I’m told by people who spend a lot more time on Twitter and Facebook than I do that there’s been a rash of posts recently that use the hashtag ‘blessing’ or ‘blessed’. You’d think that these posts would be mainly from Christians or people of faith, but a lot of the people using them don’t identify as being religious. Many people, including people who have only the vaguest idea of God, often have the sense that they’ve been gifted by something or someone bigger than themselves, and they want to show their gratitude – hence, the hashtag.
Blessing was a powerful idea in the ancient world. Ancient people had a lot more confidence than we do in the power of words to actually cause things to happen. In the first chapter of Genesis God speaks – “Let there be light” – and God’s word makes something happen: light comes out of darkness. And so it continues throughout the chapter: ‘Let there be a firmament’, ‘Let there be waters’, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky’ and so on. God speaks, and it is done.
In the Old Testament, humans are sometimes given the authority to speak powerful words in the name of God. The Old Testament priests are commanded to bless the people in God’s name: ‘The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace’ (Numbers 6:24-26). We still have this tradition in the Christian church today, where a priest or pastor will speak words of blessing over a congregation or a group of people.
The idea of blessing is an important feature of the story of Jacob. You may remember that Jacob was the grandson of Abraham and so probably lived about 1800 years before Christ. Abraham’s son Isaac married Rebekah, sister of Abraham’s nephew Bethuel; Bethuel’s family lived in Haran, which is near the modern border between Turkey and Syria – so a long journey from Canaan in the ancient world. That was the country Abraham had left behind when he first moved to Canaan.
Isaac and Rebekah had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau was the oldest, but Jacob did his best to beat him to the starting line! Genesis tells us that ‘The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle, so they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel, so he was named Jacob’ (25:25-26). ‘Jacob’ sounds like the Hebrew phrase ‘He takes by the heel’ or ‘He supplants’. It’s a name that’s going to mark Jacob’s life; he’s going to see life as a competition, in which he has to grab a blessing for himself, or even trick others into giving him a blessing.
We’re told that Isaac and Rebekah had favourites. Isaac was sixty when his sons were born. Esau grew up to be an outdoor kind of guy who enjoyed hunting wild game, and Isaac had a taste for that kind of thing, so he liked Esau better. Jacob, however, was a quiet kind of guy who liked hanging around the tents the family lived in, and he was closer to his mother Rebekah.
The paternal blessing was a big thing in those days. Fathers had the authority to speak God’s blessing on their children, and the blessing of the firstborn was really, really important. The time came when Isaac got old and blind, and he thought he ought to give his oldest son the blessing while he could. So he told Esau to go out and hunt him some wild game and make a stew for him and bring it to him to eat; then he would give him the blessing of the firstborn. Rebekah heard this and she tricked her husband. She took a goat from the flock, killed it and cooked a stew; she took some of the goatskins and put them on the arms and shoulders of Jacob, and then sent him in to pretend to be Esau and get his father’s blessing. It worked, and Isaac gave the blessing of the firstborn to the younger son by mistake.
Esau of course was furious and threatened to kill Jacob, and so Isaac and Rebekah told him to go away to Haran, look for their relatives there, and look for a wife from the family of his uncle Laban, Rebekah’s brother. So Jacob set out on the long journey to Haran.
But on the way, something unexpected happened. He was tired one night and lay down to sleep, using a stone as a pillow. As he slept, he had a dream; he saw a stairway or ladder set up between earth and heaven, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the ladder. Then God spoke to him: “I am Yahweh, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring…Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:13, 15).
Interestingly, Jacob didn’t think he could trust God to keep that promise; he felt like he had to ‘grasp his heel’ or bargain with him. The next day when he woke up he set up the stone as a memorial – he called it ‘House of God’, or ‘Bethel’ in Hebrew – and he said, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come back again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God…and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you” (28:20-22). Sounds like he was trying to do a deal with God! I don’t know if Jacob really thought that God was so hard up for cash that he’d jump at the offer of Jacob’s tithe, but it certainly sounds like it!
Anyway, Jacob made the long journey to Haran, and there the first person he met was Rachel, daughter of his mother’s brother Laban. It seems to have been love at first sight for Jacob. Rachel took him back to her father’s house, where he was welcomed, and after a month Laban took him on as one of his regular workers, helping to care for his flocks of sheep and goats. They struck a deal (why does that sound familiar?): Jacob would serve Laban for seven years if he would give him Rachel as his wife.
Laban agreed, but what Jacob didn’t realize was that in his uncle Laban he’d met a trickster and manipulator just as good as he was. Rachel had an older sister Leah, and we get the sense she wasn’t as attractive as Rachel. After seven years was over, Jacob asked for his wife, so Laban duly arranged a marriage feast. There weren’t any special ceremonies in those days, as far as we can tell – just a feast, and then the bride was taken to her husband’s room for the marriage to be consummated. Somehow – we don’t know how – Laban was able to substitute his older daughter for the younger, and when Jacob woke up in the morning (maybe with a hangover?) – there was Leah! He was furious, but when he challenged Laban about it, Laban invented some excuse about it not being the custom in their country to marry off the younger sister before the older. “Finish Leah’s bridal week”, he said, “and then we’ll give you Rachel as a second wife – in exchange for another seven years of work!” So that’s what happened.
Clearly Jacob, who had learned the art of manipulation from an expert – his mother – was now experiencing what it was like to be on the receiving end of it from her brother. But his new situation wasn’t calculated to promote family harmony. Bluntly put, he loved Rachel but not Leah. Things got worse when Leah started having children right away, but Rachel seemed unable to produce any. Leah had four sons, and then finally in desperation Rachel gave Jacob her maid Bilhah: “Go sleep with her, and she’ll have sons that will be counted as mine”. This happened, and then Leah, not to be outdone, gave Jacob her maid Zilpah to do the same thing.
And so it went on for a few years, until finally, we’re told, Yahweh heard Rachel’s prayer and had mercy on her and gave her a son, Joseph – who, as you can guess, immediately became the apple of his father’s eye, being the son of the wife he did love, Rachel. Still, the score was pretty lopsided: six sons for Leah and two for her maid Zilpah, one son for Rachel and two for her maid Bilhah. In its patriarchal way the book of Genesis doesn’t mention daughters except for one, Dinah, daughter of Leah, who will figure later on in the story.
So you can imagine the conflicts and jealousies and insecurities that will plague this family throughout the lives of these people. Having been raised in a dysfunctional family in which he was his mother’s favourite while his brother was his father’s favourite, Jacob now successfully duplicated that kind of thing in his own family.
After a few years Jacob got a little discontented; he hadn’t had a raise in a long time! He confronted Laban about this, and made a proposal: the striped, speckled and spotted sheep in the flock would be his wages, while the plain ones would be Laban’s. Laban agreed to this, but then both of them came up with plans to try to cheat the other! And so it went on until eventually, after twenty years in Haran, Jacob decided it was time to return home to Canaan with his family.
I don’t have time to tell you about the little drama that took place between Jacob’s family and Laban at this point – you can read about it in Genesis chapter 31. Suffice it to say that Jacob had two problems: how would he get away from his father in law Laban, and how would he be welcomed by his brother Esau? The second problem began to trouble him more when he got closer to home, and so he sent messengers ahead to tell Esau he was coming and to ask if he would find favour in his brother’s eyes. The messengers, however, came back to tell him that Esau was on his way to meet him, and he had four hundred men with him! This sounded rather like an army, and Jacob was understandably quite scared.
So Jacob split his family into four groups for safety and sent them across the Jabbok stream. He stayed behind, alone, and so we come to the mysterious episode we read about in our Old Testament reading this morning. A ‘man’, we’re told, came and wrestled with Jacob all night long until daybreak.
This story is told in a masterful way, with lots of hints but few direct statements. Who is this ‘man’? Why has he attacked Jacob? We’re not told directly. What we are told about is a little dialogue that happened between them as dawn was beginning to break:
‘Then (the man) said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking”. But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me”. So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob”. Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed”. Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name”. But he asked, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved”’ (32:26-30).
This story connects with so many earlier features in the story of Jacob. Let me close this morning by pointing them out to you.
You could say that two things shaped Jacob’s life. The first was the dysfunctional family he was raised in, and which he successfully duplicated when he came to have a family of his own. What he learned when he was growing up was that parents have favourites, and if he was going to get his father’s favour he’d have to strive for it and trick him into it. So his mother trained him to be a master manipulator and never to expect to get anything for free. But one thing he didn’t learn was to trust people, and to trust that people would give him things freely, without him tricking them into it.
I suspect that many of us are like him. We’ve learned that we can’t trust life to give us what we long for. We’ve learned that life is a competition, and that the best manipulators are the ones who win. We’ve learned that blessing doesn’t come your way by itself; it needs to be earned.
So Jacob’s life was shaped by the jaded view of the world that he learned in growing up in his dysfunctional family. But the other thing that shaped his life was his two encounters with God.
The first encounter was in his dream at Bethel, when he saw the stairway to heaven. In that encounter, God made some promises to him. God told him: “I’m the God of Abraham and Isaac; I’m going to give you this land I promised to them, and your descendants will spread through it and fill it. I’ll be with you and protect you wherever you go, and I’ll bring you safely back to your own country, and I’ll never leave you”.
The problem is that Jacob couldn’t quite believe those promises. He couldn’t believe that they were a gift. He felt like he needed to bargain with God for them, or promise God a payback. And so he replied, “If you’ll do all these things for me…” (and I think in Jacob’s mind that was a very big ‘if’), “then you will be my God, and I’ll give you my tithes”.
We know Jacob better now, so we can guess why he replied like that. He’d never gotten anything in his life for free. He’d always had to compete with his brother for his father’s favour, knowing that Isaac loved Esau more than him. He couldn’t bring himself to believe in a God who offered him a gift; there had to be a catch somewhere!
And then, twenty years later, Jacob has his second encounter with God – the one we’ve read about today. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the blessing he received from his father twenty years before – the one he got by manipulation – wasn’t enough for him. He still hasn’t found what he’s looking for! He obviously suspects that this ‘man’ he’s been wrestling with is more than just a man, so he asks him for a blessing: “I won’t let you go unless you bless me”. And the man responds by giving him a new name: no longer Jacob (‘he supplants’) but Israel (‘The one who strives with God’). You can hear the surprise in Jacob’s voice: “I’ve seen God face to face, and I’m not dead!”
Is Jacob a different person from this point on? Not entirely. He still falls back on his old trickster ways from time to time; the habits of a lifetime are hard to break. But he’s a humbler man than he was, and he has more of a sense of God’s presence in his life. And looking ahead, he’s also learning to see God’s presence in the past, too. In chapter 35 he says to his family, “Come, let us go up to Bethel, that I may make an altar there to the God who answered me on the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone” (35:3).
Let me leave you with this. Like Jacob, many of us have been raised with the idea that life is a competition. Nothing comes for free. Love has to be earned. If some people get ahead, others have to be left behind. So in order to get ahead, you have to learn to manipulate people. Maybe you even have to learn to manipulate God.
But that’s not the Christian gospel. The Christian gospel tells us of a God who loves us before we ever do anything for him. He sends his sun and rain on good and bad alike. ‘We love’, says John the apostle, ‘because he first loved us’.
At the end of the service today, I will pronounce words of blessing on you. This is not my blessing; this is God, reaching out with his love to each of us. These words are for everyone here, with no exceptions. You don’t have to pay for them, before or after. You don’t have to manipulate anyone to get them. They come to you as a gift of God’s grace. All you need to do is receive them, and enjoy them, and say “Thank you”. I don’t know if Jacob ever fully learned to believe that. But I hope you do, and I hope I do too.