Jacob and the Angels

Bethel – Genesis chapter 28

Jacob had gained the birthright from Esau by taking advantage of Esau’s appetite. We notice that the inspired narrative puts it that ‘Esau despised his birthright’, rather than that Jacob stole it from him, Gen. 25. 34. Jacob also gained the blessing which Isaac intended to give to Esau. God intended Jacob to have the blessing, but Rebekah and Jacob thought God needed their underhand methods of getting it for Jacob. God overruled their wrongdoing, which did not excuse it. Their cheating enraged Esau and there was a risk that he might murder Jacob in revenge. Rebekah managed to give Isaac a reason for sending Jacob away into safety. Isaac remains uncomprehending throughout most of these events. Rebekah and her favourite and apt pupil Jacob seem to be in control of events. But Rebekah’s understanding of events is flawed: she thought Jacob would need to be away for ‘a few days’ until Esau’s anger cooled, which was wildly optimistic, for ultimately he was away for over 20 years. She probably never saw him again; and the divine record is silent on the remaining years of her life. Jacob, though not quite as guilty as Rebekah, does not seem likely material for God’s glory, but God’s purposes do not depend on goodness or greatness for their accomplishment and His grace is as great as His sovereignty.

So Jacob left home with his father’s blessing, as God intended. He had little idea, as he lay down in the first place which he reached on his journey, of how important it was going to be in his experience. God interrupted his sleep with a vivid dream and He is the prime mover in all the story. Jacob saw that there was a stairway reaching from earth to heaven with the angels of God going up and down, and Jehovah, the God of Abraham and Isaac, present at the top of it, (or beside him, according to how we translate verse 13). God’s will is being done before Jacob’s very eyes, on earth as it is in heaven! God made a promise to him there that he would return to the land, and pledged His presence until then. Jacob had little conception of how much would be involved in this undertaking: the long and difficult journey and devious treatment he would undergo. One thing he did know was the awesome thing of dealing with a God who was in complete control and who knew all about him. God’s control in His house, unlike Isaac in his, would be more stringent than Isaac’s. And Rebekah would not be there to manipulate anything. Under these terms Jacob entered into a commitment to the God of his fathers.

Jacob was about to reach another house, that of uncle Laban. It was the beginning of a period of education for this unlikely pupil. He will need the memory of Bethel to sustain him during the complexity of conditions under Laban. Rebekah had been devious on his behalf; now he must experience the deviousness of her kinsman Laban against him. At the end Jacob would confess that he had been preserved from being beggared by Laban, through the work of God on his behalf, Gen. 31. 42.

Mahanaim – Genesis 31 – 32 This command of the Lord to Jacob, ‘Return unto the land of thy fathers, and to thy kindred; and I will be with thee’, Gen. 31. 3, begins a new phase of his experience. In his conversation with his wives in the following verses Jacob relates the assurance which the Lord had given him earlier and that He had commanded Jacob to return to his native land. In this way Jacob was reminded by the Lord of what had passed between them at Bethel. The Lord here appeared to Jacob as ‘the angel of God’, which maybe looks forward to chapter 32, where ‘a man’ wrestled with Jacob and he later said that he had seen the ‘face of God’.

Thus it was, that while Laban was away from home, Jacob took his two wives and his flocks and other possessions and set out for Bethel. Jacob crossed the Euphrates and headed for the hill country of Gilead, pursued by Laban. However, before he could catch up with him Laban was warned by God (notice it does not say ‘the Lord’) not to treat Jacob as someone under his jurisdiction. This is surely the meaning of the prohibition, ‘Speak not to Jacob either good or bad’, gen. 31. 24; it was the prerogative of a judge to pronounce an action good or bad. So the Lord protected Jacob from any domineering interference or possible violence from Laban. When Jacob and Laban reached the time to part, they did so with a mutual non-aggression treaty. This is the meaning of their ‘Mizpah’. The other side to their treaty was that Jacob undertook not to violate the rights of Laban’s daughters, Jacob’s wives. Thus, drawing a line under their uneasy business relationship, Jacob is entering a new phase of his experience of God.

One more ordeal remains before Jacob can return to his own land. He must meet Esau and finish unfinished business. But the Lord had promised to be with Jacob, and He was not going to leave him to go to that meeting without encouragement. Hence the terse statement in chapter 32 verse 1, ‘And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him’. No further explanation is given of this meeting. However, Jacob does give us some clue. He marks the event by naming the place ‘Mahanaim’ – the ‘Two Hosts’. In military terms Jacob’s ‘host’ was small, not even a match for Esau! Yet he now knows though his company was small, he had contact with all the might of God’s angels. He was not going alone to meet danger. One is tempted to remember that David, during Absalom’s rebellion, fled along and across the Jordan, then through the Jabbok ravine, until he emerged at Mahanaim to the welcome of those who provided for his needs and those of his few faithful fugitives.

Nevertheless, before he could meet Esau, Jacob had to have a demanding reappraisal of his own identity. Mahanaim is a prelude to Peniel.

Peniel – Genesis 32

Esau was coming towards Jacob with 400 men. Jacob turned to prayer and shrewdly sought to defuse any tendency to violence on Esau’s part. He knew that he had been named as the son who should have the place of superiority, and that Esau would serve him. He also remembered keenly that because of how he had treated Esau he had been an exile for twenty years. A humble attitude was fitting. It is ironic that in his address to Esau he referred to him as ‘my lord’ and to himself as ‘thy servant’ – a reversal of their ultimate positions. His statement that he would ‘appease him with the present that goeth before me’, gen.32. 20, contains two terms associated with God’s offerings in the sacrificial system of later generations.

The night before he sent his family over the Jabbok and was left alone. The Genesis account says ‘there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day’, Gen. 32. 24. In referring to the incident Hosea, says, ‘He had power with God: yea, he had power over the angel, and prevailed: he wept and made supplication unto him’, Hos. 12. 3-4.

This was a ‘theophany’, an encounter with God in human form, ‘the angel of the presence’, Isa. 63. 9, as the usual term is. We should notice this heavenly opponent took the initiative in the wrestling, also that Jacob emerged a changed man with a tangible sign of his weakness, a thigh on which he limped. We must take it that if ‘the man’ could disable Jacob so easily in what sense could He not overcome him? Perhaps the better question would be, ‘Did God intend to break Jacob?’ The answer is No. God wanted blessing to result from the contest, but He would not force His opponent to give in to Him on the basis of his (Jacob’s) strength. Jacob got the blessing, but he got it by clinging to and not crushing his opponent. If he learnt at Bethel that in God’s house God is supreme, he learnt on this occasion that one cannot force God to bless one. More important, perhaps, he learnt that one does not have to force God to bless, for it is His desire to bless.

Jacob, already lamed, now said he would not let his opponent go until He blessed him. He must first go over the ground he had covered so many years ago, ‘What is thy name?’ This was where his ambition at home had gone wrong. Then he had said he was ‘Esau’; now he must admit he was ‘Jacob’. It was vital that he had a clear sky before God if he was to reestablish his relations properly with Esau. The token was given him by God: he would be called Israel instead of, or along with, his original name Jacob. He had begun to make progress in his spiritual education

Jacob could not know the name of his Opponent, for no one may know God fully or comprehend Him within mere human terms. He could not force God’s hand; this he had learned from his wounded thigh. The one thing he could do was cling to the Source of all blessing and claim a blessing, not for his asking, but for God’s rich giving. This, for Jacob, was progress indeed!


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