It was not like Jacob had any real chance to get sleep. The words of his slave echoed endlessly in his heart: "We came to your brother Esau and he is coming to meet you. And he has 400 men coming with him." When Jacob had left home, having tricked his elder brother out of his blessing and birthright, Esau's murderous rage towards him was not surprising. But after 2 decades in a foreign land working for a father-in-law more deceptive than himself, Jacob had come to miss his family. He had hoped the years had worn away his twin's anger. But if it had, why did Esau need 400 men merely to greet Jacob?
The rest of the day Jacob had called together his slaves and hatched a scheme to appease Esau. He divided up his goats, camels, bulls and donkeys into droves. He arranged for them to travel, one drove at a time, with a distance between each, towards Esau. As his brother came upon each drove, the slave was to say, "They belong to your servant Jacob; they are a present to my lord Esau; and moreover he is behind us." He hoped that this cascade of gifts would soften his brother's resentment.
As night fell, Jacob decided to split his entourage. By diving into 2 companies, Jacob hoped that should Esau lead a night raid upon one camp, the other would survive. And still he fretted. Finally he took his wives and children across the river Jabbok and returned alone. There was nothing else to do. Nothing but watch and pray.
"O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, 'Return to your country and your kindred, and I will do you good.' I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness you have shown to your servant. For only with my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become 2 companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him. He may come and kill us all, the mothers wit the children. Yet you have said, 'I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number."
It was a good prayer. And Jacob meant it, every word of it…the first dozen times he said it. In between each prayer, he listened. And if he heard anything, he got up and investigated. Esau might not send a band of men. Not blindly. He would send a scout to spy out their position. Someone good at sneaking about. That's what Esau would do. Because that's what Jacob would do. They were twins, after all.
And in the long hours of the night, with no one but God to talk to, Jacob's thoughts about his family and his life started to seep into his prayers. Which became a lot less formal and more of a dialogue. Or an argument. It may have sounded like a monologue but Jacob would pause and the next thing he said would deal with an unvoiced objection to what he had just said. Someone overhearing it might think the second person was speaking too softly for anyone but Jacob to hear.
"I know, Lord, that I am partly to blame for Esau's anger. But only partly. I mean, Dad always favored Esau. 'My big boy, the hunter.' How am I supposed to compete with that? Huh?…Yeah, Mom favored me but, you know, Dad has all the power. He's the one who gives the blessing. Mom couldn't do anything about that….Well, yeah, she did, I guess. And it was her idea, you know. She came up with the whole 'let's dress you like Esau and grab his blessing' thing. Everyone says, 'O, Jacob is the crafty one,' but I got it from Mom…I guess I could have said 'No.' It was a rotten thing to do to Dad, you know, take advantage of his blindness and all. But I don't regret what I did to Esau. You know that business about the birthright? It just wasn't fair. I mean, I'm staying home, taking care of the business, the sheep and all, and I'm just making some stew, cause I've been working. And he just waltzes up, having been out hunting again, while I'm working! He was out hunting, unsuccessfully I might add, and he smells my stew, my lunch, and says, 'Gimme that; I'm starving to death.' And that just ticked me off. I'm taking care of the family business, and he's off having fun, pitting his wits against some dumb animal, and he can't even catch one, and so what does that say about him, huh? He wanders back to camp, probably lead by the smell of my lunch, and he demands it!…Well, he does ask but, you know, like he's entitled… No he didn't want all of it but it's the principle of the thing. He thinks he's entitled cause he's older. By, like, a second. I heard the stories. I came out right after him, grabbing his heel, because, you know, he was gonna take all the breast milk, probably. One second older, he's the firstborn and gets a double share of the inheritance!
"And what do I get? A crappy name. Jacob, the 'heel-grabber,' the 'usurper.' I'm just a baby, barely born, trying to keep my brother from getting all the milk, all the glory, all of Dad's love but I'm marked for life, you know! I had to be smart. I had to be. Nobody was going to give me anything for showing up first! I had to scheme and fight, you know, cause I came in second-place on my own birthday and that made a second class son forever.
"Well, now who's second class? I got wealth. And I had to fight Laban for every bit of it. Changed my wages 10 times, you know. Tried to cheat me out of my share of the flocks. Tried to cheat me out of my wife! He knew I loved Rachel. He knew I worked all those years, seven whole years, just for her and comes the wedding day, he drapes Leah with veils and keeps filling my cup with good wine--I shoulda smelled a rat, right there. What's a cheapskate like that doing giving me his best wine? Getting me drunk, that's what! So he can fob off the older daughter, the old maid on me…That's not really fair. Leah's a good woman. She's been a good wife. Beautiful eyes. Gave me half my sons. And my daughter. She's a good mother. If it hadn't been for Rachel…
"But me and Rachel, we had a connection! I mean, I waited seven years! I worked seven years! And he tricked me! My own kin! He cheated me out of something that was mine…I know what you're gonna say!--it was completely different from what I did to Esau…Probably felt the same to him, though…Maybe I was rough on him. My brother. My big brother. My twin…
"O God, I don't want to fight him. I don't want to be killed by him. I don't want kill him. I just…I just want peace between us again. I don't want to fight him. Anything but that. If there's some other way…if he sees all the gifts I sent…he'll know I don't need the birthright…I'm doing fine. And I did it all myself, without any help…Well, no. I did get help. From you. And I need your help now. I need you to change his heart. Help him to see me as I am now. I'm not Jacob, the 'heel-grabber,' the 'usurper,' the sneak and cheat. Not anymore. I'm not what I was. I changed. Right?"
Just then Jacob heard a splash behind him. The river. The Jabbok. His wives! His kids! Jacob ran as silently as he could towards the sound.
There he was! A man standing in the water. But he wasn't looking across the ford to where Jacob's family was camped. He was looking at Jacob as if expecting him.
"Who are you?'
"I'm not your enemy."
"Prove it. Give me a blessing."
"I decide who I bless."
"Then you'd better decide to bless me. I'm not letting you pass otherwise."
"We'll see about that." And with that the man stepped out of the water and ran. Jacob gave chase and tackled him. But the man was wet and slippery. Jacob wrestled for a better grip. The man rolled out of Jacob's grasp and he had to scramble to grab him again. He got a hold of the man's waist and tried to get up onto his back, to use his weight to push his face into the dirt. But incredibly, the man began to rise, even with Jacob on top of him. Jacob was slipping down his torso. He scissored his legs around the man's and his opponent almost fell. Then the man twisted and struck Jacob's thigh. Jacob felt a pop and let go of the man, falling to the ground in pain. His hip was dislocated.
The man straightened up and started to leave when he fell face first to the ground. He looked back at his feet. Jacob had him by the ankles. The man said, "Let me go for day is breaking."
Through teeth gritted in pain, Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me."
The man looked at him with something like approval. He said, "What is your name?"
"No longer will you be named Jacob but Israel, for you have struggled with God and with mortals and have endured."
This was not at all what Jacob expected. Was that a blessing? And what kind of name was Israel? "He Who Fights with God?" Or "God Fights?" For whom? And how did this man know about his struggles? He hadn't confided with anyone but…
"Please…tell me your name." Though the sun's rays had found them, Jacob shivered a little.
"Why do you ask my name?" said the man with a hint of a smile. And then he stood and pulled Jacob to his knees, laid hands on him and blessed him.
The man turned to the east and walked. Jacob was afraid to look up at first but now that it was light, he just had to see who--or what--he had striven with. He looked up but had to squint as the man was walking directly into the sunrise. He saw, or thought he saw, the man turn and look at him for a second before striding into the dazzling ball of light blossoming on the horizon. Jacob blinked to protect his eyes and when he could look again, the sun alone filled his view.
Leah's eyes were no only beautiful but sharp. Though the newly risen sun blazed on the surface of the river, she thought she saw a figure there. She could not make out much more than an outline against the reflected radiance but there was something both familiar and unfamiliar about him, his bearing and his gait. Oh God, had Jacob's fears been right? Was this his brother come to kill them?
Then the man walked out of the brilliance of the water and she saw it was Jacob, but with a limp and a stick to help him walk. The children saw him and ran to their father greeting and questioning and expressing sympathy to him all at once. Rachel came out of the tent and tried to shush them but Jacob grabbed her and shut her up with a passionate kiss. Leah was not surprised but when he summoned her over and gave her a kiss just as long and fervent, she was shocked. Kisses from him like that were few and fleeting. Only in the last moments of it did she stop analyzing it and just let it happen.
When he let her go, she saw the children's faces expressing degrees of amazement and delight. Blushing and trying to recover her dignity as first wife, she managed to stammer out an only mildly reproving "Jacob!"
"No. Not Jacob. I never liked that name. I'm Israel now. I'm a new man." He smiled hugely. "Let's go. I want to see if my brother is, too."