There’s so much in here: Jacob becomes Israel; Jacob and Esau are reunited; Rachel gives birth to Benjamin and dies; Dinah (Jacob’s daughter) is raped and after forcing the entire town to have every man circumcised, Simeon and Levi slaughter them all as they are recovering and weakened, forcing Jacob to leave Shechem; we learn that the wives and children of Jacob have foreign gods with them (Genesis 35:2-4) which they have to remove from among them, indicating they were still influenced by the religion of Laban (remember that Rachel stole the family gods when they fled); Isaac dies; we are given the generations of Esau and the kings that ruled his land.
So, nu? Where to start? And, once I have started, how do I end?
I feel led to talk about what Jacob wrestling with the angel might mean to us, and I will be so bold as to talk about what it means to me and let you consider if you agree or not. That’s just one of the many wonderful things about the word of God- it can mean two totally different things to two totally different people, and both can be correct.
Jacob had striven against men and he did pretty well: he managed to buy the rights to the firstborn, he succeeded in fooling Isaac to give him the blessing that was associated (and rightfully belonged) to the one who had the rights of the firstborn, and he outsmarted Laban more than once. All of these challenges to Jacob during his life he was able to overcome. Now, as he is about to face a life-threatening challenge, i.e. Esau with 400 men, he calls to God for protection and God sends to him an angel to prevent him from crossing the Jabbok river (Genesis 31-32).
Jacob wrestled with the angel and overcame him, but at the cost of a painful injury to his thigh, which he never recovered from, causing him to limp for the rest of his life. So, although Jacob won the match, he sustained a life-changing injury which weakened him.
I think of Shaul (Paul) asking God to remove the thorn in his side (2 Corinthians 12:7), which Shaul tells us was there to prevent him from becoming too conceited. Jacob has prevailed against both man and God, so if anyone had a right to be proud, it was Jacob. Yet, here he is- the angel is back in heaven, none the less for wear, and Jacob will limp for the rest of his life. He may have won that match, but it cost him something, or….maybe the limp was a blessing in disguise? Maybe this limp represents his ego, his self-importance, which God is using as a thorn in Jacob’s side, a reminder that no matter how successful Jacob (now called Israel- another reminder) may be, he is still dependent upon God and it is God who is behind his success.
I know that I need constant reminding that whatever I do that is worthy of praise, it is more the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) which leads me to do good that deserves the glory than anything I do on my own. My nature is to do wrong, to do what I want for selfish and self-serving purposes. I am not saying this to demean myself, I am saying it to remind myself- I was born into sin, and have a sinful nature. Sin is natural for me, as it is for all of us, and only by recognizing this can we overcome it.
An alcoholic or a drug addict can never even start to recover until they hit what is called “rock bottom”, which is the time when they realize they are not in control of the substance but the substance is controlling them. Only when they do their own form of T’shuvah (turning) and “own” their habit can they truly start to overcome it.
And the healthy and sustainable attitude is that they are never cured- they are simply recovering. An alcoholic is always an alcoholic; a drug addict is always a drug addict; what they are while they remain sober/clean is a ‘recovering’ alcoholic or addict. Recovering: not recovered, but recovering. That is a very important attitude they have to have because, like Jacob’s limp and Shaul’s thorn, it is a constant reminder of what they are trying to overcome.
We all have our own thorn or limp; we are all “recovering sinners”, so to speak. The 12 step program for recovery says, “One drink is too many, and two drinks aren’t enough” (or something like that) and the same is true for sinning. We do it unintentionally (I hope!) and, often enough, without even knowing we just committed a sin. That is why the sacrificial system includes a sacrifice for forgiveness for the sins we do that we don’t even know we did. We need a reminder, a limp, a thorn, something to keep us on the straight and narrow.
I wear a mezuzah around my neck as a sign of my faith, and also as a reminder. I also wear a gold bracelet, part of my sales training, to remind me that it is more important to listen than to speak (James 1:19.) At first I didn’t wear a gold bracelet, I wore a rubber band. The lesson was that every time I wanted to say something during a sales pitch, I was to stretch the rubber band and let it snap back onto my wrist. It was a painful lesson, but I learned it well, and my successful sales career demonstrated that. Once I didn’t need to snap the rubber band, I “graduated” to a gold bracelet (being a good salesman, I could afford it then) but it is still a reminder, just a little nicer looking reminder.
Maybe you have something you wear? A mezuzah, a cross, a plastic “WWJD” bracelet? A rubber band around your wrist? Whatever you use to remind yourself to do everything you can to overcome your sinful nature, cherish it because it can save your life. When we can be reminded to do as God wants us to do, and that reminder keeps us from sinning, even if it is just one sin a day less than we would do on our own, it is a blessing from heaven.
And if you limp, have bad knees, suffer from some debilitating disease or physical/mental challenge, accept it not as punishment (too many times I hear people blame God for their problems) but as a reminder of who is in charge, and what is really important.
God is really important. Whatever you have or don’t have or suffer with today, it will mean nothing in eternity. That is the goal, that is the prize- eternal life in God’s presence. So embrace your problem, embrace your challenges, and strive against them as Jacob did, trusting in God to help you overcome them.
That which seems to be a curse can always become a blessing in disguise- it is all up to you and how you deal with it.