Genesis 28:10-33:17 as preached by Timothy O'Day.
Some of you may find this hard to believe, but there was once a time that someone would tell you an address, like 1528 Lambert Drive, and the expectation was for you to find it without GPS. Or even better, you were expected to find a house with minimal directions. I remember after I first got my drivers license, a friend invited me other to his house. I had never been there before, so he just said to me, “It’s about 5 miles down ZZ highway. The turn is just after a white picket fence. If you see a pond with a dilapidated barn next to it on your right, then you’ve gone too far. After the white picket fence, turn left and keep going for about a mile. My house is the one with an oak tree out front of it.
The incredible thing is that that description is more helpful than a number and a name because it is a type of map. If I didn’t have this descriptive map, I would need to pull out a physical map in order to find Lambert Drive.
If someone said to me, “come to my house on Lambert Drive,” I would need more information in order to do it, and that information would have to come from a physical or a verbal map. The same can be said of a statement like “The glory of humiliation.” Those words make sense on their own, but when you put them together, you might think, “Come again? How do I get there?”
Genesis 28:10-33:17 is our map. You might wonder why we sometimes preach so many chapters and verses at once, and the reason is that doing so allows us to see the big picture. Last time, in chapters 25-28, we saw that God had a point he wanted to get across: salvation does not come by human cunning or scheming. It is a matter of his sovereign and gracious choice. As we come to chapters 28-33, we aren’t leaving that main idea. Today we see that the glory of salvation comes through God’s gracious work of humbling the proud through humiliation. Let me show you how this is the case through walking through the passage and making some observations.
The Lord’s Promise of Salvation Comes by Grace
The last time we were with Jacob, he had manipulated, lied, and cheated Esau, his older brother, out of his birthright and blessing. These ends fit with God’s prophetic promise that Esau would serve Jacob, but Jacob did not go about this in ways that God approves.
It might be surprising, then, that we read in 28:12-15 that God spoke to Jacob in a dream and affirmed that he would receive the promise and covenant of Abraham. It is vital to note that in receiving this promise from God, Jacob was the recipient despite his actions in the previous chapters instead of because of them. That is to say, God’s promise of salvation through is covenant is not based on Jacob’s works, good or ill. It is based solely and completely on his mercy. The vision itself makes this clear, look at verse 12,
“And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And behold, the LORD stood about it…”
This ladder is provided by God, leads to God, and is his means of having his angels coming and going on the earth.
Working for Divine Benefits
Like the people at the tower of Babel before him, Jacob wanted to be clever and earn his way to God, but what this vision reveals is that man need not earn his way to God because God graciously provides the means of communion and salvation through himself and not through human effort.
That this is the case is even more clear as we John 1:47-51. In that passage, Jesus has a conversation with Nathanial in which he identifies himself as the ladder on which the angels descend and ascend. Do you see the implications of what that means? Jesus himself is the means of communion, reconciliation, and salvation. As he will say in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” When Jesus says, “except through me,” he eliminates any other avenue of salvation. It is union with him in his work by faith that makes a man right before God, nothing else. Just as Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness, so now Jacob must believe God if he is to have salvation. And the same is true for you and for me. If you aren’t trusting in Christ this morning, then consider this your only point of application to follow: Give up whatever it is that you hold dearly and take Christ instead. If it is sin, forsake it and find forgiveness and life in Christ. If it is your own good works that you want to be able to boast in, throw them off as the filthy rags that they are and cling to the all-sufficient Messiah instead. The fact that Jesus is the ladder to God shows you two things:
First, there is hope for you, sinner. Do you sometimes feel like there isn’t? You feel like you must clean up your act before you can come to God, but you can never stay clean long enough? Rejoice, sinner, he has provided the way of salvation for you, but you must come and make a clean confession of your sins.
Second, there is no place for your best efforts in the equation of your salvation. You can’t come to Jesus and say, “I’ve got my salvation cup 25%, 50%, or 75% full and I just need you to make up the rest. No, we come empty. If you bring something that contributes to your salvation, then you have something to boast about before God, but in reality none of us can boast. So throw off dead works and cling to the living Christ instead. Once you realize this, the gospel is humiliating. It is saying that you have nothing to bring and are totally dependent on Christ. None of us likes to hear that, but once you realize it is true, then the gospel goes from being offensive to beautiful.
God’s Promises Call for Faith, Not Bartering
As part of this vision, God speaks to Jacob and affirms the covenantal promises to Abraham to him: Land, descendants, a mediatorial role of blessing, and that he would be with Jacob.
Don’t miss how Jacob responds: upon waking, Jacob sees the magnitude of the dream and vows that if God keeps his word, then he will worship him and serve him. That might seem like an appropriate response, but in the context of Genesis it is lackluster at best. The appropriate response to God’s gracious promise to provide should always be faith. Jacob responds by saying, “Sure, if you keep your end of the deal I will be your man.” That’s not the kind of man Jacob needs to be in order for God to bring about his agenda. So it isn’t surprising that we see God prune Jacob next, which leads us to our second point.
The Lord Delivers His Promise Through Humiliation
Jacob’s response to God’s promise is a response of pride. He is in effect dealing with God as if God is his equal and they are making a bargain. He isn’t dealing with God as the supreme ruler of the universe, whose hand cannot be stayed and whose agenda cannot be thwarted. Humiliation is the necessary pathway for the proud to find out that God is faithful to all of his promises. It takes 20 years for Jacob to learn this lesson. For your benefit and mine, let me see if I can properly expound on it in a way that will benefit you in just a few minutes.
Setting the Scene: the Trap of Jacob’s Pride
In Genesis 29, Jacob arrives in the east. If you recall, Isaac and Rebekah sent him this way in order to find a wife from among Rebekah’s relatives. Upon arriving there, he finds shepherds gathering the sheep in order to water them, but there is a rock over the well. So, rather impressively, Jacob lifts up the rock so that the sheep can drink and the herds be dispersed from each other. Obviously the stone was large because others were not rolling it away, so Jacob catches attention and, more than likely, was trying to show off for the girls—of whom Rachel was one.
I can remember doing this very thing the first time I had a conversation with Haley, who is now my wife. In the span of 30 minutes I exhausted every funny story of my life in order to impress her and make her laugh. And it worked. That was me using every ounce of my energy to roll away a stone like Jacob did.
Now that Rachel is duly impressed and aware of Jacob’s identity after his passionate introduction, she runs off to tell Laban of the news. Laban then runs to Jacob because, after all, this sounds like a pretty impressive young man.
The Lord Uses Laban to Humble Jacob
After about a month of visiting together, Laban comes up with a great idea: why don’t you work for me, Jacob? Now, this sounds innocent enough at first, but as the story unfolds we will see that Laban is not the most honest or upright man. Clearly in the time of this month together he has noticed that Jacob is interested in his daughter Rachel. Knowing that Jacob came all this way to get married, Laban probably assumes that when he asks Jacob want he wants for his wages, he is going to ask for Rachel, since Jacob loves her as 29:18 tells us. And so he does. Jacob says that he will work 7 years in order to earn Rachel as his wife. These 7 years speed right by, only seeming like a few days because of the love that he had for her (29:20). In other words, he is obsessed. Laban, though, he is clever.
In much the same fashion that Jacob used to trick Isaac, Laban uses to trick Jacob. On the night that he is supposed to marry Rachel, Laban hosted a feast but then gave Leah, Rachel’s older sister, to Jacob instead. Being that Jacob didn’t notice this switch until the morning alerts us to the fact that he was most likely inebriated. As he realizes who he has married, he complains to Laban, asking why he has done this. Laban then pleads cultural necessity: the younger sister can’t get married before the older sister! That would be inappropriate, Jacob, don’t you know our culture?
Laban then acts like he is being kind when he says that he will give him Rachel as well if he agrees to work for another 7 years. So, in short, Jacob will now have to work 14 years in order to get Rachel as his wife. While he would not have to wait 7 years in order to get her, he would have to work an additional 7 years because of her. And the passage does not say this time that the years felt like a few days. Instead, the end of 29:31-30:24 depict a time that is less than blissful. Shockingly, Leah and Rachel do not have a good relationship. Jacob’s home life is defined by bitterness, jealousy, dissension, and tears. If he wasn’t humiliated before, he is now.
Jacob’s Wives Humbled with Him
Likewise, his wives are humiliated. Leah feels cheated out of a husband. In trying to earn his love, she bears children only to remain second fiddle. Through this humiliation, however, she turns to trust the Lord. After seeing that 3 sons have not attached her husband to her, so names her fourth son Judah, saying that this time she will praise the Lord (29:35)
Rachel as well is humbled. She is unable to conceive and turns to mandrakes in order to try to become fertile. She gets these mandrakes by making a trade with Leah, agreeing that Leah will get to lay with Jacob in exchanged for the mandrakes. To her chagrin, Leah conceives and she continues barren. But in 30:22, we see that Rachel finally conceives after she spoke to the Lord. It appears her humiliation caused her to cry out and trust God.
Jacob Learns Humility from Humiliation
In a similar fashion, Jacob’s humiliation also causes him to turn from trusting himself to trusting the Lord. In short, it produces humility. Humiliation is used by God to produce humility, but not all humiliation leads to humility. It depends on how you respond to it.
When Rachel cannot conceive and she demands children from Jacob, he does not respond with a clever plan but simply says, “Am I in the place of God…?” This statement shows that he is viewing God as preeminent in all of life’s dealings instead of seeing himself as clever enough to manipulate the situation to his liking.
This change in Jacob from proud man to humble man is seen most prominently in his dealings with Laban. Jacob has been bested by Laban and worked now for 14 years. In 30:25, Jacob goes to Laban desiring to be sent away from him, but the current arrangement makes it so that he needs Laban’s permission to leave with some of the property that has. Laban, however, refuses to let him leave. So Jacob proposes an arrangement: In all of the animals he tends for Laban, he will be entitled to keep all that are speckled and spotted sheep and every black lamb. That way it would be clear what belong to him and what belonged to Laban. After agreeing to these terms, Laban removed all the speckled, spotted, and black, thinking that Jacob would be left with nothing and would have to stay.
What happened next is strange. Seeing that no speckled or spotted animals remained, Jacob would peel sticks and lay them before the strong animals when they mated. The result was that they had speckled and spotted offspring. When the weak animals mated, he would refrain from doing this. After a time, Jacob’s flock of specked and spotted animals grew. In a matter of time, Jacob became greater and Laban weaker.
Humiliated, Jacob Turns to Humbly Trusting God
Now, there isn’t verifiable science behind this action, so why did it work? We get the answer in Genesis 31:9-13. There we see Jacob’s explanation of what happened to Rachel and Leah. He says that the reason he made this arrangement in the first place is because God revealed to him that he would give Laban’s flock to Jacob by making the animals speckled and spotted. Jacob’s agreement with Laban and the subsequent actions were acts of faith in God’s revelation to him.
Once humiliated by Laban, Jacob turns from trusting himself to trusting God, and he is vindicated by God in that trust. In Genesis 31:3, God tells Jacob to return to the promised land, and Jacob obeys even though Laban is still stronger than him, thus showing his trust in the Lord again. Yet again, the Lord vindicates this trust by telling Laban in a dream to not harm Jacob.
Do you see what was produced through this humiliation? God is showing faithfulness to the promises he made to Jacob in Genesis 28. Jacob is returning to Canaan, as God promised, with great wealth, and 12 sons. That is Land, descendants, and God’s presence verifiably given through protection. These are all the things that God promised to give to Jacob. But it took Jacob 20 years to see these things because he bartered with God in pride instead of hearing him in faith.
When you hear, “God will oppose the proud but give grace to the humble,” you might think, “I want to be humble.” But remember, the road to humility for the proud is humiliation. Humility comes by things being broken that you don’t want to have broken. Just as you have to break the glass to the fire extinguisher case in order to put out a fire, you must have your pride broken through humiliation in order to become humble.
If humility is such a high cost, is it worth it? The answer is “yes,” and that is seen in our last point.
The Lord Draws Near to the Humble
As Jacob prepares to return to the promised land, he is coming back a much different man than he was when he left. He left alone, now he returns with enough people for two camps. But, not surprisingly, what is on his mind is Esau and his threat to kill him. This is what initially drew Jacob to leave. In sending messengers ahead to Esau, Jacob does not receive news that he likes. Esau is coming to him with 400 men. As 32:7 says, Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed. So what does he do?
The Humble Plans and Prayer of Jacob
First, he does what any of us would do: he makes a plan. He divides his people into two groups so that if Esau does attack at least part of his family could escape.
Second, he does what all of us should do: he prays. But notice how he prays. He addresses God in light of what God has told him to do and by what he has promised to do for him.
Verse 9, “O LORD, who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good.” When circumstances say panic, it is important for us to remember the specifics of God’s word to us and to interpret our circumstances according to his word. In short, this is a reminder: I am afraid of Esau, but Lord, you promised to do me good.”
Verse 10, “I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed the Jordan, and now I have becomes two camps.” Notice how Jacob is humbled. Previously, he lied and cheated to get what he wanted. When we lie and cheat to get what we want, we are implicitly saying that we deserve things that others want to keep from us. Now, he freely admits that all he has comes by God’s grace and he does not deserve it.
Verse 11, “Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children.” He makes his heart known to God without reservation.
Verse 12, “But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.” He grounds his request in God’s specific promise to make a multitude from him. If he and his family are killed, this promise cannot come to pass. So he does not merely ask for what he wants, he aligns the desire of his heart with the promise of God.
The next day, he sends gifts ahead in order to try to appease Esau. Perhaps present will calm him down if he is angry?
God Draws Near to Jacob
But then, that evening, an event occurs that makes the remaining story with Esau seem like an anticlimactic footnote. Jacob wrestles with God. This bizarre event comes seemingly out of nowhere. As you are reading this story and you come to verse 24 which says that a man wrestled with Jacob Jacob until the breaking of day, you may just assume right away that this man is Esau. Clearly as the passage goes on, this is not Esau, but he is the one you are thinking about when it comes to one who might attack Jacob.
So what is happening in these verses and what does it mean?
Jacob wrestles with God, and I say that not just because that is the heading in the ESV. We can deduce that this man is God by clues we are given in the passage. We see in verse 24 that a man wrestled with God until the break of day, but this man was obviously stronger than Jacob, for he for he put his hip out of socket with a touch, yet he did not prevail against Jacob (25). How did he not prevail? Jacob would not let him go (26). This makes me think of times that I’ve wrestled my son Eli. I am stronger than him (he is only 7 after all), but there are times that he can latch onto me and I cannot dislodge him with doing him harm in a way that I do not want to. It isn’t that Jacob is stronger, it is that the man does not want to destroy him.
The man was greater than Jacob because Jacob asked him for a blessing, and the greater blesses the lesser. This greatness is seen in how the man renames Jacob Israel, and renaming is a sign of having authority over another. Israel means "He strives with God," a clear play on what has just taken place. Yet, when Jacob asks to know the man’s name, he man refuses to share it. Then, the man blesses him.
Jacob thinks he wrestled with God because he then names the place "Peniel," which means "the face of God," and he says of the event "I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered." So he really did wrestle with God.
But how did he wrestle with God? No one has seen God and no one can see God (1 Tim 6:16). How do we make sense of this? Jacob did not see the essence of God, but God made himself manifest to Jacob. Often these events are called Christophonies, which refer to pre-incarnate appearances of God the Son to his people. How did he see the pre-incarnate Christ? Part of the answer to this is a mystery, but that is not to say that it is impossible to explain. It may just be beyond an explanation at this point. In the same way that I cannot tell you the exact process of how I get safe drinking water out of my sink, but I do know it is safe.
In the song Mary Did You Know (and I am team "Mary Did You Know" is a good song), we hear the line, "When you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God." Yet at the same time, John 1:18 tells us, "No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, has made him known." Yet John saw him, Mary kissed him, and Jacob wrestled him. In seeing him, you see God but in human form. His glory humbled so that you might say, "He is a man." But when you interact with him, you leave saying he cannot be a mere man.
What does this mean? It means that Jacob is now a changed and changing man. He is both blessed and walking with a limp.
He walks out to meet Esau in front of all, the fear of Isaac is now the fear of Jacob. Jacob goes forth to meet Esau in humility, as is displayed in chapter 33. He bows down, has his family bow down, and offers gifts. Being with God does not make Jacob proud; it makes humble. In this case, God exalting the proud means his deliverance from his enemies.
Yet, even in walking in humility, Jacob blesses Esau, showing that he has not withdrawn from holding the birthright and blessing from Isaac (33:11) and, afterword, Esau departs for Seir, leaving the promised land open and exclusively available to Jacob.
God has called Jacob, humbled Jacob, and drawn near to Jacob. This allows Jacob to walk humbly before Esau, even if he still avoids too much interaction with Esau in verses 12-17.
God Has Drawn Near
On this Christmas Eve, you must see that God has drawn near to us in Jesus Christ. He is no mere man. In him the fullness of deity dwells, and in him God offers us the way of salvation. This way is not one of works, but one of faith.
But do not be deceived in pride: God does not come to barter with you.
God comes to make a clear and decisive declaration. John 3:16-18 sums it up: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but however does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
Do you hear the clarity of this declaration? God offers salvation to broken and rebellious sinners like you and me through the gift of Jesus Christ. This salvation is possible because Jesus lived the life of obedience that we should have lived, bore the penalty of our sin on the cross, and rose again to show that it really is finished.
Jesus Christ came not in order to condemn you but to save you. So if you believe, you are not condemned!
But if you reject Jesus, then you are condemned already. All people sit under God’s just wrath now. Jesus is the way to escape the wrath we deserve because of sin.
So how will you respond to this gracious promise of salvation by grace? You can believe or not. That stands before you. But my prayer this morning is that if you do resist God, he would be gracious by humiliating you to the point that you humbly trust him.