by Glenn Harris | January 01 1970
The parasha for this Shabbat is entitled Vayishlach which means “And he sent” and covers Genesis 32 through 36. It seems to me the theme in this section of Genesis is unfinished business and conflict resolution. This should come as no surprise, given that the human race has been fractured by sin from the time of our rebellion against God in Gan Eden. Our fallen nature leads inevitably to interpersonal conflict. Let’s consider a few examples from Vayishlach.
Because we are a fallen race, we often fail to trust one another. It was Jacob’s deceptions that had originally forced him to flee from Esau, to have to leave his parents’ home, and to set off for Haran to stay with his relatives. While in this distant region, he himself was deceived by his uncle Laban. First, he was given Leah in marriage by trickery, when it was Rachel he wanted to marry and for whom he had worked seven years. So in order to marry Rachel, he was maneuvered into working for Laban another seven years. But God brought good out of these circumstances. From Jacob’s two wives and two concubines we were given the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Jacob justifiably had suspicions about Laban. Besides the deceptions, he had changed Jacob’s wages ten times [See Gen. 31:7 and 41]. But the distrust went both ways. When he saw his own flocks dwindling while Jacob’s flocks were dramatically increasing, Laban suspected foul play. He became angry and suspicious of Jacob. It was time for Jacob to flee again. Perhaps as much owing to their mutual distrust as to the considerable size of the flocks, Jacob seems to have lived at least a sufficient distance from Laban that he was able to take his wives and concubines and family, and flock, and leave by stealth. Laban found out, but it took three days for him to catch up with Jacob. Their meeting was less than conciliatory. Each accused the other of wrongdoing, and though they made a covenant with each other, it was a covenant borne of distrust.
Because we are a fallen race, we often fail to trust God. Jacob had concluded business with Laban, and was now on his journey back to Eretz Canaan, where there was more unfinished business to transact. He would be meeting up with Esau his older brother, whom, as far as he knew, still harbored a deep-seated grudge. In chapter 32 Jacob makes plans in anticipation of a hostile encounter. He divides his family and flocks into two camps, so that if Esau attacked one, the other might escape and survive. He also sends on ahead of him an elaborate gift, in several parts, to ameliorate his brother. There is wisdom in this, but human wisdom and planning only goes so far.
God too had unfinished business to transact with Jacob. You see, in spite of our rebellion against Him, and our sinful nature, 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; not without a blessing, anyway. 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.
Who is the man? Moses leaves his identity veiled in mystery. But Jacob names the place Peniel – ‘the face of God’ saying,
I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.
Six hundred years later the prophet Hosea echoed the mystery, writing concerning Jacob,
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).
I believe that mysterious figure to have been Messiah prior to His incarnation, or what is commonly called a Christophany.
Israel walked away (actually, he limped) in the morning, in some ways a new man. He has a new name, and something of a new outlook. Perhaps the prospect of his reunion with Esau seemed less daunting, now that he’d prevailed with God and been blessed. Wrestling in prayer with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, and yielding to His will gives you an eternal perspective, making your circumstances seem a lot less intimidating.
In chapter 33 Jacob and Esau (Israel and Edom) are reunited amicably. Esau is impressed, if somewhat puzzled, by all the gifts Jacob sent on ahead. He politely declines the gift, 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 vicinity of Shechem. Once again we see the God-intended separation of Israel from the other nations.
Chapter 34 records the slaughter of all the men of the city of Shechem by Shimon and Levi, in retaliation for the rape of their sister Dinah. The Scriptures are honest records of Israel’s history, good and bad. The slaughter of the men of Shechem forced Israel and the family to leave the area, serving to keep Israel a separate nation. Yet because of this heinous act, Shimon and Levi would later forfeit the patriarchal blessing (Gen. 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 (Micah 5:1) would be born the Redeemer of all mankind, Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah. Our weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning!
Chapter 35 records the disgraceful actions of Reuben with Bilhah, his father’s concubine, which will later disqualify him from receiving that patriarchal blessing (Gen. 49:3-4). 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 be our adversaries. With the summary of Esau’s descendants in chapter 36, the Scriptures again take a selective genealogical turn. We are meant to watch the line of Jacob for that coming Redeemer.
We are also meant to recognize in these chapters the need to cultivate a relationship with God. Our sinful natures lead inevitably to conflict. But with a heavenly perspective, we are able to be reconciled and accomplish God’s purposes for us. There is a noticeable change in tenor of Jacob’s prayers through his life, as he learns to trust God. He needed to cultivate a relationship with God of his own, not merely as the son of Isaac or grandson of Abraham. So it must be for you – God must become your God!
Note: Each Torah portion is named from the first word or first few words of the portion of scripture. This portion is called Vayishlach וַיִּשְׁלַח. Other transliterations: Va’yishlach or Vayishlah