people up. He would use deception and cunning to obtain the things he wanted.
This nature within him, his deceit, his heel grabbing had given him great wealth and it had created enemies as well. Through deceit, Jacob convinced his brother Esau to trade his inheritance for a bowl of soup. Through deceit, Jacob had manipulated his own father’s handicap to obtain the blessing that should have been given to Esau. Jacob’s deceitfulness prompted his brother to enter a murderous rage. And Jacob even though he had obtained the inheritance and blessing from his father, ran for his life with nothing.
He ran from the house of his father, and he ran over five hundred miles to the north. He ran to his mother’s nation to escape from his brother’s wrath. And on that trip Jacob received a vision. We discussed this a couple of weeks ago, when Jacob had a vision of the stairway to heaven.
God met Jacob that night. God informed Jacob that he would eventually return to the land promised to his father and his grandfather. God revealed to Jacob that he had inherited the blessing and the promise that was given. This was the first step that Jacob took toward God. Prior to this Jacob did not follow in the footsteps of his fathers. Jacob was one that believed only in what he could get on his own. And the wages of that lifestyle were not as exciting as he had once thought. Deceit and corruption will give us wealth and success for a moment, but eventually the truth is revealed. Eventually we will be required to make payment. Jacob’s wages for his lifestyle of deceit were a life on the run.
Jacob did make his way to his grandfather’s house in the north. He spent the next several years serving his uncle as he cared for his uncle’s flocks. For seven years he had worked for his uncle with the hope of a wife as payment. The woman Jacob wanted was Rachel, but it was the custom in that country that the oldest women needed to wed before the younger ones. So Lebon, Jacob’s uncle, deceived Jacob and gave him Leah as a wife instead of Rachel. Jacob had worked seven years only to be deceived. Lebon eventually allowed Jacob to marry Rachel as well. This was a time and culture where it was not taboo to have multiple wives. But Jacob was required to work an additional seven years for that this.
This is where things get interesting. It was during this second term of employment that Jacob began to scheme once again. Lebon had deceived Jacob, and Jacob was not about to let that go unchallenged. When Jacob was ready to leave Labon’s house, Labon would not let him leave without payment. Jacob was a good herdsman, and because of Jacob’s skills Labon’s flocks had increased beyond what was expected. So, they came up with some terms. Jacob agreed to stay one more season. And after the lambing season was over, he would leave all pure white sheep with Lebon and would take all the speckled and black sheep as wages.Lebon and Jacob were both schemers. Lebon knew that if he had left the speckled animals in Jacob’s care his wages would be great. He separated the flocks between his sons and Jacob. He took all the speckled and striped animals and placed them under his own sons’ care and sent the rest with Jacob. This is where we get the story of the sticks. I cannot fully explain this story because I know a bit about genetics, and to be honest sticks do not affect the genetic code. And even though humanity did not understand genetics in ancient times, they were aware of how traits would be past down to the next generation. What we are told though is that Jacob used these sticks when the flocks were getting their water, and that he would place the sticks in the water when the stronger ones were coming in and would remove them when the weaker ones came for a drink. Somehow Jacob found a way to make sure that when the lambing season was over, even though he had not had the animals he expected he was able to emerge with great wealth. Jacob knew the herds and he used his knowledge to deceive the deceiver.
Lebon was not happy with the results of this deal. He honored his words, but he like Esau was enraged. Cycles of corruption ran deep in this family and both Lebon and Jacob were masters in this craft. But no one likes to be on the receiving end of manipulation. Lebon allowed Jacob to leave with his family, but just as he left Isaac’s house, Jacob knew that his life and the life of his offspring was in danger. Lebon had basically lost a year’s wages, because of Jacob’s crafty crossbreeding. He hoped that he could find some reason to invalidate the contract, but he was unable to.
Jacob left his father’s house under the threat of death, and now he is returning to his father’s house under a similar threat. Everywhere Jacob went he became profitable, but it came with a cost. Debts will always be collected. This is where we find today’s passage.
Jacob came to the ford of the Jabbok, and he took his wives, his female servants, and his children across. Remember, in much of scripture, especially the narrative portions every word has meaning. Jacob could have taken a different route back to the land of his Father. When he ran north to Lebon’s house, he took a different route, but this time he came to the ford of the Jabbok. The word Jabbok means pouring out, to lay waste, or emptying. The river received this name because of the geography. Most of the time this was a shallow crossing, but during the rains this section of the river was prone to flash floods. Meaning the depth and width of the stream could unexpectedly change rapidly. It would pour out, lay waste, and empty. Jacob crossed at Jabbok.
Once his family was safely on the other side of the river, Jacob crossed back to the other side and remained there alone. This is a pivotal moment in Jacob’s life. It is one of the few times so far in scripture where we see Jacob considering his life choices. We know the stress that he faces, he has enemies in front and behind him. He knows that at any moment his life could end, and it is because of his own actions. He sends his family across the waters to safety, but he remains in turmoil. “And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.”Jacob wrestled at Jabbok. Scholars have marveled at the word play of this story. And that I believe is the point of the story. Often, we can look at this wrestling match and honor Jacob for his perseverance, but this does not match the rest of the story, because the course of Jacob’s life changes after this. The words have deeper meaning. Jacob was left alone. Jacob sat on the banks pouring out, laid waste, and empty. Jacob is at the end of himself, and he is alone.
Then out of nowhere, someone is wrestling with him. We are not told where this person came from or how he got there. Jacob was alone and then he was wrestling. And this struggle continued throughout the night.
I want to suggest that although this is a wrestling match, it is not only a wrestling match. I believe that this is a creative description of human experience and the life of prayer. Each of us, at some point, has been or will be on the banks of some figurative river. We will have conflict on either side of us and we will be alone contemplating the way to proceed. We are alone, but are we?
The man was there with Jacob. He did not come in; he was just there. I do not know when Jacob realized this man was there. Was it a slow revelation or did he just turn and see him in an instant. All we know is that the man was there. Jacob was alone with his thoughts, and he wrestled.
I have sat on the figurative banks of just sort of a river, and I have been alone with my thoughts. And I have wrestled. Usually, I see this as wrestling with my own thoughts. I will go back and forth. I will weigh the pros and cons. I will make lists and throw them away. I will strive and strive to make sense of everything I am experiencing. I wrestle, and when I am on the banks of that river I wrestle as if I am in the Olympic medal round. “Jacob wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.”
As I look across the faces here, I know that we have wrestlers among us. I have heard stories. I have even watched some of the bouts. I know we can see ourselves in this struggle. And at times we have lost sleep over it. Jacob wrestled all night long because that was his nature. He was the heel grabber. His very name depicts this situation. He had lived his entire life grappling with those around him as he tried to get a leg up. He grabs, twists, hooks, and pivots all around the situation trying his hardest to get some sort of advantage. He is the man that takes life into his own hands and will not let go. This is his nature.
Jacob, the deceiver, the supplanter. He is the image of an individualistic life, sitting on the banks of the river alone. Yet, he wrestled through the night. What is it that is keeping us awake as we struggle? This is why this story is so powerful.
“When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob,” Again we might be tempted to praise Jacob here. He is our guy. He strives, he is strong, he uses his cunning to get what he wants. He is a bulldog of a man. He wrestled all through the night and his foe could not prevail against him. “When the man saw he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.”
This is not a story of individual strength. But stubborn pride. The person that Jacob is wrestling so passionately against, is not really fighting back. Jacob just keeps going and the man just puts up with the nonsense. All night this is going on and finally the man has had enough, and he touches Jacob’s hip socket. Just a touch, not an arm or knee bar, or an MMA banana split he simply touches Jacob’s hip.
All that struggle, all that lost sleep, ended by one touch. Jacob wrestled at Jabbok. And at Jabbok Jacob was laid waste, empty, and poured out. Jacob was broken, he was spent, and yet he clung. “Let me go, for the day has broken.” The man says to Jacob. But Jacob said, “I will not let go unless you bless me.”
The man looks at Jacob clinging to his heels, and he asks, “What is your name?”
Who are you?
I sat thinking about this passage all week. I sat thinking about it as I attended the Ministry Conference last week. I have sat considering this passage many times over the years. Who are you? What is your name? I want you to take a moment and imagine the scene. Jacob had just battled all night, and just as the day began to break his opponent touched his hip and puts it out of socket. He clings to this man’s feet with tears streaming down his face, clinging as if his very life depends on it. And the man looks down at him and simply asks who are you? “Jacob,” he says. He says through the pain, through the tear, through the sweat, “I am Jacob” This is more than a mere statement but a confession. He is proclaiming that I am Jacob, the heel grabber, the supplanter, the deceiver. I am the one that gained all this wealth through manipulation and treachery. Jacob was not merely telling the man his name, but he was confessing his nature. At the end of his struggle Jacob in his pain saw clearly for the first time.
We can wrestle all night long. We can strive. We can make plans, and manipulate others, but what does this get us? Eventually the cycle makes its way back and we look ourselves and we must admit the truth. The cycle will continue, it will turn and repeat. Over and over throughout the generations until someone stops it. Wars will continue until someone stops fighting. When I say this, I do not mean that eventually one side overpowers the other, because that does not really stop the war, it only causes the cycle to start again. War stops when someone stops fighting, because change does not happen until we acknowledge who we are. When we can do this the cycle cannot continue, and the momentum fades. Who are you? What is your name?
Jacob told the man his name, but the man looks at Jacob and says, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
What is in a name? It is our identity; it is who we are. This can be a triggering statement of late, but it is important. Jacob confessed who he was by saying his name, but his opponent called him something else. He calls him Israel. I have always thought of this as one who wrestles with God. But I looked at it a bit deeper, it means God Strives. God fights.
Jacob wrestled on the banks of the Jabbok. And he saw himself for who he truly was. He was empty, broken, poured out. He faced trials in every direction. He was living his life on his own terms and that lifestyle nearly killed him not once but twice. And now he is facing a third threat as he approaches his brother’s camp. Jacob has nothing in himself. His flocks can be stolen, his family could be lost. Everything we strive for can blow away like dust in the wind. Unless God Strives for us.
Was this a real event or just a vision that Jacob had like Beth-el? That could be debated, but Jacob walked across the river with a limp and as he lifted his eyes he watched as his brother came with four hundred men. The night before he sent everyone else in front of him as he took up the rear, but today he gathered his family and his servants, and he went before them and bowed to the ground in front of his bother in repentance. Jacob was no more. That man was emptied on the banks of the Jabbok. From now on, Israel remains.
I have wrestled and I probably will have bouts in the future. But who am I, and who are you? The gospel says that God so love the world that he sent his one unique son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life. What is belief, what is life? I have listened to debates on these very topics. I have participated in them, I have argued and wrestled. But what it all comes down to for me is that God created us to be his image in the world, but we along with our first parents bore our own instead. We started the cycles and we have allowed the momentum to continue, and what God is offering is to let him take it back. He wants to fight for us, and he wants us to trust him. Who are you? Who do you want to be?
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