Cornered By Laban, By Esau, By God

Today’s reading, Genesis 31-33, takes us along as Jacob gathers his flocks, herds and wealth (and Rachel steals her father’s household idols) and makes a run for it. Ten days later, Laban caught up with him, and they reconciled – probably only because God had warned Laban in a dream not to say anything to Jacob, good or bad. So Laban pretty much only asked questions. Jacob answered them. They set up a watch pillar – not so much as a point of worship as it was a monument to their mutual mistrust – and if you hear someone using the term “Mizpah” to describe God’s blessing on an affection between two separated by distance … they missed the context.

Jacob pledged an oath “in the name of the Fear of his father Isaac.” (His father had reason to fear the Lord.) He offered a sacrifice, held a feast for his pursuing kinfolk, let ornery old Grandpa Laban kiss the kids goodbye.

Then Jacob and Laban parted ways.

As Jacob popped the tentpegs and journeyed on, angels met him. What interaction they might have had with him isn’t shared. But he did sent emissaries on toward his brother Esau, toward whose country Edom he was headed. He sent the message that he had acquired wealth during his stay with Laban and sought to find favor in Esau’s eyes.

The brevity of the response that came back disturbed him: Esau was on his way with four hundred men.

Jacob assumed the worst; that his selfishness and deceit against his brother had not been forgiven, and Esau’s vengeance would be swift.

A general like his grandfather Abraham, Jacob separated the troops so that at least some might survive if Esau thought he had slaughtered them all. And he sent gifts to placate his brother, widely spaced, so that as his brother encountered each party, the gifts would increase and increase and increase. Finally, he sent everything he had (but his family) across the Jabbock ford and remained on the other side, alone. I think it was a last-ditch attempt to save his family; if they told Esau that Jacob was still on the other side of the river, he might not waste time killing them all, but rush past them to get to his brother.

That night, Jacob had a most unusual experience – even more extraordinary than his dream about the angels, the ladder and God’s voice from heaven.

So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

The man asked him, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob (“He Grasps”), but Israel (“He Struggles With God”) because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”

Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”

But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. ~ Genesis 32:24-31

Exhausted, crippled, unable to escape, Jacob/Israel looked up … and there was Esau/Edom.

And the most extraordinary ending came to this part of Jacob’s story.

It’s an epic story. The main character is as much anti-hero as hero. He’s complex. He cheats his brother. He conspires with his mother. He lies to his father. He succeeds. He tries to live and deal honestly with his uncle. He fails. You care about him. He becomes the personification of God’s people, the one for whom they are named: Israel. It’s a fascinating story, well worth deeper study than these few lines can contain.

Several years ago, I wrote a short post about studying scripture that references the surprise ending to the conflict between Jacob and Esau, having no inkling that all these months later I might actually try to blog through the entire Bible in a year:

We don’t study like we used to.

Perhaps it’s bad that we don’t study as much as we used to.

Perhaps it’s good that we don’t study the way we used to: to prove what we already “know” to be true.

We still need, like Jacob, to wrestle with God. We need to have our spiritual hips knocked out of joint once in a while, so that we can’t escape facing what we fear.

Because what we fear most just might be the long-absent older brother we’ve cheated, running with his army to catch up to us and deliver – not vengeance – but a kiss of greeting and an embrace of love.

Love casting out fear: the last thing we expected. ~ “Wrestling With God”

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One thought on “Cornered By Laban, By Esau, By God

  1. in the movie Rounders, a mizpah is defined simply as a huge and unexpected blessing of rescue. Professor Petrovsky tells the story of growing up in a rabbinic family, and breaking that family’s heart because once at the yeshiva, he could not hear God in the texts. His mother let him leave the yeshiva and go to law school, though it alienated him from the rest of the family. The gift she gave him, allowing him to leave a life that was crushing him, he called a mizpah. He seems to view it as kind of a “Pay It Forward” thing. I dunno — sounds cool, tho

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