Dr Clifford Denton.
Vayishlach: Genesis 32:3-36:43.
2nd December 2023/Kislev 19.
Then Jacob was left alone; and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day. (Genesis 32:24)
Picture by Helen McNeill
Two things are clear from our Bible readings over the last few weeks. First and foremost, God is faithful to His covenant with Abraham. What He has said stands, over all history. Secondly and sadly, despite the great privileges of God’s chosen people, human weakness always spoils the best response. Much as we would like to read a perfect account of Jacob’s life, we will be disappointed, even grieved by some of the incidents that occurred.
Surely, we would think, after meeting God so wonderfully at Bethel, Jacob’s commitment to lead his family well would be his prime commitment, so that he could pass on covenant responsibility seamlessly and perfectly. But it was not so, the family moved from crisis to crisis.
We begin our portion with Jacob, overwhelmingly rich from God’s blessings, leaving one problem behind, only to face another. Laban was reconciled, but there was no way back to Padan Aram past the heap of stones called Galeed (Genesis 31:45-52}. Now there was to be a reckoning with Esau, whom Jacob anticipated would be still full of anger after even the 20 years since he fled from him in Canaan (Genesis 27-28).
In Jacob’s favour, was that he was chosen by God, even as the younger of the twins. He also desired the covenant blessing, whilst Esau had cared no more for it than a bowl of lentil stew. Now, however, with reality before him, faith in God gave way to fear of Esau. Yet God was faithful in two ways. He used the opportunity to send an angel to wrestle with Jacob and test him. Jacob prevailed and asked for the blessing that he constantly needed. Blessed he was, but he was also given a limp, which would be a restraint to his human strength for the rest of his life. God had met with him and made him more dependent on Him. Secondly, unknown to Jacob, God had enabled Esau to become prosperous and he no longer carried resentment against Jacob in his heart.
This, however, was not the last of Jacob’s troubles. He was now identified by the name Israel – the name that would be associated with all his descendants throughout succeeding generations. Jacob and the nation of Israel have not been nor will be free of trouble until the return of Yeshua. The reality of life at that time was that Jacob’s family needed to settle back in Canaan among the local tribes, some of whom could be ruthless. After initially settling peaceably, soon followed the awful incident with Dinah and the murderous acts of Simeon and Levi.
We can turn these events over in our mind time and again and wonder how such things could happen to this specially chosen family. However, one must conclude that Jacob, as head of the family, had not brought the required discipline or teaching to his children. His personal response to God was not sufficient to prevent the errors that his children made. Should Dinah have been allowed to wander off alone so soon after their arrival, even if her thoughts of contacting other young women of the land were not badly motivated? Where was the parental restraint and teaching? Why did Simeon and Levi not consult their parents before taking the law into their own hands? Why were they not counselled correctly?
We are reading ancient history, but it typifies what is happening in Israel at this time in the most horrendous conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. We might reason from afar at the difficulties that Jacob experienced but what about the difficulties that continue in the world today? Jacob’s descendants from generation to generation have difficulty living in an alien world.
The problems of today have roots in the difficulties between Isaac and Ishmael and between Jacob and Esau. God’s covenant faithfulness was expressed with words spoken through the Prophet Malachi: Jacob I have loved but Esau I have hated (Malachi 1:2-3). We must be careful to understand that this does not mean that Esau has been vindictively hated by God in the sense of intent to do him harm. We understand from the Hebrew figure of speech that it means that Jacob’s descendants, chosen for covenant purposes, have had God’s attention compared with the comparative neglect of Esau’s descendants. Just as Esau, Jacob’s brother, amassed flocks sufficient for his needs, so his descendants could have all their needs met over all history, but not so directly blessed as Jacob. Yet, for all these privileges, Jacob’s descendants have been far from perfect throughout the generations.
Central to this week’s Torah portion is a focus on Jacob as the head of the family. Just as with Abraham and Isaac, Jacob’s central responsibility was to raise children, and thereby a whole nation, who would be taught God’s ways and be prepared for their own responsibility to God in due course. Just as Abraham was chosen because he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgement (Genesis 18:19), so was Jacob.
It is no different for us. Heads of Christian families have a covenant responsibility to bring up their children in the ways of God. We can learn from the Patriarchs about God’s faithfulness and the difficulties that are faced as a means to fulfil our own role in a growingly alien world. But do we realise this and set our priorities in order to accomplish this great responsibility? Was Jacob out with the flocks doing his daily work when Dinah wandered off among the people of the land unprepared for what was to befall her? Are we likewise more concerned about our own daily work and preoccupations than taking our covenant responsibility with our own family?
Many of us have had individual profound encounters with the Living God but, like Jacob, although our personal response can be heartfelt, we might still miss the opportunity to lead our children safely to their own commitment.
Jacob needed a limp to humble him into a greater dependency on God. Likewise, even the Apostle Paul had an impediment so that his dependency would be on God: And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
What about us?
We may not have a public ministry like Paul, nor a prominent role like Jacob, but as head of our own family, our responsibility within that framework is no different from Jacob’s. Do we need God’s restraints on our human strength or worldly ambition to fulfil our high calling as head of our own family? We will certainly have to subdue the desires of our human flesh to fulfil our role, whether by restraint or willing submission. If we are serious about our desire and responsibility to bring up godly offspring then we will need all the help that God can bring us, in this world of conflict and spiritual seduction.
Families are under attack more and more in our day. Just as Hamor and Shechem would have caused Jacob’s family to compromise their covenant calling and assimilate among the nations (Genesis 34:8-10), so will be the pressures on our families today. Shall we be fearful and give way or be strong in the Holy Spirit, fulfilling our covenant responsibility?
Heads of families may or may not be called to wider leadership responsibility in the local believing community, but the same injunction that Paul instituted for elders and deacons must be reflected in our personal commitment to our family: An elder then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behaviour, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover, he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:2-7)
The order of God’s Kingdom is founded on the family. We learn from the covenant family of God through the pages of the Bible, beginning with the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that the task of the head of the home is not as easy as we would want it to be despite the great privilege. The consequences following parental neglect of children are written through the pages of the Bible and are also evident in the current world situation. Our task though not as prominent as Jacob’s, has equal importance for those in our care. Heads of families must have a personal close relationship with God, but they must also fulfil their responsibility to their family, including preparing them for their own personal commitment to God. It is wonderful to see families out together enjoying God’s creation and talking about the Creator, or to be with families relaxing around the meal table together. There are many such, but it is still good to encourage one another even more as the days go forward to the time when our Lord will return to gather His own family together.