I have always struggled with Jacob. Here I am, trying to teach my children about the fruits of the Spirit, about the Beatitudes, about the golden rule. And then I read about Jacob. Jacob steals his father Isaac’s blessing from his twin brother Esau by tricking Isaac. Esau, of course, is very angry, and Jacob flees to escape his brother’s wrath.
Later in life, Jacob has twelve sons, and it is well-known that Joseph was his favorite. Jacob gave Joseph a multi-colored coat to show his favor; Andrew Lloyd Webber and Donny Osmond can fill in the gaps if you can’t remember the rest:
So Jacob is deceptive, and he shows favoritism: a difficult character to hold up as a role model. But perhaps the most puzzling account we have of Jacob is in Genesis 32, when he is approaching Esau after being on the run from his brother for seven years. Fearful for his life, Jacob sends hordes of gifts ahead of him towards Esau, and even his family goes on before him.
24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 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. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered.
28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” (Genesis 32:24-28)
There are many questions that arise in this narrative. Who is this “man” who wrestles with Jacob? (Scholars disagree on whether he was an angel, some other divine being or incarnation of God, or Jesus Christ.) How can the man be unable to overpower Jacob, and yet able to throw his hip out of joint simply by touching it? And how does Jacob have the energy to wrestle all night long? What strikes me the most, however, is Jacob’s unwillingness to let go. God wrestles with Jacob and asks to be let go, and Jacob replies, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
A few months ago I wrote a devotion called “Waiting for Figs,” about the need to wait on God, listen for him without insisting on our own timing, and watch for his work coming in ways that are surprising and unexpected. Jacob didn’t have a chance to read that piece, or else his story (and all of human history) might be very different. Jacob does not listen to God when God asks to be let go. Instead, he holds on, pleading for a blessing.
And the kicker is, God responds. God not only does what Jacob asks in this particular story, but he also uses Jacob’s deception of Esau and his favoritism with Joseph to build and eventually prosper the nation of Israel. I don’t know about you, but this bothers me. Why would God use a sinner who keeps sinning, who keeps insisting, who grasps at God in a way that seems utterly selfish? And why does God work with Jacob’s self-serving timing, giving in to his demands?
Perhaps we do need to wait and listen, growing in holiness, patience, and self-control. But at the very same time, sometimes we need to beg and plead with God. After too long, there is a kind of comfort in waiting as we come to expect God not to act and we instead focus on developing our own endurance and moral character. But when we are content to only wait, and not plead and intercede, we can forget that God desires an active relationship with us. We can forget Jesus’ directive to “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).
I have this tendency to wait without expectation, to stop asking and hoping because I’m a Christian and I shouldn’t be impatient, right? Even as I write these words, I am struggling to make sense of my daily grind caring for young children who are largely unappreciative of my efforts, trying to keep the house clean when it just gets messy again, investing in my marriage when my husband and I are both constantly exhausted. I often can’t find the energy or the willpower to seek God or care about what he might be saying. And even when I am praying and reflecting on Scripture, I often interpret the spiritual virtues of patience, peace, and self-control as an invitation to apathy and indifference.
And so, while recognizing Jacob’s sins and shortcomings, we can appreciate his hunger for God, his perseverance and desire to hold on when it seemed like even God was turning away. Let us grow in contentment and peace, but not so much that we give in to a zenlike resignation with the way things are. Let us emulate Jacob and hold onto God, wrestling for his blessing.