An idiom is the best way to begin our introduction to Jacob in Genesis 32. For Freshman English class sake, remember that an idiom is an expression with a non-literal meaning; in fact, it does not allow you to understand the meaning from the actual words. This definition only makes sense if I give you an idiom. Try this: out of the frying pan and into the fire. The use of that phrase makes no sense if we take it literally, because we literally have never fallen from a frying pan into a fire. But as an idiom, it describes perfectly the quandary of standing between two difficult situations. In fact, we have lots of idioms for this problem: from bad to worse; when it rains, it pours; if its not one thing, its another; between a rock and a hard place; between two fires; sitting on a powder keg; between the hammer and the anvil; and between the devil and the deep blue sea.
When we come to Jacob, son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham, it is the perfect idiom. He stands on a plain between two mountains that seem ready to collapse on him. Behind him in Genesis 31 is the final stand against his father-in-law, Laban. Twenty years of labor under the deceitful hand of his father-in-law is finally at an end, but Jacob left in the night and now faces a nasty confrontation. Jacobs bitterness is open and obvious (31:38-42). But it is now over. He makes a covenant of peace with the man. He has finally found flat ground. And as Genesis 32 opens, there is a moment of angelic appearance that hearkens back to the earliest day when God appeared to him (1-2).
But this is short-lived. Genesis 32:3 opens with fateful words:
Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. He 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. I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, menservants and maidservant. Now I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favor in your eyes. (32:3-5)
Esau is the next mountain. We last saw Esau when he was threatening to murder Jacob for deceiving his blind father and taking a prayer of blessing from Esau. In effect, Isaacs prayer had made Jacob the oldest child and master of the estate. And none of this happened except by Jacobs deception. It was Jacobs deception that made him run to Laban and begin twenty years of suffering. And it was Jacobs deception that made a mountain of his meeting with Esau. In fact, everything we read in the early part of the chapter suggests a hostile Esau intent on revenge.
Between two mountains, his past and his future, Jacob endures something unique. Read with me Genesis 32:22-32. On this night of freedom from Laban but threat from Esau, Jacob sends family and possessions across a river and stays alone. Imagine how alone that night might feel. He just avoided death from his father-in-law and now faces possible death from his brother. There is no going back to Laban, there may be no going forward with Esau. It would be a good time for God to appear.
And He does. But not like we expect. What we have is a literal experience of wrestling, physical struggle, and exhaustion until dawn, when Jacob finds that this man he has fought all night is angelic and, by extension, God. The angel will not give a name, but he renames Jacob Israel, meaning he struggles with God. On the one hand, we have in the story a literal meaning behind a Jewish tradition of not eating meat from the hip socket. But on a symbolic level we have something else: we have the common experience of standing on the plain between mountains and struggling with God.
For Jacob, the mountains are obvious. Jacob wrestles God between the mountain of Laban and the mountain of Esau. He wrestles God between the mountain of the past and the mountain of the future. He wrestles God between the mountain of what is behind and what is ahead, what he lost and what he might find, where hes failed and where he hopes to succeed, the suffering behind him and the risk before him. In simplest terms, Laban is his regret and Esau is his redemption. It is between these mountains, regret and hope for redemption, that Jacob meets God.
*It might be the same for us. These two words ring and ring in our own stories. Regret and redemption: Real sin and lost opportunities behind us and real forgiveness and hope ahead of us. Mountains both. We all live on the plain between Laban and Esau, suffering behind us and uncertainty ahead of us, between what weve lost and what weve not yet gained. And on the plain we might wrestle with God as Jacob wrestled with God: Why do I do what I do? Why does one sin cost so much? Why cant I go back and fix it? And why cant the future be easier? We all live between what hurts and our need for Gods help. The better part of Christian faith requires that we confess the pride and selfishness that sabotaged the past and offer humility and faith for the future. Between the mountains of regret and redemption is an ongoing struggle with God.
But there is something closer to home. It could be that this calm between the mountains where God met Jacob was to remind him of something simpler, but more difficult. Maybe the story of Jacobs struggle is not about Laban or Esau and never has been. Maybe the struggle has only ever been with God. Laban is not his problem, and Esau is not his problem. Jacobs problem is Jacob. He is a man who struggles to reconcile himself to God and Gods will. His dishonesty is the real problem in his life, not the deception of Laban. His deception of Esau is the real problem in his life, not the fear of Esau. Its as if God has shown up between the mountains to remind him that the Maker of the Mountains is his true concern and where he has truly failure. Laban is not his problem. Esau is not his problem. Jacobs problem is Jacob. And Jacob needs to look to God.
*Restaurant on Friday near Chicago: man asked for details on shooting in New York at the Empire State Building. As it turns out, the bystanders were all shot by police trying to shoot the gunman. But this man, hard of hearing as he was, said this: Well, its gonna get worsewith the govt putting people down. He was a Vietnam era Marine who went on to explain how his two knee surgeries were not covered by VA because he and his wife made too much money. All he could see was the government, even in this unrelated shooting.
Were that way. Were far more likely to blame the shadows than the substance in our own lives. Were far more likely to live in illusions of everyones guilt and our own innocence. Its easy to blame our own failures with God on the people and circumstances around us. Its not so easy to see that our struggles with spouse, with children, with attitude, with work just might be a struggle with God and our expectations of what we think God should do with these people and through these people. And God might be looking back and telling me that I am my problem. Sin is my problem. Pride is my problem. Unrealistic expectations are my problem.
It might be time to use the time between mountains to come to grips with the God who takes the time to bring us to the end of our illusions. Life on the plains or in the mountains is a life that must live with God first.