He and his brother were twin sons born to a woman named Rebekah, who was married to Abraham’s son Isaac. While Rebekah was pregnant with the boys, she was having so much difficulty that she asked the Lord what was going on. The Lord told her that two nations were struggling within her, which explained a lot.
The competition continued as they were being born—Esau was born first, but Jacob was holding onto his brother’s heel. Thus he received the name Jacob, which means “heel-grabber” or “supplanter.”
This sibling rivalry continued as the brothers grew. Fueled by ambition and gifted with shrewdness, Jacob cheated his older brother out of the special benefits and blessings that in ancient cultures fell to the firstborn son. Esau responded by declaring that as soon as their father Isaac died, he was going to kill his brother. Jacob found it best to get out of Beer-sheba and head up to his mother’s home territory of Haran.
On his way, Jacob stopped to spend the night. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway between earth and heaven with angels going up and down on it. God spoke to Jacob, promising to be with him and to bring back to the land he was leaving. So Jacob named the place Bethel, which means “House of God.”
He then continued his trip, no doubt fortified and encouraged by the vision he’d seen and the words he’d heard.
Believing they’ve heard God say that God is going to protect them and give them success puts a person in a challenging situation. How will they receive such a word? Will they receive it with arrogance, or will they accept it with humility? Will they strut forward proudly, feeling justified in crushing anything and anybody that stands in their way? Or will they proceed humbly, trusting God to show them how to approach obstacles and to deal with opponents?
Jacob spent the next twenty years in Haran. A lot of things happened to him there, some of them positive, some of them negative, and many of them a combination of positive and negative. But after two decades, the bottom line was that Jacob had a large family and much wealth. God had indeed protected and blessed him. Now, he was ready return home.
As the caravan neared Canaan, an advance team reported to Jacob that Esau was coming to meet him with four hundred men. Not knowing if his brother still had murderous intent after two decades, Jacob devised some strategies to try to appease his brother and, if necessary, to try to preserve at least some of his family and his holdings.
On the night before he was to meet Esau, Jacob spent the night alone beside the Jabbok River. There someone wrestled with him all night. As the new day was breaking, Jacob’s opponent hit him on the hip and put it out of joint. Jacob believed that had been struggling with God; he named the place Peniel, which means “Face of God,” because, he said, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, which means “One who strives with God,” for, God said, “You have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
Again, how does someone receive such a pronouncement? Do they receive it with arrogance? Or do they incorporate it with humility?
We see the answer, I think, in the way Jacob approached Esau the next day. Jacob didn’t boldly charge up to Esau. He rather bowed down seven times as he approached his brother. Jacob is now Israel. The one who seized Esau’s place is now the one who survived a wrestling match with God.
But Jacob walks away from the encounter with God with a limp. I suspect this means that Jacob’s entire life experience had left him with a limp. Jacob’s life with God, his life with others, and his life with himself has left him wounded and humbled.
Jacob was a great leader. His new name Israel would be the name of the nation that would descend from him. But he was a wounded leader. I suspect his best qualities developed from his wounds.
I believe that men and women whose wounds have blessed them with humility make better leaders—make better people—than those whose privilege has saddled them with arrogance.
(This article first appeared in the Barnesville Herald-Gazette and the Pike County Journal-Reporter.)