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“Broken at Last”

Genesis 32:1-33:17
Bob DeGray
November 4, 2007

Key Sentence

In moments of crisis, when we have done all we can, we must be broken so that we will cling to God.


I. Partial Transformation (Genesis 32:1-12)
II. Utter Transformation (Genesis 32:13-30)
III. Effective Transformation (Genesis 33:1-17)


What does your name mean? One way to look at that is etymology, the roots of the word. The Hebrews loved to do this, which is why we know Jacob means deceiver and Esau means hairy and Isaac means laughter. In that sense your name means something; Robert means ‘bright fame’. But I’m not asking the question that way, because when the Bible talks about someone’s name it really means their character, their nature, their reputation, as in ‘he had a good name.’ It’s in that sense that I want to ask you ‘what does your name mean?’.

If you examine your own character and nature, attitudes and behaviors, you’ll find some strengths, but also some characteristic weaknesses. Your ‘name’ is a combination of both, often more dominated by weaknesses than strengths. Are you in a continual battle with lust? Are you characterized by anger and bitterness? Are you abusive? Are you addicted? Are you full of pride? Judgmental? Are you unwilling to take responsibility for your sinful behaviors? If so, your inner name tag may say ‘adulterer, wrathful, violent, arrogant, judgmental, or Pharisee. Any of these can dominate your inner character and spill over to your outward behavior. The consequences in your life can be tragic.

Now I could tell stories, as I have been recently, to show this in detail in our lives in true situations. But I’ve got a long text and not much time, and the story in the text, the crisis of Jacob’s name, is so compelling that I don’t thing I have to. You and I just need to recognize that we are Jacob in this story, each in our own unique way.

Remember, Jacob means ‘grasping’, or by extension, ‘deceiving’. This is the label placed on him at birth, the label placed on him by Esau, and has been a true picture of his inner character. He has been entirely prayerless, almost entirely self reliant, and frequently deceptive, whether dealing with Isaac, with Esau, or more recently, with Laban. But in the last chapter God began to speak to Jacob from behind the scenes; Jacob began to show an awareness of God’s providence. Yet Jacob’s inner character hasn’t been changed. Now, in Genesis 32 he approaches a crisis. His earlier deceptions had led his brother Esau to swear he would murder Jacob. But God has called Jacob back to Canaan; he has to face his brother, for better or for worse. And the wonderful truth that we will see in this text is that in moments of crisis, when we have done all we can, we must be broken so that we can cling to God.

I. Partial Transformation (Genesis 32:1-12)

Let’s begin by looking at the beginning of Jacob’s transformation: not brokenness yet, but at least a prayerful admission of need. Genesis 32:1-12 Jacob also went on his way, and the angels of God met him. 2When Jacob saw them, he said, "This is the camp of God!" So he named that place Mahanaim.

3Jacob sent messengers ahead to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. 4He instructed them: "This is what you are to say to my master Esau: 'Your servant Jacob says, I have been staying with Laban and have remained there till now. 5I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, menservants and maidservants. Now I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favor in your eyes.' "

6When the messengers returned to Jacob, they said, "We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him." 7In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well. 8He thought, "If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape."

9Then Jacob prayed, "O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O Lord, who said to me, 'Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,' 10I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups. 11Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. 12But you have said, 'I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.' "

Twenty years earlier, leaving Canaan, Jacob had encountered the angels of God going up and down the ladder. Now as he returns, he meets God’s angels again. It’s difficult to see in English but there is a military tone to these words, so that both the power of God and the potential for hostilities ahead is communicated by the passage of this squadron of angels. In fact Jacob’s words say ‘this is the military camp of God’, and the name Mahanaim means two camps, Jacob’s and God’s are located there.

During the twenty years Esau has begun to establish himself in the land of Seir, which previously belonged to the Horites. It will now become the land of Edom, which was one of Esau’s nicknames, Red. Edom, as a nation, will enter into a long history of opposition to the nation of Israel. But for now Jacob tries his best to make peace. He sends messengers to Esau, addressing him as ‘my master’ and calling himself Esau’s servant. Thus he begins to correct the arrogance he had shown his brother.

Jacob’s messenger’s find Esau; he is coming with four hundred men. This sounds hostile to Jacob. He fears his brother and responds in two reasonable ways. First, he divides his group in two. Apparently this was a fairly standard move when traveling by caravan. One group could engage the enemy while the other group got away. But the second thing Jacob does is even more reasonable. He prays. Verse 9: “Then Jacob prayed.” This is Jacob’s first recorded prayer, though his vow in chapter 28 is nearly a prayer. But you remember that he was prayerless in chapter 29, in stark contrast to Abraham’s servant, who prayed at all points in the finding of Rebekah.

Now at last Jacob finds his voice before God. He cries out to the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God who told me to come back to my own country. Then he confesses: I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. He is not just Esau’s servant, but he calls himself God’s servant, and he recognizes his unworthiness of God’s loving kindness and faithfulness, his ‘chesed va emet’, the very things that Abraham’s servant so compellingly prayed for earlier. He thanks God that he has provided: all I had was a staff, now I have two groups.’

And he prays very simply at this moment of crisis: ‘save me from the hand of my brother Esau’; not just for his sake, but for his wives and children. Finally, he reminds God of his promises: you said ‘I will make you prosper and make your descendants like the sands of the sea.’ Jacob is quoting God to God, always a good idea. But God hadn’t said this to him: he had used that phrase with Abraham. Jacob must have learned the other at the feet of his father Isaac, who learned it from Abraham.

Remember Jacob is a man with a number of problems: prayerlessness, self-reliance and deviousness. But he’s learning. He’s still doing all he can to be prudent in the face of a crisis - he divides into two groups. But then he calls on God, confesses his own inadequacy, recognizes God’s character and claims his promises. So how are you doing with this? In your areas of weakness, your inner ‘name’, have you confessed your inadequacy to deal with your own sin? Have you recognized God’s character, cried out for rescue, claimed his promises? This is a good formula for the maintenance of spiritual vitality in times of physical, mental or emotional weakness.

II. Utter Transformation (Genesis 32:13-30)

But maybe like Jacob, you still need to be broken. We’ll see Jacob’s brokenness in a few minutes. For now let’s just read without too much comment his further human preparations for meeting Esau. Verses 13 to 21: He spent the night there, and from what he had with him he selected a gift for his brother Esau: 14two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 15thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. 16He put them in the care of his servants, each herd by itself, and said to his servants, "Go ahead of me, and keep some space between the herds."

17He instructed the one in the lead: "When my brother Esau meets you and asks, 'To whom do you belong, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?' 18then you are to say, 'They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us.' "

19He also instructed the second, the third and all the others who followed the herds: "You are to say the same thing to Esau when you meet him. 20And be sure to say, 'Your servant Jacob is coming behind us.' " For he thought, "I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me." 21So Jacob's gifts went on ahead of him, but he himself spent the night in the camp.

Jacob organizes this for maximum impact. Esau would see herd after herd of healthy animals -goats, then sheep, then camels, then cattle, then donkeys. And Jacob’s servants would all say the same words: These belong to your servant Jacob, they are a gift to my Lord Esau, and your servant is coming behind us.” Jacob is transparent: “I will pacify him with these gifts; perhaps he will receive me.”

But for the second time, maybe the second time in his life, Jacob senses that a human plan is not enough. He’s got to have God’s help. Verses 22-31: “22That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak." But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." 27The man asked him, "What is your name?""Jacob," he answered. 28Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."

29Jacob said, "Please tell me your name." But he replied, "Why do you ask my name?" Then he blessed him there. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared." 31The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. 32Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob's hip was touched near the tendon.

Jacob is left alone, probably north of the Jabbok river, after he sends his wives, children and possessions across. You get the impression that Jacob is orchestrating this time alone, perhaps for prayer. And it is, but acted out and voiced in this wrestling with God. Though at first we don’t know that it’s God. The author simply says “a man wrestled with him until daybreak’. This man is not able to overcome Jacob. It’s not that God doesn’t have the physical strength; he could turn Jacob into atomic dust in a tenth of a nanosecond. But his purpose is not destruction, it’s transformation; it’s name change. Jacob has been pursuing goals all his life by deception and in his own strength and in prayerlessness. Now God intends, on the eve of Jacob’s greatest test, to teach him dependence. But mere wrestling won’t do it.

As Jacob wrestles it’s him against God, and the God of the universe humbles himself not to overpower Jacob’s will. They wrestle all night, and Jacob will not give in. Not till dawn does the man reach out and effortlessly touch Jacob’s hip; dislocates it; cripples and breaks Jacob. Wrestlers will tell you that the hip is the center of leverage and strength. Once it’s gone, Jacob can only cling with his upper body and his words. This is the key moment, the moment of brokenness. Until now Jacob had been wrestling against God. Now he clings to God.

The man says ‘let me go, for it is daybreak’ - no one can see God and live. But Jacob clings and he cries out ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me. Once Jacob sought by human means to get a blessing from Isaac. But now, having been broken, prayerless Jacob prayerfully seeks to get blessing from the only one who can really give it. God gives him that blessing by changing his name. “What is your name?” “Jacob - deceiver.” “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” Israel means ‘struggled with God’ or ‘prevailed with God’. Jacob’s new name represents a reorientation from one who lives by sinful deceiving into one who lives by dependant prayer. Only by clinging to God will Israel prevail.

Notice that the man says ‘ you’ve been wrestling with God.’ Jacob says ‘wait a second; tell me your name; who are you?” God replies “why do you ask my name?” In other words ‘Jacob, don’t you realize who I am?” He was probably a pre-incarnate appearance of God as Christ. But like the people in Christ’s day, it took a while for this first Israel to learn who he’d struggled with. But he names the place “Peniel” - face of God. He says “I saw God face to face and yet my life was spared.” Not ‘I wrestled with God and won.’ No ‘I saw God and lived; I was broken but blessed’. As the sun rises, as a new day dawns for Jacob, for Israel, he gets up and limps off.

Commentator Bruce Waltke, using a phrase from C. S. Lewis, calls this limp a severe mercy. He says ‘Jacob’s remarkable encounter reminds believers that they too may encounter God in ambiguity, even in apparent hostility, in mystery cloaked in darkness and in such humility that he restrains himself from dominating their lives. When they stop wrestling with God and starting clinging to him, they discover that he has been there for their good, to bless them. . . . Prior to this encounter, Jacob prays to God on the basis of God’s promises, but he does not yet prevail because he has not yet been humbled. Only when he is broken through God’s severe mercy does he prevail in prayer.” “The limp,” Waltke says, “is the posture of the saint, walking not in physical strength, but in spiritual strength.”

God I’ve got a limp. It’s my old inner name. I can’t walk straight. All I can do is cling to you for strength. All I can do is claim the blessing of a new name: redeemed; forgiven; adopted.” This is the message of Jacob, brothers and sisters. You and I are Jacob; living our lives with the wrong name; with the wrong character; wrestling with God to cling to it. And we must be broken; touch my hip; change my name; give me the limp to remind me of how desperately I need your strength. Three times I pleaded Paul says, for this weakness to be taken away from me. But God said ‘my strength is made perfect in your limp.’ The limp is the posture of the saint. We must be broken so that we will cling to God.

I wish we could stop there, but we can’t. The dictates of preaching through this text say we’ve got to do the next chapter. And the dictates of a God who saved us but left us here say we’ve got to live out the limp. We’ve got to be his broken, humbled servants in the face of the Esaus of our lives. Those we have wronged. Those who have reason to be antagonistic toward us. They are the ones to whom we must limp and with whom we must live. Your old inner name has been a name of pain to some around you. Now you must limp before them as those who cling to God.

III. Effective Transformation (Genesis 33:1-17)

Chapter 33, verse 1: Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men; so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two maidservants. 2He put the maidservants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. 3He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother.

4But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. 5Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. "Who are these with you?" he asked. Jacob answered, "They are the children God has graciously given your servant." 6Then the maidservants and their children approached and bowed down. 7Next, Leah and her children came and bowed down. Last of all came Joseph and Rachel, and they too bowed down.

8Esau asked, "What do you mean by all these droves I met?" "To find favor in your eyes, my lord," he said. 9But Esau said, "I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself." 10"No, please!" said Jacob. "If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably. 11Please accept the present that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have all I need." And because Jacob insisted, Esau accepted it.

12Then Esau said, "Let us be on our way; I'll accompany you." 13But Jacob said to him, "My lord knows that the children are tender and that I must care for the ewes and cows that are nursing their young. If they are driven hard just one day, all the animals will die. 14So let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I move along slowly at the pace of the droves before me and that of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir."

15Esau said, "Then let me leave some of my men with you." "But why do that?" Jacob asked. "Just let me find favor in the eyes of my lord." 16So that day Esau started on his way back to Seir. 17Jacob, however, went to Succoth, where he built a place for himself and made shelters for his livestock. That is why the place is called Succoth.

Jacob looked up. One suspects he was deep in thought as he forded the river and joined his wives and children. But then he looked up and saw the test coming.

He quickly organized the group to protect those most dear to him: the maidservants first, then Leah, then Rachel in the safest spot. But, verse 3: “He himself limped on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother.” He’s no longer protecting himself; he’s protecting others.

And after what must have been a long moment, his blessing is revealed. Esau doesn’t throw a spear at the unprotected deceiver limping up to him. Instead he embraces him: he throws his arms around his neck; he kisses him; he weeps; they weep. Like Jacob we have no idea what has gone on in Esau’s mind or his life these twenty years. This change of heart is as much a surprise to us as it evidently was to him.

Esau acts like a brother: introduce me to your wives; let me see your children; why did you send me all these animals? I’ve got plenty already.” But Jacob insists that the gifts be accepted. Neither brother mentions the wrong Jacob did to Esau, but Jacob in giving and Esau in accepting these gifts and giving none in return, acknowledge that a debt is owed and is being paid, a wrong being redressed. Jacob says to Esau “Please accept the blessing that I’ve brought to you, for God has dealt with me by grace.” Yeah Esau, I stole your blessing, and I can’t give it back; but it didn’t do me any good - only the grace of God has allowed me to limp here this morning.

As the text ends, the brothers part. Jacob almost seems like his old self when he makes an excuse not to accompany his brother and refuses the guard he offers. But if this was deception on Jacob’s part I think we could count on the author of Genesis to use that common word. Instead he passes no judgment on this separation, It may be that in wisdom Jacob doesn’t want to push his brother’s welcome too far - it’s not likely that Seir is the best place for his large flocks, and anyway, Jacob has been called to the Promised Land; the consequences of past acts mean they essentially have to be parted at this point. So Jacob goes a few miles down the river and sets up temporary shelters to rest his flocks, and he calls that place Succoth, shelters. We don’t know if he ever personally visits his brother at Seir. I suspect he does. But we’ll see next week that he moves his family into the Promised Land - to Shechem.

So what have we said? In moments of crisis, when we have done all we can, we must be broken so that we will cling to God. Each of us has an inner name, an inner character that weakens us and often condemns us and that has consequences in our lives and our families. And after we have done all we can, we find that can’t deal with these weaknesses in our own strength. We have to be broken. We have to have a limp. The limp is the posture of the saint. For he said to me “My grace is sufficient for you, for my grace is made perfect in weakness.”