Keyword:

Light from the Sidra

Vayishlach

Torah:Genesis.32:4(3)-36:43.Haftarah:Obadiah 1:1-1:21

Take nothing less than the best

We all admire self-made men; those men like Sir Alan Sugar who started out with nothing and by sheer determination and hard graft struggled against the odds to make it to the top. Or we look at someone who lost both their legs in some horrific accident and then climbed to the top of Everest just to prove they could do it. There is something heroic about such men and most of us lesser mortals secretly fantasise that we could do the same if we felt like it and if we really wanted to. But for every Sir Alan, there’s someone else who went from riches to rags or from rags to fig leaves. The fact is that, in the end, we are what we are by the grace of God.

Jacob was smart. Well, at least a lot smarter than Esau and, it would seem, his father Isaac, who appears to have been a bit of hypochondriac. Isaac thinks he’s dying but survives another twenty years or so. Jacob was shrewd but when he arrives at his uncle Laban’s house he apparently meets his match. The old boy agrees to give Jacob the hand of his beautiful younger daughter Rachel but when Jacob wakes up in the marriage chamber the morning after the wedding night, he finds himself joined in an indissoluble union to Rachel’s older sister Leah. Laban makes Jacob work like some hired had been looking after his flock but keeps changing his wages. Laban ends up alienating his own daughters so that when Jacob outwits his father-in-law with some Second Millennium BCE genetic engineering and decides to leg it back home they are in full agreement with him.

And so it is that Jacob, who had started out with nothing, returns home twenty years later with two wives, a tribe of children and large herds of livestock. A self-made man if ever there was one, only it is the God of his father and grandfather who has granted him the success he now enjoys.

Twenty years previously, after God appeared to him in a dream, Jacob made a vow. Jacob swore that if God would be with him and keep him; if he would give him bread and clothing, and bring him home in peace, the LORD would be his God and Jacob would give him a tenth of all he had’ (Gen 28:20-23).

However, at this stage in Jacob’s spiritual pilgrimage, it seems Yahweh was not yet his God. It is Leah, the unloved wife, who acknowledges Yahweh when she praises the LORD for the births of Reuben, Simeon and Judah (Gen 29:31-35). Jacob’s favourite wife blesses Yahweh for the birth of Joseph but when the family makes their escape, she steals her father’s idols. In Genesis 30:27. Laban acknowledges that Yahweh, the LORD, has blessed him for Jacob’s sake. This is a beginning of the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 that in his ‘seed’ all the families of the earth would be blessed. And although he is a worshipper of idols, when Laban enters into a covenant of peace with Jacob, he is prepared to swear an oath in the name of Yahweh (Gen 31:49).

From Jacob, however, we hear nothing about his ‘religious’ affiliation. The nearest we get to a statement of faith from him is when he and Laban swear oaths in Genesis 31:53. Laban swears by ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Nahor, the God of their father’ and Jacob swears by ‘the Fear of his father Isaac.’  

Perhaps Jacob’s reluctance to acknowledge the God of Abraham and Isaac as his God is due to the fact that one condition of Jacob’s vow remains unfulfilled. At this point, Yahweh has not brought Jacob home in peace. What if, after two decades, Esau is still angry and intends to kill Jacob?

When Jacob learns that Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men, he is understandably concerned. He takes whatever steps he can to protect his family and possessions but what if that is not enough? Jacob is scared; he is at his wit’s end. Where can he turn for help? Who can he turn to for protection?

At this point, he turns to the God of his father Abraham, the God of his father Isaac, and prays:  

O LORD ... I am not worthy of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which Thou hast shown unto Thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan and now I have become two camps. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of … Esau; for I fear him ... Thou sadist, “I will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude."'

This is an important prayer. Jacob calls not on some ‘higher power’ but on Yahweh, the LORD, the God of Abraham and Isaac. He acknowledges his unworthiness and confesses that even the smallest of God’s blessings has been bestowed on him by sheer grace. And Jacob places his faith in the promise of God made when God appeared to him at Bethel.

A mysterious stranger meets Jacob and the two of them fight all night, after which Jacob recognises that the one he has wrestled with is none other than the God he prayed to. Therefore Jacob calls the place Peniel, because he has seen the ‘Face of God’. The LORD has blessed Jacob and kept him; he has made His face shine upon Jacob and has been gracious to him; the LORD has lifted up His countenance upon him and is going to give him peace (cf. Num 6:24-26).

When the brothers meet, however, Esau has forgotten all about Jacob purloining the double portion of his inheritance. Even God’s second best blessing is good and Esau has become used to living on that second best. He refuses Jacob’s gift because, he says, he has ‘enough’ (Hebrew: rav). Jacob urges him to take the gift because he has ‘all’ (Hebrew: kol). Jacob has not only all that was promised to him in his father’s blessing and all he asked of God at Bethel but he also has God! Yahweh is no longer just the God of Abraham and Isaac, he is now the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob or, rather, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel.

Jacob now, like his father and grandfather, pitches his tent, builds his altar and calls on the name of Yahweh. Yahweh is at last El Elohe Israel, ‘God, the God of the Prince with God’.

Now here’s the irony. In Jeremiah 31:31, God promised to enter into a New Covenant with house of Israel and the house of Judah. Other Scriptures indicate that the New Covenant will be established through the Messiah. Around the world, there are millions of Gentiles who by the astonishing grace of Israel’s God are enjoying the blessings of that covenant: God’s Torah has been written in their hearts and minds, from the least of them to the greatest they know Yahweh because he has but their sins and iniquities behind him.

These Gentiles now have kol (all) and are urging the Jewish people to take what is theirs by right but instead of eagerly grasping the blessings of their New Covenant, most Jewish people say they have rav (enough). They have the Torah, the Traditions, the Festivals, Yiddishkeit and so on. Wonderful as those things may be, they are second best. How ironic that Esau is now urging Jacob to accept the gift of God which is found in the Messiah; and how tragic that the Jewish people long ago settled for second best.


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