Relevant Verses: Genesis 32-36
Theme: A Changed Life
Leading Question: What if victory looks more like being defeated? What if strength feels more like being weak?
After his wrestling match with the unnamed man at Jabbok, Jacob was told: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Gen 32:29, NASB). This change of name takes place not once but twice. After the encounter with Esau, and the episode of Dina and Shechem, God told Jacob to go to Bethel. Then we read: “After Jacob returned from Paddan Aram, God appeared to him again and blessed him. God said to him, ‘Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be called Jacob; your name will be Israel.’ So He named him Israel” (Gen 35:9–10).
“Jacob” is the name he acquired because he was born holding on to his brother Esau’s heel. It signaled his his posture during the key events of his early life. He bought his brother’s birthright. He wore his brother’s clothes. At his mother’s request, he took his brother’s blessing. When asked by his father, “Who are you, my son?” He replied, “I am Esau, your firstborn.”
Jacob was the man who wanted be Esau. Why so? Because Esau had one thing he did not have: his father’s love. “Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebecca loved Jacob.”
All that changed in the great wrestling match between Jacob and the unknown stranger. After they fight, he tells Jacob that his name would now be Israel, “for you have wrestled with God and with man and have prevailed.” This is in sharp contrast with the name “Jacob,” one who “holds on to his brother’s heel.”
After wrestling with the divine being and coming out as the victor blessed by God, Genesis 32 tells how Jacob frantically prepared to meet his brother Esau. The last time we saw the brothers together, twenty-two years earlier, Esau had vowed to kill Jacob. We know about Esau’s character, that he is violent, and tempered. Yet when he appears and greets Jacob, all the fears turn out to be unfounded. Esau runs to meet Jacob, throws his arms around his neck, kisses him, and weeps. He shows no anger, resentment, or threat for revenge.
In watching the brothers meet we should also note that Jacob bowed down to the ground seven times (Gen 33:3) prostrating himself before Esau. Each member of the family does the same (Gen 33:6–7). Another part to pay attention to is Jacob’s choice of words. Five times he calls Esau “my lord” and twice he calls himself “your servant.” This is truly a choreography of self-abasement.
Question: Why did Jacob act fearfully even after he had overcome?
Question: Jacob had just won the victory over his adversary in the wrestling match at night, was blessed, and received a new name. Should he not have confidence that henceforth he would have the ability to survive any conflict?
In light of three powerful statements about Jacob, (a) his victory and new name, (b) the prophecy given to Rebekah when the twins were still in her womb, “the elder will serve the younger,” and (c) Isaac’s blessing, “Rule over your brothers and may your mother’s son bow down to you,” it should have been Esau who bowed down to Jacob. However, when the encounter takes place, Jacob the victor appears weak.
Question: When is weakness powerful?
He had even sent gifts and when Esau refused them, Jacob replied in the following extraordinary words:
“No, please, if I have found favour in your eyes, accept this gift from my hand, for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably. Please accept the present [birkhati, literally “my blessing”] that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have everything” (Gen 33:10–11).
Jacob’s words to Esau, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God,” echo his words after the wrestling match, “He called the place Peniel, saying, ‘It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared’” (Gen 32:30). Altogether, chapters 32 and 33 (the preparations for the meeting, the night-time struggle, and the meeting itself) echo time and again with variants on the word “face” (Hebrew panim). This is missed in translation, because the Hebrew word panim has many forms that are not evident in English. To take one example, Gen 32:21 reads in English:
“You shall 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.’”
This verse alone contains the Hebrew word panim for “face” four times. Literally, it should be read, “for he thought, ‘I will wipe [the anger from] his face with the gift that goes ahead of my face; afterward, when I see his face perhaps he will lift up my face’” (my emphasis).
Rabbi Sacks asks the question, “What is going on here?” and then helps us understand that “the clue lies in Jacobs use of the word “blessing.” This takes us back to Gen 27, where we read that “Jacob, dressed in Esau’s clothes, takes his brother’s blessing” which was:
“May God give you of the dew of heaven and the richness of the earth.
An abundance of corn and new wine.
May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.
May those who curse you be cursed and those who bless you be blessed.”
This is the blessing Jacob took away from his brother, dressed in Esau’s clothes, taking Esau’s place.
However, there was a second blessing by Isaac to Jacob later. Esau had married two Hittite women. This was “a source of grief to Isaac and Rebecca” and so, Rebecca takes this as an opportunity to send Jacob away to her brother Laban, where he would be safe from Esau. Before Jacob leaves, Isaac blesses him in these words:
“May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful
and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples.
May He give you and your descendants the blessing of Abraham,
so that you may take possession of the land where you now live as an alien,
the land God gave to Abraham.”
What Isaac is doing in the second blessing is handing on to Jacob the legacy of Abraham, saying, it will be you who will continue the covenant into the future. This blessing was given by Isaac to Jacob knowing that he was Jacob. There was no need for Jacob to disguise himself and deceive his father and his brother. Isaac had reserved the right blessing for each of his sons. The blessing Jacob took away from his brother by deception was never meant for him. And so, after twenty-two years, when Jacob met Esau, he was giving back the blessing he had taken all those years before. The herds and flocks he sent to Esau represented wealth (“the dew of the heavens and the richness of the earth”). The sevenfold bowing and calling himself “your servant” and Esau “my lord” represented power (“Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down before you”). Jacob gave back what he had stolen. In effect, he says to his brother, “please take not just my gift but also my blessing.”
The last observation is about the change of name, from Jacob to Israel. “Jacob” meant, in the past he held on to and struggled to be Esau. The name “Israel” also means struggle, but in a different way. From now on, he would need to hold on to God.