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Why we need to wrestle with God – Characters: Jacob, Part 4

24 Oct

In this series, we’ve been looking at a character in the Hebrew Bible, a guy named Jacob. In the previous post, we left Jacob about to cross over the border of his brother, Esau’s land. He had deceived his brother 20 years before, and when Esau found out, Esau threatened to kill Jacob. Jacob fled for his life, and the twins didn’t talk again for two decades. Jacob’s life and fortunes had changed dramatically in the ensuing years. Now he has a large family and great wealth through vast herds of animals. On his way home with his family and property, he arrives at Esau’s land. Jacob gets word that Esau is on the way with 400 men, coming to confront Jacob. So Jacob prepares a huge gift of numerous animals, hoping to smooth the way with Esau. He sends the gift ahead to Esau. Before we find out what happens when Esau receives the gift, something else occurs.  Read Genesis 32:22-32 to learn about this surprising event.

Jacob wrestles God!  Or should we say it as a question: Jacob wrestles with God? What is going on here?

Look at verse 26.  Jacob has refused to give up this wrestling match, even after God wrenches his hip.  Jacob will not let go, saying to God, “unless you bless me.”  Sound familiar?  Jacob determined to get a blessing?  Where have we heard this before?  20 years earlier when he stole his father’s blessing that was supposed to go to Esau!

In verse 27 God asks him a question, “What is your name?”  That should sound familiar too!  Again, go back 20 years earlier when Jacob entered his father’s tent, and Isaac asked him, “Who is it?”  And what did Jacob say?  He lied.  He said, “It is your son Esau.” 

Back to chapter 32, what will Jacob say when God asks Jacob his name?  Now he tells the truth.  He says his name, “Jacob.”  He is a changed man.  The deceiver has become a man of truth, a man who wrestles with God.

Wrestling leads to relationship.  God is relational, not distant and uninvolved.  He wants us to wrestle with him.

The physical act of wrestling is not the focus of this passage, though.  Jacob’s determination is the focus.  Jacob was always a wrestler, even in the womb, grasping his brother’s heel.  But it is his determination that is really the important point.  Early in his life, it was a determination that was focused on his own concerns, a selfish determination.  He was quite willing to connive and deceive in order to get what he wanted. 

But God intervened, even to this selfish man, and Jacob learned to be determined for God.  When he wrestles God, he is still determined, but his determination is modified by truth.  He tells his name truthfully. 

God is so pleased.  Look at verse 28.  “You have a new name.  Israel.  You struggle with God and men and overcome.”  That is where the name of the nation of Israel comes from.  The word Israel means, “he struggles with God.”  Isn’t that interesting?  The name of the nation is about relationship with God.  Israel’s name signifies what God wants, a relationship where his people wrestle with him and don’t give up!

The next morning, Genesis 33:1 tells us, Jacob looked up and saw his brother, Esau, coming with 400 men!  What happens when the two estranged brothers face each other after 20 years?

He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother. But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.

Genesis 33:3-4 (NIV, 1984)

It is a beautiful reconciliation.  That’s what God can do!  He is in the business of redemption and reconciliation when we submit ourselves to the transforming work he wants to do in our lives. 

Throughout the rest of chapter 33, we learn that Jacob continues his journey to his home land, honoring God.  In chapter 35 he settles in land of Canaan where he honors God.  Jacob called the place Bethel, which means House of God.  God confirms the blessing, as well as Jacob’s new name, Israel, reminding us that his family will be the beginning of a nation.  Jacob sacrifices to God there. 

We’re not done with Jacob’s story. Next week we’ll learn more about him, but through the lens of his son, Joseph. Tomorrow, we’ll conclude this first Characters series by looking at what we learned through God’s work in the life of Jacob. For now, reflect on what we saw today. Jacob wrestles with God and reconciles with Esau. Can it be said of you that you are wrestling with God? It might at first sound like a bad thing, to wrestle with God. But as we saw in Jacob’s life, it was the evidence that his determination had changed focus from self to God, thus leading to reconciliation with his estranged brother Esau. How do you need to wrestle with God?

God can still use you after you sin? Characters: Jacob, Part 3

23 Oct
Photo by Jesus Kiteque on Unsplash

Have you ever messed up and thought, I’ve ruined my life? Maybe it was a mistake a work. Maybe it was a terrible relationship choice. You might have been selfish or unkind with what you said to a family member or friend, and now things between you are cold. Are you wondering if there is hope for you?

Perhaps that’s how Jacob felt. We’ve started a series called Characters, looking at people who have messed up and how God interacts with them. The first character we’ve met is a guy named Jacob. In the previous post, we learned that he was a sneaky guy, and he was on the verge of trying to steal the blessing from their father that was supposed to go to his older twin brother, Esau. Let’s jump into the narrative at Genesis, chapter 27, verse 18.

I particularly want to point out how Jacob answers his father’s greeting, when Jacob enters his father’s tent. This is important.  Isaac asks, “Who is it?”  And Jacob lies, claiming that he is Esau, who was out in the countryside hunting for food to bring his father.  Isaac, suffering from poor sight, believes Jacob, and Isaac gives Jacob the blessing that was due Esau.  As we already saw in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, Jacob, the younger twin, has once again “grabbed the heel” of his older brother.  Esau, of course, soon finds out and is furious, threatening to kill Jacob.  So their mother Rebekah warns Jacob to leave immediately and flee to a faraway land where her brother Laban lives, until Esau calms down.

In chapter 28, in verses 10-22, we learn that Jacob has left to travel to Laban, but on the way, one night Jacob has a dream.  In the dream, God affirms that the blessing has been passed on to Jacob.  The younger is receiving the promise that was supposed to go to the older, and in this case, it is the promise that God first gave Jacob’s grandfather Abraham, then passed on to Isaac, that now God reconfirms with Jacob.  God says that just as he is the Lord of Abraham and Isaac, he is Jacob’s Lord, and he will give Jacob land, and will turn his family into a great nation through whom God will bless all people on the earth.  Jacob awakes afraid, in awe of what has just happened, and he vows that Yahweh will be his God.  It is a momentous event in Jacob’s life. 

After some really devious, sinful behavior, it is astounding to think that God, at this moment, still maintains the promise to Jacob. Doesn’t it seem like God should be punishing Jacob?  Doesn’t it seem like God should take the blessing and promise and give it to Esau?  Doesn’t this all seem unfair? 

To those questions, consider God’s ways with me for a minute.  God is a God who uses the flawed, the downright sinful.  How many of you have been redeemed?  By that I mean, how many of you have had sin in your life, harmful and hurtful choices that have damaged others, and yet God has taken a disaster and reconciled, healed, reunited, and rectified, making right what was wrong?  God is surprisingly forgiving and merciful like that. 

Jacob is not at the end of his life.  He is still a young man.  In Genesis 29-31, Jacob does go to and work for his uncle Laban.  During a long period of many years, through which Laban fools Jacob into marrying not one but two of his daughters, Jacob is persistent.

Perhaps in this we see character being formed in Jacob’s life.  No longer the deceiver, Jacob now learns what it is like to be fooled.  It is terrible to be taken, lied to.  Through the process of these years, God is still at work. Jacob gains not only two wives, but marries their two servant girls as well, for a total of four wives.  We don’t have time to discuss polygamy, except to say that in ancient Israel this did happen, not that God was approving of it.  Jacob’s wives bore him 12 sons, who would become the 12 tribes of Israel, including the half tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim who were Jacob’s grandsons, through the line of Jacob’s son Joseph (who did not become a tribe, and who we’ll meet next week).  Considering what has happened in Jacob’s life, can you start to see God fulfilling his promise to make Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’s family into a nation?

Jacob works for his uncle Laban for a total of 20 years and then decides to leave to return to the land of his family, the land of Canaan.  That story of Jacob leaving Laban takes place in most of Genesis chapters 31 and 32, and it is filled with intrigue and drama.  I’ll summarize it by saying that God blesses Jacob greatly through it all.  By the time Jacob leaves Laban with his wives, children and herds of animals, Jacob is a very wealthy man. 

At the beginning of chapter 32 we learn that Jacob’s family’s journey is taking them to the border of the land ruled by his twin brother Esau.  20 years have gone by since they last saw each other.  20 years since Jacob deceived Esau of the birthright and blessing.  20 years since Esau said that he was going to kill Jacob.  20 years since Jacob fled for his life.  Jacob never got the birthright.  He ran away in fear for his life, taking with him literally nothing but the clothes on his back and a staff.  Now 20 years later, he has four wives, 12 children and countless animals.  But things with Esau were never made right.  What would 20 years do?  Would time heal the wounds, or would it only solidify Esau’s anger? In Genesis 32:1-21, Jacob decides to send ahead of him a huge amount of animals as a gift to Esau.  Jacob is trying to smooth things over.  He’s heard that Esau is coming to meet him with a force of 400 men.  Check back tomorrow to see what happens.

Birthright & Blessing (or ripping off your siblings) – Characters: Jacob, Part 2

22 Oct
Photo by Ting Tian on Unsplash

I have a family member who love to joke about ripping off his siblings by selling them stuff at prices higher than he purchased the items for. He’s actually a loving brother. But sibling rivalry is so common. How have you experienced it in your family?

As we continue reading the story of Jacob and his twin brother, Esau, we’re about to see them involved in some sibling rivalry. If you want, you can follow along by reading Genesis 25:27-34.

The twins grow up: Esau is a hunter who loves adventure, and Jacob is a quiet man who would rather stay home.  In that short description we learn so much about these two.  Esau is the character.  The extrovert.  While Jacob seems to be the introvert.  You probably know people like this.  People from the same family, but so different.  How are your own brothers and sisters like Esau and Jacob?  Or how are your children like that? Do you have some that are more adventurous?  Some that prefer to stay at home?  Some louder?  Some quieter?  Which are you more like?

The text also tells us that their father Isaac loved Esau, while Rebekah loved Jacob.  It seems Esau had interests more in line with his father, and Jacob had interests more in line with his mom.   There’s nothing wrong with kids having different interests that make them more relatable to one parent or the other.  It happens all the time.  But in telling us about the parents’ favorites, we have another foreshadowing, and an omen.  Trouble is coming. 

We don’t have to wait long for the trouble. Verses 29-34 describe a crucial episode when Jacob and Esau are young men.  Esau is hot-blooded, red, and impetuous.  Just coming in from a long jaunt in the countryside, Esau wants some of the stew Jacob had been making at home.  Remember the foreshadowing from Jacob and Esau’s birth?  The younger is about to grab the heel of the older again, but this time they aren’t cute little babies.  They are young men, and young men, especially brothers, tend to be very competitive.  Jacob refuses to give Esau stew unless Esau will swear an oath to Jacob that Esau will give up his birthright.  Essentially Jacob is saying, “Esau sell me your birthright for the stew.” 

What is the birthright they are talking about?  In ancient cultures like this, there was something called the law of primogeniture, meaning that at least a double share of the father’s property would be given to the firstborn son when the father died.  Though Jacob and Esau are twins, because Esau was born maybe only seconds or minutes before Jacob, Esau is due the double share.  The older son would get a lot more wealth when their father died.  But in a moment of foolishness, Esau sells his birthright for a bowl of stew, and Jacob is more than opportunistic to pounce on it. 

Chapter 26 focuses on an episode in Isaac’s life, so let’s move on the chapter 27 to continue the story of Jacob.  Basically what happens is a continuation of what we already heard about Jacob in chapter 25.  In verses 1-4 Isaac tells Esau that he wants to give Esau, as oldest son, his blessing.  But didn’t we just read in chapter 25 that Esau already sold this to Jacob for a bowl of stew? 

To answer that we need to talk further about blessing and birthright in ancient cultures.  Are they different?  It seems one would inevitably lead to the other.  When the father died, he would give his blessing to his firstborn son, and with that would also come the birthright, the double portion of inheritance.  Perhaps Isaac didn’t know about Esau’s foolishness in selling his birthright for Jacob’s bowl of stew, or maybe he didn’t care.  It could be that Isaac knew and just didn’t agree that a bowl of stew would buy an entire birthright.  I don’t know about you, but in my family over the years there have been some ridiculous bets or deals that have been made between children, and we parents had to step in and say, “Sorry crew, that’s not happening.”  Of course the kids feel we are being totally unjust by not allowing the deal to stand. The one getting the bad deal sometimes has no clue, or they will argue, “It’s fine, I don’t care, I really want it.”  But you don’t sell someone a pack of gum for $10.  Just like you don’t sell a birthright for a bowl of soup. Maybe something like that is going on in Isaac’s mind. We don’t know. What we do know is that he wants to give his blessing to Esau, his firstborn, his favorite son.

So Esau goes out to get some wild game to prepare a meal for his father before Isaac confers the blessing.  Isaac’s wife Rebekah overhears this, goes to Jacob, her favorite son, and concocts a plan for Jacob to steal the blessing.  They prepare some food, Jacob puts on Esau’s clothes, they cover Jacob’s smooth arms with goatskins to mimic his brother’s more hairy arms, and then Jacob goes in to his father Isaac’s tent.

Check back in tomorrow to learn what happens next!

Introducing “Characters” – a series about how flawed people can still be used by God

21 Oct
Image by David Zhou on Unsplash

Who in your life would you say is a real character?  Usually we say a person is a character when they are wild, crazy, bold, extroverted, or humorous.  Maybe certain people in your life come to mind. 

But the reality is that every single one of us is a character.  We are each made in God’s image, as the very first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1, teaches us.  We are each unique, interesting and valuable, in our own ways.  Furthermore God loves each one of us.  And he loves us even when we are flawed, difficult, or struggling. 

So we are starting a series about characters, and we’re going to meet some flawed, difficult, struggling characters that God loves.  They are all found in the Old Testament stories of ancient Israel.  What we’ll see is that these characters are very down to earth.  Yes, sometimes they do amazing things, but they are also flawed.  As we study them, we’re going to find them very relatable because even though they are oftentimes considered to be heroes of the Bible, they are people just like us.  People who sometimes make terrible choices.  People with fears.  People with great potential, which they can squander.  And all people whom God loves and redeems and uses, even in spite of their weaknesses. 

Today we meet one of those characters in Genesis chapter 25, a guy named Jacob. 

Earlier in the book of Genesis, God had called a man named Abraham to leave his family and hometown and travel to a new land called Canaan, which is the area of the world that, today, we call Israel and Palestine.  God made a special covenant or treaty with Abraham saying that through Abraham, God was going make his family into a great nation that would be a blessing to the whole world.  Eventually Abraham had a son with his wife Sarah, which was miraculous because both of them were very old, and they named their son Isaac.  Isaac would grow up and marry Rebekah.  God also said to Isaac that he was going to fulfill the promise he made to Isaac’s father Abraham to turn their family into a great nation that would bless the whole world.  But you have to have children to make this happen, right?  So far, in two generations, things hadn’t progressed all that far.  Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah.  Four people. Not a very big family, let alone the beginning of a nation.  That bring us to verse 21. If you’d like, read Genesis 25:21-26.

This is the account of Jacob’s birth.  He is the grandson of Abraham and Sarah, and he is the son of Isaac and Rebekah.  He is also the twin brother of Esau, who was older, born just before Jacob. 

The imagery we read in verse 22 is important.  Even in the womb, the twins were jostling each other.  Wrestling. Did Rebekah know she was having twins?  Maybe all the activity going on in there was enough of a hint?  Or maybe the extra movement concerned her, leading her to think something was wrong. She inquires of the Lord, and he responds that she has two nations in her womb.  Ladies, how would you feel if God told you that?  Rebekah would be left wondering, “What in the world does that mean? Two nations in my womb?” Then the Lord says something prophetic.  “One people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” 

This is so interesting, and it is our first clue in the story that we have a character on our hands.  God’s prophetic word is confirmed in the next few verses, which tell us the birth story.  The younger son, Jacob, comes out grasping the heel of his older brother Esau!  And that is what the name Jacob means, “He grasps the heel.”  This is a foreshadowing of much more to come. Check back in to the next post to see where this is heading.

Would your family wait 500 years for God to fulfill his promise? (Surveying the history of Israel up to the time of Deuteronomy)

30 Aug

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500  years!  What if God made you a promise; a promise to you, your family and descendants?  How long do you think your family could stay faithful to God if it started to seem like his promise wasn’t coming through?  10 years?  50?  How long could they make it after you passed away?  What would you do to help prepare them to be faithful, even after you pass away?

That scenario is essentially the historical context of Deuteronomy.  This is a story of a family that is waiting a long, long time for God to bring his promise to fruition.  Let’s take a look:

In chapter 1, verse 8, we read God saying this:

“See, I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land that the LORD swore he would give to your fathers—to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—and to their descendants after them.”

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?  Who are these guys?  The Lord calls them the fathers of the nation of Israel.  Let’s race through the history of Israel and see if we can place these guys.

First, there was Abraham.  If you want to read his story in detail, start at Genesis 12.  Here’s the gist of it: God promised Abraham that if he would leave his home in Haran and relocate to the land of Canaan, Abraham would be father to a great nation through whom God would bless the whole world, and his family/nation would be given that land.

So Abraham, his wife Sarah, and their household leave their home and travel to Canaan.  But here’s the kicker: they have no kids.  How are they going to be the parents of a great nation?  Time drags on, and they get really old, but still they have no kids.  It seems like this “great nation in a new land” promise is becoming a big sham.  So Abraham, with Sarah’s permission, has a baby with Sarah’s servant girl Hagar, a son named Ishmael.  Sarah becomes jealous and kicks Hagar and Ishmael out.  God intervenes and arranges for Hagar and Ishmael to return to Abraham’s family.  Ishmael himself would go on to become a great nation, the father of Arabia, but that is not the family/nation with whom God would keep his covenant promise to Abraham.  13 more years go by, and still Abraham and Sarah do not have an heir. They’re in their 90s now! God steps in, Sarah miraculously becomes pregnant in her old age, and they have a son, Isaac.

Isaac grows and marries Rebekah.  You can read Isaac’s story starting in Genesis 21.  They have twin sons, Esau the older and Jacob the younger.  Jacob is sneaky and steals the birthright inheritance traditionally given to the firstborn, Esau.  Esau, as you can imagine, is really upset, and Jacob has to flee the family.  He travels to relatives where he meets his wife, Rachel.

At this point in Jacob’s story we’re now in Genesis 27.  Jacob eventually starts to see the fulfillment of part of the promise God made to Abraham, to make his family into a great nation.  How so?  Well, Jacob has four wives who bear a total of 12 sons.  Baby boom!  God then gives Jacob a new name, Israel, and we’re at the point where the new family nation should be sounding familiar.  Israel had 12 sons.  The nation of Israel has 12 tribes. See where that is going?

Jacob/Israel eventually moves his 12 sons and their families to Egypt to avoid famine.  400+ years go by. During this time, Israel as a family nation grows exponentially, to the point where the Egyptian king, called the Pharaoh, feels threatened by them, so he enslaves them.  He uses them to build great works of architecture. In the process he treats them horribly. You can read all about it starting in Exodus 1.

The people of Israel are slaves, oppressed, forced into grueling labor, dealing with genocide (because the Pharaoh was afraid they were getting too numerous).  They cry out, and God sends a deliverer. This deliverer is a wild card, one of their own, Moses, who through a miracle grew up as a prince of Egypt.  If you continue reading in Exodus, you’ll see that it takes a while, including some amazing meetings with God, for Moses to agree to this new national savior role.  Eventually, though, he steps up.

Moses visits the Egyptian king Pharaoh, who he likely grew up with. Like the movies, some scholars believe Moses and Pharaoh would have considered themselves brothers or cousins.  Now many years had passed, and imagine the awkward family reunion when Moses says to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” If you are following along in Exodus, this story is found in Exodus 7.  The Pharaoh is not keen on letting his massive labor force go, and he says, “Not a chance.”  So God steps in again and sends plagues on the land, wrecking Egypt, and finally after the last plague results in the death of his firstborn son, the king bitterly sneers to Moses, “Get your people out of here.”  The entire nation of Israel, likely over a million strong at this point, leaves and heads out through the Red Sea and into the desert. But the reality is that they are following a God they probably barely knew, a leader they weren’t sure they could trust, to an unknown destination.

That destination? The Promised Land. Canaan.  They were headed back to the land God had promised their forefather Abraham about 500 years before.  Will God keep his promise?  Starting in Exodus 12:31 and continuing through Leviticus and Numbers, you can read how they follow God’s direction via a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night, Moses leading them all the way.  They have many adventures, many missteps.  There is no way it should have taken 40 years.  God allowed their journey to the Promised Land to take that long because of the nation of Israel’s disobedience.

That is the historical context for Deuteronomy. The nation of Israel has arrived on the border of Canaan, the Promised Land.  The generation that left Egypt has given way to the next generation.  The new generation of Israelites will be the ones who actually enter the Promised Land.  Not even Moses will be joining them. Instead Moses sits down to remind this next generation of God’s promises and all the family nation has been through.  More on that tomorrow as we dig into the book of Deuteronomy.