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Nov 1 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

October 27, 2013 – Genesis 32

Jacob’s Two God-Encounters

Now as Jacob went on his way, the angels of God met him. Jacob said when he saw them, “This is God’s camp.” So he named that place Mahanaim.
Then Jacob sent messengers before him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. He also commanded them saying, “Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: ‘Thus says your servant Jacob, “I have sojourned with Laban, and stayed until now; I have oxen and donkeys and flocks and male and female servants; and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find favor in your sight.”‘”
The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and furthermore he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” 
Genesis 32:1-6

INTRO: We don’t see it immediately, but  this is an elaborate story

It develops through four distinct and  clearly marked units
– each unit is framed by the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning and end
• 1-8, “two companies” (this is the meaning of the Hebrew word Mahanaim)
• 9-12, “I will prosper you”
• 13-21, “he spent the night there”
• 22-31, “crossed the Jabbok”
– Esau’s approach with four hundred men creates an urgency that builds suspense, driving the story forward
• yet at two points the storyteller intentionally slows the pace of the action
• these are moments when Jacob encountered God

Jacob again arrived at a border crossing

When he made this trip previously (going other direction), he saw a vision of angels
– the same Hebrew word is translated angel and messenger
– in his first vision, they were crossing a bridge between earth and heaven — messengers or mediators
• here they are more like escorts
• this vision is an indication of the ominous nature of what is coming

Behind, Jacob escaped a father-in-law whom he infuriated
– ahead, his brother whom he infuriated is advancing
• Jacob sent angels (messengers) of his own “angels” before him
○ literally, before “the face of him”
• it’s been twenty years and he can’t be certain of Esau’s feelings — could he hold a grudge that long?
– in verse 4, the words lord and servant should be inside the quotation marks:
“To my lord Esau, thus says your servant Jacob”
• it is an unmistakable indication of his subservience to Esau

Jacob learned Esau was coming – with four hundred men (typical size of a raiding party in 1 Samuel)
• the storyteller takes us inside Jacob’s mind: “greatly afraid and distressed” (Hebrew: “pressure,” we’d say “stressed”)
• he immediately divided his family and possessions

Vv. 9-12, Before making another move, Jacob prayed

We’ll come back to this – just notice, it’s a simple prayer
– it contains all the important information

Vv. 13-21, Jacob prepared a gift for Esau

The value of it was enormous — “a king’s ransom”
– there was an important reason for this
• it wasn’t just for Esau
• Esau would have to compensate the four hundred men with him, who had likely planned on plundering Jacob’s possessions
– but Jacob did not send the gift all at once
• he delivered it in small packages
• let Esau absorb the surprise of first before next arrived, in the hope that each one would soften his heart

Vv. 22-32, The chapter ends with a spooky story

It will leave us with lots of questions

I have mentioned before the role of border guardians in legends, folk tales and myths
– it is a powerful and sometimes supernatural character
• the guardian challenges the hero as he attempts to cross a bridge or venture through a narrow pass
– is this an angel? a devil?
• Robert Alter observed in the fact that he refuses to divulge his name he “resists identification”

Let’s go back now for a closer look at Jacob’s two moments of encounter

Jacob’s prayer

Everett Fox observed, “Jacob will have to deal with God before he can resolve his problem with Esau.”
– what Jacob has to get worked out, is himself

Remember, he is in a high-stress mental state
– so it is wise for him to slow down at this point and pray
• prayer helps us to objectify an event or situation
○ under stress, it’s easy to personalize everything
• prayer can bring our minds to a more rational state
○ first prayer, then planning and preparation
– prayer also helps us to redirect our attention
• from our stressors to God
• it’s a way to enlarge our perspective – to get the big picture
○ the big picture exposes our illusions that are created by fear, anxiety, despair, and so on
○ in prayer, we look beyond immediate crisis and anchor our hope in the future
• a similar enlargement of perspective occurs in the poetry of Psalm 73
○ only there, the poet doesn’t just look at his own future, but the future of evil people
○ their wickedness had been the source of his inner turmoil

When I pondered to understand this,
It was troublesome in my sight

Until I came into the sanctuary of God;
Then I perceived their end.
(Psalm 73:16-17)

The form of Jacob’s prayer:

  1. How he addressed God: “of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac” – what God had been to them
    – “O Yahweh” – as he has experienced God for himself
    • God’s always and everywhereness, and his here & nowness
  2. The basis of his request: “You said”
  3. His confession – I didn’t get this far on my own
    – this is beautifully illustrated with a word picture of him crossing that valley twenty years earlier with only his walking stick
  4. His request, which is admittedly motivated by fear, “Deliver me”
  5. He repeats basis of his request “You said”
    – why does he remind God of his promise? Why do we quote scripture in our prayers?
    – because prayer is conversation, it is dialogue

Jacob wrestled with God

This is not sitting under a tree observing the birds of the air or considering the lilies of the field
– it is a struggle – we wrestle with God over many issues
– what we have been called to believe and become does not come easily

“What is your name?”
Martin Buber argued that in biblical Hebrew this is not how a person is usually asked to give their name
– rather they would ask, “Who is your name” or, like Jacob asks, “Please tell me your name”
– a person was asking for something else when he said, “What is your name?”
• it’s getting behind the name to its meaning — “Who are you?” “What defines you?”
– Jacob’s whole life had been defined by conflict
• whoever names us, defines us
○ i.e., whatever names stick: lazy, stupid, genius, etc.
• “Your name shall no longer be Jacob”
○ he was becoming something else
– Jacob was his false self–defined by his birth, competition with brother, and family life
• here he discovered his true self – Israel, “ruled by God”
– when Jesus said, “whoever wishes to save his soul will lose it; but whoever loses his soul for My sake will find it”
• he was talking about losing our false self (with all of its illusions) to find our true self

Disabled, Jacob would no longer be able to wrestle
– after an encounter like this, we don’t always walk away knowing our opponent any better
• we may not know God any better
• but we come to know ourselves
○ like our hero here (Israel/Jacob), we may slip back into the old self sometimes
○ but if we are given a permanent wound, it acts as a reminder: God rules

CONC: Regarding Jacob’s leaving home and returning, we have another before and after connection

Leaving, he encountered God in a lonely place that he named Bethel (house of God)
– returning, he named the place where he wrestled with God Penuel (face of God)

This brings us to a key word threaded through the whole chapter
– “face,” which does not appear in the English translation as frequently as in the Hebrew text
• in fact, in verse 20 face occurs four times
• the main tension through the chapter is located in the space between Jacob’s face and Esau’s face
○ the ultimate resolve, however, is when Jacob finds himself face to face with God

We are being transformed
• through prayer, we receive the grace to reinterpret our situation
• through meeting God face to face, we are given a new identity
○ we discover who we are — our true self

In the meantime, in all our stresses, we live gratefully that God brings us through them with our “souls” intact (v. 29)

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