“How to Cross Burnt Bridges”
Most people are familiar with the “Hatfields and the McCoys.” This dispute happened in Kentucky-West Virginia along the Tuck Fork River. The dispute apparently began over a pig. Well, sort of. The dispute was actually over some land that a pig happened to be on. The Hatfields, who were the wealthier family, won the court case and the pig. Next, the McCoys murdered a Hatfield, who had just returned home from the Union army and the rest is history. The fighting finally stopped in 1891. However, to show true piece, the families came together and place the game, “Family Feud.” The winner got a cash price and, you guessed it, a pig.
The Bible has its fair share of “family feuds,” one being between Jacob and his brother Esau. The family feud began when Jacob was younger he had prepared some food and his brother came in from the field very hungry and asked Jacob for some food. Jacob told him that he would only give him food if he sold his birthright, to which Esau does. Jacob had manipulated his older brother out of his birthright. You may find it interesting that the name Jacob means “manipulator” or “heel.”
Then when it was time for his father Isaac to die, Isaac told Esau to go out and get some meat and prepare it so that he would be blessed by his father. When Esau had left, Jacob dressed up like Esau and came in pretending to be him and manipulated his father and received the blessing that belonged to his brother. When his brother found it he was extremely angry and wanted to kill Jacob, so Jacob fled.
If all this was not enough, Jacob went to live with Laban, his uncle and ended up marrying his two daughters. He wanted to go out on his own so he made a deal with Laban. The deal was that Jacob would take the spotted animals while Laban kept the pure ones. Jacob then went out and fed them a certain kind of root, which somehow caused the animals to breed spotted ones. Do not ask me how this happened, but that is what Genesis says. Then Jacob took with him a large portion of Laban’s property. Again, Jacob manipulates someone else, namely his father-in-law.
As we begin into our text, it seems that Jacob’s manipulation may have caught up with him. He has to go past his brother, Esau. Jacob is obviously terrified of this. He has not seen his brother since he stole the blessing from his father. It is obvious that looking back on Jacob’s life, he has been traveling a road of fear. He has been running scared from his brother and even more recently he was running scared from his father-in-law. Now he is coming face to face with his brother who wanted to kill him. It may be that all these years Esau has been traveling the road of anger. The text says,
Jacob also went on his way, and the angels of God met him. 2 When Jacob saw them, he said, "This is the camp of God!" So he named that place Mahanaim. Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. 4 He instructed them: "This is what you are to say to my lord Esau: 'Your servant Jacob says, I have been staying with Laban and have remained there till now. 5 I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, male and female servants. Now I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favor in your eyes.' "
When the messengers returned to Jacob, they said, "We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him." In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, [c] and the flocks and herds and camels as well. 8 He thought, "If Esau comes and attacks one group, [d] the group [e] that is left may escape."
Then Jacob prayed, "O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, LORD, you who said to me, 'Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,' 10 I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two camps. 11 Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. 12 But you have said, 'I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.' "
He spent the night there, and from what he had with him he selected a gift for his brother Esau: two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. He put them in the care of his servants, each herd by itself, and said to his servants, "Go ahead of me, and keep some space between the herds."
He instructed the one in the lead: "When my brother Esau meets you and asks, 'Who do you belong to, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?' then you are to say, 'They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us.' "
He also instructed the second, the third and all the others who followed the herds: "You are to say the same thing to Esau when you meet him. And be sure to say, 'Your servant Jacob is coming behind us.' " For he thought, "I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me." So Jacob's gifts went on ahead of him, but he himself spent the night in the camp.[i]
When Jacob, the master manipulator now faces his greatest fear, he cries out to God, “You told me to come here, so therefore you have to protect me.” I know there are other words in here like, “I am unworthy of all the loving kindness and all the faithfulness you have shown me.”
He wants God to deliver him from his brother. I hear a prayer that is just as manipulative as Jacob has been in his past relationships. He says nothing about his own attitude. He says nothing about wanting to make amends with his brother. All he wants is to be spared from the consequences of something he has done in the past. He wants nothing more than to be spared from Esau. It reminds me of a little child who hits his older brother and then runs to his parents to hide when the brother goes to get even.
Then Jacob, just incase his prayers to God would not work, decides to give Esau some gifts. He is hoping that these gifts would satisfy his brother so that his brother would not attack him. He divides these gifts into three rows and sends them out one at a time. This is clever because Jacob is also thinking that if he wants to attack me and I send three companies to gifts, then he will be slowed down by having all this extra stuff. Not only is Jacob hoping to appease his brother, but he is actually preparing a defense strategy. In my mind, he is still trying to manipulate his brother.
I believe if we are honest with ourselves, we all have some of Jacob in us. Oftentimes our prayers to God are not really about being reconciled with others, rather we are really praying that God will remove any consequence from our past actions. We are hoping God will sort of smooth everything over and we never really deal with the things that are at the heart. The problem is, that God does see to the heart and God really wants us to deal with the real issues, just like God will not let Jacob off the hook.
If we just want to escape the consequences of our actions, then we really shouldn’t pray. When we pray for restoration, we must know that God is not going to give is the easy way out.
The good and the bad thing in this text for Jacob, is that even though he may not have taken his prayer to God seriously, God did. When Jacob is all alone, our text tells us a man came and wrestled with him until daybreak. The story says,
That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 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."
The man asked him, "What is your name?" "Jacob," he answered.
Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, [f] because you have struggled with God and with human beings and have overcome."
Jacob said, "Please tell me your name." But he replied, "Why do you ask my name?" Then he blessed him there.[ii]
We are not told who this guy is. We do know that Jacob is quite the wrestler because this guy had not prevailed against him. Then, the guy touches his though and dislocated it.
This is wear I see the giant shift in the passage. Jacob will not let go of him until he blesses him. At this moment, the man gives him a new name, Israel and Jacob was blessed. The only one who we have seen that changes names and blesses is the person’s father or God. This is not his father, so Jacob must have been wrestling God.
Jacob asked God to intervene in his life situation with Esau and God does. Although it is not the way Jacob had intended it. Jacob wanted to deal with his brother, but God wanted to deal with Jacob. Jacob thought all this time that he had been running from his brother, but in fact he had been running from something much greater than his brother, God. Before God was going to help him wrestle with his problem with Esau, God wanted Jacob to first deal with him.
What happened to Jacob when he wrestled with God? God changed his name from Jacob to Israel. Someone having a named changed was very significant in the Ancient Near East. The person giving you a new named was claiming authority over you and you were submitting to that authority. By allowing God to rename him, Jacob was submitting to God’s authority. As I mentioned, the name “Jacob” meant “heal” or “manipulator”, but “Israel” meant “God rules.” Jacob went from ruling himself and manipulating others to benefit him to submitting to God.
I want to submit something to you today. We can tell a lot about our relationship with God when we examine our relationship with the people we should be the closest to. It seems to me that when we look at Jacob’s life, he was running in fear from everyone, including God. The problem is that you cannot continue to manipulate God and we must at some point deal with God.
I think this is so important because reconciliation begins with humility. Humility comes when we recognize that God is God and we are not. We understand that we are human we can make mistakes. We also understand that the mistakes others have made that caused our anger are also human limitations. When Jacob realized the world did not revolve around him and he experienced God’s blessing, he was then open to receive the forgiveness of his brother.
[i] TNIV Gen 32:1-21
[ii] TNIV Gen 32:22-29