Light from the Sidra


Genesis 32:4 - 36; Hosea 11:7 - 12:12

How do you cope in a crisis? If you live on planet earth with the rest of us, at some time or other you will face one. In fact you will probably face several. By “crisis” I do not mean just a period of stress but something far more overwhelming. I am thinking of an event which turns your whole world upside down, something which is even life-threatening. Do you turn to God at such a time? And is he there? Or do you take the view that you will have to sort this one out yourself? “God helps those who help themselves” and all that.

Jacob faced such a crisis when he returned to Canaan and prepared to meet his brother Esau, who, as far as he knew, was still seeking murderous revenge. There is no doubt that he did all he could to “help himself” by the gifts he sent to appease Esau. This should not be misunderstood. We know he was looking to God for help all the time, for we are told that he prayed to the LORD, but he lacked peace. He was fully aware of the promises God had given to him: the vision of the ladder up to heaven, the command of God to leave Laban and go home and the angels who met him as he entered the land. He believed these things but still he lacked peace. Why?

Rabbi Julian Jacobs suggests that Jacob doubted whether he deserved that God should keep his promises to him and so he was distressed. That is not supported by the account. Jacob was not in a state of doubt on that point, he knew for certain that he was unworthy, and he says so. He put his trust in God’s grace alone, calling on the LORD to deliver him. But still he lacked peace.

Jacob’s experience shows us that there is a difference between belief and trust. It is possible to be satisfied that we really believe a promise of the LORD, we believe God can move mountains, but when experience puts us to the test and we need to trust that he will move the mountain, we find we are not at all sure. At such times many people are troubled and full of doubt. We lack the kind of trust that leads to peace. Trust is the moment by moment reliance on God. A child trusts you to help him across the road when he puts his hand in your hand.

The first person to walk a tightrope across Niagara Falls was a man named Blondin. Great crowds watched in awe as he walked across and then back again. Then he asked the spectators if they believed he could do it with someone on his back. The crowd enthusiastically shouted  “Yes!” He then asked for a volunteer. Everyone became strangely silent; no-one came forward. They believed him but they did not really trust him.

As Jacob faced his crisis it was clear that he lacked trust. He had believed God and learned to trust him in a measure, but this situation demanded more. And it came by prayer. The Sidra records an astonishing event in which Jacob actually wrestled with a mysterious man, a person he later realised to be God himself. I have no doubt this really happened. A physical wrestling took place but it expressed something higher - Jacob’s inner struggle with God, seeking that assurance that God would deliver him from Esau. And he did not give up until he had it and knew peace.

What about yourself? Have you ever struggled like that in prayer? Maybe you have not needed to and I would not wish such a crisis upon you, but I am certain that there is a question we all have to face which should prompt a crisis in us all. It’s the question, “Are my sins forgiven?” Anyone who has faced that question seriously should not be able to get a night’s sleep until they have the assurance that they are forgiven, for none of us knows when our time will be up in this life. Many respond to this question with, “I believe so.”   But when death stares them in the face they have no peace. We cannot afford to be uncertain, just as Jacob could not.

Some imagine that greater devotion to Judaism will help, but I am sorry to say that it did not help the founder of Rabbinic Judaism, Yochanan ben Zakkai. The Talmud records in Berachot 28b that on his deathbed Rabbi Yochanan said, “Here are two ways before me, one leading to Gan Eden and the other to Gehenna, and I do not know where I am going.” To follow his example is to be sure of his uncertainty. So, how can peace be found?

The example of Jacob teaches that you must wrestle in prayer with the Almighty until you have an assurance that he has forgiven you and that you will be safe from his judgement. But prayer alone is not enough; you must also follow the example of a pious Jew who did know such an assurance. He lived at the same time as ben Zakkai and as he faced death he wrote these words, “I am now ready to be offered...there is for me a crown of righteousness which the Lord the righteous judge shall give me at that day” (2 Timothy 4:6-8, New Testament) and “For I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that he is able to keep what I have committed to him until that day” (Philippians 1:23, New Testament). The “day” he is thinking of is the Day of Judgement and it is clear that he is facing it with peace and confidence. Why? Because he trusted. He trusted a person who could deliver him. He trusted Yeshua the Messiah. He had cried to the LORD to be merciful to him and trusted in the sacrificial death of Yeshua for sinners. He knew peace in the face of death. His name was Saul of Tarsus. If you follow his example you will know that same peace from God.

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