Thursday, December 24, 2009

Jacob Wrestles Alone -- Genesis 32:22-24

Now he arose that same night and took his two wives and his two maids and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream. And he sent across whatever he had. Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

Jacob has put his best shot forward in sending his presents to Esau ahead while he stays in the camp that night. I’m sure he did not sleep too well if at all. What we do know is that he arose sometime in the middle of the night, woke up all his immediate family (Rachel and Leah, his eleven children, and the two maids, and crossed the shallow part of the Jabbok river. The water here is really a stream that takes its rise in the mountains of Gilead, and falls into the Jordan to the south of the lake of Gennesareth. It is now called the Zerka.

You will remember that earlier in our studies we wondered whether or not Jacob had daughters other than Dinah who was referred to in Genesis 30:21. The words in our current passage, especially Genesis 32:22, do not help us answer that question. The text says Jacob took his “eleven” children with him that night. Yet, scripture had listed twelve children up to this point – eleven sons [Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah through Leah: Dan and Naphtali through Rachel’s maid Bilhal; Gad and Asher through Leah’s maid, Zilpah; Issachar and Zebulum through Leah; and Joseph through Rachel] and one daughter, Dinah through Leah. So, in the absence of other evidence, we must conclude the word ‘eleven’ here must refer to the sons of Jacob. If so, then we are faced with an interesting question: were Jacob’s female offspring left behind that night or were they included in the immediate family but just were not mentioned? The thought of them being left behind is not one I prefer to linger on. Instead, I would go with the premise that in a patriarchal society, female children were not always mentioned. Either way, we are no further ahead on whether or not he had more than one daughter at this point in our study.

There is also some potential confusion here in these verses that should be identified. In verse 22 Jacob actually crosses the ford or stream of Jabbok with his family. But in verses 23 and 24 we read that he ‘sent’ them across the stream and then he was left alone. Several possibilities exist. It is possible that he helped them all get across and then went back to get the last of his belongings and night fell upon him, so he remained there, some think to pray, some say to get a good’s night sleep for what was ahead the next day. It may have also been dangerous to cross the water in darkness. It is also possible that there was a second stream to cross and this refers to that one, where he may have just sent them across and waited behind to be alone. Finally there is the possibility that the confusion rests with our use of the language. It is possible that in verse 22 the word ‘took’ refers to Jacob having had his family ‘taken’ by his servants across the ford and indeed he remained behind for a while. The New Living Translation (NLT) does indeed see the difficulty with the original texts and suggests that interpretation.

The words that come next are for most of us difficult to comprehend. The text says that when he was alone “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” It is those last two words, “until daybreak” that indicate this happened during the night and it was, from Jacob’s perspective, perhaps a dream that resulted in a physical reality. Alternatively, it may well have all been a real physical occurrence.

Then we read, “a man wrestled with him”. The initiative for this contest clearly came from the “man” whom we learn later in the text is no ordinary man. Jacob was not desirous of this fight that lasted for a long time. So, who was fighting him? The text is silent at this point on a clear identification of who this was. Biblical scholars taking the entire Bible into account believe it was an Old Testament special appearance of Christ as part of the Godhead or Trinity, before his human incarnation in Bethlehem. This was possibly God in human form. But did Jacob know, during it, that he was indeed doing battle with God? Where did he get his strength to fight God all night? What drove him?

This last one in particular is a very good question. Perhaps the only way to respond is in the manner of the Greek philosopher-tutor Socrates with another question. What drives you and me to fight God most of our life? You will remember that Jacob is a very resourceful person who succeeded in just about anything he put his hand or mind to accomplish, even if it was with God’s help. And God had chosen him as someone through whose lineage the Savior of the world would come as promised in the covenant first made to his grandfather Abraham, then his father Isaac, and then to him (Genesis 28:14). But for God to use him like He would, God had to deal with Jacob’s one major weakness – the fact that he was too strong in his own ability, he was too resourceful, and his dependency on God was a secondary matter. I can identify a little with that feeling or thinking. By the grace of God, I have lived a successful life to date and am enjoying my senior years with relative peace, ease, and fairly good health. While when I stopped to think, I realized it was only because of God that this was possible, He was often an added element in the thought equation of my success. One day God decided to put an end to that and brought me to the point that I could do nothing, absolutely nothing, but be totally dependent on Him for mercy. It was then that God could start using me the way He wanted to. It was then he allowed me to write and publish my first book, reach pastors through conference speaking, help churches, lead a mission, and assist individuals with their personal spiritual challenges. And it was and is all God’s doing, not mine.

Jacob was in a similar place. Now it was time for God to deal with him, so He came down to wrestle with him once and for all. And Jacob fought back hard, as we all do.

We need to go back to the issue of whether this was indeed a dream or vision or whether it was a real physical interaction. There are those that fall into both camps of thinking. Personally, I do not believe that it matters and perhaps it is for that reason that we are not told. What we do know for sure is that Jacob was alone to fight his fears and to have his weaknesses dealt with. And that is the case with us. Although many may support us and coach us, and train and prepare us, ultimately it is us alone that face whatever fears haunt us in life. There is no escaping that.

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