His life was characterized as a man who remained in control. He kept others off balance, a bent of his personality that focused on getting what he wanted.
At birth, he came forth clutching his older twin’s heal and was thus named Jacob or “one who snatches by the heal”. He became the person who trips others up, who gets others off balance, the one whose words appear perfectly sound but somehow fuel a self-serving interest.
He tricked his older brother Esau out of his birthright and inheritance. He stole the patriarchal blessing meant for the older twin. He managed the work-for-wives and work-for-cattle program with his uncle Laban to always come out ahead. Now it seems he had manipulated himself into a corner. Esau was charging towards him and that could only mean bad news. Even here he employed a strategy to cut his losses.
“Do not fear, thou worm Jacob!” (Isaiah 41:14). For God must have seen in Jacob a heart that wanted the things that God valued. To Jacob, His calling mattered. God’s inheritance mattered. His sacrifices to God mattered. God’s blessings mattered. God Himself mattered.
Jacob was left alone on the mountain to face himself and think. At this point, a man appeared out of nowhere (Genesis does this) to wrestle with him – perhaps an angel some say or perhaps a preincarnate appearance of Christ others say.
The match was a lesson in prevailing but not in a way we might think. Jacob didn’t overthrow his opponent. Rather this mysterious man deadened Jacob’s thigh (the strongest muscle in the body symbolizing the best of our strength) so all Jacob could do was cling and hold on. All night, where God went, Jacob went, clinging in utter dependence.
The picture isn’t suggesting that strategy, taking action, and working towards our goals are bad or that we should resign ourselves to a life of passivity. But what it does suggest is that the best of our strength is not the means to prevail before God. Rather, it is in our dependence, our trust, our clinging to God in need, and our leaning upon Him. We pray not because we are overcomers to stir up the flesh to action. We pray because we are the helpless widow who would be lost if God didn’t intervene on our behalf. (Luke 18:3).
Jacob didn’t walk away perfect. Later in life, he was prone to self-pity – another form of manipulation. Nevertheless, he was different. In this realization of weakness, limitation and true humility, his name was changed from Jacob, the heel-snatcher and manipulator, to Israel, the one who prevails with God.
The story began with Jacob rising up the hill to accomplish his plan. Now, as Jacob limped down the hill, interrupted, stripped of his control, and leaning on his staff, it was the sun that rose upon him. (Genesis 32:31) The sun had finally come over the hill.
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