Good morning! In today’s reading of Genesis 31-33, the jealous tensions between Jacob and his uncle Laban result in a painful but overdue separation. Jacob then turns his attention to the home of his parents, finally facing up to the brother he wronged decades earlier. Along the way, he grapples with God throughout an unforgettable night.
Jacob has threatened to leave his uncle Laban several times already, but each time has found a reason to stay. Yet now a direct command from God calls him to return to the ancestral homestead in Canaan. He explains his reasons to Leah and Rachel; they agree that it’s not worth staying with their father any longer. True to form, the dodgy Jacob skips town when his father-in-law is away, and Rachel adds insult to injury by stealing Laban’s household idols. Deceptive Rachel is well-matched with her husband, as she proves when she lies about her period in order to keep the gods hidden in the saddle underneath her. But here Jacob, groping for righteousness and vindication at last, explodes at Laban for twenty years of wrongdoing. Thus faced with Jacob’s anger (and cautioned by a vision from God), Laban makes an agreement with Jacob that they would have no further doings with each other. Note how the nature of this covenant matches those which have gone before: the parties make vows they will each abide by, invoke God as watchful judge, and establish a physical reminder of the covenant. Note that Jacob refers to God several times as “the Fear of Isaac”, which makes me wonder what stories of God (and Abraham’s attempted sacrifice) Jacob heard from his father growing up.
Jacob fled the wrath of Esau after he tricked the older brother two decades earlier. Now he finally has the maturity (and divine command) to face up to his deceit and try to make amends. Jacob’s prayers give us a sense of his mindset: acknowledgment of guilt, seeking rescue, and reliance on the promises of God. He arranges a series of elaborate presents for Esau, who is coming to Jacob with a small army. Reconciliation must go beyond sincere regret and include meaningful reparations. Jacob puts everything on the line for the sake of healing the relationship with brother. Jacob’s sleepless night by the Jabbok River—between all that he had been, and all that awaited him in the morning—will be familiar to anyone who has ever sought forgiveness for great harm. The One who wrestles with Jacob in the dark symbolizes conscience and searing divine righteousness. Jacob’s life is spared but transformed. He bears a physical wound from the fight and another name (like other ancestors who encounter the divine). “Israel” means something like “God-wrestler”, and this midnight survival story becomes a foundational myth for the nation which will later carry his name.
“Sorrow may last the night, but joy comes in the morning,” as the old song goes. When day breaks for Jacob, he finds Esau filled with mercy and forgiveness. Seeing Esau’s face is “like seeing the face of God”, Jacob says, a reference to the previous night. Despite Esau’s offers of assistance, Jacob goes a separate way. At the city of Shechem Jacob buys land for his family—finally establishing his own homestead in peace after decades of fight and flight. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. Tomorrow’s passage is Genesis 34-36. Thanks for reading!