A leopard never changes its spots. You know that saying. You may have experienced the of truth it. People are what they are. But the spots of course are on the outside, are visible. There is more than the visible, more than meets the eye. So here’s another saying:
‘The strongest people are not those who show strength in front of us but those who win battles we know nothing about’.
Both sayings could be related to Jacob. The grandson of Abraham and Sarah. Sarah had been barren all her life. But the son that was promised by God, was received by them, from God, in their old age. His name was Isaak and he had two sons, twins Esau and Jacob. Brothers fight, it’s normal. However, in the case of Esau and Jacob, that fighting started, seriously, while they were in their mother’s womb, and the one who was born last, actually continued that fighting, as he tried to grab the heel of his brother, the first born. A last attempt to win, to be born first. But he wasn’t born first and therefore didn’t have the first born right. The name of the child that tried to grab the heel of his brother was Jacob, which in Hebrew means ‘heal-sneak’.
Yet, he managed to get the first born right, by stealing it. Pretending that he was the first born, Esau, Jacob managed to make his old father Isaak believe that he was Esau. So Isaak gave him the blessing that was Esau’s. That is how Jacob got the blessing, through a lie. Characterized by his strong will to get what he wanted, including the blessing, Jacob was used to being in control.
Last week we heard how Jacob had to leave his home, his home in the promised land Canaan. He had to leave his beloved mum, dad and angry brother Esau. A painful parting.
Yet, in the midst of his loneliness, God reached out to Jacob, gave him the assurance of His presence, every step of the difficult way that lay before Jacob, despite of what he had done, despite of what he was: a mummy’s boy, used to being spoilt by her, being allowed to live his life on his terms.
Stealing the first born right, that was what crowned it all.
A leopard never changes its spots. Can God change them?
Jacob’s grandfather Abraham was promised by God that his offspring would be as many as the stars and that they would be a blessing to all the nations. But look at this grandson, this dishonest man. How can he, with his dishonest practices, be a blessing to others?
Well, God had incorporated in His plan, an educational plan for Jacob. That plan shaped Jacob’s way, and, as for his deceit from which his father Isaak and brother Esau suffered, the plan included a taste of Jacob’s own medicine.
Jacob fell in love with the youngest daughter of Laban, Rachel, whom he wanted to marry. But Laban made Jacob work for him first, seven years.
So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her. (Genesis 29:20)
However, after the wedding, Jacob realized he had not been given Rachel, by Laban, but Rachel’s older sister Leah.
Surprised why he had been deceived by his father in law, Jacob asked why, to which Laban answered. ‘We don’t give away the younger before the firstborn. Work for Rachel now, and I will give you her’. Another seven years, Jacob had to work, before he was given Rachel.
When God has his educational plan, don’t underestimate it, for it will not fail to serve His purpose. And in His time, God told Jacob to go back to the land Canaan, where he was promised by God a new future. So Jacob returned.
You can imagine, that Jacob was overwhelmed by memories, when the land Canaan came into sight, after all those years.
That’s where we are in today’s first Old Testament reading. Jacob made sure that his family and all his possessions, his wealth, had crossed the water of the Jabbok, first.
Then he is left alone.
Jacob is overwhelmed by his fear, fear to meet Esau. Fear for Esau’s anger, the anger that drove Jacob out of the land, across its borders, years ago.
In the bible we come across a lot of playing with words, with names. In both the name of the river Jabbok and in the name Jacob, you hear the sound ‘abak’ meaning ‘struggle’. And by playing with these two names, the author says to its readers and hearers, ‘Jacob finds himself in a phase of transition. Jacob had to cross the Jabbok, because, symbolically, this water, was filled with all the things inside Jacob. All the things that he needed to face, acknowledge, that he needed to leave behind, before entering into that new future that God had for Him’.
Then, suddenly out of nowhere, ‘someone’ struggled with Jacob. Clearly, this ‘someone’ was involved in Jacob’s crossing, in his transition. This is a wrestling of life and death. Who is this opponent? A river demon? There’s no winner in the sense that we are familiar with. This opponent, in all its mystery, only needed to touch Jacob’s thigh, and it got dislocated. He didn’t need to hit Jacob, didn’t need to strike him. Just touch, the socket of Jacob’s thigh…Whoever this opponent was, this struggle took place in the presence of God. Jacob knows this all too well. The opponent urges Jacob to let him go, but Jacob’s reaction is,
“I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” (Genesis 32:26)
And with saying the name Jacob, all of Jacob’s questionable history came out: the grabbing of his brother’s heel at birth, taking from him his blessing. All the dishonesty, the insistence on a life on his terms, on staying in control, it all came out.
Jacob got the blessing, from the One he was fighting with, but not as Jacob. Not the ‘heel-sneak’ style of Jacob was blessed. A new name, with which Jacob was given a new identity, was given first. Then he was blessed, under the new name Israel, which means, ‘God-Fighter’.
A fundamental change had to happen first, and that change came with a new name.
“Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.
Jacob’s opponent refused to give Jacob His Name. Instead, He gave Jacob the blessing.
The Holy One with the ineffable name gives new names. What that means is that He initiates new beginnings, in His time, for His reasons, in His way, as it is said again in our New Testament reading:
and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’ (Revelation 2:17)
Here we have Christ’s promise that perseverance to stay close to Him, takes us to a into His recreation, a new beginning, symbolized by the giving of a new name, about which no one else knows. That tells us that it’s something intimate, just between Him, the Giver and the receiver.
The way in which God realized his educational plan with Jacob, included wrestling that didn’t leave Jacob without scars. But what Jacob gained through the wrestling was that Jacob’s fear for Esau was conquered. Only then he was ready to learn that the Esau he was so dreading to see, was so not the Esau Jacob had in mind. Instead, it was an Esau in whose face Jacob saw God’s forgiveness. That was Jacob’s entering in his new future.
The way in which God goes His way with each one of us, includes battles and, like Jacob, we don’t come out of them without scars. But it is with those scars that we can move on, into a future that is held in God’s Hand, just as Jacob’s was. And so, The Jabbok story is also our story.
Christ’s promise to us, as we have it in our Revelation passage, is rooted in the promise God once spoke to Israel, with which I end,
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet,
until her righteousness goes forth as brightness,
and her salvation as a burning torch.
The nations shall see your righteousness,
and all the kings your glory,
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the LORD will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate,
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the LORD delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your sons marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.