Jacob’s Encounters with God

We’re talking about knowing God and hearing his voice and about how God communicates with us. Last week, we studied eight lessons on how God communicates, derived from the story of the boy Samuel. 

Today, I’d like to return to the story of Jacob for more insights into how God communicates with us, to see how we encounter God in our lives by examining Jacob’s encounters with God in his life. It may help us to recognize the voice of God. 

Encounter 1: Jacob had cheated his brother, deceived his father, and ran for his life to his uncle Laban’s house, straight into his own personal exile. His former way of life was over. Surely this was a permanent unraveling of anything that was good for him and for his future, but right at this point God revealed himself through a dream that transformed an ordinary place into a meeting place with God, so that Jacob could gain God’s perspective. 

As told in Genesis 28, Jacob fell asleep on the ground and dreamed he saw a stairway connecting heaven and earth, with angels ascending and descending. Above the stairway, God stood and spoke to Jacob and promised to bless him and his descendants, to give him the land he had promised to Abraham and Isaac, and to multiply his descendants. God even promised Jacob his continued presence and protection:

“I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants.  Your descendants will also be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed.  Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:13-15) 

This is a third-generation reiteration of the covenant God made with Abraham and with Isaac—the land, the offspring, great numbers of people, and blessings; plus some extra promises: First, that God would be with him and keep him, second, that God would bring him back to the land, and third, that God would be with him throughout. 

After his first encounter with God, Jacob awoke and said: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” Of course God is everywhere but chose to reveal himself to Jacob in this place because it was exactly the right time and the right place. God could have revealed himself in any number of forms, but this one was awesome and impressive. 

Although this was an encouraging promise from God, it was also fearsome for Jacob, who concluded something that is theologically faulty; namely: That he had stumbled upon the house of God and the gate of heaven. In essence, he concluded he had found God. When he awoke he saw everything differently, even his physical environment. “Surely,” he said, “The Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it” and added: “How awesome is this place!” This is none other than the house of God. This is the gate of heaven. 

Later we see him wrestle with God at the brook Jabbok (in Genesis 32), and subsequently (in Genesis 35) he has a type of encounter with God called in Hebrew a galah  (גלה)— an apocalypse, or a revelation. Encountering God, we see, changes everything in our lives. Jacob was experiencing not the end of the world but the end of his former perspective—the end of the world as he knew it, and a shift to a new worldview. He was experiencing the end of his limited viewpoint and his narrow ideas. He was experiencing the end of his confusion and dismay. Revelation for him was just the beginning of his new reality, one in which he had confidence that God was for him and that his time of trouble would one day end.

This brings us to lesson number one: Sometimes we’re just wandering around trying to find our way, frustrated that darkness has fallen and that we have to improvise with a rock for a pillow. But God has not deserted us. God is in control. So don’t be surprised when he shows up in your darkest night and that encounter changes everything. 

Early in the morning, Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on top of it. And he named the place Bethel, the house of God, and he made a very selfish,  immature, and conditional vow:

 “If God will be with me and will keep me on this journey that I take, and give me food to eat and garments to wear, and I return to my father’s house in safety, then the Lord will be my God. And this stone, which I have set up as a memorial stone, will be God’s house, and of everything that You give me I will assuredly give a tenth to You.” (Genesis 28:20-22)

God has to do five things specifically for Jacob (notice how many times the word “me” is mentioned in this vow) and only then will Jacob do three things for God. Still, he is sincere and God accepts his vow, which brings us to lesson number two: We may have bad theology and a conditional relationship with God but he knows our weakness and he meets us where we are. This is goodness; Otherwise, we would never know him. That’s the whole point of “God with us” (Emanuel).

Encounter 2: Jacob stayed at Laban’s house for many years, long enough to work off the cost of two wives, Leah and Rachel. Jacob’s father Isaac has been deceived by Jacob through disguise and Jacob was deceived by Laban through disguise—what went around came around. He had become wealthy however, and he encountered God again. But his relationship with his uncle Laban had deteriorated and Laban’s sons—Jacob’s cousins—were jealous of his success. 

God appears to him again in a dream, less dramatic than the first but it is now the second time that God has spoken clearly to Jacob in a dream. The Lord says: “Go back home to the land of your father, and I’ll be with you.” The way Jacob explains this to his wives adds more to it: He doesn’t tell them he is returning simply because God told him to go—he includes the fact that Laban, their father, was not happy with him. He goes through his side of the story about how Laban did him wrong, and only then does he tell him about the dream. But they are still ready to go with him. 

 Now Jacob heard the words of Laban’s sons, saying, “Jacob has taken away all that was our father’s, and from what belonged to our father he has made all this wealth.” And Jacob saw the attitude of Laban, and behold, it was not friendly toward him as it had been before. Then the Lord said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.” (Genesis 31:1-3)

So we see Jacob on the run again. Running away is a theme we see throughout Jacob’s life: Running away from his family, from God, and from himself. He runs because he’s afraid—of Laban, of his cousins, of his brother Esau. In his essay on Jacob, Ken Lee raises lesson number three as a question: “I wonder,” he writes, “am I sometimes more open to hearing from God when I dream because I’m not so busy being distracted?” In any case, he observes, “dreams are a common way for the Lord to communicate with us.” 

That brings us to lesson number four: That God may communicate with us by the circumstances of our lives. Things were not going well at Laban’s house. Things may not be going well at your house. It may be a message from God. Keep yourself open to the messages of God in the circumstances of your life. 

Encounter 3 is direct, intimate, and physical. It is not an easy dream; it is a struggle. Some people struggle with God because he seems so remote, so unapproachable and uninterested in their needs and in their points of view. Some people struggle with God because they see the relationship with him as a contract rather than a covenant and therefore feel aggrieved when God apparently fails to uphold parts of agreement and fails to answer their prayers. Some just don’t like the way God happens to run the universe, allowing little children to suffer and letting bad things happen to good people. Some struggle with the concept of God as a concept in and of itself, though many more people question the way God operates than question his existence. 

Most of us, however, expect that an encounter with God will make our life easier and better. Struggling is what we expect with the devil, not with God. Jacob’s story shows us that God wants to meet us in our darkest hour when we’re at our wits end. God does not shy away from the darkness; he will struggle with us there and ultimately enlighten the darkness with his blessing. 

The intimacy of the struggle, as suggested by the wrestling metaphor, and the apparent inability of God to end the match by defeating his human opponent, hint that there is something deeply important about the struggle in and of itself. In a wrestling match, the legs are perhaps the most vital limbs, they have the strongest muscles of the body. God chose to inflict a disability to Jacob’s legs by dislocating his hip. It was as bad a break as any wrestler could fear yet Jacob struggled until he was assured of God’s blessing. 

What exactly was the blessing he wanted? And what was the blessing he got? Jacob’s name is associated in the Hebrew language with a sense of grasping, holding on to things. He grasps for his brother’s heel, for his brother’s birthright. He grasps for a beautiful wife and for riches. And in wrestling with God he is grasping for God’s blessing. And just as Isaac asked Jacob his name (although he received the deceitful answer “Esau”) God likewise asks Jacob his name just before blessing him. 

It seems clear that Jacob knew with whom he was wrestling, yet he was prepared to continue wrestling with God for the blessing even at the risk of death should he see God when day broke and the darkness was lifted. 

So what was the blessing? The answer lies in Jacob’s answer to God’s question: “Who are you?” He said: “I am Jacob.” I think this is meant to be understood as a confession. He is no longer trying to deceive. He is saying (given the Hebrew connotation in his name): “I am a deceiver, a supplanter, a grabber, a sinner in need of God’s grace and I hereby relinquish my old ways.” God’s grace and forgiveness are exactly what he received. 

So In wrestling with God, Jacob not only learned something about God, but perhaps more importantly, he learned something about himself. And that’s perhaps the message for all of us in this story: If we open ourselves truly to God, God will forgive us and he will not take us to task for our sins. 

But Jacob nonetheless paid a severe price in the form of a disability following God’s dislocation of his hip. This disabling, I believe, refers to the relinquishment of one’s will to God. The blessing reminds me of the psalm:  

The Lord is compassionate and gracious, Slow to anger and abounding in mercy. He will not always contend with us, Nor will He keep His anger forever. (Psalm 103:8-9) 

This is the good news. This is the gospel. And this is exactly the blessing that Jacob realized. He was not dealt with as a Jacob; he was transformed into an Israel. His identity, his character, his very being was transformed. So the blessing is a self-realization brought on by recognition of our character defects, imperfections, weaknesses, and our need and desire for a more gracious relationship with a forgiving God. 

Like Jacob, we tend to try to disguise our weaknesses. We pretend to be something we’re not, to not be the sinful person we really are. Self-recognition opens the door to the blessing of God’s grace and forgiveness. While Jacob went to great lengths to hide his true self, God was even more relentless in struggling to save him. This is the lesson for us all. It is a story of judgment. But God does not judge us: He helps us to judge ourselves. Jacob called the name of that place Peniel because there he saw God face to face and yet his life was spared. Not only does Israel get a new name, but the location is marked with a name of its own also. 

As the sun rises and Jacob leaves Peniel, he is limping because of his hip. Why would God—the Almighty Creator of all—need to injure a hip? Why put himself into human form and limit himself to being nearly equal with a man? Moreover, why injure that hip just before Israel/Jacob sees his brother Esau again? I would have thought that Jacob would want to be in good physical shape so that he could run or fight or both. But there he is, noticeably limping so that Esau could see from a distance that his brother was no threat. A man with a bad limp does not look aggressive and if he is then you can outrun him anyway. 

In his mercy, God sometimes wounds us, which is a good thing and not harm. By the time Esau sees his brother all is forgiven and they’re on good terms again. Even though Jacob never explains, Esau forgives him anyway. 

This brings us to lesson number five: You can’t judge your encounter with God in physical terms. It is possible that God may use physical disability, illness, and even death as an avenue of communication with him. His concern is your soul, not your body, God may communicate with us through the trials of life. Who would have regarded Jacob’s injury as a gift of God? As an evidence of God’s grace it rendered him helpless, making him rely upon God’s goodness and his grace. The hip injury was really a part of the blessing.

That brings us to…

Encounter 4. Maybe it was at night again and maybe it was a dream again–we’re not really told—but God speaks to Jacob again and this time tells him to arise and go to Bethel, to dwell there, and to make an altar to the God who appeared to him when he fled from his brother Esau. So Jacob told everyone in his household and entourage to put away the foreign gods among them, purify themselves, and change their garments (Genesis 35:1:2). (It’s curious that God di not tell Jacob to do this before. Perhaps it was because Jacob still was not fully converted and was still hanging on to those other gods.) 

This fourth encounter with God is the only one for which he has truly prepared himself. He is now very zealous and wants to be ready for the encounter, at last. Genesis 35 goes on to recount that his entourage gave up all their foreign gods and the rings that were in their ears. Jacob hid them under a tree near Shechem (apparently, earrings had idolatrous implications.) They moved on and built an altar at the place where God had originally appeared to him. There were to be from now on no other gods. 

That brings us to lesson number six: To take God seriously and follow him we need to rid ourselves of all the trinkets and symbols of the foreign gods we have been chasing after. And since…

… we also have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let’s rid ourselves of every obstacle and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let’s run with endurance the race that is set before us,… (Hebrews 12:1)

The four encounters that Jacob had with God left him humbled and disabled. They left him with a new worldview and a new view of God. They also left him with a new name, a new identity, and a recommitment to having no other gods before Jehovah. But I find it rather puzzling, maybe even remarkable, that although God gave him a new name, Jehovah God and Jesus as well continued to use his old name more than a dozen times in the Old and New Testaments. God makes reference to himself as being the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Matthew 22:31, Acts 7:32, Genesis 50-24, and Exodus 3-15 are just a few examples.) 

Why does God not call himself the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel? God, you see, made changes, but we’re still in need of his grace. Maybe it’s a way of reminding us that whatever encounter we have with him, God never should let us forget where we have come from and our need of his grace. 

The last image that we see of Jacob in the Bible is found in Hebrews 11-21. Hebrews 11 is known as the chapter of faith. The writer of Hebrews is walking through the garden of faith picking up flowers of faith here and there for a special mention. Especially mentioned are: Noah, builder of the ark; Abraham, builder of nations; Moses; David; Gideon; Samson; and Daniel, whose faith shut the mouth of lions. They are all identified as heroes of faith. But verse 21 of Hebrews 11 says this of Jacob:.

By faith Jacob, as he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff.  (Hebrews 11:21)

Jacob is dying, broken down, alone, unable to stand without leaning on his staff, passing on the blessing he had received. It is not a particularly heroic picture of faith. What sets Jacob apart from the others is not his personal faith heroism but his reliance on God’s grace. He is doing three things: He is leaning on his staff, passing on the blessing (passing on the grace, not hoarding it), and worshiping (thanking God for the grace). That he leans on his staff reminds us of Psalm 23: “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” The rod is the rod of grace. It was in the Ark of the Covenant—Aaron’s Rod. God dislocated Jacob’s hip to make him rely upon this rod. God dislocated his own effort in order to make him rely upon God’s everlasting grace. 

The Shepherd’s rod and staff of Psalm 23 provides many things. It provides guidance and protection. It provides strength and consolation. It provides support and encouragement. It provides direction and sustenance. It provides empowerment and nurturing. The rod is the symbol of God’s grace and goodness. It is his response to your encounter with him. We see Jacob leaning on God’s grace. He’s a faith hero because he relies on grace. He has had a lifelong endeavor of relying on and needing God’s grace because of his disability. Passing on the grace and worshiping God, we see him giving thanks for that grace. 

Maybe you’re like me, wishing that you could be in the Hall of Faith. But like me, you don’t have the faith of Noah to build an ark. You’re not as dedicated as Abraham. You’re not as brave as David. You’re not as pious as Daniel. Maybe we’re just like Jacob—devious, deceitful, and disabled, just leaning on the rod of God’s grace. It doesn’t seem like much but it turns out that God’s grace is enough to put you into the Hall of Faith. 

What do we learn from Jacob’s story about how God communicates with us? Why does God use Jacob’s old name when he’s given him a new name written in stone? What does the story of Jacob tell us about God’s grace? Can you see in the injuries and circumstances of life an encounter with God? What lessons are to be learned in the stories of Jacob’s encounters with God?

Donald: God surrounds us. How does that differ from an encounter? An encounter would seem to be much more dramatic—a moment in which you CAN identify something unique in that experience. Encountering someone is a little different than just being aware of them. 

I had a distinct dream last night but I don’t have any sense that God was a part of it. I don’t know that I’ve ever dreamed about God directly. Why use the term “encounter with God” rather than “feel God’s presence”?

David: ”Encounter with God” seems slightly misleading. It suggests that God is not there unless and until we bump into him. But we know that God is all around all the time, in the background. He may only come to the fore in our time of need, but he is always there. So “encounter” may be a little bit misleading.

Don: What’s a better term, do you think?

David: ”Came out of the woodwork”? “Arose in consciousness”? We talk about suppressing the inner light, the holy spirit within, the eternity set in our hearts by a God who is always there. There are times when God breaks through our suppression, so to speak. But that’s not bumping into God by accident, which is what an encounter sounds like. So I share Donald’s wonderment at the use of that that term. 

Donald: Maybe it’s a sense of being aware that God is around me. The difference between being aware of God’s presence and an encounter is then based on me: I recognize he’s there and I respond to that, as opposed to exist within it.

Michael: It’s like a realization. But why does God keep calling Jacob Jacob when he officially named him Israel? It’s fascinating, because it has to be continual even though it was a dramatic experience that changed Jacob. [Audio dropped in places.]

Carolyn: Was the blessing he sought forgiveness for his sins or was it a renewal? Are the blessing, the encounter, and the change of name synonymous? 

David: It seems to me what Jacob was really asking was not so much forgiveness as acceptance—God’s acceptance of Jacob: “I am who I am, I am what I am. Will you please accept me for being who I am?” It is in a way a plea for forgiveness, I suppose. It would answer Michael’s Interesting point that even though God renames him he continues to call him by his old name of Jacob. It is as though God does accept Jacob for who he is and through that acceptance, something changes in Jacob. It might be just a matter of mutual recognition:  Jacob recognizes God and in return God recognizes Jacob.

Donald: Encounter carries a sense of hostility—something more than just a moment in time of being together. An encounter would stand out from a regular relationship. Something transpires and in Jacob’s case something did transpire. So that is a distinction between knowing God’s presence and dealing with a circumstance. I don’t see “encounter” as necessarily a positive thing. 

Reinhard: An encounter to me involves two perhaps unequal parties meeting by chance. The higher-level person is likely to feel some accountability to impart information or fill a need of the other. It was normal for God to encounter Jacob because God had a plan for the chosen people. The name of Israel, the chosen people, stretches all the way to the New Testament. The chosen people cannot be called Jacob, but Jacob refers to the person, not the nation. 

God loved Jacob more than Esau and already had it in mind to put Jacob above his elder brother. Jacob’s mother told him his father was going to bless Esau and helped him prepare the deception, so it was her idea, not Jacob’s. Jacob was not always the real culprit. When Esau came back hungry from a day’s hunting, Jacob asked him to sell his birthright. Jacob was not always the villain. When Jacob’s son Joseph was away visiting his brother, Jacob himself was deceived that his son had been killed when in fact he had not. 

Even though Jacob descended in direct line from Abraham and Isaac as a chosen patriarch for the chosen people, Jacob had no idea that Joseph was still alive, even being as close to God as he was. The lesson is that we cannot know everything but we have to trust in the patriarchs, regular people also but uplifted by God. God selected Jacob above his elder twin brother Esau. That was God’s prerogative..

Donald: We have an awareness of God’s presence, an assurance of God as our shepherd watching over us, his sheep. It’s an awareness. But an encounter is quite different. 

What is the difference between the rod and the staff? They are tools for God to shepherd his sheep. To me, that’s a reassuring, wonderful way of thinking about this.

Michael:  I’m not sure that we like to be aware that we are sheep. I’m not sure if that’s what you mean by awareness. To accept the metaphor of Jesus or God as the shepherd, then we have to accept that we are sheep.  I’m not sure that we like to do that. Maybe that’s just me….

David: I think it doesn’t matter. Yes, we think of sheep as sheepish and stupid but I think the idea is that sheep go about their business of munching on the grass just as we go about our business, and like the sheep we ignore the shepherd until the shepherd says something and creates an encounter. Until then the sheep are unaware of the shepherd. They are just enjoying the sun and the breeze and the grass (or freezing or starving to death). It’s the same with us until until the shepherd says, “Hey, wake up!” or, “Hey, there’s a wolf!” or “Time to go back to the barn!”

Donald: There would be no need for a shepherd if there was no danger. A shepherd protects us from danger. The sheep are unaware of that danger but the shepherd is aware.

David: And one of the dangers is to ourselves: We might wander off in search of greener pastures. The shepherd is watching out for us and notices if we stray and will come after us, according to the Bible.

Carolyn: When Jacob was wrestling with God did he ever feel forgiveness for the sins he committed against his brother and his father? Is this what he was wrestling with? Or was he asking for a particular blessing to go on with his life? To have to wrestle and then also be bruised from the wrestle, it must have been very important. I think we wrestle with ourselves as far as doing what is right. We want to make sure our sins are forgiven. 

Jay: It strikes me that our examples of encounters with God aren’t all that pleasant. Jacob walks away from this encounter disabled for the rest of his life, to the extent that he is depicted in the Hall of Fame as leaning on his staff. Saul’s encounter with God leaves him blinded. We think of encounters with God as glorious moments of enlightenment and so on but the examples in Scripture often involve disablement and fear. 

But in the end, they all seem to result in something—or are turned into something—that’s seen as a positive. Was Jacob reliant on God’s grace—did he lean on his staff—because God disabled him for the rest of his life? I think we often gloss over the fact that after an encounter with God, down the road things may turn out great but at the cost of some terror and disability.

Donald: Our possessions are aptly described as trinkets. It puts things in perspective. 

Kiran: I like the point about how God uses sickness and death for the ultimate goal of saving the soul. Holding the perspective that we should embrace pain and disadvantage and lean on God is very hard but that’s what strikes me.

Don: We expect that our encounters with God will do something positive for us—make us better, make us happier, make life easier. It’s a positive perspective. But the story of Jacob suggests that while such may not always be the case, God can be found even in the disability, illness, and death that afflict us and those around us. 

Jay: That’s an interesting idea. Definitely, when we’re in those times, we’re not thinking that way. We’re not thinking, “God is mixed up in this.” And yet many of the Biblical examples turn out to be like that. Jacob, Jonah, Saul, Moses… the list goes on and on. Life for people in the Hall of Faith in Hebrews was not easy. 

Michael: Jesus says his burden is light and his yoke is easy but then he says “You have to carry my cross.” The problem with the church is that it characterizes the cross as the sins you have to carry and the hard life you have to lead. If his burden is light and his yoke is easy, then something is off—if now we’re saying that an encounter with God is not always easy. 

David: Hard encounters with God occur in the Old Testament. Encounters with God in the New Testament are quite different.

Kiran: When Jesus saw Peter, he felt naked, physically and spiritually, because the burden of making himself righteous based on his own merit was very hard. When God encounters us we are exposed, and that is the biggest problem until we realize that his grace covers us. It is the lightest burden. Daniel fell down before the angel and said he was unworthy, but the angel disagreed.  When in the light of God we see ourselves, we judge ourselves harshly. That is the result of eating the forbidden fruit. When he takes away the burden, that’s the easy yoke. 

Don: To answer Carolyn’s question, I think Kiran is right that the blessing is to come to realize that you are not who you wish or think you are. God already knows who you are and he’s redeemed you and given you his grace. Forgiving yourself is really a difficult thing to do. The blessing Jacob received was not something external, but internal. He received the blessing that he was not who he knew himself to be and that through God’s grace he was something completely different. That is a tremendous blessing, particularly for those of us who have lived with guilt and have a sense of our own depravity.

Michael: It seems as though messages from God in the New Testament came to a different kind of people—to the disabled, to sinners, and so on; but in the Old Testament they came to people who were supposed to be leaders of the chosen people of God, 

Reinhard: It seems to me Jacob was a passive recipient of the blessing the first time (via Isaac). But after he left, God already was with him in the dream of the stairway to heaven. But the encounter with the angel, with God, was when he realized God was teaching him about how to become the man of God, and that’s why he asked for the blessing. I think he realized he had a responsibility to do what God asked him to do. He remained very afraid of Esau but God was teaching him to be a man, to be brave, because God would protect him. I think it was part of his spiritual growth to learn to depend on God. 

Don: More next week on God and his voice, on knowing God and how he communicates and encounters us.

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