Weekly Torah Commentary. – Vayishlach December 1, 2017

Torah reading:  Genesis 32:4 – 36:43

Haftorah reading: Obadiah 1: 1-21

What do you do when you find yourself between a rock and a hard place? I’m talking about those times in life when there seem to be no good options. Your current job is almost unbearable, but there are no other jobs available—and you do need the paycheck. You need knee surgery, but you don’t have health insurance. You may or may not be between a rock and a hard place right now, but at some point in your life, you will get in on the experience.

What do you do when nothing seems to work and you don’t know what to do?

That’s where Jacob was in our Torah reading this week.

For the last 20 years he has been working for his uncle, Laban, in Mesopotamia. It has been a cat and mouse relationship: Laban constantly cheating Jacob; but Jacob coming out with increase anyway.  He had made a deal with Laban to work for Rachel’s hand in marriage. He worked the 7 years, and instead of giving him Rachel, Laban gave him his other daughter, Leah. So Jacob worked for another 7 years for Rachel. I cannot imagine the emotional pain and rejection Leah went through, but that’s for another time. After those 14 years, Jacob worked for Laban another 6 years for flocks and other livestock. During that time both men are manipulating and maneuvering. All that was stressful, but bearable.

Then Jacob overheard Laban’s sons saying how much they hated Jacob and he realizes Laban has also turned completely against him. The situation is no longer tolerable or even safe. The relationships have turned completely sour. Jacob has to leave and God gives him the go ahead to do so (Genesis 31:3).

Jacob cannot risk even telling Laban that he’s leaving so he sneaks out with his family and possessions. When Laban finds out that Jacob has gone, he is furious and pursues him. There is no telling what Laban would have done to Jacob, except that God intervened. In a dream God told Laban to not to harm Jacob. Still the bridges have been burned. Jacob cannot go back.

So Jacob proceeds to his homeland in Canaan. But there is a problem with that too. The reason Jacob had spent those 20 years with Laban is that he had to flee from Canaan because of his brother’s fury against him.

So here is Jacob’s situation. Behind him is Laban—the proverbial rock. He can’t go back there. In front of him is Esau, the proverbial hard place. He is terrified of what Esau will do—so much so that encountering a host of angels at the border of Canaan does not alleviate his fears. Consistent with his nature, Jacob develops a plan to appease Esau. He sends messengers ahead to ask favor and friendship of Esau. Maybe over time Esau’s anger has cooled. Maybe Esau will let him return unharmed. But the messengers come back with an alarming message. Esau is coming to meet you and he has 400 warriors with him (Genesis 32:6). Jacob realizes: “This does not sound good. This sounds like a disaster about to happen. And I don’t know what I can do about it. I can’t go back to Laban—that door is shut. I don’t have men to fight Esau’s warriors—all I have is a few servants, women and children. If I flee to the left or right, they will easily overtake us.”

What do you do when Esau is coming at you with 400 warriors, you have burned the bridges behind you, and there’s no place to go?

Jacobwrestles

Jacob does two things.

First, he PLANS. He divides his family and flocks up with the possibility that some might escape Esau’s attack. And he sends lavish gifts ahead to Esau with the outside chance he might be able to appease him—but Jacob’s schemes will not change Esau’s heart—and down deep Jacob knows that.

Secondly, Jacob PRAYS with intensity and fervor.    Five things happen as a result.

(1) God engages Jacob. We think of Jacob wrestling with the Angel; but verse 24 tells us that God was the initiator. God Himself is wrestling with Jacob. What is the struggle? Jacob is contending for blessing. God is contending for change in Jacob so that Jacob can receive the blessing He has already planned to give him.

When we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place, God is not trying to withhold blessing from us. He has situated us in a pressure cooker that will prepare our hearts to receive the blessing we need. We try to fix the circumstances. God is wanting to fix us.

God is dealing with Jacob’s self-sufficiency. God is wearing Jacob down and teaching him the absolute necessity of God-reliance. How does Jacob ultimately prevail here? By coming to the end of himself and discovering that God is all he needs.

Have you set your heart upon the things of God as the number one priority in life? If so, you have made a giant step in the right direction. There may still be a lot to learn; there may be some hard places along the way. But at least you’re headed in the right direction.

(2) The Angel touched Jacob’s hip-socket and threw it out of joint, signifying the breaking of Jacob’s self-reliance. From that day forward, Jacob walked with a limp. In the natural, he leaves the encounter weaker than before. If you’re going to war with Esau, you don’t want to be hobbling around out there with a limp—not naturally speaking anyway. If you go on with God, you may lose some things that you were relying on quite heavily. It has cost me some things to get where I am today. But I have gained some things far more valuable.

(3) God presses Jacob for a confession. “Jacob,” verse 27, “what is your name?” The name Jacob means “schemer, trickster.” “For you to advance in my plan, you need to acknowledge the problem. The problem is not Laban; the problem is not Esau—the problem is something in you that needs to change—and I’ve wrestled with you to bring about that change. The manipulating, scheming Jacob dies right here, right now. You shall no longer live as “Jacob.” This is a watershed moment in your life. “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel”. Israel means “Prince of God” or “God-governed.”

So, what has happened here?

(4) In this struggle, God has brought Jacob up from one level to a higher level. The end result of this terrible struggle in prayer is that Jacob has become a better man. This is not about Jacob wrestling a blessing away from a reluctant God. God had always intended the blessing for Jacob. This is about God taking Jacob through a process of humble and serious prayer.

Effectual, fervent prayer happens in the struggles of real life. Desperation is the fuel behind the kind of praying Jacob did this night. God Himself led Jacob to a tight spot so that Jacob could wrestle through his issues and prevail.

This night was one of three or four watershed moments in Jacob’s life. He walked away with a limp but with far less cockiness.

(5) God answered Jacob’s request. Esau did not attack Jacob; he received him with open arms. By God’s grace Jacob prevailed in prayer, and Genesis 32:29 ends with the statement, “And he (God) blessed him there.” God changed Jacob and God changed Esau.

In Tune with Torah this week = What do you do when you find yourself between a rock and a hard place? You pray, humbly, seriously and with a heart ready to repent. God brings us into those tight places so we will pray, so that He can prepare us for spiritual promotion and through it, increase His blessing on your life.

Shabbat Shalom

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayishlach December 16, 2016

Torah reading: Genesis 32:4-36:43

Haftorah:  Obadiah 1:1-21

Obadiah, the shortest book in the Old Testament, is an amazing little book whose theme is the pronouncement of doom against an ancient and long-forgotten nation, Edom. Written millenia ago, nevertheless, this book while appearing to say on thing on the surface, has a deep message for the 21st century reader.

obadiah

Obadiah was one of the minor prophets, a contemporary of Jeremiah.  The name Obadiah means “the servant of Jehovah;” he fulfills the position of a servant. He comes and delivers his message, then fades into the background; that is about all we know of the man behind this book.

The book of Obadiah tells the story of two nations, Israel and Edom, the country to the south of Israel. Through this ancient land of Edom the Israelites marched as they came into Israel out of the captivity and slavery of Egypt. As they came into the land they had difficulty with the Edomites who were enemies of Israel from its very beginning.  Why?

Behind the story of these two nations is the story of two men, twins actually, Jacob and Esau. Jacob was the father of Israel, and Esau, his twin brother, became the father of the Edomites.  Jacob and Esau were in perpetual antagonism. According to Genesis even before they were born, they struggled together in their mother’s womb. That hostility marked the lives of these two men, and, subsequently, the lives of their descendants, the two nations of Israel and Edom.  From Genesis to Malachi the struggle and antagonism between them continues.

What is so important about these two men and these two nations? That is precisely what the book of Obadiah explains to us.

God is a great storyteller. He uses pictures so that we can understand truth more easily, more graphically. We like to have a picture. We would rather see something than hear it, so God has many pictures. He has taken these two men and the subsequent nations that came from them and used them throughout the Bible as a consistent picture of the conflict between the natural man and the spiritual man — Jacob and Esau, Israel and Edom.

Obadiah first turns the spotlight on Esau, who typifies a fleshly man concerned primarily with his personal wants, desires and passions.  The trouble with Esau, the prophet says, is this (verse 3):

The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rock, whose dwelling is high, who say in your heart, ‘Who will bring me down to the ground?’  1:3

Esau’s problem is a self-focused pride or conceit.  Proverbs 6:16 says: “There are six things which the Lord hates, seven which are an abomination to him.” And what is number one on the list? A proud look. And everything else that follows is a variation of pride. Those that are swift to run after mischief, he that spreads lies and slander and discord among brothers; all these things are manifestations of that single basic evil, human arrogance or conceit. Man’s undisciplined ego evaluates everything only in terms of its importance or its un-importance to oneself.  Esau typifies the character that thinks the universe revolves around him or her.

Here is the man who says, “Nobody can touch me. Who is going to upset me? My plans are all laid out. I am able to carry through what I set out to do.” This attitude of self-sufficient ability is a mark of pride. And the Lord says to Esau/Edom: “though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest is set among the stars, yet I am able to bring you down.”

Here is the man who says, “I don’t need God. I can run my own life without God, in my own wisdom, my own strength, my own abilities, my own talents — that is enough. that is all I need to make a success in life.”

Esau/Edom is condemned for yet another type of arrogance. Look at verse 10:

For the violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever.

Violence is a fruit of arrogance and conceit that is centered only on self and strikes out against anything that dares to challenge its supreme reign in life.

Obadiah’s prophecy also condemns Esau/Edom for indifference towards others.

On the day that you stood aloof, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth, and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were like on of them. vs. 11

One of the character traits of Esau/Edom is an inability to have empathy or compassion towards others; to be unmoved by the pain or suffering of one’s fellowman.

There is yet another form of pride that we read about in Obadiah (verses 12,13):

But you should not have gloated over the day of your brother in the day of his misfortune;
you should not have rejoiced over the people of Judah in the day of their ruin;
you should not have boasted in the day of distress.
You should not have entered the gate of my people in the day of his calamity;
you should not have gloated over his disaster in the day of his calamity;
you should not have looted his goods in the day of his calamity. Obadiah 1:12-13

Gloating over the misfortune of others is abhorrent to God and should be to us. What is behind this perverse delight we take in another person’s failure or his faults? It is Esau in us. In our pride and unconcern we don’t care what happens to someone else, as long as everything is all right with us. How selfish can we be?

The prophet goes on to say at the end of his short book that God has determined destruction for Esau but triumph for Jacob, who typifies the spiritual man, focused on God and caring towards others.  The message is clear: he who lives for himself will suffer loss in the kingdom of God; he who spends his life loving God and serving others pleases God in this life and looks forward to life in the world to come.

Application:

Selfishness in its various forms is a challenge for all of us.  If our goal in life is to honor God and to walk in His ways, selfishness is an “enemy” within that we must conquer.  Part of our responsibility to obey the commandment – ‘You shall be holy as I am holy‘- involves a day by day decision to live a life that reflects God’s generosity, kindness and love towards us by showing those same attitudes in our relationships towards others.