By Shelley Neese
I know that 2021 is technically only a number change on the Gregorian calendar. Perhaps it is naïve of me, but I can’t help feeling hopeful that this new year will bring with its new blessings and revelations. With the start of the pandemic, I asked our friends and supporters to share with us what they were hearing from the Lord during this time. We want to be sensitive to the “still small voice” and “gentle whispers” of Yahweh so that these trials bring us closer to our Creator and Savior.
In my own Bible readings this month, I have been drawn repeatedly to the story of Jacob and his return to the promise land after 22 years of self-induced exile. From Genesis 32 to 36, the Bible covers the whole suspense-filled episode of Jacob preparing for his return to the covenanted land. Even though I have heard the story since childhood, I found myself on pins and needles wondering if Esau would carry through on his childhood vow to kill Jacob and avenge his birthright.
However, Jacob is not the same person that he was when he first deceived Esau. Nor is Esau. The ignited passions of their youth and the sin patterns of their sibling rivalries faded. Just like we have been trying to do in 2020, Jacob had been listening to the voice of God.
The change in Jacob first began when he was traveling solo to Haran and encountered God in a dream at Bethel. It was in that moment of lonely despair that he realized the powerful presence of God in his life. When Jacob woke up from his dream of ladder climbing angels, he declared: “God is in this place and I did not know it.” It was as if Jacob was suddenly aware of God in a way that he had not been before.
During Jacob’s time in Haran, he experienced no small amount of trial. Laban tricked Jacob with the exact same shenanigan that Jacob and his mother pulled on Isaac, only in reverse. Laban switched out his elder daughter in substitute of the younger. The Bible’s literary language has a tone of knowing irony about Jacob’s past deception when Laban told Jacob: “It is not done in our place, to give the younger before the firstborn.” The deceiver in disguise got deceived by a disguise. Jacob learns that even the chosen are not shielded from the consequences of their sins.
When Jacob journeyed back to the land of Canaan, he was naturally petrified of Esau’s reaction, especially when his servants told him that Esau was on the march with 400 men.
However, the night before Jacob met Esau, he encountered God again. These nighttime encounters with the Divine add the parentheses around his time in exile. Both on Jacob’s leaving and returning, he received a reminder of God’s blessing. When Jacob was at Bethel, God’s assurances seemed unsolicited by Jacob. They were direct and gently accompanied by angels. On Jacob’s return, he wrestled with an attacker all night who the Bible first identifies as a man. The text hints that the attacker was God or an angel, but the divine being withhold His name. Jacob’s hip was wrenched in the process, but his life was spared. Jacob begged the being for a parting blessing; what he received was a name change, a reminder of his identity as a receiver of God’s covenant.
The next day, when Jacob confronts Esau, he no longer seemed afraid. Even crippled, Jacob did not march behind his servants, but he went ahead. A newly humbled Jacob made clear that it is not wealth or power that he cares to retain. He generously tried to give Esau a portion of his wealth. He bowed to Esau, submitting to him his power and prestige by referring to himself as a servant and to Esau as “my lord.” We see that wealth and power are not the portions of the birthright that Jacob holds for his own. What he intends to retain from the inheritance is the covenantal relationship with God that will forever be a sign to the world of God’s fidelity.
This past year, I am sure we have all wrestled with God in some fashion. We have looked to Him in our prayer life to try and understand the events of the last nine months, from the virus to the election results. What I hope and pray for all of us is that we, like Jacob, have refused to let go of God, even amid the struggle. That we further entrenched ourselves in our commitment to our Lord and Savior, no matter the trials. We all have sin patterns, just like Jacob, and we all need to try and outgrow those as we move forward into the future. Surely, scary encounters await us, like Jacob’s meeting with his estranged brother. But also, we can hope for our own Bethel-like intimate encounters with God that help us to grow in our understanding and acceptance of our identity in Christ. Our proverbial hips may have been jolted this last year, but we go forward into this new year knowing that we are God’s handiwork!
“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:10