Jacob’s mother produced twins, Genesis 25:21-26. The first twin born was called Esau because he was hairy, and the word Esau means that. The second son was called Jacob, becuase he had held on to his brother’s heel, and Jacob means “heel-holder”, in reference to this event, but the word also means “he will supplant”, in reference to his life. For Jacob was a schemer, ever ready to devise some plan for his own advantage. Hence, when he and his brother were grown, and his brother came home exhausted from a hunting expedition and thought he was going to die, Jacob saw and seized his opportunity, and persuaded Esau to part with his birthright, Genesis 25:27-34; Hebrews 12:14-17. This birthright guaranteed him special privileges as the firstborn son, but now Jacob, the second born, has the right by deception. He has supplanted Esau as the firstborn son
Later, too, Jacob deceived his father Isaac, who had very poor eyesight, and gained his father’s patriarchal blessing, Genesis 27. His father thought he was granting it to Esau, but Jacob supplanted him this time also. . He is living up to his name. As Esau said, “Is he not rightly called Jacob? For he hath supplanted me these two times”, Genesis 27:36.
So it was that Esau hated Jacob, (and still does!), Genesis 27:41. He vowed to kill him when his father was dead. To avoid this Jacob fled to his relation Laban in Padan-Aram. Here he worked for Laban for 20 years, and married both of Laban’s daughters. The Lord then commanded him to return to Canaan, Genesis 31:3, promising to be with him. This was important, for Jacob had no reason to believe that Esau was any less angry with him than he had been 20 years before. In fact, he might have 20 years’ worth of anger inside him.
To reassure Jacob, he was met by a host of angels, and this was God’s sign to him that heaven was watching over him. Despite these assurances by word and by sign, however, Jacob still sought to scheme his way out of his difficulties, for in Genesis 32:13-21 he sent a present on before him with which to pacify his brother. He divided this present up so that by the time Jacob actually met up with Esau again, he would have had several indications of Jacob’s desire to be reconciled to him, (in fact the word “appease” in Genesis 32:20 is the word “atone”).
It is at this point that God teaches Jacob a valuable and necessary lesson. It is that human strength is of no worth in the spiritual life. The words of 1 Samuel 2:9 are relevant here, “For by strength shall no man prevail”. As far as God was concerned, it was His purpose to bring Jacob and his family safely back to Canaan, to there become a great nation. Through this nation God would dispense blessing to the world, as He had promised to Abraham, “In thee shall all families of the earth be blessed”, Genesis 12:3.
This blessing would consist of the following things:
||The knowledge of the true God amidst heathen idolatry.
||The joy of communion with Him by faith.
||The system of sacrifices to show how God may be approached.
||The presence of God in the Tabernacle and Temple to encourage and protect.
||The Law to restrain evil and expose the sinfulness of man.
||The prophets to encourage and warn the people.
||The Scriptures of the Old Testament as a permanent record of God’s demands and purpose.
||The privilege of being the nation from whom the Messiah came.
||The apostles, who preached and taught New Testament truth.
||The New Testament, God’s completed revelation.
All these things combined together in the nation of Israel, so that great blessing might be known in the world around. The Lord Jesus summed these things up in the words, “Salvation is of the Jews”, John 4:22.
Despite God’s assurances, and the sight of the angel-army, Jacob is still fearful of Esau, so God gives him an experience which will teach him to rely on God, not his scheming self. An angel will wrestle with him, and enable him to almost prevail over him, but will then show his superior power by affecting his ability to walk so that he is constantly reminded of the lesson.
Hosea refers to this incident many centuries later, (so the lesson is for others as well as for Jacob), in Hosea 12:3,4. The prophet links together the following things:
1. That he took his brother by the heel in the womb. This is his natural character. The “heel-holder” loses no time to take advantage.
2. By his strength he had power with God, which was shown in that he had power over the angel and at first prevailed against him. This is God’s way of showing him he could be different.
3. He wept and made supplication to Him. By his earnest prayer Jacob shows he has learnt to lean upon God for victory and not his own strength.
At this point in his life Jacob’s name is changed to Israel. He is being taught what in the New Testament is the doctrine of the two natures. As born into the world we are sinners of Adam’s line, but as those crucified with Christ and risen with Him we are reckoned to no longer be in the flesh but in the Spirit, Romans 8:9. Because, however, we still have the same body we had before we were saved, and that body is the headquarters of the sin-principle within us, we have to ability to act like Jacob, even though God has made us “Israel”. Now the word Israel may be translated both “Prince with God”, and “Governed by God”. And Jacob by his experience came to know both meanings. He was brought to the point of crying desperately to God to help him as he wrestled, so recognising he must be governed and controlled by God if he is to succeed spiritually. But he was also allowed to prevail over the angel, to open up the possibility to him of being a prince with God as an overcomer.
So it is that the angel touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh, so that he halted from that day forward, a constant reminder to him of his experience. We need to constantly remind ourselves that we dare not try to walk the Christian pathway without the energy of the Spirit of God. We are not in the flesh but we can walk after the flesh, Romans 8:4, and we shall only be overcomers, true “Israels”, princes with God, if we walk after the Spirit. We read two things in Genesis 32:31; the sun rose upon Jacob, and he halted on his thigh. The light of the resurrection day has dawned upon us, for we have been raised with Christ to walk in newness of life, Romans 6:4, but we have the constant reminder that our natural walk is a limping, halting, faulty walk, and if we wish to truly overcome, we shall walk by the Spirit’s power, and not the energy of the flesh.