Today is Rosh Hashanah, and on this occasion let us reflect on the life of Jacob.
“And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 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. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 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.” …And there he blessed him… The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.” (Genesis 32:24-31 ESV).
It is clear from the above verses that Jacob finished the night’s wrestling match looking the worse for wear; yet God chose to congratulate him on his triumph. According to the KJV, these were God’s words to Jacob (vs. 28) – “…for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” It is worth examining why Jacob’s fight won God’s approval.
Nothing in Jacob’s early life or character marked him out as a worthy heir of a great spiritual heritage. Although God chose him even before he was born, his life up to that point was marked by an almost defiant self-sufficiency. In his mother’s womb, apparently, he struggled with Esau, his twin, to be the first one out, and failing this, he was determined to seize by foul means – the fair means having been exhausted when Esau slipped out first from the birth canal – the spiritual inheritance that was due to Abraham’s seed, and so he lived up to his name, which means ‘supplanter’ or ‘deceiver’. In childhood, he took advantage of Esau’s weakness to force him to sell his birth-right to him and then he deceived his blind father Isaac into handing him the blessing intended for the firstborn. Esau, finally, had enough, and swore to get his revenge once their father had passed away; and Jacob fearing for his life ran away to his uncle’s home in faraway Chaldea.
On his way, he had a divine encounter – in a dream he saw “a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!”. God re-affirmed His promises to Abraham and Isaac, indeed, promising Jacob the very inheritance he had sought and which was the Lord’s alone to give, besides His unfailing care. Though awestruck, Jacob, as was his wont, tried to strike a bargain with the Almighty: “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that thou givest me I will give the tenth to thee” (Genesis 28:12-17, 20-22 RSV). In other words, “God, if You will do these four things, only then, shall You be my God and deserving of my tithe.” Now, just who did Jacob think he was? He would soon find out. Yet, God demonstrated much kindness and tolerance in overlooking Jacob’s foolishness. His watchful care remained with him in the difficult years that followed, and all Jacob’s trials were God’s instruments to mould his character.
Jacob discovered that his uncle Laban was cut of the same cloth, and employed deceptive tactics to get the better of him. After he had served him 7 years in exchange for Rachel, Laban’s younger daughter, he gave him her elder sister in marriage, and demanded another 7 years in return for the woman he loved. Laban continued to use false promises to extract a total of 20 years of service from him and might have cast him away with nothing, had God not intervened. When God commanded him to return home, he chose to leave secretly with his family and possessions because he feared Laban and his sons. As Laban chased his fleeing nephew across the desert, God met him and commanded him to leave Jacob alone.
Jacob’s troubles were far from over for now he had to contend with his old rival, Esau who, learning of his return, set out to meet him with 400 (possibly armed) men. Fearing for his life and for the lives of his family, Jacob did something quite out of character – he separated himself from the company, and called upon God. He approached this nightly prayer vigil with the same forceful ‘do or die’ determination, as he had all his past battles. Yet, this particular fight clearly pleased God. How many in our churches today fight with such vehemence for their spiritual inheritance? How many continue in their first zeal for the gospel or persist in battle to fulfil their spiritual potential? Now, why did Jacob, who had failed every battle in his life up to this point, believe that he had a fighting chance in his duel with the all-powerful God? Whatever his reasons, he refused to surrender. Imagine that scene – surrounded by pitch darkness with the fearsome roar of the River Jabbok echoing in the background, the creature contending with his Creator. What gave Jacob this boldness, this confidence to fight? God’s word. He knew that God could not go back on His word, whatever else might happen. God’s promise to bring him home safely and grant him the inheritance of his fathers – was an unshakeable ground for Jacob to stand on, and standing on God’s word, he could not fail even in this fight with the angel.
‘…for You have exalted above all things Your name and Your word’ (Psalm 138:2 ESV). In one respect Jacob was like Abraham – he took God at His word, and his faith, like his grandfather’s, was reckoned to him as righteousness. His life and character had many flaws, but the value that he set upon his spiritual heritage – the inheritance which Esau despised – pleased God. Even before he had reached Laban’s home, Jacob had made up his mind to return to the nomadic lifestyle of Abraham and Isaac, in order to set his claim upon God’s promises. ‘By faith he [Abraham] sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise’ (Hebrews 11:9 RSV).
There is much in Jacob’s life to encourage us in our own walk with God. We learn the value of faith, perseverance, dependence on God and most of all, humility – all vital ingredients for success in the kingdom. When we compare and contrast his prayer on this occasion with his earlier prayer, we see a marked change in Jacob’s character as he acknowledged his own unworthiness and God’s great mercy: ‘God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, Lord at whose bidding I came back to my own country and to my kindred, and who promised me prosperity, I am not worthy of all the true and steadfast love which you have shown to me your servant. The last time I crossed the Jordan, I owned nothing but the staff in my hand; now I have two camps. Save me, I pray, from my brother Esau, for I am afraid that he may come and destroy me; he will spare neither mother nor child. But you said, “I shall make you prosper and your descendants will be like the sand of the sea, beyond all counting” (Genesis 32:9-12 REB). When he acknowledged that he was indeed Jacob, the deceiver, he was given a new name marking the end of all his defeats – “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28 ESV). Like childless Abraham was named the ‘father of many nations’, the failed supplanter’s new name pointed to a future of victory.
Despite an unpromising beginning, Jacob’s life became a blessing in the end because of the hand of His God. As he said to Laban – “If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been on my side, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed. God saw my affliction and the labour of my hands and rebuked you last night” (Genesis 31:42 ESV). As Israel, he was chosen to lead the nation of faith that bore his name and which, like him, would endure much adversity and yet prevail. In the end, we have God’s promise that the nation Israel like their forefather will discover their need for God. The day will come when their self-sufficiency and reliance on the strength of their allies will come to an end, and they will lean on the God of their fathers. For the final promise concerning them is this: And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob” and “this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” (Romans 11:26-27 ESV).
Father, we pray for Israel and the Jewish people today. Draw them back to You. Thank You for choosing them as Your firstborn. We believe that as in Jacob’s life, You will fulfil all Your promises to them and for this we give You thanks. In Jesus’ name.