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Walking with a limp

February 20 2018
February 20 2018


Many wonder about the scene in Genesis 32.22-32 when Jacob, returning from Paddan-aram with his wives and children, wrestles with God. A lot of attention is devoted to who Jacob is wrestling with, but I think this misses the point. Quickly, here is what Bruce Waltke says in terms of the basic take-away:

"There is a mystery about God's presence that defies human understanding. Jacob cannot see God nor know his name in order to control the situtation. To be sure, God has revealed Himself, but he is also absconditus [hidden] ... God in humility makes Himself available to humanity." Genesis: A Commentary, 448.

By focusing our attention on the the figure in the whom Scripture has not made known to us, we forget what Scripture has placed right before our eyes. At this very moment in his life, Jacob is overcome with terror. Generally speaking, the object of that terror is Esau (Gen. 32.7) and he is preparing for the very worst (Gen. 32.8). Remember that Jacob stole his brother's blessing (read Gen. 27). This may not seem like a big deal to us and, if time heals all wounds, twenty years ought to be enough. However, Jacob knows that there are some 400 men with Esau, waiting to greet him on his arrival (Gen. 32.6). Fear mounts.

But God is also an object of his terror. Jacob feels as though God has painted him into a corner, actually compelling him to return to Canaan (Gen. 32.9-10). This very act, right now, looks like exactly the way to guarantee not only his demise, but the demise of his entire family. He is completely vulnerable before God; he wants to believe in God, trusting His covenant faithfulness, but finds it impossibly hard (Ge. 32.12). Do you remember that Jacob was promises by his mother that she would contact him when Esau is no longer angry (Gen. 27.45)? Well, that call never came.

Finally, we mustn't forget that Jacob is alone. To be sure, he's alone because of his own reactionary fear and panic, having sent his family before him. Yet, Scripture is very clear to make sure the reader understand the aloneness of Jacob: "And Jacob was left alone (Gen. 32.24)."

The themes of fear, doubt, and lonliness are absolutely critical to understanding this scene of a man wrestling with God. I think that even mature Christians (perhaps, especially mature Christians) understand what it is like to know who you are in Christ, and at the same time feel fear in the world, doubt in God's faithfulness, and alone to resolve that fear and doubt.

Jacob panics. Who wouldn't? In panic, Jacob strategizes to buy Esau’s favor with an ostentatious and overly-generous gift (Gen. 32.18). He is so terrified that he actually places his wives in a vulnerable position. Keep this in mind as well: Jacob and Laban have just entered into a covenant arrangement whereby if these women are hurt at all, Laban has a right to kill Jacob (Gen. 31.50). This ought to make Jacob cautious; Laban is a man whom Jacob has been afraid of in the past (Gen. 31.31). In fact, Jacob feels that he has only barely escaped the fury of Laban (Gen. 31.22-23, 29). But Esau is even worse. Twenty years ago Esau publicly promised to kill Jacob (Gen. 27.41, 42) before Jacob was spirited away by his mother (Gen. 27.43).

Jacob remembers that he made a bargain with God shortly after Esau’s threat. He said that if God brings him back to his parent’s house, then he will certainly worship Him (Gen. 28.21). Jacob commemorated this at Bethel. Jacob effectively placed this condition on God: get me to my father’s house, and I will be your loyal subject. Will God do this?

So much is on the line right now in Jacob's life. So much so that he cries out to God, reminding God of the promise He made to him (Gen. 32.9), but also the promise He made to His grandfather (Gen. 32.12). Jacob pleads that his life (and, secondarily, the lives of his wives and children) would be spared (Gen. 32.11). After this prayer of desperation, it seem that rather than trusting God to faithfully keep His promise, Jacob actually turns to rely on his own planning; this is the setting of his lavish gift to Esau (Gen. 32.13ff). Really, it is God who is owed an abundant offering! It is only after the gift is sent on its way and sends his family on (Gen. 32.23) that Jacob actually crosses the Jabbok (into traditionally Ammonite territory, a bitter enemy).

A terrified man, not sure if it is worth it to trust God, now stands alone with his problems. He has invested every earthly solution he has. There is nothing more, humanly speaking, he can offer. Perhaps there is one more thing he can do guarantee his safety, without trusting in God. Jacob is strong. Remember that he first entered Paddan-Aram by single-handedly rolling aside a large stone covering the well so that he might water the flock (Gen. 29.10) ... and kiss the girl (Gen. 29.11). He will use his strength again, this time to wrestle (Gen. 32.24 and 25, the only time this word is used in the Old Testament).

He is striving against a "man," but we really need to understand this as striving against God. On what basis?  Well, Hosea says that Jacob strived against Esau before he was born, and he strived against God after he was born (Hos. 12.3). Jacob is wrestling with God because he is wrestling with doubt and insecurity and unbelief, in the face of earthly fear and earthly lonliness. To be a Jacob at this moment is to be a typical person, to be fearful and lonely. But to be a Jacob at this moment is also to be a doubter, a person who has every assurance of earthly and eternal care, but to persistently wrestle against the one who guarantees that care with His own character. This is part of the very nature of Jacob; Jacob and wrestle, after all, sound similar in Hebrew.

For whatever reason Jacob refuses to take God’s promises at face value. Instead, he insists upon guarantee after guarantee. He wants even to have God’s blessing personally deposited into his own hands (Gen. 32.26).

And yet, it is not until Jacob asks for the name of his opponent that the blessing is delivered. Here is the clue to how we are to deal with our own doubt in the face of fear and lonliness. Naming in the Ancient World was very significant. Reading Genesis 32 I get the feeling that not until Jacob depended upon the character (i.e. the name) of another, would he be blessed. Another way of looking at this is that the blessing is not contingent upon personal striving as if we ought to say to ourselves, ‘if I fight long and hard enough I will get what God promised.’

Rather the blessing is contingent upon God’s own character, His name, His person, His integrity. The guarantee of God’s promise to Jacob is His own promise-keeping character. I think that Jacob is finally learning that striving reveals two things. First, it reveals the doubting nature of humankind in the face of not just true adversity, but the felt adversity that comes from even unfounded fears and self-imposed loneliness. But second, by God's extraordinary grace, our striving reveals the unchanging and unflinching character of God.

According to His own plan and for the purpose of His own glory we suffer the pangs of this world. But also according to His plan and purpose, He shows us more and more of His character. We do not know the mysterious "man" of the passage, but in Christ our fear and loneliness unveils more and more of our caring Father.

And so, Jacob limps his way through life. But lets consider that although Jacob’s limp reminds him of his tendency to doubt God, it also reminds him of God's abundant grace. Christian, in the covenant of grace, our limping faith is more than enough!


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