Christ in Genesis: wrestling with God, and seeing the face of God

Jacob lived with his cousin Laban and married Laban’s daughters. He gained a large family and became a wealthy man with large flocks and herds of livestock. The time finally came for Jacob to return home. He tried to slip away from Laban with his family and his livestock, but Laban pursued Jacob. Jesus personally warned Laban neither to bless nor curse Jacob. So the two men created a monument to mark a border between their two families, and they promised to leave each other alone.

Jacob was afraid that Esau would still be angry with Jacob. As Jacob once tried to bargain with God, now he tried to buy his brother’s love and forgiveness. He sent hundreds of animals ahead of him, telling the servants driving those animals that they were a present for Esau. Jacob even thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me” (Genesis 32:20). Jacob then sent his family and his remaining possessions across the stream and prepared to spend the night alone.

Jacob was not alone that night. Instead, he wrestled with a man until daybreak. Although the man showed that he had the power to dislocate Jacob’s bones with just a touch, the man treated Jacob as an equal and did not defeat him. This man then changed Jacob’s name to Israel, saying, “You have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28). When Jacob asked, his opponent refused to tell Jacob his name. Jacob knew the identity of his opponent, though, because he named the place Peniel, saying, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered” (Genesis 32:30).

Jacob knew that he had just had a close encounter with God. Since “no one has ever seen God; the only God who is at the Father’s side he has made him known” (John 1:18), we can be confident that the wrestling partner of Jacob was Jesus. Why wouldn’t Jesus tell Jacob his name? To know someone’s name is to have power over that person. Even after wrestling Jesus to a draw, Jacob could not have power over Jesus. Despite all his attempts to bargain with God (and with his brother Esau), Jacob was still powerless—he had to trust God to keep God’s promises. So, in the last book of the Bible, it says that Jesus “has a name written that no one knows but himself” (Revelation 19:12). What is the use of a name that no one else knows? It shows that no one else has power over Jesus.

While some people describe the body of Jacob’s wrestling partner as the “pre-incarnate Christ,” a special miracle body for that one wrestling match, I maintain that Jacob wrestled with Jesus, who was in his own true body. This body of Jesus had been conceived within the virgin Mary, born in Bethlehem, and raised in Nazareth. In that body he preached and taught, he gathered disciples, and he worked miracles. In that body he was arrested, beaten, mocked, scourged, and crucified. That body was buried in Jerusalem, raised on the third day, and ascended into heaven. At his ascension, Jesus filled all things (Ephesians 4:10), time as well as space. Because Jesus is God, he has the ability to leave time and space and enter them elsewhere, without needing a DeLorean or a Tardis. Jacob wrestled with the body of his Savior, a body which bore the scars of nails on his hands and on his feet.

After wrestling with Jesus, Jacob met his brother Esau. Esau forgave Jacob his sins and refused to accept his gifts. He ran to meet Jacob and embraced him, much like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. When Esau tried to return Jacob’s animals, Jacob said, “No, please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand. For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me” (Genesis 33:10).

Jacob had seen Jesus face to face and had wrestled with him. He even said, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” Now Jacob says to Esau, “I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God.” For Jacob, Esau was a picture of Jesus. Can he be any less for us?

Esau did not need gifts from Jacob, but out of kindness he accepted his brother’s gifts. God needs nothing from us, but out of grace he accepts our gifts. Not only the money we give to the Church, but also the good deeds we do for our neighbors, are gifts to Jesus. Jesus takes personally the things we do for people in need (Matthew 2534-40). Yet his love and his forgiveness do not depend upon what we do, for they have already been granted to us.

Christ in Genesis: birthright and blessing

Men like Noah and Abraham are easily seen as pictures of Christ. Though neither man was sinless, they both obeyed the commands of God and brought blessing to the world through their obedience. The account of Esau and Jacob is harder to view in a Christ-centered way. Most often their relationship is treated as a morality play. Jacob cheats his brother and lies to his father; as a result he has to leave home and live with his cousin, Laban, who in turn cheats Jacob in a matter close to Jacob’s heart.

What, then, can we say of Esau? Before the twins were born, God declared that “the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). Much later God said, “I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated” (Malachi 1:2-3). Esau despised his birthright—the blessing he deserved for being Isaac’s firstborn son. He exchanged his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew (Genesis 25:29-34). Jacob swindled his brother by offering the exchange, but Esau’s low regard for his birthright seems to disqualify Esau as a picture of Christ.

Yet at least Esau got a bowl of soup in exchange for his birthright. Jesus Christ is the only-begotten Son of God. He lived a sinless life worthy of great rewards. Yet he exchanged all that belonged to him and all that he deserved. He surrender it all to take on himself the burden of our sins. We are adopted into the family of God by this exchange, and all our guilt is removed from our lives. Instead of a bowl of soup, Jesus receives a cross of suffering. He is abandoned by his Father—which we deserve for our sins—and yet he prays for sinners, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Even though Esau had surrendered his birthright to Jacob, and in spite of the fact that God had foretold Jacob’s success over Esau, Isaac still stubbornly wanted to bless his firstborn son. He sent Esau on a hunting expedition, and Esau went out into the wilderness in obedience to his father’s command. At this time, Isaac’s bride Rebekah enters the picture. She plans the deception of Isaac and performs all the work. She cooks the kids, she makes the goatskin gloves for Jacob to wear, and she dresses him in Esau’s clothing. Isaac is blind to his son’s deception, as God the Father is blind in love, accepting us in the name of his Son. As the Church by its teaching and by its blessings clothes us in the righteousness of Christ to bring us to God the Father, so Jacob is prepared by his mother to receive his father’s blessing, the blessing Isaac wanted to give to the son who was doing what Isaac told him to do.

Jacob nearly ruins the scheme by fumbling his one task—when he speaks to his father, he forgets to imitate his brother’s voice. Yet, being blind, Isaac trusts his senses of touch and taste and smell over his sense of hearing. He grants to Jacob the blessing he wanted to give to Esau. He treats Jacob as the son who is doing his father’s will. The same thing happens to Christians today, as God the Father says of Christians what he said to Jesus on the day Jesus was baptized: “You are my Son. You are the one I love. With you I am well-pleased.”