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So this week we look at Vayishlah (which means “and he sent” – Gen 32:3-36); Jacob is nearing his home, and about to meet his brother again for the first time in 20 years.

This is another Torah portion that gets me excited, because for a very long time, Jacob’s mysterious wrestling match with his nameless nocturnal visitor held many questions for me that were never answered satisfactorily, because in one way or another, any potential explanations which I came across seemed to generate more questions than they did answers (and I don’t mean in a productive/meaningful way).

For instance, I’ve heard people say that Jacob was wrestling with a territorial angel (some even suggest Esau’s guardian angel), come to prevent him from returning to his homeland to claim his inheritance. Others say it was a good angel, or the Angel of the Lord, and Jacob was contending furiously for a blessing. Still others say that it was God wanting to teach Jacob a lesson because he’d been a selfish, manipulative coward all his life who’d tried to look out for himself in his own strength, using cunning or flight as it suited him; and now he had to learn to face his problems head-on, and rely on God instead. … I’ve also heard people simply identifying the angel as the Angel of the Lord, with no explanation as to why the wrestling match took place, or what it was about at all – they claim that it’s a mystery, and should be accepted as such.

I’ve considered all these possibilities, and found them wanting to varying degrees. … Regarding the argument that it was an adversarial angel who was coming against Jacob, the Scriptures refute this directly – firstly in Genesis 32:30, where Jacob himself says that he saw God face to face in his encounter, and secondly in Hosea 12:3-5, which says,

He took his brother by the heel in the womb, And in his strength he struggled with God. Yes, he struggled with the Angel and prevailed; He wept, and sought favor from Him. He found Him in Bethel, And there He spoke to us— That is, the LORD God of hosts. The LORD is His memorable name.

And in terms of the assertion that Jacob was wrestling for a blessing… it didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Why would he need to do that? God had already promised to bless him and look after him; why did the Angel even need to appear to him, if a blessing was all he wanted? And why did they have to have a fight before Jacob could get it?

… The one interpretation that held the most explanatory power to me, it seemed, was the one where God intended to teach Jacob a lesson and deal with his character. But as I’ve noted in the last 2 posts, the Scriptures describe Jacob as a blameless man, morally upright and possessing integrity. So how’d that track?

Could it be that this passage truly was a mystery?

Then one year during the Torah cycle, I looked at this story – really looked at it, for the first time – no preconceptions, no conscious remembrance of prior teaching, just plain attention to the text – and I began to see things that I didn’t see before. … They’d always been right there in the word, in fact, but I never put them together. Here’s what I saw.

In Genesis 25:27-28, it says that Jacob was a blameless man, dwelling in tents and loved by Rebecca. While brief, this passage indicates that Jacob lived a relatively sheltered life, with all his needs provided for. Further evidence of this is given in Genesis 28:20-21, when Jacob vows after waking up from his dream, “If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God” – even though God had just promised to always be with him and not forsake him, Jacob was still concerned for his material needs.

One might think this incongruous with a righteous character, but it was no different to Abraham and Isaac lying about their wives because they were afraid for their lives – these were actions born of natural fear rather than overt wickedness, and the truth is: Jacob had reason to fear. He was entirely alone, travelling far away from home probably for the first time in his life, and even though his father had blessed him before he left, he nonetheless had left a fugitive. He had no personal fortune to speak of, and no idea what lay ahead in a strange land to which he’d never been – a land from which, if you’ll recall, his own family had been called out, and sworn never to return (Genesis 24:6-9).

When he reached Padan Aram, his uncle initially welcomed him (“Then it came to pass, when Laban heard the report about Jacob his sister’s son, that he ran to meet him, and embraced him and kissed him, and brought him to his house” – Genesis 29:13), no doubt remembering the riches that Abraham’s servant had brought with him when he sought a wife for Isaac. … But once Jacob told him what happened, he lost no time in taking advantage of him. We know this because the Scripture tells us that Jacob had been staying with Laban for a month when he said: “Because you are my relative, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what should your wages be?” (Genesis 29:15) – which means that Jacob had been working for his uncle for free, for several weeks, before propriety forced him to admit that he couldn’t do so any longer.

And Jacob, having nothing to his name with which he could pay a bride price, agreed to work 7 years in exchange for Rachel – at the end of which Laban promptly and famously substituted Leah for her sister, in order to get another 7 years of free labour out of him. And when Jacob complained, he pointedly said, “It must not be done so in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn” – a barb which he probably knew would silence his nephew because of all the trouble that happened between him and Esau back home.

And then 13 years of hardship followed, in which this man who’d lacked nothing before in his life – who’d known no deprivation or indignity, and had always tried to do the right thing in the many circumstances of his life – now had to labour with no pay (and then with constantly changing pay) at the hands of a dishonourable father-in-law, as well as deal with the unenviable task of trying to please two jealous, unhappy wives. … That sort of thing can greatly wear on a man, and when God told him at last to pack up and leave for home, it was no wonder that he became afraid when he heard that Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men.

As far as we know, Jacob hadn’t heard from Rebecca in all the time he’d been away in Padan Aram. She said that she would send for him when Esau’s wrath subsided (Genesis 27:42-45), but she never did. So if the Angel of the Lord hadn’t instructed him to return at that point, I don’t know that he would have. After all, it would’ve been entirely reasonable for him to assume that Esau was still as angry with him as ever.

… In fact, Jacob must have had a lot of time to think, over the course of 20 years. Perhaps he wondered why he ever had to run in the first place. Why didn’t God intervene to protect him from Esau? Why did he have to leave his own home, and suffer all these injustices and trials in Padan Aram? … Perhaps his conscience was tender to the fact that he deceived his father, for his own uncle deceived him repeatedly. … Was it God’s punishment for his actions?

The entertaining of such a notion on Jacob’s part would go some way, actually, to explaining why he bore so long with Laban’s machinations. And it would explain why he felt so terribly afraid: he’d obeyed when God told him to leave, but why now was Esau coming to meet him with a small army, and no acknowledgement of his greeting whatsoever? … After everything he had experienced with Laban, was God now bringing him back to suffer at the hands of his brother?

There were reasons, of course, for Jacob not to think this way. God promised him His care at Bethel; the Angel of the Lord had protected and provided for him in Padan Aram; and he saw the angelic host at Mahanaim. But you see, this is a trait typical of human nature: even when we’ve known certain realities in our walk with God, the ordeals and difficulties of life, nevertheless, buffet us and can cause our perspective to bend to the warping lens of pain. And then we start to feel and react in ways that we shouldn’t, even when we know in our minds that it’s not the right thing to do.

For see now the prayer that Jacob made to God after he divided his people and belongings in response to Esau’s impending arrival:

“O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, the Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your family, and I will deal well with you’: I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth which You have shown Your servant; for I crossed over this Jordan with my staff, and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and attack me and the mother with the children. For You said, ‘I will surely treat you well, and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’” (Genesis 32:9-12)

In other words, Jacob knew what God’s promises to him were. He knew that the Lord’s plans and intentions were for his good, not his harm. And yet in spite of this, he’d divided his camp to prepare for an attack which he was almost sure was coming, because he was terrified. And he was apologising for it – he was asking God to forgive him, and to remain faithful to His word even while he himself was losing faith… for even after praying, Jacob carried on with his precautionary measures. He sent 5 successive droves of choice livestock – goats, sheep, camels, cows and donkeys – ahead of him as gifts of appeasement to his brother, and he stayed behind with his core family to put distance between himself and his gifts, thereby allowing Esau time to change his mind if his intentions were hostile.

… Now incredibly, it is only after reviewing all these details that the context is finally and completely set. It is only now that we can turn to look at the night of that fateful, inscrutable wrestling match.

So. What do I think the fight was about? … Why, in my opinion, did the Angel come to grapple with Jacob?

Well, here it is: I think the Angel was there not to keep Jacob from going home; not to bestow a perversely difficult-to-obtain blessing; and not to humble him. … Instead, I think the Angel was there to stop him from running. Here’s why.

Recall that at Bethel, the Angel of the Lord promised Jacob: “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I WILL NOT LEAVE YOU until I have done what I have spoken to you.”

Now here Jacob was, at the very threshold of returning to his inheritance, and he was so overcome by fear that he couldn’t think straight. His spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak. And in the darkness of the night, all by himself, I think he was considering turning back the way he came, and escaping Esau while he still had the chance.

This is the only plausible reason I can think of for why the Angel would’ve come to him. Jacob didn’t have the power to summon Him, but the Angel had promised to keep him in the way, so that all God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob might be fulfilled. It’s also the only reason I can think of for why the Angel would’ve chosen to disable Jacob specifically by dislocating one of his hip joints – in that condition, he would no longer be able to run, no matter how much he wanted to. … And lastly, tellingly, in Genesis 32:26, He says to him, “Let Me go, for the day breaks” – or more accurately, in the Hebrew:

וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי, כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר

“He said, ‘Send me away, for the dawn has come.'”

The Angel didn’t simply depart after crippling Jacob. Instead, He asked him to send Him away – i.e. He wanted Jacob to assure Him that He could go, because he’d decided not to run anymore. The Angel wanted to know that He had succeeded in His mission to keep Jacob on the road home. And in reply, Jacob says, “לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ” (I will not send You away) – unless He blessed him. Because now, Jacob knew he had no other alternative: he couldn’t go back; he couldn’t run; he could only rely on the blessing of God to see him through whatever lay ahead.

And at this point, the Angel gives Jacob a new name in acknowledgement of this new internal state of acceptance, saying, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

Jacob’s greatest trial was not when he had to flee from the wrath of Esau; not the troubles and strife he suffered in Padam Aram; but this was his great test – facing himself. The Angel told him that he’d wrestled with God and won… but obviously, this was not to be taken to mean that he, a mere mortal, defeated God. Rather, the Angel was saying that he had won against himself, by struggling with God. And hereafter, this was to be the experience which defined his identity… and by extension, the identity of all those who are born (or grafted) into the nation that bears his name – all who are of Israel are defined by the overcoming of their selves in the journey to find their destiny in God.

And here’s the thing that most encourages me about this story: if you are one of His – if He has revealed a plan for you, and made certain promises to you – He will not let your weaknesses be the determining factor in whether those plans and promises come to pass. He will not coddle or cushion you from the challenges of life; He won’t exempt you from the responsibility to make right decisions; He wouldn’t let you get away without accountability or consequence; and He will still respect your free will; but when it comes right down to it – when you’re facing something which you in your finite, frail humanity cannot actually overcome – He will be faithful to keep you, even from yourself. … Basically speaking, push comes to shove, God will save you from yourself, and keep you from making the biggest mistake of your life, if He has to cripple you to do it. For your own good, and for His faithfulness’ sake.

When all these thoughts first clicked into place for me, I wondered that I’d never heard anyone teach this way about the story of Israel… but I later found out that Rashbam (c. 1085-1158), a leading French rabbi and grandson to the famous Rashi, had a similar interpretation of this passage: he wrote that the purpose of the angel who visited Jacob was to prevent him from fleeing, for only in this way could God’s promise to Jacob that Esau would not harm him be fulfilled. When I discovered that, I was astonished, but also encouraged, because it helped me to know that I wasn’t just seeing it all in my head.

… Now I’m not saying that this is the absolute, definitive way of looking at Genesis 32, but to my mind, it’s the one that best fits all the details provided in Scripture concerning Jacob’s character, the events surrounding the wrestling match, and even the way God works in terms of His saints. … And when we read on to see what happened after the encounter, the change in Jacob is apparent.

Now Jacob lifted his eyes and looked, and there, Esau was coming, and with him were four hundred men. So he divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maidservants. And he put the maidservants and their children in front, Leah and her children behind, and Rachel and Joseph last. Then he crossed over before them and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. (Genesis 33:1-4)

When Jacob saw Esau coming, he divided the women and children and ordered them according to importance, placing Rachel and Joseph last… perhaps in the hope of giving them some time and distance to escape if Esau should attack. At any rate, I take this as a sign that he was still wary of his brother, but make no mistake, he was also now ready to face him – for he walked in front of his family (whereas the night before, he deliberately remained behind them at the ford crossing) and placed himself at their head, ostensibly as leader and protector of his household – a declaration that he had resolved to put himself firmly into God’s hands, come what may.

But true to God’s promise, his fears were unfounded; the brothers had a tearful, touchingly happy reunion. And later on, when God summoned Jacob to go again to Bethel, the journey which he began 20 years ago was completed:

Then God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there; and make an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you fled from the face of Esau your brother.” And Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you, purify yourselves, and change your garments. Then let us arise and go up to Bethel; and I will make an altar there to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me in the way which I have gone.” So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods which were in their hands, and the earrings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the terebinth tree which was by Shechem. … And he built an altar there and called the place El Bethel, because there God appeared to him when he fled from the face of his brother. …

Then God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Padan Aram, and blessed him. And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; your name shall not be called Jacob anymore, but Israel shall be your name.” So He called his name Israel. Also God said to him: “I am God Almighty. Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall proceed from you, and kings shall come from your body. The land which I gave Abraham and Isaac I give to you; and to your descendants after you I give this land.” Then God went up from him in the place where He talked with him. So Jacob set up a pillar in the place where He talked with him, a pillar of stone; and he poured a drink offering on it, and he poured oil on it. And Jacob called the name of the place where God spoke with him, Bethel. (Genesis 35:1-15)

Jacob had come home, blessed and in peace, with food to eat and clothes to wear, just as he had hoped… prosperous and reconciled to his brother. God fulfilled every promise He made to him on the day he fled from Esau, and in fulfilment of his own vow, he built another altar and made another offering, and named that place El Bethel (“God of the house of God”) – for now it wasn’t just the place that was awesome to Jacob anymore, but the God who appeared to him there. And just as he had sworn 20 years ago, this God would now be his God, and the God of his entire household.

… Phew.

So that’s all I have to say about this week’s portion. At 3500+ words, I think it’s plenty. :p Next week, we look at Jacob’s children in the continuing saga of the genesis of Israel as a nation; but for now, I wish you shalom, and thank you for reading. :)