At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Jacob left his unjust father-in-law, Laban, while he was off shearing his sheep. Fearing that Laban would keep his daughters, Leah and Rachel, Jacob stole away with all he had: his sons, his two wives, and all of his livestock, heading for the mountains of Gilead.
After 22 years in Haran, it was likely very difficult for Jacob to free himself from Laban’s wicked manipulation and control, but he did succeed. We can imagine that he was anticipating with great joy his return to his ancestral homeland of Canaan; however, in order to do so, he had to first pass through Edom, the territory of Esau, his estranged brother.
Jacob’s Family Becomes a Nation
“Then the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, ‘We came to your brother Esau, and he also is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” So Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed.” (Genesis 32:6–7)
The time had come for Jacob to confront his past. More than two decades had passed since Jacob had posed as his brother Esau and received the first-born blessing from their father.
The last time Jacob had seen Esau, he was filled with murderous rage, vowing to kill him; therefore, it is no wonder that Jacob felt anxiety at the prospect of seeing his brother again, especially upon learning that Esau was headed his way with 400 men!
Had Esau held a grudge against Jacob all these years? Or had time eased the pain of betrayal and brought forgiveness? Could the generous gifts of livestock sent ahead to Esau somehow appease his anger? Jacob was about to find out.
Jacob was a man of strategy: he divided his family and the people with him, along with his flock, herds and camels, into two camps. That way, if Esau attacked one camp, the other would survive. (Genesis 32:8)
The Torah does not simply call these two camps Jacob’s family. This is the first time that the Scriptures refers to those who are with Jacob as the nation (ha’am הָעָם).
“Jacob divided the people [ha’am, הָעָם] who were with him into two groups.” (Genesis 32:7)
This is why the Jewish people, even today, are called the house of Jacob.
Jacob Becomes Israel
That night, after separating everyone and everything into two camps, Jacob stays behind. While alone, he encounters an angel with whom he wrestles until daybreak, insisting, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” (Genesis 32:26)
Jacob refuses to settle for anything less than a full inheritance, and his tenacity is commendable; even the angel takes note of it.
But his response at first is puzzling. The angel asks Jacob, “‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Jacob (Yaacov) יַעֲקֹב.’” (Genesis 32:27)
Why did the angel ask about Jacob’s name? In Hebrew, his name (Yaacov) can mean the heel of the foot (because he grasped Esau’s heel when coming out of the womb); but it can also carry a connotation of deceiver or supplanted.
The ”angel” knew that in order for Jacob to be embark on his divine destiny, he first needed to face the truth about himself.
Stating his name was essentially admitting his character. The angel changed his name to Israel (Yisrael יִשְׂרָאֵל) because he had struggled (sarita שָׂרִיתָ) with God and with men, and had overcome. (Genesis 32:28)
The name of Israel comes from two Hebrew words: strive (sar שר) and God (El אל). Israel can also mean Prince with God.
There is a lesson in this for everyone. To be the overcomers we are called to be and to experience full victory in our lives, there are times when we must be tenacious in our faith and times when we must prevail in prayer.
Torah identifies Jacob’s mysterious wrestling partner only as an ish (man); nevertheless, it becomes obvious that he was much more than just a man; He was divine. Jacob recognized this and, therefore, called the place Peniel (פְּנִיאֵל), which means face of God, because He had seen God face to face (panim el panim).
The prophet Hosea in the Haftarah (prophetic reading) also saw that Jacob wrestled with Divinity:
“In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and in his manhood he strove with God. He strove with the angel and prevailed.” (Hosea 12:3–4)
This intense encounter left Jacob with a permanent limp from a dislocated hip.
“And the sun rose upon him as he passed over Peniel, and he limped upon his thigh.” (Genesis 32:31)
Jacob Makes Peace With Esau
On his way to meet Esau, Jacob prepared for the worst to happen.
Positioning his family behind him, Jacob “went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother.”
“But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.” (Genesis 33:3–4)
While there is obvious merit in being prepared for anything, the Bible teaches us that worrying about the future is pointless, since much of what we waste time worrying about never comes to pass.
We can put all of our cares and concerns into God’s hands, trusting Him to take care of us in any and all situations, even those that could cause us to be fearful or distressed.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (Philippians 4:6)
Like Jacob, some of us have relationships that have been strained—perhaps family members are angry over some past offense.
We may even have committed a great wrong toward someone close to us. In time and with the Lord’s leading, even these estranged relationships can be reconciled through love and forgiveness.
Each of us have been given the ministry of reconciliation and should do whatever we can to bring healing and restoration to our relationships with one another, especially our brothers and sisters in the Body of Messiah.
“Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Yeshua the Messiah, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18)
Although Esau eventually reconciled with his brother, his descendants—the Edomites—continued to harbor hatred against Jacob’s descendants. It is an ancient hatred, the spirit of which continues to this very day.
Recently, in a particularly barbaric attack in a Jerusalem synagogue, Arab terrorists stormed in with knives and axes, hacking several unarmed Jewish worshipers to death.
Their innocent blood spilled over their prayer books (siddurim) and soaked the prayer shawls (tallitot) that they were still wearing at the time of the attack.
In the Haftarah (prophetic portion) for this week, in the book of Obadiah, God warns that because of their violence against the children of Jacob (Israel), there will be no survivors of the house of Esau, and they will be cut off forever.
“Because of the violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever . . . and there shall be no survivor for the house of Esau, for the LORD has spoken.” (Obadiah 1:10, 18)