In Genesis 32-33 we find a wonderful story of sibling rivalry, jealousy, deception, betrayal, estrangement, cowardice, fear, forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption. What more could you want? And in this story of Jacob and Esau, we find a little bit of each of these twin brothers in ourselves.
Did I say they are twins? Two boys couldn’t have been more opposite. One is a homebody, the other an outdoorsman. One is a man’s man, the other a momma’s boy.
Let’s back up a few years. Isaac and Rebekah have been married 20 years without a child, and Isaac prays and God answers, and suddenly Rebekah is carrying twins – even in the womb it’s a wrestling match. When they are born, Esau comes out first, but as the midwife pulls Esau out, Jacob has a death grip on his heel. They named the first Esau (you can call him “Hairy” or “Red”). His little brother was named Jacob (you can call him “Deceiver”). There really is something in a name.
They grow up as different as two boys can be. One day Esau is out hunting, but he comes back skunked and starving. Jacob has been working in the kitchen cooking a pot of stew. Jacob makes the deal of a lifetime. Esau smells that stew and as hungry as he is, he’d give anything for a bowl. Poor, short-sighted Esau can’t see past his stomach. Jacob says, “a bowl of stew for your birthright.” Esau thinks, “what good is my birthright if I die of starvation – it’s a deal.”
Fast forward a few years. Isaac, their father is now old and feeble and blind. Not much of an appetite, but he thinks, “a venison steak would sure taste good.” “Esau, could you go hunting and fix your dad his favorite meal? We’ve got some business to take care of.” It’s time to settle his estate.
Esau heads out with bow in hand. Meanwhile Rebekah and Jacob conspire to deceive Isaac - she fixes a plate of mutton, dresses Jacob up in a sheepskin outfit, and sends him in with the food. Isaac thinks something is not quite right, but even though he can’t see, he feels Jacob’s arms and they feel hairy like Esau, and so he eats his meal and then puts his hand on Jacob’s head and confers on him the blessing of the birthright – the inheritance of the firstborn, not realizing he’s giving it to the wrong son. And when Esau finally returns and brings in a plate of venison, it’s too late – Isaac is upset, Esau is distraught, but there’s nothing to be done – Jacob has once again cheated Esau out of everything – his inheritance, his blessing, his birthright.
Rebekah tells Jacob to flee for his life, and you can just imagine the blood curdling cry of anguish from Esau that echoed in Jacob’s ears and heart as he fled for the north, knowing Esau’s bitterness and hatred will haunt him the rest of his life.
Twenty years have passed. Jacob has found his match in his uncle Laban, who has tricked and maneuvered Jacob into marrying both his daughters, Rachel and Leah. Jacob learned in a very personal way the old saying, “what goes around comes around.” Jacob had been lied to and deceived and cheated himself and knew the anguish of another’s faithlessness. He himself had felt the bitter gall rising in his throat, the anger that would burst blood vessels and blur your vision and demand revenge. He knew well, exactly how Esau would feel toward him. But after twenty years estranged from his own family, he decides to head home.
Now Jacob is heading home after twenty years in the land of Haran, some 500 miles to the northeast. As Jacob travels home, he agonizes over the trip. He makes plans and tries to counter the inevitable with conciliation. Still, he knows what must be waiting for him.
Jacob sends an embassy on ahead to tell Esau that he is coming. They return with startling news: Esau isn’t just going to wait for you, he is coming himself and he has 400 men with him.
You can just see the blood drain from the face of Jacob. This is worse than even he had imagined. Esau is coming to slaughter me in the wilderness.
More plans are made – Jacob divides all of his family and servants and possessions into two groups. He sends one on ahead of the other – a buffer. He expects that as Esau meets the first group he will slaughter and destroy everything and everyone – and maybe the second group can escape.
Ahead of these two groups he sends groups of servants with gifts and a message – He instructed the one in the lead: “When my brother Esau meets you and asks, ‘To whom do you belong, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?’ then you are to say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us.’” He also instructed the second, the third and all the others who followed the herds: “You are to say the same thing to Esau when you meet him. And be sure to say, ‘Your servant Jacob is coming behind us.’” For he thought, “I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.” (Gen. 32:17-20)
That night, on the eve of his fateful meeting with Esau, Jacob sends his wives and children on ahead, and stays alone in a tent on the far shore of the Jabbok river. But there will be no sleep that night. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” (Gen. 32:24-30)
Believe it or not, this is the best thing that ever happened to Jacob. All of his life Jacob had wrestled with himself – always looking after himself, always taking care of number one, always enslaved to his own deceitfulness – he could never trust anyone else, because he couldn’t be trusted himself. Now Jacob has a different opponent – not really an opponent – when you struggle with God, you always seem to come out the winner even when you lose.)
All night Jacob wrestles with God, and in the morning he is a new man. Oh, he walks with a limp, but he also walks a little straighter. He is no long Jacob, the deceiver, God has given him a new name - he is Israel, the father of a nation.
But there is still Esau to reckon with. Jacob, become Israel, now gathers his family together and walks before them to meet the oncoming Esau with his army of 400 fighting men. To his credit, he didn’t run away from the problem. One has to wonder why. Maybe he was sick of running. Or maybe he was tired of looking at the man he’d become every morning in the mirror. Whatever his motivation, he marched on toward the inevitable.
As his brother approaches, he falls on the ground and begins bowing and begging for mercy. Esau runs forward. What did Jacob expect? If you hadn’t already read the story, what would you expect from Esau? A spear through the heart? An axe across the skull? At least a kick in the ribs and a verbal assault – “you dirty, thieving scum…”
But what really happened? But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. (Gen. 33:4) I would never have seen that one coming.
I don’t know if homecomings and reconciliations touch your heart, but this one ought to. Brothers, estranged from each other for two decades. One stewing in his anger, the other consumed by his fear. Yet now, surrounded by the hills among which Jesus, the prince of peace would one day roam, there is peace between two enemies.
What I see in Jacob is a man who faced a lot of things there at the Jabbok river.
He faced his own sin. When Jacob learned that Esau was coming to meet him, his first thoughts were of all the things he had done to Esau that deserved his wrath – how he had lied and cheated and stolen everything from him. He feared the worst (and truthfully, he would admit, he deserved the worst.) When you face your sins, it has a way of humbling you and bringing about a kind of crisis in your life, that challenges you to change. Will you, like Jacob, listen to the voice calling you to repentance?
Jacob faced God. If facing your sin brings about a crisis in your life, you can imagine the crisis that comes when you stand face to face with God. No masks or cover-ups here. He sees through every layer of cosmetic you put on to tell yourself and others what a great guy you are. He knows the real truth about you.
Jacob faced himself. He saw what God saw. He asked for a blessing, but he received a new identity.
We put labels on people. And we generally seem to live up to the labels tagged on us. When we tag someone smart or athletic or beautiful, they always seem to respond even more to meet the expectations. On the other hand, can you imagine the pain we inflict when we call our children stupid or ugly or clumsy – when we label them a brat or an idiot? Regardless of the truth of the label, that is how they begin to see themselves and they respond by living up (or down) to the label.
From birth, Jacob’s label was “deceiver.” It was built right into his name. Every time someone called his name it reminded him of who he was and what people had come to expect. And his life is a testimony to the power of expectations.
But that night at the Jabbok, he wrestled with God, and God placed a new name on him – one that would remind him of that night – and renew his faith, not only in his God, but in himself.
In the book of Revelation, Jesus speaks to the church at Philadelphia – “I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name.” (Rev. 3:11-12)
Names not only designate character, but ownership. The new name Jesus writes on those who come to him is his own. It is the mark of his ownership - his pride and willingness to claim you as his own.
Here is (dare I say it?) the greatest miracle of God. It is astounding when God heals the body. It is extraordinary when God hears the prayer. It is incredible when God provides the new job, the new car, the new child. But none of these compares to when God creates new life. At our new birth God remakes our souls and gives us what we need, again. New eyes so we can see by faith. A new mind so we can have the mind of Christ. New strength so we won’t grow tired. A new vision so we won’t lose heart. A new voice for praise and new hands for service. And most of all, a new heart. A heart that has been cleansed by Christ. And, oh, how we need it. We have soiled what he gave us the first time. We have used our eyes to see impurity, our hands to give pain, our feet to walk the wrong path, our minds to think evil thoughts. All of us need to be made new again. The first birth was for earthly life; the second one is for eternal life. The first time we received a physical heart; the second time we receive a spiritual heart. The first birth enabled us to have life on earth. The second birth enables us to have life eternal. (Lucado, Gentle Thunder, p. 109)
Who owns you? By what name do you live? If it is a name tarnished by sin, a reminder that you have failed to be the man or woman you want to be, the promise of God is a new name – a new life for those who would come to him this morning, ready to die to self that he might live in them.