The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

Sneak becomes hero (sermon of August 18, 2008)

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Birth of Jacob and Esau []Remember Jacob and Esau? How Jacob was born holding-on to Esau’s heel?  How Jacob was given the name “Jacob” because it meant “heel-grabber” or “supplanter” or “schemer”?  How Jacob later extorted the family birthright out of his brother?  How he ran for his life—Esau threatening murder—under cover of going to Mama’s folks to find a bride?

And how, when he got there, he awakened the day after his marriage to discover that the bride of last night’s passion wasn’t the girl he’d intended to marry?  Oops.  Now he’d gotten bamboozled (let alone her, but that’s another story).

Jacob stays there at Haran for 20 years: 7 years for Leah, 7 years for Rachel, 6 more tending flocks, raising his own. He gets astonishingly rich.  And then one day, God said “Jacob, it’s time to go home.”

But Jacob’s afraid of Laban (Pa-in-law).  Laban’s been a shrewd dealer.  Kept him there for 20 years, after all.  Who knows if Laban will really let him go?  So Jacob and Rachel and Leah lay a secret plan.

Late one night, they wake the children, bring them outside under the vast night sky—and the sheep are there, and the donkeys and cattle! And the camels are saddled! The servants have packed everything they own! Quietly, the mothers and children are boosted up onto the camels and under stars beyond counting, they turn toward the east, and begin the long journey back to their daddy’s home.

There’s time to think as the days turn into weeks. They could not have traveled fast, with their herds. Jacob begins to ponder this action he’s taken, and think about the way things were when he last traveled these roads. Perhaps, as he goes, another fear starts to grow—the one he’d run away from 20 years before.  Perhaps he re-plays the trembling rage in his brother’s voice, the vow of revenge, his mother’s face of fear.

Jacob, afraid again, lays another plan.

Genesis 32:22-31

3-5 Then Jacob sent messengers on ahead to his brother Esau in the land of Seir in Edom. He instructed them: “Tell my master Esau this, ‘A message from your servant Jacob: I’ve been staying with Laban and couldn’t get away until now. I’ve acquired cattle and donkeys and sheep; also men and women servants. I’m telling you all this, my master, hoping for your approval.'”

6 The messengers came back to Jacob and said, “We talked to your brother Esau and he’s on his way to meet you. But he has four hundred men with him.”

Whoa, what’s that sound like?  Sounds like an army on the march!

7-8 Jacob was scared. Very scared. Panicked, he divided his people, sheep, cattle, and camels into two camps. He thought, “If Esau comes on the first camp and attacks it, the other camp has a chance to get away.”

9-12 And then Jacob prayed, “God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, God who told me, ‘Go back to your parents’ homeland and I’ll treat you well.’ I don’t deserve all the love and loyalty you’ve shown me. When I left here and crossed the Jordan I only had the clothes on my back, and now look at me-two camps! Save me, please, from the violence of my brother, my angry brother! I’m afraid he’ll come and attack us all, me, the mothers and the children. You yourself said, ‘I will treat you well; I’ll make your descendants like the sands of the sea, far too many to count.'”

And here’s the plan he cooks up:

13-16 He slept the night there. Then he prepared a present for his brother Esau from his possessions: two hundred female goats, twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty camels with their nursing young, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. He put a servant in charge of each herd and said, “Go ahead of me and keep a healthy space between each herd.”

How many herds? Goats, sheep, camels, cattle, donkeys.  Five—hundreds of animals!  He sets them in sequence, each one designed to overwhelm Esau with Jacob’s gift.  It’s almost like a restitution.  He’d stolen the family wealth from Esau, now he lavished Esau with wealth.

He thought, “I will soften him up with the succession of gifts. Then when he sees me face-to-face, maybe he’ll be glad to welcome me.”

21 So his gifts went before him while he settled down for the night in the camp.

But then he has another thought.  Send the family ahead …

22-23 But during the night he got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He got them safely across the brook along with all his possessions. 24-25 But Jacob stayed behind by himself…

Everything he has is completely at Esau’s mercy. I doubt that Rachel and Leah thank him for that.  And, maybe he’s thinking—way back in the most embarrassing part off his private mind—”if Esau kills them all, I might just get away.”

Daniel Clendennin, in the excellent blog The Journey with Jesus:

“Sick of his father-in-law’s manipulations, Jacob fled Laban, only to encounter his long lost and embittered brother Esau. The consummate deal-maker, Jacob concocted a bribe and sent a caravan of gifts along with his women and children across the river Jabbok. Perhaps that would pacify his brother’s murderous threats? Physically exhausted and deeply anxious about Esau, alone in the desert wilderness, shorn of all his considerable worldly possessions, powerless to control his fate.”

And there begins the strangest event in the whole story:

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

Gustave Doré: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

… and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he couldn’t get the best of Jacob as they wrestled, he deliberately threw Jacob’s hip out of joint.

Any wrestlers here?  How would having your hip dislocated affect your wrestling ability?  It’s hopeless. He’s not going to win.

26 The man said, “Let me go; it’s daybreak.”

Jacob said, “I’m not letting you go ’til you bless me.”

27 The man said, “What’s your name?”

What does “name” mean in the OT?  The Old Testament name is often a descriptor of character.

He answered, “Jacob.”

And what does Jacob mean? And what has Jacob been? The twins — the stew — the birthright — the deceiving of his father — the run for his life — the reaping what he sowed with Pa-in-law — the fear of Esau — the sending ahead of all he had as a scheme to pacify his brother.

Perhaps Jacob, that night, saw for the very first time who he really was. Perhaps in that moment Jacob saw that his own weaknesses had brought on his worst troubles. “My name is Jacob. I’m heel-grabber, supplanter, schemer. It’s me! Every time in my life, I’ve manipulated others and schemed myself into what I thought would be good, but was disaster. But now I am hopeless. I can’t control my brother Esau – I’ve earned what I’ve got coming from him. I can’t protect my family – I’ve sent them ahead to deal with my trouble. I certainly can’t defeat you. I can’t outsmart you. I can barely just cling to you. There’s nothing I can do but cling to you. My name is Jacob, but I’m tired of heel-grabbing. My name is Jacob!

28 The man said, “But no longer. Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it’s Israel (God-Wrestler); you’ve wrestled with God and you’ve come through.”

“Come through! Hardly! I’m helpless before you! I am not enough!”  What’s happening here?

29 Jacob asked, “And what’s your name?”

What’s he asking? Who are you really—what are you like?

The man said, “Why do you want to know my name?” And then, right then and there, he blessed him.

Something changed. We don’t read that Jacob learned the man’s name. But when he finally got to that subject, the man blessed Jacob, Jacob’s eyes were opened, his name and nature had been changed from Jacob to Israel —from schemer to God-wrestler who prevails.  Jacob has found a shocking new worldview. Not controlling, but surrendering to God. And in that surrender, he finally finds what he’s been looking for.

30 Jacob named the place Peniel (God’s Face) because, he said, “I saw God face-to-face and lived to tell the story!”

31-32 The sun came up as he left Peniel, limping because of his hip….

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Perhaps as a reminder of his struggle—of his helplessness—Jacob, now Israel, as far as we know, bears a limp from that battle for the rest of his life. He limps across Jabbok and into the future, unwilling to control now, but, perhaps for the first time, unafraid. Surrender was triumph.  Clendennin:

In our culture at large and in our churches too, the myths of Superwoman and Superman live large. Columnist David Brooks of the New York Times describes this as the “Achievatron” in his book On Paradise Drive. We celebrate wealth, power, strength, bravado, confidence, prestige and victory, beginning with Little League baseball for our kids and continuing right on through to their SAT scores, college admissions, first job, and first address. We abhor and fear weakness, failure, struggle, and doubt. Even though we know that a measure of vulnerability, fear, discouragement and depression accompany most normal lives, we construe these as signs of failure or even a lack of faith. In real life, naieve [sic] optimism and the rosy rhetoric about the Achievatron are a recipe for disappointment and discouragement. Sooner or later reality catches up with most of us.

The Jacob story jerks us back to reality. Frederick Buechner characterizes Jacob’s divine encounter at Jabbok as the “magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.” Similarly, in her book Scarred By Struggle, Transformed By Hope, … writer Joan Chittister … says … “Jacob does what all of us must do,” writes Chittister, “if, in the end, we too are to become true. He confronts in himself the things that are wounding him, admits his limitations, accepts his situation, rejoins the world, and moves on.”

Lori used to say that living with me was like watching a man step into moving traffic whom she had been forbidden to warn. And this lesson of Israel is a lesson that keeps have new installments. I’m learning I don’t have to be afraid. When I’m not afraid, I don’t have to control. And when I’m not afraid, I can look at my weaknesses and watch them slowly mend.


Esau, it turns out (after all that!), is delighted to see his brother. Israel stays near him for some time, then goes on to finish the journey and reunite with his father. His life will not be easy. Like most of us, there is a lifetime of habits to overcome that have affected him and his family, and there will be consequences to face from them.

And yet, it will never be as hopeless for Israel as it was as Jacob – because it’s not Jacob that Israel’s depending on.

Late in life, Israel will look back and say “God almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and there He blessed me” (48:3).  The blessing remained.

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