Passing over Penuel

“And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh.”

GENESIS 32:31 

It must have been a rather pitiful sight over which the bright rays of the eastern sun broke that early morning, Jacob limping through the ford of Jabbok at the place he called Penuel. Slowly he made his way, a man tired and exhausted from a long night of exertion; his clothes were torn and tattered from hours of hand-to-hand combat; he halted and limped upon his thigh from a severe and painful wound that he had received. Surely he stood in contrast to the strong, bold man who but a few days before had withstood the harsh words and threats of Laban. Then he had been the picture of strength; now he was the picture of weakness as he hobbled along under the glory of that eastern sunrise. But, after the mysterious fashion of the kingdom of heaven, within the heart of that tired, crippled man there was a joy and confidence such as he had not known for many a day. Before in his strength he had been Jacob, deceiver and supplanter; now in his weakness he was Israel, conqueror with God and man.

It had all begun the night before when he had remained behind on the bank of the Jabbok for prayer and meditation. It had been a hard and trying day. Early that morning his messengers had returned from Esau with nothing more to report than that Esau was approaching with four hundred armed, belligerent men. His worst fears it seemed were realized. Esau was still angry and thirsting for revenge. And what could he do to defend himself? He had possessions, children and cattle and servants, but they were not trained for warfare and would only be a hindrance in battle. Vainly he searched his mind for a solution, but the only thing of which he could think was to divide his company into two groups so that if one were attacked the other might escape. But what comfort was to be found in a plan that at best provided for the safety of only half his family and possessions? His mind, otherwise so imaginative and fertile with plans, seemed utterly confused and arid. In his despair he had prayed to his God, but as yet there had come to him no answer. He had decided to take the approach of humility and separated five hundred and more head of cattle to send ahead to Esau as a token of his intent, but could he expect that a Godless man such as Esau would be satisfied with a token when it was clearly in his power to take all that Jacob owned? Finally, not knowing what else to do, he had labored far into the evening bringing his family and cattle across the ford of Jabbok. At least, should Esau attack them on, the morrow, it would not be while they were busily occupied with the hardships of fording a stream. Now that this was done, Jacob remained behind by himself on the other bank of Jabbok. His mind was too troubled for him to sleep anyway. In the quiet of the night, he would try once again to collect his thoughts, to evaluate the happenings of the day, and, if possible, to find yet another plan of approach. Once again he would pray to his God, and then he would wait; perhaps, there would still come an answer. 

As Jacob sat there deeply engaged in his thoughts, suddenly there loomed up before him the figure of a man. Immediately there came to his troubled mind the conclusion that this must be someone come to prevent him from following his family over Jabbok and entering the land of Canaan. In the obscurity of the night he could not discern who the man was —perhaps an agent of Esau’s, or else some new and unexpected enemy. In any case it was someone intending to keep him from the inheritance which had been promised him by God. Not one to hesitate at such a crucial point, Jacob knew what to do. Gathering together his full strength, Jacob threw himself upon the figure that stood in his way. In the stillness of the darkened night the two began to wrestle. Back and forth they struggled matching each other move for move. Time and time again Jacob launched all of his remaining strength into the fray, but each time it was fairly met. Hour after hour, past midnight and on into the early hours of the following day, back and forth they grappled, but neither seemed able to overcome. Tired and aching, Jacob’s body cried out for rest; but always before his mind he saw the promised land of Canaan which he had to have; and for it Jacob continued to battle. 

It was as though in those few hours of striving in the night, the motif of Jacob’s whole life was being reflected. Throughout his life, Jacob had always had one burning desire in his soul, to inherit the land of his fathers and so to receive from God the covenant blessings. He knew that it was rightfully his for God had told his mother so even before he was born. But always wherever he went there would stand someone before him to prevent him from receiving his desire. With such he felt compelled to struggle so that the promise of God might be realized. It had begun already in the womb when he fought with his twin brother Esau. Even when Esau had come forth first, he had held him firmly by the heel, determined to supplant him. Not to be discouraged by his brother’s right of birth and determined that God’s election had to come out right, Jacob caught his brother in a moment of weakness and purchased from him the birthright for a simple mess of pottage. Next there stood before him his father Isaac, determined in spite of the Word of God to give to Esau the blessing. With him also Jacob grappled. Taking advantage of his father’s blindness, Jacob deceived his father into giving to him the blessing intended for his brother Esau. When Esau in anger swore to slay him, Jacob fled to Haran before any harm could be done. There in Haran his uncle Laban stood in his way. First Laban sought to keep from him his betrothed wife, and later his just wages. For twenty years Jacob struggled with his uncle matching him move for move. Now as he stood once again on the border of the promised land, still another figure engaged him in battle, intent, it seemed to Jacob, on keeping him from the promised inheritance. It was the same old battle, only taking on another form. 

Nor did the similarity cease with the fact that Jacob was once again engaged in a battle. It appeared as if this battle had come to a stalemate, and this also had always been the case. Jacob had spent his life in conflict. During this time he had never been completely defeated, but neither had he received his heart’s desire. Although he had struggled with Esau in the womb and at birth held him firmly by the heel, Esau had been born first and naturally speaking was to receive the rights of the first born. Although he managed to buy from Esau this birthright and tricked his father into giving it to him, no sooner had he received it and he had to flee the land and dwell in the banishment of Haran. Although in his struggle with Laban he did manage to receive his wives and also the wage which he had coming, it took him twenty years and all of the time he was separated from the land of his fathers which he loved. Now as in the night he grappled with the stranger, he was unable to overcome. True, the stranger neither seemed able to prevail. But neither was Jacob able to put him out of the way so as to proceed over Jabbok. As it had been in all of his life, all of Jacob’s efforts were incapable of bringing him to the promised inheritance for which his heart always longed. 

It was as morning was breaking across the eastern horizon that a change in the battle took place. Suddenly the man reached out and touched Jacob on his thigh. Actually it was a rather light touch neither hard nor rough, but it was to Jacob like a bolt of power stretching his thigh and wrenching it, pulling it out of place. The battle was as good as done. Jacob could not continue to match the man with a leg so limp and hurting. Still it was not that thought that filled and troubled the mind of Jacob. It was that touch. Who could touch a man so gently and at the same time hurt him so badly? — who but God in heaven? Suddenly the realization dawned upon Jacob, he had not been fighting against another man, but against God. It was a frightening realization. Not only did it apply to the past night, which was bad enough, but to a great portion of his life which had gone before. So often he had set out to procure for himself the promise without ever stopping to find out if actually he was struggling for his God or against Him. He had gone forth in his own strength to attain his end rather than living by faith. Now suddenly he saw it, by going in his own strength he had in reality been fighting against the Lord, the only one who could give him- the covenant blessings he desired. The knowledge filled him with fear. 

As soon as the angel had touched Jacob, He began to pull away. It brought yet another fear crowding in upon the burdened mind of Jacob. Should the Lord now leave him, what hope would he have left? He saw as never before that, if ever he was to receive the promise, the Lord would have to give; and now the angel of the Lord was pulling away. With all of the strength he had left, Jacob reached out once again to grasp the angel in his arms and hold Him to himself. Once again the battle was resumed but in an entirely different manner. Before he had sought to be rid of the angel and put him out of the way; now with the arms of faith he grasped him confessing thereby that without the presence of the Lord he saw no hope of entering Canaan. “Let me go,” said the angel, “for the day breaketh.” But Jacob was quick to answer, “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.” Already in that early day it was true that the kingdom of heaven suffered violence, and the violent took it by storm. 

“What is thy name?” asked the angel, and the answer was given, “Jacob.” To this the angel replied, “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” At last the victory was Jacob’s, a victory such as he had never before experienced. It was not, a cunning craftiness such as had been so common with him in former years that gained the victory. It was not the long hours of battle through the night. How futile had actually been that struggle, for at any moment the Lord could have reached out and destroyed him completely. The victory had come when he saw the futility of his own efforts and turned to cling to the angel in faith, when he pleaded with the angel to give to him a blessing, when he forsook his own strength and pleaded on the mercies of God. Then he was pronounced a prince who had power with God and with men. He had come to the fullness of the stature of faith when his name could be changed from Jacob to Israel. 

It must have appeared a pitiful sight as early that morning he made his way across the Jabbok tired, tattered, and limping. With all of his strength, he had fought a great battle and lost it; he had been wounded; the sinew of his thigh was shrunken; never again would he walk erect. Nonetheless, in his soul there was joy. Defeated in the battle of physical strength, he had been brought to fight the battle of faith, and in that he had conquered. As the rays of the eastern sun shone above his head, the glory of a heavenly sun warmed the recesses of his soul. In confidence he could go forth to meet with whatever approach Esau would offer. The Lord was by his side, and in His strength he would conquer. He had been in Penuel. “For,” said Jacob, “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” 

B.W.