And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he called his name Israel. And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.”
These chapters in Genesis weave a tantalizing story. It’s character driven and full of action. There’s intrigue, rape, slaughter, reconciliation – but ultimately it’s the story of Jacob – finally turning to God.
Background: This story begins in Bethel. Jacob had just cheated Esau out of Isaac’s blessing and was running for his life – fleeing north to his mother’s family. On his way, he spent the night in Bethel, and God met with him there in a dream – a dream of a ladder to heaven (Genesis 28). In the dream, God appeared to him and promised to be with him and bless him. Jacob awoke and made a promise… with a condition – that if God would bless him, he would return to Bethel and worship Him there.
20+ years later… Jacob is a changed man. He is humbled by the trickery and harsh treatment from his Uncle Laban, but despite Jacob’s hardships, God had blessed Jacob with wives and children and many herds and flocks. Jacob manages to escape his Uncle Laban and begins the journey south toward home. However, his changed heart convinces him that he must reconcile with an enemy.
The antagonist: At first, the writer of Genesis leads you to believe that Jacob’s main conflict is with Esau. Jacob sets his mind to reconcile with Esau and sends a messenger to him with a large peace offering. But then the messenger returns reporting that Esau is advancing with 400 men (a small army) and Jacob is terrified. Jacob drops to his knees and initiates his first recorded prayer. It is a cry for help. He sends his family and herds away to safety and spends the night, alone, waiting for his brother.
Climax: The true antagonist, the one Jacob has wrestled with his entire life, comes to Jacob in the middle of the night. Jacob and this mysterious man wrestle until morning. Jacob’s striving endures until finally, the man breaks Jacob’s hip from just the touch of his hand and Jacob realizes that this man could only be God, in human form. However, Jacob still refuses to let God go – until He blesses him. At this moment, God changes Jacob’s name to “Israel” which means “strives with God.”
Peace: Now that Jacob has reconciled with God, his relationship with Esau is reconciled as well. The brothers meet together, and part ways, at peace.
Conflict: Instead of following Esau to Seir, Jacob travels the opposite direction and settles in Shechem. Shechem is 30 miles short of Bethel, the place Jacob promised to return to if God would bless him. Stopping short of full obedience, there is only tragedy waiting for Jacob and his family as his daughter, Dinah, is raped by the prince of the land. Dinah’s brothers take revenge by slaughtering the men of Shechem.
Resolution: God appears to Jacob, and commands him to return to Bethel. Realizing that God will not accept his half-heartedness, Jacob instructs his family to remove all idols and travel to Bethel. Jacob builds an altar to God at Bethel and God blesses Jacob.
The story ends where it began – in Bethel, meeting with God. Jacob’s journey is one of transformation – but it is not perfect. God pursues Jacob, forgives Jacob and changes Jacob – and continues to pursue, forgive and change Jacob throughout his life. He was a work in progress. Aren’t we all?