WISDOM FROM THE BEGINNING – PART VI – SECTION V
HOME AND RECONCILIATION WITH ESAU
I. After Jacob expresses righteous outrage, Laban agrees that he may go, although still asserting authority and insisting on an agreement for the future.
A. Laban agrees to let Jacob and his family go unhindered, as he must given God's command. But he still retains the claim that he is doing so voluntarily, saying that the women, children and flocks are rightfully his.
1. It is interesting
that he should make the claim that they are morally his, given that
Jacob worked for them. He may be arguing that, while Jacob had
the right to them, he did not have the right to leave the country with
them. One would think that that was a part of the understanding,
but it was not clear.
2. In any case,
Laban could mean that they are his by power, i.e. that he could keep
them by force. If one simply considered the physical power, that
claim would be true. However, given that God has told Laban to
let Jacob go, and given that Laban probably believes it to be a real
vision, he could not really keep them.
3. Laban may
have been making the claim to avoid losing face in front of his company.
1. The pact would
be a non-aggression arrangement that would set forth boundaries to keep
the two sides of the family friendly. Laban certainly understands
that Jacob is blessed by God. He may not have understood who God
is, and probably believed in his gods as powerful in his area.
But he knows that here at least Jacob is in favor with God. At
the end he refers to the God of Abraham and the God (or god) of Nahor,
i.e. his grandfather. He could mean that both are the same, or
that he believes that each branch of the family has its own god.
He does seem at least to be approaching the true God.
II. Having left Laban, Jacob must now return home and confront Esau, whom he apparently has not seen in 20 years.
1. He realizes
that he cannot fight Esau, and Esau is probably close enough with a
very mobile army that flight will not work. There is probably
not enough time to send a messenger to Isaac to have him intervene.
2. Jacob first
divides his people into two camps. The idea is that, if Esau attacks
one camp, the parley and/or fight will create enough of a delay to let
the other camp slip away. Jacob would thus himself have a chance
of escaping. And, in any case, about half of his children will
escape to preserve the inherited promises. Jacob is still acting
in a clever fashion.
3. Jacob then turns to God in a poignant prayer, which is the longest prayer recorded thus far in the Bible. The prayer recounts many classic elements of prayer: adoration, blessing, contrition, thanksgiving, petition, and intercession. See Catechism 2526-43.
a. He begins
with adoration, which the Catechism calls "the first attitude of man
acknowledging that he is a creature before the Creator." Catechism
2828. Here he describes God and the God of Abraham and Isaac,
his grandfather and father.
b. In blessing,
he recalls the promises God has given, and God's own instructions.
As the Catechism says, "Blessing expresses the basic movement of Christian
prayer; it is an encounter between God and man. In blessing, God's
gift and man's acceptance are united in dialogue." Catechism
is then repentance for sins, an acknowledgement of his own unworthiness,
especially given his scheming.
d. He then
refers in thanksgiving to God's own blessings to him, and especially
the fact that he came to the land of Laban with nothing, but now leaves
with two wives, twelve children (including Dinah) and great wealth.
He now understands that God has been guiding him all along.
e. He then makes his prayer of petition and intercession. Prayers of petition and intercession are related. Petitions tend to refer to oneself or something closer to oneself. Intercessions are for others or for justice in general.
then concludes his prayer with blessing again, recalling the promises
of great descendants God made to him in the vision in Bethel 20 years
earlier. See Gen. 28:13-15. Jacob began by referring to
God and the God of his father and grandfather. Now he recognizes
God and his God as well.
1. He sends an
enormous amount of wealth in the form of animals in three waves to gain
Esau's favor. The idea of sending three servants with more and
more wealth is to have a sense of buildup, to exceed expectations.
2. Verse 21 refers
to the face three times: to appease Esau (literally cover his face);
to face Esau; and to have Esau forgive him (literally lift his face.)
The episode is setting up Jacob's encounter with the angel, who shows
him the face of God.
3. During the night, Jacob crosses the ford at the Jabbock River, which flows into the Jordan, bringing his wives, handmaids, and children. But then he goes back across the river. He may have wanted to spend the night in thought and prayer. Or perhaps he wanted to protect them by confronting Esau by himself.
III. That night, Jacob struggles with an angel, who blesses him and strengthens him, although at the same time wounding him. The event would become a model for encounters with God.
A. Jacob begins by being alone before God, as Adam was before the Fall. A mysterious man comes and wrestles with him in a mysterious combat.
- Although we
eventually find out that he is an angel, at the time, there is no explanation
for us and likely for Jacob.
1. In what was
perhaps an illegal move for wrestling, or at least a surprise, or possibly
by special divine power, the man strikes Jacob in the thigh apparently
near the hip, injuring him. But Jacob continues fighting, grasping
2. At daybreak,
the man demands to be released. Literally, he must leave before
the conflict with Esau comes about. More figuratively, the time
of prayer has ended and Jacob now must move on to confront Esau.
1. The man begins
by asking Jacob for his name. The request may seem odd, but the
symbolism is that Jacob must reflect upon who he is before the angel
will advance him further.
2. The angel then gives him the new name Israel, which will be the people's name from then on. The name has at least three meanings: (1) one who struggles for God; (2) one who struggles with God; or (3) God rules. Here the emphasis is on the middle meaning, that Jacob has struggled with God.
a. The meaning
seems to have a positive connotation, for the angel says that Jacob
has prevailed. On one level, God has sent Jacob a challenge and
Jacob has risen to it. He now really cares and is really willing
to struggle, rather than use deceit. And, while struggling against
God is itself negative, it reflects an engagement with God, perhaps
and engagement with doubts, which is better than indifference.
1. At a literal
level, the injury may also pacify Esau, who seeing Jacob's suffering
may deem that sufficient.
2. At another
level, the injury will make Jacob more sympathetic, more humble more
compassionate, and therefore a better leader. St. Gregory the
Great commented that God often gives great spiritual powers to those
who are infirm because infirmity guards power against arrogance.
See Commentary on Job 19:2 ("by the plain voice of God it is
shown that the guardian of power is frailty"); Rule of Pastoral
Care, Part III, ch. 12.
3. In addition, the Church fathers would see in the injury an image of the fact that true devotion never leaves a person the same, but rather always makes one aware of spiritual infirmities and the need to suffer in the world. St. Ambrose saw the injury as participation in the future sufferings of Christ. See Jacob and the Happy Life 7:30. St. Augustine also saw in Jacob and image of the Church, which is blessed by God, but also weakened by unfaithful members so that she limps through history. See Sermons on Genesis 5:8.