SynopsisJacob has left Laban, and brought his family with him. He’s going to return home. But now he faces another problem: Remember Esau? Jacob’s brother? The brother that threatened to kill Jacob? That Esau? Yeah, that problem still isn’t taken care of.
Luckily, Jacob hasn’t forgotten about this either. He sends his servants ahead, to give Esau a message: “I’ve been staying with Laban, and the LORD has been good to me; he’s given me wives, and children, and flocks. I’m just sending this message ahead, to find favour in your eyes.” (paraphrased; find the real quote in verses 4–5.)
There, that oughta do it. That’s probably all taken care o— sorry, what’s that? Esau got the message, and now he’s coming to meet Jacob? With 400 men? Oh dear.
Jacob hears this, and the first thing he does is split his families up into two groups; maybe if Esau attacks one of the groups, the other group can still escape. The second thing he does is pray:
Then Jacob prayed, “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups. Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.’” (verses 9–12)
His next move is to start buttering Esau up with gifts. Not just one big gift; he creates numerous gifts, which he sends separately:
- 200 female goats and 20 male goats
- 200 ewes and 20 rams
- 30 camels
- 40 cows and 10 bulls
- 20 female donkeys and 10 male donkeys
He instructed the one in the lead: “When my brother Esau meets you and asks, ‘To whom do you belong, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?’ then you are to say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us.’”
He also instructed the second, the third and all the others who followed the herds: “You are to say the same thing to Esau when you meet him. And be sure to 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.” So Jacob’s gifts went on ahead of him, but he himself spent the night in the camp.
Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until the next chapter to find out what happens, because the brothers won’t meet until then.
That night, Jacob sends his family and his possessions across a river—I don’t know which one, or if it’s important—and is left alone on the other side. And the rest of the chapter is strange enough that I might as well just include it here and let you read it for yourself:
So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”
Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.
If it helps, the name Israel means “he struggles with God”, and “Peniel” means “face of God”.
ThoughtsIn an earlier chapter, Jacob described God as “your God” to Isaac—a sure sign that Jacob didn’t know God himself. In this chapter, Jacob is still calling God “God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac” (verse 9), but there is a difference now: It’s not because Jacob doesn’t know God, or doesn’t want to claim Him as his own personal God; it’s a sign of respect. Jacob has definitely changed, when it comes to his relationship with God. Now, his immediate reaction in crises is to pray.
His wrestling with God at the end of the chapter is also significant. Very significant. If you attend church, you’ve probably heard it mentioned in sermons. I’m sure there are millions of Bible commentaries out there that go to great lengths about this episode. Unfortunately, I don’t know what it means. (I read some of the commentaries I could find online, and it’s still not clear, to me.) What I do take away from this is a picture of Jacob wanting God’s blessing so badly that he would not let “the man” go until he had it. We would do well to want God’s blessing that badly.
I don’t know if Biblical scholars understand this, and it’s just my own ignorance that prevents me from getting it, or if it’s one of those things that lots of people don’t get. (At least one of the commentaries I read seemed to also be fuzzy about it, but it also didn’t seem to be written by a real scholar either, so that doesn’t say much.) However, passages like this that we don’t understand—whether it’s something an individual doesn’t get, or something more universal that most people don’t quite understand—still serve an important purpose: They cause us to put some serious thought into our Bible reading.
When you read a passage like this, that you just don’t get, it forces you to stop and think about what you’re reading. You can’t just read through it a mile a minute, like you can with some of the passages that you think you understand. Of course, really, we should read every passage in the Bible like that.