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From Jacob to Israel

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Genesis 31:17–55; 32:1–32

The most significant changes in our lives often take place gradually over time. God works with us and in us to bring us to a greater awareness of His presence and the preeminent place He should hold in our lives. This is the testimony of Jacob, the man called Israel. 


We begin our study in Genesis 31:17, as Jacob gathers all his family and belongings and secretly departs for Canaan. But three days later, Uncle Laban, who’s been away shearing his sheep, discovers that Jacob is gone.


He’s infuriated that Jacob would sneak off with his daughters and his grandchildren and all his flocks and herds. But Jacob has every reason to try to avoid a confrontation. He knows that greedy old Laban isn’t about to let him go and could very well do him harm.


In fact, that seems to be Laban’s intention because God speaks to Laban in a dream he has while he’s pursuing Jacob, saying, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.” The Hebrew expression forbids threatening Jacob with harm. Laban obviously has been planning to threaten Jacob’s life unless he returns.


It takes seven days for Laban to finally overtake Jacob. When he does, he immediately accuses Jacob of abducting his daughters and family and stealing his belongings. He asserts his right to punish Jacob but then recounts the Lord’s warning to him in the dream. Jacob proclaims his innocence and fires back in verse 41 that Laban has been cheating him for years. 


But rather than coming to blows, as we might expect at this point, Laban and Jacob make an agreement, which is detailed in verses 45-53. They erect a heap of stones as testimony to their covenant and to serve as a boundary marker separating the families. 


Following their agreement, they settle down and end up eating one last meal together. The next morning Laban kisses his daughters and grandchildren good-bye; and with that, the old deceiver Laban returns home, and we never hear about him again.


But God isn’t finished with the younger deceiver yet. He’s still working on Jacob, developing his trust and faith in the promises of God.


You see, Jacob is traveling back home as the heir of the covenant promises. But danger is waiting just around the corner. His older brother, Esau, who had vowed to kill him twenty years earlier, stands between Jacob and the promised land.


As chapter 32 begins, Jacob is visited by angels again. Their appearance encourages him, giving him assurance of God’s protection. 


To Jacob’s credit, he takes the initiative and sends messengers to tell Esau that he’s coming home. When he hears in verse 6 that Esau is coming out to meet him, he assumes that isn’t good news. For all he knows, Esau is coming to kill him.


So, Jacob does what you and I would have done—he starts praying. Importantly, in verse 10 Jacob admits to God that he’s not worthy of God’s blessing. And that’s a great way to pray.


Then in verse 13 he starts sending gifts to Esau—hundreds of animals from his flocks and herds. He’s going to try to soften Esau up with a wagon train of gifts.


Verse 23 tells us Jacob also took his family and “sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had.” At this point, Jacob is alone by the brook called Jabbok. Ironically, the word Jabbok means “emptying.” This is where Jacob is emptied of every scheme and every manipulation and every plan. No doubt he’s terrified. He’s reached a point in his life where he’s helpless. And it’s at this moment, the Lord comes to meet him.


Verse 24 tells us, “A man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.” Hosea 12:4 reveals that this wrestler was actually “the angel.” This is what we call a Christophany, a preincarnate appearance of Christ, who often appears as the “Angel of the Lord” in the Old Testament. 


This wrestling match lasts several hours. In verse 26, at some point in the struggle, Jacob says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”


What we see here is Jacob clinging to the one he now recognizes as the only one who can bless him: God Himself. He isn’t trying to win a wrestling match to get a blessing from a man. He’s seeking the blessing of the preincarnate Redeemer, the Son of God. 


We might not be wrestling with the Lord physically, but we might be wrestling with Him spiritually and emotionally. And what Jacob does in his wrestling match is exactly what you and I need to do to experience the blessing of God.


First of all, Jacob recognizes the presence of God in his life. In verse 27, the Lord asks Jacob, “What is your name?” Now He knows Jacob’s name. But the meanings of Old Testament names are significant, and He’s effectively asking, “What kind of man are you, that I should bless you?”


And Jacob answers, “Jacob.” That is, “I’m that heel-catcher; I’m the one who’s always fighting to be in control.”


The Lord replies in verse 28, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel.” Israel literally means “God fights.”In other words, “Your name will no longer mean that you seek to be in control but that God will be in control.”


And with that, Jacob says in verse 29, “Please tell me your name.” His request is ignored, as God the Son then blesses Jacob. 


In verse 30 we read that Jacob names the place “Peniel,” which means “the face of God.” Jacob knows he’s been in the presence of the Lord.


In fact, this encounter will profoundly mark a difference in Jacob’s life as he moves forward, recognizing that God is active and present in his life. And my friend, you too will be blessed in life when you understand that God is at work—a very present help in your life—especially, in time of trouble.


So, Jacob first recognizes the presence of God in his life.


Second, Jacob recognizes the preeminence of God in his life. There’s no room here for pride. Jacob doesn’t say, “I’ve seen God, and was He ever impressed with me!” No, he says in verse 30, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” Those who truly walk with God aren’t impressed with themselves, but with God alone. 


Verse 31 says, “The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.” In that wrestling match, the Lord had wounded Jacob’s hip, and he’s now going to limp for the rest of his life. This will be a daily reminder that God met with him and changed him. And by the way, we never hear Jacob complain about that limp. 


Jacob, the deceiver, has been given a new name—Israel—and he now has a new appreciation for God’s presence and God’s preeminence. 


If you belong to Jesus Christ you’ve also been given a new name—Christian. You’re a Christian, because your life is bound up in the person and the presence of your Savior, Jesus Christ.


As Genesis 32 comes to a close, I want you to picture Jacob here. He’s a changed man. Watch him as he limps forward to meet his brother, Esau, whom he deceived twenty years earlier. This time Jacob doesn’t have any plans up his sleeve; he’s trusting that God will fight for him. His name is Israel, and he’s more aware than ever, with each painful, limping stride, that God is present and God is preeminent in his life.


And there’s no better way to limp through life than to limp forward, trusting in your faithful Lord.

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