Jacob’s life is truly a paragon of the gospel. Though not the first, he is certainly an early pioneer “sheep” extracted from a world of wandering “goats.” As we meet him in Genesis 32, he is standing on the frontier of the land promised to his grandfather Abraham.
To this point, his life has been characterized by one “power-grab” after another. He “obtained” his brother’s birthright . . . by downright manipulation; he obtained his father’s (also God’s?) blessing by trickery and deception; and, although he perhaps partially “paid” for these crimes by falling victim to his uncle Laban’s deception and underhanded business practice, he even got the better of him, “obtaining” the best of his flocks by sleight–of–hand shrewdness. Jacob clearly knew how to “work the angles.”
Well now Jacob stands boldly on the boundary of the blessing, the frontier of the “Promised Land.” Boldly? Well perhaps not. You see, Jacob does not have the forthright boldness of his hairy, he-man brother Esau. Instead he typically resorts to smooth talk and shickanery to put himself in the power position. Here he is being pursued by his brother Esau who, quite understandably, is . . . well . . . mad. In “appropriating” Esau’s birthright, you might say that Jacob really “got his goat” (in fact he got more than a few of Esau’s goats!)
But Jacob is ever the “Man With A Plan”! In typical fashion he devises a scheme to appease his brother’s anger by sending gifts to him before they meet. Sound sweet? Manipulation often does.
At this point the narrative is interrupted by the “meanwhile–back–at–the–ranch” episode of Jacob’s wrestling match. The identity of the “man” who struggles with Jacob is somewhat shrouded in mystery. The text introduces him as simply a “man,” and from Jacob’s initial point of view, that about sums it up (except for the fact that the “man” is self-evidently a very good wrestler!) But the narrative quickly makes clear that this is no “ordinary” man; this is an agent of God (angel? Jesus? God the Father?). In fact, Jacob claims to have seen the “face of God.” Whatever the precise nature of this divine encounter, Jacob is undone but not outdone; he loses the match, but gains by God’s grace the blessing he sought by his own strength.
Together the name change from “Jacob” to “Israel” and Jacob’s subsequent personal relationship with God (no longer simply the “God of my Father—the God of Abraham, the one whom Isaac fears” [Genesis 31:42]) show that this “wrestling match” was for Jacob pivotal and life-changing; it was in fact Jacob’s salvation.
Jacob’s new relationship with God was quickly put to the test. Esau is in hot pursuit. Jacob has been assured of the blessing, but not certain of how it will come about. He considers his plan to send gifts on ahead, but decides instead to lead the procession. He goes to meet his brother with nothing in his hands, and something very dramatic happens. He bows before him seven times (cultural translation: submission and contrition), but what happens next is even more shocking: “But Esau ran to meet him, embraced him, hugged his neck, and kissed him. Then they both wept (Genesis 33:4). To get a feel for just how shocking this is imagine watching the high-noon showdown of old-time Western movie where both the good guy (white hat) and the bad guy (black hat) drop their pistols, run to each other with arms open wide, and start hugging and kissing each other. EEEEEEWWWWWW!!! Get the picture?
Even those unaware of Ancient Near Eastern culture do not miss the graciousness of the reception that Esau renders to the brother that stabbed him in the back. Instead of breaking his neck, he hugs it!! What is wrong with this picture? But there is more to this story than meets the Western eye. Both of these men laid down their arms. Both of them chose to relate to each other from a position of weakness rather than power: Jacob refused to attempt to manipulate; Esau refused to retaliate.
When I read this story the other day, I was struck by the narrator’s description of the showdown between Jacob and Esau. “Where have I heard this language before?” I thought.” It came to me quickly. I remembered the story of a Father whose son had severely humiliated him, rejected his parental authority, rejected his overtures of love, demanded what he believed was owed to him, and left home for a distant land: Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son.
I submit that Jesus was drawing his Jewish listeners’ attention to this Old Testament showdown to illustrate character of God and the nature of salvation. Fallen human nature includes the tendency to use good works to influence God to love and accept them (manipulation!). If we are trying to manipulate God, we are only after his goodies. God offers a deeply personal and interpersonal relationship, fellowship, companionship—not a business (“if you do this for me, I’ll do this for you”) relationship.”
Like Jacob, the prodigal devised a scheme: I’ll slobber all over myself in contrition and offer to work for my father as a household servant. Genuine repentance came only when the prodigal, moved by the lavish, humiliating display of his father’s unconditional love, laid down his pistol and, perhaps for the first time in his life, embraced his father as his father.
Father, forgive me for any recurring false and unholy images of you as a BOSS; let me live my life free from all efforts at self-justification and attempts to work myself into your “good graces”; and let me continuously bask in the warmth of your unconditional love.