Jacob was a prosperous man. It had not always been that way, but he was rich in possessions, in family, and in his relationship with Yahweh. He realised he was not the same man he had been when he was young, for Yahweh had changed him.
He was the younger one of a set of twins. He tried not to let it bother him but, if he was honest, it still irritated him a little – deep down inside. To be born seconds after a brother means a great deal in this world. But it did not worry him as much as it used to. Even as a new-born he was reluctant to let his brother go ahead of him and clung on to his heel as they were born.
All his life, being born second influenced who he was. He always thought it strange how a twist of fate – or the hand of Yahweh – could make such a difference in a life even when it occurs at the moment of birth.
So he grew up being the youngest. Although his mother loved him dearly, he became aware his father favoured his brother. He supposed that was natural. Esau would, after all, inherit the major portion of his father’s wealth.
When the time came for their father to give his blessing to his sons, Jacob knew he would come off second best. So, when his mother suggested a plan – he agreed. He did things that made him ashamed when he thought back on them. He tricked his father and cheated his brother. But he had reasoned at the time unless he put himself forward he would always suffer for being the youngest, the second son.
His father found out; his brother was so angry that their mother feared for Jacob’s life. So she packed him off to relatives who lived far away. He was reluctant to go – life was easy where he had spent his childhood and the walk across the desert to an unknown land was not appealing. Staying with strangers was not what he had planned for his life. But he could see the wisdom of her suggestion, so he ran away.
There was such a great deal about his youth that he was not proud of.
After a long journey, Jacob met up with Laban, his mother’s brother. Laban had two daughters, Leah and Rachel. The younger daughter, Rachel, was beautiful, and Jacob fell in love! She was the girl of his dreams. Laban agreed to give his daughter to Jacob in marriage if the young man worked for Laban for seven years. So he did. Seven years flashed past. At last the wedding day came. But Laban was as shrewd as Jacob was! Maybe that was why the two men understood one another. He tricked Jacob, and gave Leah to him instead of Rachel, making the excuse that a young girl did not marry before her older sister. So Jacob had to work another seven years for Rachel. It was a sacrifice, but Jacob loved Rachel and considered she was worth every day of work – she was the one true love of his life.
With all that work, Jacob had seen an opportunity to benefit in ways other than merely gaining the wife he loved. So, as he tended Laban’s flocks, he came to an arrangement with his father-in-law and the young man’s flocks of sheep and goats grew. Eventually, it was too much for his brothers-in-law to accept and they began to mutter against the foreigner.
Jacob could see trouble was brewing, so, once again, he planned to leave in secret as he thought the family would probably try to stop him. He loaded up his wives and children, gathered his flocks and herds together, and set off. He did have some trouble with Laban, who chased after him, but the two men managed to sort it out amicably. Laban returned to his home and Jacob was permitted to go on to the place where he was born. To his own family.
Jacob was concerned though. His older brother, Esau, had every right to be angry with him. Jacob had deprived him of both his birth right and the blessing of their father which should have been given to Esau as the first-born son. Jacob was sure Esau would not have forgiven him. He knew, if he had been the one who was betrayed, he would have found it difficult to forgive Esau. So it was with a degree of caution that he travelled home. In fact, he was afraid. He sent a messenger ahead to tell Esau of his return, emphasizing he was now a wealthy man. He was even more afraid when the messenger returned and told him Esau was coming out to meet them with a force of four hundred men!
So Jacob made a plan.
He divided his flocks, herds and slaves into two groups. If Esau attacked, he would only attack one half. Jacob prayed to Yahweh for himself and his family. Yahweh had been good to him. He’d only had a wooden staff when he left home and now he owned sheep, goats, camels, cattle and donkeys, and he had two wives and many children. He couldn’t believe Yahweh had given him all that, only to take it away from him. So he prayed for protection from Esau.
The next morning he chose many animals to send ahead to his brother as a gift. It was a peace offering. He hoped to appease and impress him. He instructed the servants to take the animals, one flock or herd at a time, with a distance between them so there would be a steady flow of livestock. In this way, Esau could see just how much Jacob was giving him.
He sent them off, one group at a time. They left in clouds of dust with lots of noise. Jacob told the men in charge exactly what to say. His heart was pounding in his chest as he watched them go, one after the other.
That night, he sent his family and everything else he possessed, across the stream of Jabbok. The whole day had been impressive and emotional. Crowds of animals, people and heaps of possessions were despatched. Now he felt the need to be alone. He had to have a clear head when he met his brother the next day. He hoped to avoid conflict – he didn’t want to fight Esau but feared Esau might want to fight him. Jacob needed to be able to think fast. The men he had with him were slaves, shepherds, servants, and he was afraid the men Esau was bringing with him were fighting men. Jacob would not stand a chance should there be a battle … he sat in the evening light and thought things through.
But he was not to be alone for long. A man came to Jacob and began to wrestle with him. Jacob resented the interruption to his planning. The newcomer did not speak. He just came straight at Jacob and began to wrestle. It was not a fight so much as a struggle. At some stage, Jacob began to realise this was no ordinary man. There was something different about him. There did not seem to be any intent to harm, but rather a persistence to keep going until he won. Jacob was fit and tough. He had not lived for twenty years as an outsider with Rachel’s and Leah’s brothers and never had a wrestling match with them. Some of those fights had been quite fierce. He had learned to hold his own pretty well.
The two men wrestled and rolled in the dust. At one point Jacob took off his outer garment which was inhibiting his movement. The attacker would throw him down and Jacob would recover; then he would throw his attacker down. The other man always had the upper hand, yet Jacob would not give up. He grew weary, but still, he persevered. Somehow it seemed as if this was the contest of his life and he had to win it; or if not win, come to some sort of agreement.
To and fro the two grappled, spitting dust from their mouths, pitting themselves against one another, until the sky began to lighten in the east and the new day began to break.
The day when Jacob was going to meet with his brother Esau after twenty years; when so much depended on how he conducted himself. And yet here he was, exhausted, filthy, barely able to move. He needed to finish this contest. But it was not Jacob who ended the match.
As he was gripping on to his opponent’s heel, his opponent told Jacob to let him go. But Jacob was having none of it and clung to his adversary! As the daylight grew stronger, Jacob told the man he would not let him go until he had given Jacob a blessing.
But all the stranger did was ask for Jacob’s name. Astounded Jacob told him.
At that moment his opponent did an unexpected thing. He told Jacob he would no longer be called Jacob because he had tussled with Yahweh and with men and had overcome! From that time onwards people would call him Israel.
Jacob was astonished! He had spent the night struggling with Yahweh! And now his name was to be changed! He felt as if the very breath had been knocked out of him. Gasping, Jacob asked the other man his name. But he did not give it. Instead, he gave Jacob his blessing and disappeared from sight.
As Jacob’s breath came back, he knew something had changed. He felt different. Now he wanted to go to Esau, not because he had to; not to fight, but to restore their relationship. They were brothers and they needed to be reconciled. It was as if all the bitterness of his life story had melted away; as if his heart had softened. Jacob was a new person. Not Jacob, the second son, but Israel, the one who had struggled with Yahweh.
Yet pride was not involved. Rather there was a sense of awe, that Yahweh had come down and battled with him – Jacob – he who, all his life, had had to struggle with a sense of inferiority. And one other thing had changed! Sometime during the struggle, Yahweh had touched his hip and from that day on Jacob limped. It was a permanent reminder to him of that night.
Rising from the ground, Jacob bathed in the river and brushed the dust from his robes. Crossing the river, he walked with his head held high to the place where his family was staying. He felt proud. Not proud of himself, but proud of them. They were his family; his wives and their two handmaidens and, of course, all his sons. They were a gift from Yahweh to him.
Just as the family were about to move on, Jacob looked up and saw Esau and his men coming towards them.
His heart lurched. But he was no longer Jacob who schemed and plotted; he was Israel, the one who had struggled with Yahweh. He arranged his children in groups around their own mothers, the maid servants first, then Leah, then his beloved Rachel with her son Joseph. He led the way, amazed at his own courage, and as the two brothers met, he bowed to Esau seven times in genuine humility.
Esau ran to his younger brother with tears streaming down his face and flung his arms around him, giving him such a hug Jacob thought all his ribs would crack.
Jacob tried to explain about the gifts he had sent ahead but Esau would have none of it. He asked to be told all about the family, who was who. But Jacob wanted Esau to accept his gift as a form of recompense for having cheated him all those years ago. Perhaps Esau understood, for eventually he accepted. The two men had a good time together, feasting and laughing, crying and remembering, as well as catching up with one another’s news. Sometime during the day, it was agreed the brothers would live at a distance from one another. Their combined flocks were too many in number to live too close. They felt it was best for their relationship too. Jacob may have changed, but there were still some of the old habits he had to overcome.
From then on the families lived in peace with one another. Jacob was grateful to Yahweh that he cared enough for them – for him – to spend a night in the dust wrestling with him and then blessing him as Israel. Jacob’s life became an adventure – and his beloved Rachel gave him a new son, Benjamin! He found himself wondering, from time to time, what more the future would hold.
He spent many nights under the stars, worshipping Yahweh, for Yahweh was worthy of all praise and honour. He alone was mighty. He alone was faithful!