Wrestling With the Angel

The reading on Shabbat is Vayishlach (“and He sent”), from Genesis 32:3 – 36:43, and the Haftarah reading is from Obadiah 1:1 – 1:21. The New Testament recommended reading is from Matthew 2:13-23.

The Torah reading from Genesis 32:3 starts with Jacob and his family approaching the land that the Lord had given to his grandfather Abraham.

It’s been 21 years since he left the land of Canaan, and now Jacob has a family, at least two wives, and several children. He is a wealthy man who is now returning to the Land in order to claim his physical inheritance and his spiritual inheritance.

While living in the diaspora, Jacob’s family has not been exactly clean from idolatry. In last week’s reading of the Torah we learned that his family had taken the household idols from Laban’s house with them. However, Jacob’s biggest challenge was his inevitable encounter with his brother Esau.

Jacob must have well remembered why his mother Rebecca had wanted him to flee to northern Syria, to her brother Laban’s house. It was because Esau had decided in his heart to kill Jacob, following the death of Isaac. Now Jacob has to face Esau again, this time they are both successful men of means, each powerful in his own right.

Fear and wisdom joined together to form a strategy for the safety of Jacob and of his family, when the encounter with Esau was to take place. The first step that Jacob takes before his meeting with Esau is to send a group of messengers ahead (to spy out Esau’s feelings toward Jacob and his family).

Jacob wanted to know if after all these years Esau was still full of anger and still filled with murderous intent. The main reason for this first mission from Jacob to Esau was to gather intelligence and to give Esau a good reason to be interested in meeting with his brother Jacob.

This is how Jacob’s messengers speak to Esau:

“And he commanded them, saying, ‘Speak thus to my lord Esau, “Thus your servant Jacob says: ‘I have dwelt with Laban and stayed there until now. I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, and male and female servants; and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find favor in your sight. ’”’” – Genesis 32:4,5 [NKJV]

In other words, Jacob’s messengers tell Esau the following:

“I am honoring you my older brother and informing you that if we don’t meet and make peace you have much to regret. I am a wealthy man, and it would pay for you to receive me and my family graciously.”

It is a message of appeasement and a presentation of good reasoning for Esau to receive Jacob in peace.

Esau’s response to Jacob’s overture of desire to have peace and prosperity with his brother Esau was less than peaceful.

“Then the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, ‘We came to your brother Esau, and he also is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.’” – Genesis 32:6 [NKJV]

Esau’s response is, “I am coming to meet you, but I don’t trust you. “I am coming with an army of 400 to see you.” Jacob’s response shows that he understood exactly what Esau was communicating to him. Jacob responded by taking every precaution to protect himself and his family.

“So Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people that were with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two companies. And he said, ‘If Esau comes to the one company and attacks it, then the other company which is left will escape.’” – Genesis 32:7,8 [NKJV]

Jacob’s steps to divide his camp and spread the risk between two locations, some distance from each other, was a wise military strategy. In fact the text explains it clearly. If Esau should attack one of the camps the other camp could still escape and survive.

For me this story is both inspirational and depressing. Here you have two brothers from the same father and mother, in fact twins. They inspire fear against each other because there was some wrongdoing between them. There was some appearance of a brother taking advantage of a brother. The fact that Jacob has to fear and take strategic moves to protect himself and his family and possessions from his brother Esau is depressing to me.

The hate that Esau still had for Jacob and the fear and guilt that was in the heart of Jacob after so many years of living in the diaspora is a sad commentary of the two brothers. The good thing is that blood is thicker than water and at the encounter of these two brothers at least for a moment, the past pain and hurt is forgotten and they fall into each other’s arms and hug and kiss each other.

There were a few moments in their history when the brothers were able to see beyond the hurts of their past and to just concentrate on the present.

Jacob prepares for this encounter by praying to God:

“Then Jacob said, ‘O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, the Lord who said to me, “Return to your country and to your family, and I will deal well with you”: I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth which You have shown Your servant; for I crossed over this Jordan with my staff, and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and attack me and the mother with the children. For You said, “I will surely treat you well, and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.”’”’” – Genesis 32:9-12 [NKJV]

Let us look at Jacob’s prayer and learn from it some important things about ourselves and about our Lord:

  1. The identity of God is clear and it is mentioned in the history of Jacob’s family in its relationship with the almighty God of Abraham and Isaac.
  2. My (Jacob’s) return to the land is a result of your instruction and prophetic request that I ought to return to my family and to my country.
  3. I am not coming to you O Lord with pride and with an attitude. I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and all the truth which you have shown me.
  4. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother. You O Lord have given my father and grandfather Abraham the promises that my descendants will be as the sand of the sea, beyond numbering.

Jacob’s prayer is an example of humility and submission to the Lord, and it also includes a strong argument that says: ‘Lord you have made my forefathers and me promises that we will become a great nation.’ How can your promises be fulfilled if Esau takes my life and destroys my family!?

Before the meeting with Esau, God sends His angel to fight with Jacob by the Jabbok River. This is one of the most interesting texts in Genesis, and it is kind of purposely unclear in detail to create the mystery effect that it presents.

The reason for this encounter at the Jabbok is a genius touch of God’s grace. Jacob had to become Israel, he had to stop trusting in his own wisdom, in his cunning, and in his abilities, and to learn that the ultimate outcome of his life, and I would add, of all our lives, is in the hands of the Lord Himself.

The greatest challenge in our lives as disciples of Yeshua, is to stop trusting in ourselves and in our abilities, and our own hearts, and to put our hands in the hands of the One who parted the Red Sea and who allowed His children to cross over on dry ground.

Our challenge is to not let go of the hand of Yeshua when we are walking through the storm, and crossing through the dark cold eternal night, and to keep looking to God for His blessings and to not let go of His hand!

The event at the Jabbok River is a monumental event that has shaped Jacob and the entire nation of Israel and that continues to shape us as Jews and as disciples of the Messiah, up until this day.

When Jacob and Esau finally encounter each other this is what happened:

“But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” – Genesis 33:4 [NKJV]

All of Jacob’s fears, at least at that moment, disappeared, and the enmity and bitterness that had existed between them went up in smoke, and all that remained for at least those moments was, “we are brothers, we are of one blood, we have all that we need, we need each other!”

Jacob continued to be humble and to honor his brother Esau, for the remainder of that encounter. This brotherly attitude however, didn’t continue for long. Moab and Edom didn’t cease their enmity toward Israel, and many future wars and much enmity was to remain between Israel and these neighbors.

What we have to learn from these two brothers is that the one who is really the strong one in faith and in character ought to show honor and respect to his brother. Jacob regained his footing before God and men at the Jabbok River, and in life, we all, as disciples of the Messiah and as children of God must wrestle with our own angel as we cross the river of our lives.

This article originally appeared on Netivyah and is reposted with permission.