Thus far, many blemishes have marred the history of Jacob. His desire at the outset for the birthright and the blessing of God, which accompanied it, was right: the way he schemed to obtain it altogether wrong. God had been but little in his thoughts, and when, fleeing from Esau's vengeance, in a night vision he discovered the house of God, he felt it to be a dreadful place. One of our hymn writers describing his soul's journey, began with, "All of self and none of Thee." If it was not exactly thus with Jacob, it had certainly been, "Nearly all of self and very little of Thee."
Now however the time had come when God would deal more directly with him, and the first move was that he should encounter an angelic band. Jacob was migrating with wives, children, servants and many animals, thus forming a large band. He now became conscious that there was a second band, standing on his behalf. Even this did not free him from the fear of Esau, and his approach to him, as given in verses Genesis 32:3-5, though very diplomatic, bears traces of the working of a bad conscience.
Verse Genesis 32:7 again bears witness to this. The tidings that Esau, at the head of four hundred men, was coming to meet him, awoke his keenest fears. In spite of having seen the angelic band, he assumed at once, as the fruit of the working of his conscience, that Esau was on his way to take vengeance and, true to his nature, he at once worked out an elaborate scheme to placate his brother and secure himself. All his possessions, starting with flocks and servants and working down to wives and children, were to meet the brother he feared before he himself had to face him.
But this did not altogether exclude God from his thoughts. In verses Genesis 32:9-12, we have his prayer recorded. God had intervened with him previously and Jacob had registered a vow, but this is the first actual prayer of his that is put on record. It does not breathe the spirit of communion and intercession, such as marked Abraham in Genesis 18:1-33, it was simply a plea for preservation, while acknowledging God's mercies to him in the past. Yet we notice how rightly he took a low place, though not as low as Abraham, who said, "I... am but dust and ashes" (Genesis 18:27). Jacob says, "I am not worthy of the least of all Thy mercies," which was indeed true, though it did not go the whole length. It is a fact in all dispensations that one's sense of unworthiness and nothingness deepens as nearness to God increases. As an illustration of this see Psalms 73:17, Psalms 73:22.
Jacob's plan was to appease Esau with a present, as verse Genesis 32:20 records. All — even wives and sons — were sent over the brook at the ford Jabbok, and he was left alone, well to the rear. Not a very dignified or courageous proceeding! Yet God was in all this, for being left alone, the moment had come for him to be brought face to face with God Himself, that he might have an experience, the effect of which he would never lose. Up to this point his life had been mainly one of scheming against and wrestling with men. Now God by His Messenger was going to wrestle with him.
"There wrestled a man with him;" such is the record, and doubtless at the start of this incident the unknown Stranger was to Jacob but a mere man. Who was Jacob to give way to another man? Hence it put him on his mettle to resist. The Stranger strove to break him down and until breaking of the day he resisted. Then the supernatural nature of the Stranger was manifested by the powerful touch which crippled him at his strongest point.
Then at once Jacob's attitude changed. Instead of wrestling, which now had become impossible to him he took to clinging to his Conqueror. He ceased his striving and took to trusting, realizing that the One who had overcome him had done so for his blessing, and that he was in the presence of God. The Name of the Stranger was not revealed, but the blessing that Jacob had desired from his youth was bestowed upon him then and there.
"He blessed him there," in the place of solitude with God, and when his natural power was crippled and laid low. The vital blessing of God did not descend upon his head when he struck that crafty bargain with Esau, nor even when his blind father, deceived by his impersonation of Esau, pronounced the patriarchal blessing on his head. No, it was when God dealt with him personally in solitude, and broke his stubborn will. In all this we may see a picture of how God deals with our souls today, though the grace into which we are called is so much richer than anything that Jacob knew.
By naming the place Peniel — "The face of God" — Jacob disclosed his deep sense of having been brought face to face with God and that the outcome was preservation and not destruction. Here was good reason for him to revise his earlier thought that the house of God and the gate of heaven was a "dreadful" place.
In this incident we see foreshadowed several striking things. First, that in order to deal fully and finally with man, God Himself would stoop into manhood, since it was as "a man" that Jacob saw God "face to face." Second, that God's thought towards us, even the most wayward of us, is blessing. Third, that human struggling and wrestling achieves nothing, and that surrender or submission, and honesty in confession, is the way of blessing. Fourth, that it was when clinging to the One who had vanquished him, and confessing to his name of Jacob - meaning Supplanter — that his name was changed to Israel — meaning Prince of God — and he was told that he had power not only with men but with God, and he had prevailed. By changing his name God claimed Jacob as belonging now to Him.
Thus a great moment in his history had been reached, and as he realized that he had seen God face to face, with salvation as the result, the sun rose upon him. An experience of this kind in the history of any soul does indeed mark the dawning of a new day. In Jacob's case the experience was memorialized for his children by a simple prohibition in their eating, as the last verse of the chapter records.
But as yet Jacob was hardly equal to his new name, so we do not find it used by the inspired historian until much later in his story. All his old characteristics come into display in Genesis 33:1-20, carried to a high degree of obsequiousness. The bowing down of himself and wives and children could hardly have been more complete and his proffered gifts were large, having made up his mind to "appease him with the present."
The attitude of Esau was however not what he had anticipated. His anger had cooled off during the intervening years, and he had become the leader of hundreds of men and thus a man of influence and of large possessions. Though ultimately accepting Jacob's present, he at first declined it saying, "I have enough," or more literally, "I have much." In verse Genesis 32:11, we find Jacob saying, "I have enough," but he used a different word, meaning, "all." That word he could use because he was able to say, "God hath dealt graciously with me." The man of the world may be able to say, "I have much," it is only the saint, consciously blessed of God, who can say, "I have all." This is what the Apostle Paul said in Philippians 4:18.
Jacob called his gift "my blessing," but in spite of this he was by no means anxious to have Esau's company on his further journey. His plea, recorded in verse Genesis 32:13, was doubtless a genuine one. It lends itself to an application amongst the people of God today. There are always to be found those who are young and tender, who must not be overdriven. Those who have reached the stature and activity of full-grown men must remember this, and not force the pace of their weaker brethren to their undoing. Many a young and tender believer has been damaged by this kind of thing.
Having declined the proffered help and Esau having departed, Jacob again reveals the crookedness that seems to have been his natural bent. Having said to Esau, "I come unto my lord unto Seir," he promptly journeyed to Succoth which lay in an entirely different direction. Moreover, having arrived there, the record is that he built an house and made booths for his cattle, which indicates that he had a mind to settle down in the land rather than maintain the character of a stranger, following in the footsteps of his grandfather Abraham.
The next step recorded is his removal to Shalem, across the Jordan and in the centre of the land. Here, though he had a tent and an altar, we can again discern that his separation from the people of the land was becoming impaired. He pitched his tent close to the city, and then bought the land where he had encamped. Further the very name he gave to his altar tells a similar story. The name El-elohe-Israel means, "God the God of Israel." He did indeed use his new God-given name and not his old name of Jacob yet even so he connected God with himself instead of connecting himself with God. In effect he was saying "God belongs to me," instead of, "I belong to God."
There may not seem to be much difference between these two sentiments but there is a gulf between the practices they induce, as we may soon see in our own histories. We may recognize that as, "born of God," and, "in Christ Jesus," we have a new name, yet if we bring God down to connect Him with our new name, we may easily assume that we may connect Him with our things — things by no means worthy of His call or of His glory. On the other hand, to recognize that He has called us to link us with Himself, at once searches our hearts, and lifts us above many a thing that would entangle us.
The whole of Genesis 34:1-31 is occupied with the unhappy results that sprang from the lowering of Jacob's separation from the world, which we have just noted. Its effects for evil were not manifested in Jacob himself but in his family. The tide of evil runs in two broad channels: violence and corruption. They are first mentioned in Genesis 6:12, Genesis 6:13 : they are personified in "the evil man" and "the strange woman" of Proverbs 2:12, Proverbs 2:16. The world is just the same today; and how often we have to hang our heads in shame and confess that a bit of world-bordering on our part, as Christian parents, has led to sorrow and even disaster in our families.
In our chapter the corruption comes first. His daughter, Dinah, wanted to enjoy the companionship and pleasures of the other young women of the land, and in result got entangled and defiled, and this aroused great wrath amongst Jacob's sons, which was not appeased by the action of Shechem and Ham or in the way of repairing the damage done. The anger came to a head in the atrocious violence of Simeon and Levi, which was never forgotten by Jacob, nor indeed by God. When at the end of his life Jacob spoke prophetically of his sons, foretelling the future of the tribes and uttering certain blessings, he denounced these two sons, cursing their anger, as recorded in Genesis 49:5-7.
Thus the shameful story of Genesis 34:1-31 not only caused Jacob "to stink among the inhabitants of the land," — a dreadful position for him, seeing he was the only man in the land possessing the true knowledge of God — but it brought a judgment upon the two who were the promoters of the violence. It is of interest to note that in later days the tribe of Levi so acted as to gain a special blessing, and in consequence we are permitted to see how God can turn that which was originally a curse into a blessing. The word had been, "I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel" (Genesis 49:7). They were divided; but it was by Levi being called to special service and scattered throughout all the tribes.
The first verse of Genesis 35:1-29 shows us how God intervened when things had reached this sorry pass. He called Jacob back to the place where first God had made Himself known to him. There he was to dwell and there his altar was to be. At Bethel, as we saw in Genesis 28:1-22, God declared what He would be for and to Jacob, without raising any question as to Jacob's response or behaviour. Now God is always true to Himself and to His word. Before the giving of the law through Moses, God was dealing with these patriarchs on the basis of His promises in grace, and those promises abide.
God deals with us according to grace in the Gospel today. Hence we read of, "this grace in which we stand" (Romans 5:2), which is equivalent to saying that our dwelling before God is in His grace or favour. As we dwell in the sense of His favour so shall we be led to approach Him in the spirit of worship, and to have done with all that is displeasing to Him.
So it was with Jacob as we see here. Immediately God called him back to Bethel he realized that there were evil things to be found in his household, even strange gods. In Genesis 31:1-55 we saw how Rachel had carried off from Laban the "gods," or "seraphim," that he valued, and there is no record of Jacob taking exception to them at that time. But with God before him, he at once became alive to the evil of them. They were to be put away, and there was to be personal cleanliness, extending even to the garments they wore, for the presence of God demands a purging which covers even to that which surrounds us: an important lesson that we all need to take to heart.
So far all was well with Jacob but a defect soon appears. The unclean things were not destroyed but only hidden away. They had considerable monetary value and it looks as if he hoped to resume possession, or at least realize their value, in a future day. The tendency of our foolish hearts is just the same. Let us see that we do not act in similar fashion with defiling things of the flesh and of the world that would naturally attract us.
As Jacob went to Bethel God restrained the peoples of the land from taking vengeance on him and his household because of the violent action of his two sons; and so he safely got there, and built his altar. The name he gave it stands in contrast with that which he gave to his former altar, as recorded in the last verse of Genesis 33:1-20. There he connected God simply with himself. Here he recognized Him as the God of His own dwelling-place. The altar, El-beth-el, demanded from Jacob a higher standard of conduct than did the altar, El-elohe-Israel.
Arrived at Bethel, things began to move rapidly forward. The first recorded event is the death of Deborah, who had been nurse to Jacob's mother. A break with the past is thus signified. Then, the promises of God were confirmed in a fresh appearance of the Almighty. Jacob's new name was confirmed, and the land was made sure to him. This moved him freshly to set up a pillar of witness and anoint it, as a response to the revelation. But, as is so often the case in God's ways this fresh grace from God is followed by fresh losses on the human side.
Leaving Bethel, Rachel was over taken in childbirth and died. Thus he lost his favourite wife, though in her death he gained a son. As we before noted this was the only occasion when Jacob himself had to do with the naming of his sons, and the child became known by that name, rather than by the name his dying mother gave him.
This blow was succeeded by the disgraceful sin of Reuben, so that at this point sorrow succeeded sorrow. Yet we cannot but think that there is a typical significance in the way these things are brought together: Rachel typifying the nation out of whom the Messiah was to spring. He was to be the "Son of Sorrow" in His rejection, which would mean the setting aside of the nation from whom He sprang. Ultimately the "Son of Sorrow" would be manifested as the "Son of the Right Hand," not only of Jacob but of Jehovah Himself. But until that time, and while as a nation Israel lies spiritually dead, the Gentiles come into prominence, just as the sons of Leah and the concubines are prominent in verses Genesis 32:23-26.
The closing verses put on record one more loss, in the death of his aged father, Isaac. Though he went blind many years before and anticipated his death (Genesis 27:2), it did not actually take place till he had lived 180 years. The division of Genesis entitled, "The generations of Isaac," began at Genesis 25:19, and it extends to the end of Genesis 35:1-29. Under it has come all these many details as to the earlier history of Jacob.
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Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on Genesis 32". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany