Jacob’s Transformation and Reconciliation with Esau (Genesis 32-33)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
Proper handshake

After increasing tension with his father-in-law and a business separation in which both men acted less than admirably, Jacob left Laban. Having obtained his position by Laban's dirty trick years ago, Jacob now saw an opportunity to legitimize his position by coming to an agreement with his estranged brother Esau. But he expected the negotiations to be tense. Wracked with fear that Esau would come to the meeting with his four hundred armed men, Jacob split his family and animals into two groups to help ensure some measure of survival. He prayed for protection and sent an enormous gift of animals on ahead of him to pacify Esau before the encounter. But the night before he arrived at the meeting point, the trickster Jacob was visited by a shadowy figure out to surprise him. God himself attacked him in the form of a strongman, against whom Jacob was forced to wrestle all night. God, it turns out, is not only the God of worship and religion, but the God of work and family enterprises, and he is not above turning the tables on a slippery operator like Jacob. He pressed his advantage to the point of permanently injuring Jacob’s hip, yet Jacob in his weakness said that he would not give up until his attacker had blessed him.

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This became the turning point of Jacob’s life. He had known years of struggling with people, yet all along Jacob had also been struggling in his relationship with God. Here at last, he met God and received his blessing amid the struggle. Jacob received a new name, Israel, and even renamed the location to honor the fact that there he had seen God face to face (Gen. 32:30). The once-ominous meeting with Esau followed in the morning and contradicted Jacob’s fearful expectation in the most delightful way imaginable. Esau ran to Jacob and embraced him. Esau graciously tried to refuse Jacob's gifts, though Jacob insisted he take them. A transformed Jacob said to Esau, “Truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God” (Gen. 33:10).

The ambiguous identity of Jacob’s wrestling opponent is a deliberate feature of the story. It highlights the inseparable elements of Jacob’s struggling with both God and man. Jacob models for us a truth at the core of our faith: our relationships with God and people are linked. Our reconciliation with God makes possible our reconciliation with others. Likewise, in that human reconciliation, we come to see and know God better. The work of reconciliation applies to families, friends, churches, companies, even people groups and nations. Christ alone can be our peace, but we are his ambassadors for it. Springing from God’s initial promise to Abraham, this is a blessing that ought to touch the whole world.