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Jacob had previously relied on craft and deceit to achieve his goals, through such actions as depriving his brother Esau of his birthright and of their father's blessing (Genesis 25:29-34; Genesis 27). Now (in Genesis 32), he was facing (and fearing) the possible consequences of those actions. In my opinion, the struggle mentioned there represented the point at which Jacob ceased his self-reliance, and realized his need for God (by refusing to release his grip on his opponent (whom he recognized as God or His representative (Genesis 32:30)) without receiving a blessing), which led to his being blessed (Genesis 32:29).
This struggle, which is a struggle we all participate in, is all about learning the sovereignty of God. Much of the church claims to believe God is sovereign yet at every step of the way what they actually do and teach proves they really believe God is not the slightest bit sovereign over us, nor is he powerful enough to do what he promises without our help. Jacob's life before this night was defined by this contradiction between his claimed faith in God and his actual teaching and practice. God had promised before his birth that he would rule over his older brother, yet nothing he and Rebecca ever saw seemed to point to God actually fulfilling his word on this matter, so they decided they had to take matters into their own hands and try to fulfill God's promise by the power of the flesh. How are they different from us in this matter? How many have heard the quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin, God helps those who help themselves? Worse still, how many have taught that? All this does is prove our lack of faith that God will (or can) do what he promised. Such lack of faith always makes things worse in the long run. It eventually made it necessary for Jacob to leave home to save his life from the hand of a brother seeking revenge for his theft. The book of Jasher tells us that Isaac sent him away with a large dowry so that he could find and buy a wife while living with Laban. Esau's son and servants were sent to kill him on the first night of that journey, and he only survived by bribing them with this dowry. This is why he was empty-handed when he arrived in Mesopotamia. Twenty-one years later, as he was returning with his family, he heard of Esau's approach and plan to kill him and presumably his entire household. (Because he had signed and witnessed documentation of the sale of the birthright for a pot of porridge Esau would have to kill all his legal heirs to regain the birthright.) When he was attacked he presumed he was fighting either Esau or one of his men, sent to spy out his location. It was only when the angel of God's face touched his hip and immediately disabled him that he knew it was actually a messenger from God that he was struggling with. At this point he could only hold on and insist that God bless him because he could no longer fight against God, no matter the form or appearance he took. The real lesson Jacob learned here is found in his words to his brother in Gn 33:10, "Seeing your face is like seeing God’s face." Many people miss the importance of this statement completely. Here Jacob was admitting to his nemesis that everything Jacob had suffered at his hand he had actually suffered at the hand of God for his purification, edification and education. He literally was seeing the hand (and face) of God in his brother. On that night Jacob finally learned that God is sovereign so he was given the name Israel, which means God rules (not ruling with God as some teach). God rules, so when I seek to fulfill his promise by my own hand and in my own timing instead of his, I am not allowing him to rule, I am trying to rule in his place. This is rebellion, not faith. This is not a call for inaction. God intends for us to act, but we do not act in our own timing, in our own understanding and according to the desires or beliefs of our flesh. We only act when God says, rise up and follow me as this angel of the face of God did when it appeared again to Israel's descendants in the wilderness as the pillar of cloud and fire, rising up to show them it was time to move on and settling down to show them it was time to set up a new encampment (Num 10:33-36).
Jacob's story can be spiritually seen as something of a metaphor for the Jews - beginning at the time of Christ. After the Jewish Revolt of 67-73 AD the Jews left the Holy Land in a diaspora that has lasted almost 2,000 years. They are now returning to Israel in an advance vanguard, but all will ultimately leave Gentile lands behind to live in Israel when its borders are eventually expanded. Jacob fled the Holy Land and dwelt with his relative Laban for 20 years to return again with wives, children, and much livestock. Jacob's perception of the angels (Gen 32:1-2) before seeing Esau indicates that his journey had great spiritual significance beyond its physical circumstances. But it isn't possible to enter the Kingdom of God (represented by the Holy Land) correctly without a judgment. The contest between Jacob and the angel represents the second coming of Christ to judge Israel in particular, and other nations. Jacob obtained the blessing he demanded from the angel, but also suffered a permanently out of joint thigh due to the shrunken sinew. Many will suffer loss when Christ comes in judgment, including loss of life, ostracism, or loss of social or spiritual position. Others will be greatly rewarded. Jacob, as a representation of the Jews, was highly fortunate in this regard.
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