What is it with Jacob? What’s going on in all those tangles, his conflict with Laban, his conflict with Esau? Things begin to go better for him in chapter 31 with Laban at least. That is behind.
In the beginning of Genesis 32 he meets a company of angels, talks about it, and then acts. What does it mean? I think he’s feeling cheerfuller than usual, things are going well. He has the big meeting with Esau ahead and this time he’s going to take the initiative, face Esau squarely, so he sends messengers to say he’s coming and glibly adds that he is very, very rich.
And the result is rather discouraging for him. Esau is coming to meet him and with 400 men. Jacob does not stop to think that in every encounter he’s had with Esau he has prevailed. He doesn’t look at things from Esau’s point of view. How would Esau prepare to meet his wily brother? How would Jacob prepare to meet with Laban if Laban unaccountably sent messengers to tell him he was returning? Jacob simply panics, and it is so bad with him that he actually starts praying; remember he has not, to date, been a praying man.
His idea to return started when Joseph was born. That is the midnight and turning point of the long night of Jacob’s exile. His dealings with the sticky and perfidious Laban get more difficult, but the determined Jacob, not one to shun hard work, deals with his problems with renewed vigor. (He’s passive about family life, but not passive about acquiring things. Some people find some hard work pleasanter than other hard work.) If it depends on him, he’ll do whatever it takes.
But he’s come out of this realizing gradually and increasingly that it doesn’t really depend on him. He keeps running into circumstances that bring God more clearly into relief. And his problem is that he wrestles with his problems, but he doesn’t take hold on God. He is serious about what is inevitable or he thinks he can deal with, but God is changing his circumstances with a view to changing thinking so that he becomes serious about the one behind all this.
His name is changed in the last darkness of that night of his exile. His name is changed from supplanter to prevailer, and Alter suggests it is kind of like parallelism: a synonym of intensification. He says it is a synonym because the change doesn’t stick. I think there’s more Biblical Theology behind that one, but I think Alter’s got a point.
We know Jacob was a strong man. His family knew him as a strong man, a muscular worker and a successful man: prevailing in exile to become rich, prevailing against the formidable, cunning, unscrupulous and masterful Laban. Now his family see his silhouette coming across the Jabbok with the sun behind him, and they notice something odd about their husband and father: his great frame, unmistakably, but he comes limping. What would they have wondered in those moments, as with the sun Jacob returns to the land of promise? No doubt that he’d been somehow overcome. It was an important moment. So deep is this event in them they never again touch that sinew when they eat an animal.
But Jacob had not been overcome, he had prevailed. All the blessings of God so far have encumbered him: wives, children, flocks and herds. They don’t make it easy to escape Laban or to face Esau. And now his great physical strength and ability curtailed, limited, encumbered. Because he had striven with God and prevailed. Because he had encountered seriously that without which he could not otherwise in anything prevail. He had looked face to face on the Real. He knew at last. He had won through.
In victory defeated at last, he crossed the brook with a triumphant limp, ready to humble himself before Esau, knowing that it was not his to take, but his to receive of God whatever almighty God was pleased to give his creature.