The parasha for this Shabbat is entitled Vayishlach, translated “And He Sent”. It will take us through Genesis chapter 36. Allow me to preface my summary of the parasha with a brief statement.
Human beings are inherently sinful – a perpetual condition inherited from our first rebellious parents in Eden. Because of it, we routinely fail to trust and wait for God to act, and take matters into our own hands, and it seldom goes well. In this fallen world, conflict of interest is an inevitability.
Well, Jacob has had his share. Having deceived his father, he himself was deceived by his uncle Laban, with whom he had been sojourning these many years in what is modern-day Syria. But he has at least achieved closure with Laban. Now, as our parasha opens, Jacob is returning home to Canaan. And he knows full well that he has unfinished business with his estranged brother, Esau – who once vowed to kill him for having taken the patriarchal blessing by deceit.
Jacob also had unfinished business to transact with Adonai. You see, in spite of our rebellion against Him, and our innate sinfulness, God is committed to the shaping of our souls. Jacob had sent his family on ahead, and was now alone that night – but not for long.
A ‘man’ – that’s all we’re told about him initially, appears out of nowhere and starts wrestling with Jacob – a wrestling match that would persist until sunrise. Jacob gets the upper hand, so the ‘man’ touches Jacob at the place of his thigh socket and instantly dislocates his leg. But Jacob persists. Just as he held tenaciously to the heel of his older brother at birth, he is not about to let go. Aware now of the supernatural nature of his opponent, he insists upon, and receives, a blessing. His name is changed from Jacob to Israel – the one who has wrestled with God.
I can imagine a humorous version of the exchange between them afterwards:
“What is your name?”
“Why do you ask my name?”
“Why did you answer my question with a question?”
“Is that a problem?”
Just as was asked at the end of every episode of The Lone Ranger, “Who was that masked man?” We are left wondering who Jacob’s wrestling opponent was. But perhaps his identity isn’t so mysterious after all. We know, for example, that he had the authority to change Jacob’s name to Israel, and after the encounter, Jacob names the place Peni’el (‘the face of God’), saying “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.”
There is one other place in Scripture that describes a parallel, mysterious encounter, and roughly the same exchange of questions. It is in the book of Judges, chapter 13, and occurs between Manoah (the father of Samson) and an angel. In that encounter, when Manoah asked the angel’s name, the answer was, “Why do you ask my name, seeing that it is wonderful (or, incomprehensible). And the word there is pele – the very same Hebrew word appearing in Isaiah’s description of the Messiah: For to us a child is born; to us a Son is given. And the government will rest on His shoulders. And His name will be called Pele – Wonderful!
In the 8th century BC, the prophet Hosea recalled Jacob’s wrestling match, and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote: In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and in his maturity he contended with God. Yes, he wrestled with the angel and prevailed; He wept and sought His favor. He found Him at Bethel and there He spoke with us… (Hosea 12:3-4).
Taken together, these facts have led many to believe that it was, in fact, Messiah Yeshua, the divine Son of God, appearing in pre-incarnate form, whom Jacob encountered. It is what theologians call a Christophany.
There is something to be said for wrestling things through with God. The blessing is worth the struggle. Israel walked away (actually, he limped) in the morning, in some ways a new man. He has both a new name, and a new outlook. Now that he’d prevailed with God and been blessed, perhaps the prospect of his reunion with Esau seemed less daunting. Wrestling in prayer with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, and yielding to His will gives you an eternal perspective, making your earthly circumstances seem a lot less intimidating.
And, in fact, in chapter 33 Jacob and Esau (or, Israel and Edom) are reunited amicably. Esau is impressed, if somewhat puzzled, by all the gifts Jacob sent on ahead. He politely declines the gifts, but Jacob insists. Their reunion is brief, as Jacob, rather than following his brother to Seir, returns instead to Canaan (the land of promise), settling in the area of Shechem.
Chapter 34 records the slaughter of all the men of Shechem by Shimon and Levi, in retaliation for the rape of their sister Dinah. The Scriptures are extremely honest records of Israel’s history, good and bad. This heinous act by two of his sons forced Israel to take his family out of the area. This will have the effect of keeping Israel a separate nation. Yet because of this wickedness, Shimon and Levi later forfeit the patriarchal blessing (49:5-6).
Jacob returns to Bethel. God appears to him there again, and reaffirms His promise to give him and his descendants the land and the blessings given to Abraham. Rachel dies while giving birth to Benjamin, and Jacob buries her in Bethlehem Efrat. Interesting that the same town which held grief also yielded the greatest hope the world has ever known; for in Bethlehem Efrat would be born the Redeemer of all mankind, Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah.
Chapter 35 records the disgraceful actions of Reuben with Bilhah, his father’s concubine, which will later disqualify him from receiving that patriarchal blessing. We also read of the reuniting of Jacob with his father Isaac, and of Isaac’s death (at 180 years of age!). Jacob and Esau together bury their father and then part ways – just as Isaac and Ishmael had parted ways after burying their father Abraham. Esau’s descendants, the Edomites, would eventually become our adversaries. Meanwhile, we are meant to watch the line of Jacob for that coming Redeemer.
These chapters reveal a change in Jacob’s character, seen in the quality of his prayers. It was not enough to be the son of Isaac or the grandson of Abraham. He needed to cultivate a personal relationship with God. So it must be for you and me – God must become our God. Parasha Vayishlach serves as a good reminder for us to cultivate the spiritual disciplines of prayer and study of the Scriptures in order to grow closer to our Creator.