Based on Genesis chapter 31 verse 1 to chapter 33 verse 11
Jacob goes home
Twenty years had passed since I, Jacob, had first arrived in the lands of the east and met Rachel who would later become my wife. Twenty years of twisting and cheating from Laban, her father, who was always trying to beat me and deceive me. First he’d tricked me into marrying Leah, Rachel’s older sister. And then – he’d made me work an extra 7 years for Rachel. And after that, he constantly changed his agreement with me to try and make sure I didn’t get rich. But the Lord had been with me, and I’d managed to work it out so that I had got rich, and my own flocks and herds had grown healthy and strong.
But it wasn’t just at work that the twenty years had been difficult, at home things seemed to go from bad to worse. Leah had children, but Rachel couldn’t have any, and in an act of desperation, Rachel gave me her personal maid, Bilhah, to be another wife for me, so that any children Bilhah had would be considered as Rachel’s! But Leah didn’t want to be outdone and she gave me her personal maid, Zilpah, as yet another wife, so that any children Zilpah had would be considered Leah’s! Eventually, and mercifully the Lord also let Rachel give birth to her first son Joseph.
As I became richer, I started to notice that my father-in-law, Laban, liked me less and less! It was at this time that the Lord spoke to me and told me to go back home to the land of my father Isaac and my grandfather Abraham.
So I talked it over with Leah and Rachel. They too had noticed that their father’s attitude towards them had cooled, so we all agreed to leave. (P) I should’ve trusted the Lord and told Laban openly that the Lord had said to leave, but I still hadn’t learnt to trust God, so I did it my way! I waited until Laban went away to shear his sheep, and then, without telling anyone, we made our escape. I put my children and wives on camels, packed everything up and left as quickly as we could.
Laban didn’t hear about it for 3 days. But when he did, he was furious, and gathered a group of his relatives together and set out in hot pursuit. (P)
I think Laban would’ve done us great harm if the Lord hadn’t intervened. The night before he caught up with us, the Lord appeared to him in a dream and warned him to be very careful in what he said to me. But even so, when he turned up he was furious! He accused me of acting foolishly, and then he said I was a thief and went through every one of our tents looking for his stolen household idols! He didn’t find them of course – even though I found out later that Rachel had taken them, and sat on them when her father searched her tent - so he wouldn’t find them!
But because the Lord had warned Laban, he didn’t harm us and eventually let us go with his blessing. (PAUSE)
The incident with Laban had been frightening, but that was nothing - to what lay ahead of me. I was going to have to face Esau. Esau whom I’d tricked out of his birthright, Esau from whom I’d stolen the blessing all those years ago. The same Esau whose plan to murder me had seen me hurry off to the lands of the east in fear for my life. (PAUSE)
I supose I could have returned to the land by a back road, and hoped that Esau didn’t find us. But I wanted to get things sorted out between us, so I sent a servant to Esau with this message. ‘Humble greetings from your servant Jacob! I have been living in the lands of the east with our uncle Laban for the last twenty years, and now I own oxen, donkeys, sheep, goats and servants, both male and female. And so I’m sending you this message to tell you that I’m coming back in the hope the you’ll be friendly towards me.’
But when my servant returned, the news he brought was terrifying! Esau had heard the message and was on his way to meet us with four hundred armed men! What was I going to do now? We wouldn’t stand a chance against an army of 400-armed men.
As quickly as I could I split the camp into two, hoping that if Esau attacked one group, the other would be ok. And then - I did something that I’ve not really done as often as I should. You see I didn’t have any smart schemes that could save us, I had to put our lives into the hands of the living God - so I fell upon my knees and prayed.
‘Oh God of my grandfather Abraham and my father Isaac – It was You O Lord who told me to come back to the land of my family – and it was You who promised to be kind to me. I don’t deserve Your faithfulness and the unfailing love that You show to me. When I left all those years ago, all I owned was a walking stick, and now my household fills two camps! Please Lord, rescue me from my brother Esau. I’m afraid that he’s going to murder me, my wives and my children. But You promised to treat me kindly, to multiply my descendents until they were as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore – far too many to count!’ (P)
I’m not sure, but I think that was the first time I ever really called on the Lord for help. You see there was no escape; we were a large slow moving group, while Esau and his 400-strong army could move quickly, and no matter what we tried he’d still be able to catch up with us. I didn’t have an answer – for the first time ever I just had to trust the Lord.
Mind you, that didn’t stop me coming up with a plan. I decided to send a series of presents to Esau. First I sent two hundred female goats, and 20 male goats. Then, after a short gap, I sent two hundred ewes, and twenty rams. Then, after another short gap I sent 30 female camels with their young, then 40 cows and 10 bulls, then 20 female donkeys and 10 male donkeys. With each group I sent a servant to lead them to Esau, and each servant had to give the same message. When Esau asked them ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Whose servant are you? And, ‘Whose animals are these.’ I told them to answer, ‘These animals belong to your servant Jacob. They are a present for his master Esau. Jacob is coming along behind us.’
My plan was to make Esau feel less and less angry as he received this series of gifts. I hoped that he’d feel friendly towards us. (PAUSE)
We were camped beside a river, and that night, after the presents had gone I started to feel uneasy again. So in the middle of the night I woke everyone up and sent them all across the river, my family, my possessions and everything. Until I was the only one left in the camp - or so I thought.
For out of nowhere a stranger came and wrestled with me. Hour after hour we wrestled until the first light of dawn started to shine over the horizon. When the man realised that he couldn’t win the fight, he struck my hip, knocking it out of joint. All I could do was hang onto him.
‘Let me go, it’s dawn,’ said the man.
‘I will not let you go,’ I replied. ‘Not unless you bless me.’
‘What’s your name?’ the man asked me.
‘Jacob,’ I replied.
‘From now on your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, which means ‘one who struggles with God’. Because you have struggled with both God and men and have won.’
And then I asked him was his name was. But he replied, ‘Why do you ask?’ And then he blessed me and left. (P)
I named that place ‘Peniel’ which means ‘face of God’, because I had seen God - face to face and he had spared my life. (P) So as the sun continued to rise I limped over to join the others as we waited for Esau’s arrival. (P)
It wasn’t long before we saw Esau and his 400 strong army coming towards us. When I saw him, I formed our group into two columns, with Bilhah and Zilpah, the servants of Leah and Rachel at the front with their children behind them. Next was Leah, with her children, and last came Rachel with Joseph. And then, I went on ahead of them all to face my brother Esau.
As Esau approached, I bowed low to the ground seven times before him. But as I watched Esau started to run towards me. I stood there unable to move, yet trusting that somehow the Lord would keep His promises.
Closer and closer Esau came. I couldn’t tell from the look on his face how he was feeling until he ran right up to me – and throwing his arms around me gave me a great big hug! Suddenly both of us were in tears – tears of joy at seeing each other again, and for me, tears of relief that my head was still on my shoulders!
Then Esau saw the women and children coming toward us.
‘Who’re all these people with you brother?’ he asked.
‘These are the children God has given me,’ I replied. And then Bilhah and Zilpah and their children came forward and bowed low before Esau. Next came Leah with her children, and they bowed low. And finally Rachel and Joseph came and also bowed low to the ground before Esau.
Esau was amazed at all he’d seen. ‘What about all these flocks and herds I met as I came to see you?’ he asked.
‘They’re a gift – to you, to make sure you’d be happy to see us,’ I answered.
‘I don’t need them,’ said Esau. ‘I’ve already got more than enough!’
But I insisted, ‘Please, accept them as my gift to you, for seeing your smiling face is such a relief to me, it’s almost like seeing the smile of God.’ So Esau took the gifts, and we settled in the land.