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A Battle You Can’t Afford to Win – The Story of Jacob’s Conversion

July 6, 2015

4x5 originalOne of God’s stranger affections in the Old Testament is the special love He had for Jacob. We are currently reading this story in daily Mass.

The name Jacob, according to some, means “grabber” or “usurper.” Even in the womb, he strove and wrestled with his twin brother Esau. And although Esau was born first, Jacob came forth grabbing his brother’s heel. Thus he was named Jacob (“grabber”).

And although he was a “mama’s boy,” he was also a schemer, a trickster, and an outright liar. Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, favored him and schemed with him to steal the birthright from his brother Esau, by lying to his blind father Isaac and obtaining the blessing under false pretense.

Esau sought to kill him for this, and so Jacob fled north to live with Laban, an uncle who was even a greater trickster and schemer than he. For fourteen years he labored for Laban, hoping to win his beloved Rachel, Laban’s daughter. In wonderful payback, Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Rachel’s “less attractive” sister, Leah, by hiding her appearance at the wedding. Jacob had thought he was marrying Rachel, but when the veil was pulled back … surprise! Only seven years later would Jacob finally secure Rachel from Laban.

Frankly, Jacob deserved it all. He was a schemer who was himself out-schemed by someone more devious than he.

Yet God still seemed to have a heart for Jacob. At the end of the day, God loves sinners like you and me as well. And in the story of Jacob, a hard case to say the least, God demonstrates that His love is not based on human merit. God knows and loves us long before we are born (cf Jer 1:5) and His love is not the result of our merit, but the cause of it.

There came a critical moment in Jacob’s life when God’s love reached down and worked a transformation.

It was a dark and sleepless night in the desert. And for reasons too lengthy to describe here, Jacob reached a point in his life when he realized that he had to try to reconcile with his brother Esau. He realized that this would be risky and that Esau might try to kill him (he did not; they were later to be reconciled beautifully).

Perhaps this was the reason for Jacob’s troubled sleep. Perhaps, too, his desire to reconcile with his brother pleased God. But whatever the reason, God reached down to touch Jacob.

We pick up the story at Genesis 32:21

I. DISTRESSED man – The text says, So the [peace] offering [to Esau] passed on before him; and he himself lodged that night in the camp. The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. (Gen 32:21-24)

Jacob is distressed. He has, somewhat willingly, and yet also for reasons of his own, sued for peace with his brother Esau so as to be able to return to his homeland. How his brother will react is unknown to him. And thus Jacob is distressed and sleepless.

And so it is for many of us, that our sins have a way of catching up with us. If we indulge them, sooner or later we are no longer able to sleep the sleep of the just, and all the promises of sin now become like overdue bills to be paid.

Now that Jacob has come to this distressed and critical place in his life, God goes to work on him to purify and test him. On a dark and lonely night in the desert, Jacob finds himself alone and afraid, and God will meet him. Note three things about how God works:

1. God brings Jacob to a place of isolation – This is difficult for God to do! Oh how we love distraction, noise, and company. We surround ourselves with so many diversions, usually in an attempt to avoid considering who we are, what we are doing, where we are going, and who is God. So God brings Jacob to a kind of isolation on this dark and sleepless night in the desert. The text says, And Jacob was left alone; It’s time to think, it’s time to pray and look to deeper issues.

2. God brings Jacob to a place of confrontation – verse 24 says, and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.

Who is this “man?” The Book of Hosea answers the question and also supplies other details of the event. He strove with the angel and prevailed, he wept and sought his favor. He met God at Bethel, and there God spoke with him– the LORD the God of hosts, the LORD is his name (Hos 12:4-5).

Yes, it is the Lord who wrestles with, who strives with Jacob. God “mixes it up” with Jacob and shakes him up. And here is an image for the spiritual life. Too many today think that God only exists to affirm and console us. He can and does do this, but God has a way of afflicting the comfortable as well as comforting the afflicted. Yes, God needs to wrestle us to the ground at times, to throw us off balance in order to get us to think, try new things, and discover strengths we did not know we had.

3. God brings Jacob to a place of desperation – The text says, When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him (Gen 32:25).

It is interesting to consider that God “cannot prevail” over Jacob. Though omnipotent, God will not simply overrule our will. And thus in striving with Jacob, God can only bring him so far. But God will leave him with a lingering memory of this night, and with the lesson that Jacob must learn to lean and to trust.

Jacob is a hard case, so God disables him. By knocking out Jacob’s sciatic muscle, God leaves him in a state in which he must lean on a cane and limp for the rest of his life. Jacob must learn to lean, and he will never forget this lesson, since he must physically lean from now on.

Thus Jacob, a distressed man on a dark desert night, wrestles with God beneath the stars and learns that the answer to his distress is to strive with God, to walk with God, to wrestle with the issues in his life, with God. Up until this point, Jacob has not trusted and walked with God. Jacob has schemed, manipulated, and maneuvered his way through life. Now he has learned to lean, to trust, and to realize that he is dependent on God.

II. DEPENDENT man – The text next records, Then the man said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

If the “the man” is God, as the text of Hosea teaches, then it seems odd that God would have to ask someone to “let him go,” and for Jacob, a mere man, to say to God, “I will not let you go.” As if a mere man could prevent God from doing anything!

But the request of “the man” may also be understood as a rhetorical device, pulling from Jacob the required request. So the man says, “Let me go!” But God wants Jacob, and us, to come to the point when we say, “I will not let you go!”

In saying, “I will not let you go,” Jacob is finally saying, “Don’t go, I need your blessing! Lord, you’re my only hope. I need you; without you I am sunk!”

God needs to get all of us to this place!

This critical moment has brought Jacob the insight that he must have God’s blessing, that he wholly depends on God. And this leads us to the next stage.

III. DIFFERENT Man – The text records, And the man said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Gen 32:27-28).

Here is the critical moment: Jacob finally owns his name. Previously, when his blind father, Isaac, had asked him his name, Jacob had lied, saying, “I am Esau.”

But after this encounter with God, Jacob finally speaks the truth, replying, “My name is Jacob.” And in saying this there is a kind of confession: “My name is Jacob. My name is deceiver, grabber, usurper, con artist, and shyster!”

Thus Jacob makes a confession, acknowledging that all his name “literally” implies of him has been true.

Having received this confession, God wipes the slate clean and gives Jacob a new name, Israel, a name that means, “He who wrestles or strives with God.”

In being renamed, Jacob becomes a new man. He is different now; he is dependent. He will walk a new path and walk in a new way, with a humble limp, leaning on the Lord, and striving with Him rather against Him.

And thus Jacob (Israel) wins by losing! God had to break him in order to bless him, and cripple him in order to crown him. Jacob would never be the same again; he would limp for life, always remembering how God blessed him in his brokenness. Scripture says, A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise (Ps 51:17).

Postscript – There is a kind of picture of the “new man” Jacob has become in the Book of Hebrews. By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph and bowed in worship, leaning on the top of his staff (Heb 11:21). Yes, Jacob learned to lean. He limped for the rest of his life. He needed a staff to support him. He learned to lean.

Have you learned to lean?

There is a battle you can’t afford to win: the battle with God. Yes, that is a battle you cannot afford to win! Learn to lean and to delight in depending on God. This is the story of Jacob’s conversion. How about yours?

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Comments (10)

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  1. Karen Parker says:

    Thank you for this explanation of the story of Jacob. For so long I have not understood why God did not prevail. But now it makes so much more sense. Also I did not realize that Jacob had a limp after this struggle. Thank you again.

    Here is my question: how can we grasp that such a powerful and awesome God loves us? We seem so microscopic in comparison to His “greatness”. Thank you.

  2. Debbie S says:

    “His mother, Rebekah, favored him and schemed with him to steal the birthright from his brother Esau, by lying to his blind father Isaac
    and obtaining the blessing under false pretense.”

    Twins, equals, who deserves the blessing of Abraham. Let them fight for it! Who wants the birthright, who wants to serve the Lord! The Lord told Rebekah the winner, she watch him grow and could see in him the future of the blessed people. Isaac preferred Esau because he was fond of game, not a good enough reason to pass along such an important blessing. Both parents were dismayed with Esau and his chose of wives, he cared little about their concerns, unfit most certainly to carry out the will of the Lord. Rebekah was in the right in who should prevail with the blessing, Isaac’s eyes were open to see the truth after the fact and proceeded to give Jacob a greater blessing that included promises made to Abraham. Abraham’s blessing came from not a birthright but from a great faith. Isaac also shared in that great act of faith of his father, not easy for father or son. The next in line to recieve the blessing took a risk, ‘my father will curse me, my brother will kill me’ but he fights his fears, his father does not curse him, his brother does not kill him, he will experience hardships but in the end will fight one more fight and will win with the Lord blessing him, You are Israel, my servant who I will be with always. Israel, God’s servant has been in many battles, many hardships, but the blessing will survive to the end.

  3. Nick says:

    God wrestled the Leviathan (figuratively) and won, so Jacob had no chance of winning. The wrestler became the wrestled, for our salvation and to God’s greater glory.

  4. edraCRUZ says:

    Israel, from a man, to a family, to a kinship, to a community, to a nation, to a world into a universe that even now wrestle with GOD. Yes, we wrestle with HIM with our minuscule combined strength in arrogance, stubbornness, stupidity and we will never win against HIM Who holds us, all of us in HIS Hand. We turn our backs against HIM in our puny pride of indifference and disobedience. But how can we when HE is all over around us. Oh man, you who were known and loved even before the world was formed return to HIM in humility and you will find your place. YHWH EL GIBOR!

  5. Richard Connell says:

    The angel or God shows divine power by causing the sinew of his thigh to whither all at once. And thereby Jacob had an unforgettable reminder of the divine nature of the encounter all of his life.

    I wonder if Jacob let himself be part of a ruse concocted by Isaac and Rebecca to give the blessing to Isaac in way that caused the wrath of Esau to fall on Jacob and not on Isaac. If that were true, then Jacob thereby showed himself worthy of the blessing in that he willingly took Esau’s wrath upon himself and shielded Isaac, his father. That the odor lamb skin wasn’t noticeable while the odor of Esau’s clothing was noticeable is surprising.

  6. Debbie S says:

    The fact that Esau would go against the wisdom of Abraham and marry canaanite wives should have disqualified him for disobedience in carrying forth the mandate set forth by Abraham. Isaac should have put his foot down but caved in to his son. Esau would follow his own course and Isaac would even give him his blessing, blindness has come upon this house until Isaac see’s clearly about the blessing as holy and not to be given carelessly. The Lord prevented Isaac from causing great
    damage to Abraham’s Promise. Esau was unfit by his own choses whereas Jacob took to heart Abraham’s wisdom and did not marry just for the sake of women but for the sake of the lord and his promises.

    • Debbie S says:

      One last point in regards to Rebekah and Jacob securing the blessing of Isaac through the backdoor with Jacob having bought the birthright from Esau and his mother helping him to be Esau that Isaac could blessed. Isaac wanted to bless his firstborn with the Lord’s approval before he dies. The Lord hears his prayer, the Esau he can bless will be firstborn by stew not birth and Isaac sees Esau in the Lord’s eyes.

  7. Richard Connell says:

    I’d would also like to say that Jesus, in the parable of the prodigal son, when He get to the part about the eldest son, invites the hearer to recall Jacob:

    Luke 15: 29 “he answered his father thus, Think how many years I have lived as thy servant, never transgressing thy commands, and thou hast never made me a present of a kid, to make merry with my friends;”

    Gen. 31: 38 “Was it for this that I spent twenty years in thy service? All that time, thy ewes and she-goats were never barren, no wether lamb of thine did I take for my own eating.”

  8. Christopher says:

    Msgr –

    Any thoughts to a blog on what these “scandalous” changes to the Church that CNN is touting? Like Bible translations, I am always wondering what was “really” said, but also what your thoughts about “changes” that are being thought to take hold. I have loved being Catholic because of the resistance to relativism (the major scourge of society today), but I am undoubtedly frightened as to what changes could the Holy Father be referring. CNN using words like “what believers would consider ‘impure’ and ‘threatening’…families need a miracle.” Granted…definitely attention grabbing to say “impure,” but if that is indeed a quite, what is going on?
    Thanks if you do blog. I don’t typically read comments, but as I have always trusted your shepherdship and teaching, I figured I might turn to you for help on understanding what is going on…thanks for your prayers.

    • Msgr. Charles Pope says:

      I really can’t say what the pope has in mind. I think we all know Pope Francis tends to speak off the cuff and so these may not be carefully chosen words by him but just a way of saying that not everyone likes what is going on in the Church. Clearly that is so. I think so many mostly fallen away Catholics like to say that the Church is out of date and are “scandalized” by the seeming severity of the Church. But any way, really, who knows what the pope meant at that moment? More fruitfully one should look to the Pope’s more carefully crafted statements of the past six months which have quite strongly reaffirmed the traditional family. He has spoken against Gay “marriage” etc. The Media filters this, and jumps on any ray of “hope” they see from him.

      My advice, don’t listen to CNN or any major news outlet. All of them are a mess. I stick to mainly Catholic feeds these days and am increasingly unplugged from this “culture.” I do wish the Pope would do less of these asides. And when he does cause confusion, a little clarification could help. Sadly, that is seldom forthcoming

      By the way, Jimmy Aiken is usually pretty good on decoding the pope stuff.