Friday, February 4, 2011

Jacob - Israel

This afternoon I watched a television program ("Ancient Almanac" on the History International channel) in which rabbis and other Jewish scholars expounded the story of Jacob. I love hearing rabbis' perspectives on these things; it's so eye-opening.

And the one story that baffles them all, but hearing them tell it suddenly no longer baffles me, is the one of Jacob's wrestling all night with a mysterious man.

The setting is, Jacob had cheated his twin brother, Esau, out of his inheritance. (The story is told in Genesis 27.) Esau had decided to kill Jacob, so their mother has sent Jacob away to live with her brother. En route, he makes an astonishingly arrogant deal with God: "And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If the Lord God will be with me, and guard me throughout on this journey, on which I am going, and give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, and bring me back in safety to the house of my father, then shall the Lord be for a God to me." (Genesis 28:21-22)

So far, God has done all this. Now, twenty years later, Jacob, having become a very rich man, is returning to the land of his father. He isn't sure how his brother Esau will receive him, but he gets word that Esau is approaching, with 400 men. He sends gifts for Esau in the form of cattle and sheep and goats and camels and donkeys. He divides his camp into two companies, reasoning that if Esau attacks one, the other may get away. He sends his two wives, two concubines, and sons across the river and a very frightened Jacob prays a humble prayer this time before bedtime.  From Genesis 32 (Septuagint):

24. And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him till the morning.

25. And he [the man] saw that he prevailed not against him; and he touched the broad part of his [Jacob's] thigh, and the broad part of Jacob's thigh was benumbed in his wrestling with him.

26. And he [the mysterious stranger] said to him, Let me go, for the day has dawned; but he [Jacob] said, I will not let you go, unless you bless me.

27. And he said to him, What is your name? and he answered, Jacob.

28. And he said to him, You name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name; for you have prevailed with God, and shall be mighty with men.

29. And Jacob asked and said, Tell me your name; and he said, Why do you ask after my name? and he blessed him there.

30. And Jacob called the name of that place, the Face of God; for, said he, I have seen God face to face, and my life was preserved.

31. And the sun rose upon him, when he passed the Face of God; and he limped upon his thigh.

32. Therefore the children of Israel will by no means eat the muscle which was numbed, which is on the broad part of the thigh, until this day, because the angel touched the broad part of the thigh of Jacob -- even the muscle which was numbed.

So the first signal flag here is this: that although we are specifically told it was a man against whom Jacob wrestled, Jacob himself recognizes that he has wrestled with God! How can this be?

The second alert comes when the man numbs a muscle in Jacob's thigh. The mysterious man cannot prevail in the wrestling match yet has the power to deaden Jacob's muscle with a mere touch? Is this not a clue that the man could very easily have prevailed, but was letting Jacob win, perhaps to teach him something?

"Your name will be 'Israel', he says. And the rabbi explained that 'Israel' means 'He who struggles with God' and furthermore the Chosen People, says the rabbi with a shrug, have always been like that, beginning with Abraham, bargaining with God, challenging Him, confronting Him, questioning Him. An interesting name, isn't it, for a people who have rejected their Messiah?

You, Jacob, struggled with God, but in the end you humbled yourself, and - all without His losing! - you won. God wins when you do.

The third alert is that the stranger will not tell his name, calling to our minds the later time when God would not tell Moses His name, saying only, "I am Who I am."

And the fourth alert is that Jacob will not disengage from the struggle until he has received a blessing.  The winner, asking a blessing from the loser? Rather, not the loser, just the one who chose not to prevail. Why should his blessing be desirable?

Again, as with Abraham when he received three men who, we are told, were God, Jacob encounters a man who is God. God in both stories is humble: He receives hospitality from Abraham, He graciously condescends not to prevail against Jacob. It seems so obvious, doesn't it? Both incidents signify in advance the God-Man Jesus. Our gracious God did not fail, at every turn, to prepare His people for the time when He would take human flesh and walk among us.

Well, you already knew this, but I have been deaf, dumb, and blind most of the time, and this, today, struck me like a thunderbolt so I had to write about it.