The life of Jacob speaks much into our lives in this season. The part of his story that is particularly relevant to our days is the encounter at Peniel. A man who always wants to be in control of his life – scheming, planning and strategising to be upwardly mobile even when that means pulling others down – suddenly finds himself vulnerable and alone, wrestling with a man who turns out to be God! (Genesis 32:22-32)
In his early years, Jacob displays all too well the characteristics of his name – supplanter, deceiver, the one who struggles with man. He is always running ahead of God’s plans for his life, trying to take control of it by various means. He deceives his brother and his father and runs away to Midian fearing retaliation from his brother. But the 20 years he spends in Midian with his father-in-law are a tough phase of his life, for he meets his match. Laban is an equally sharp deceiver and manipulator.
The Peniel moment happens on his way back to the land of his forefathers. Jacob, having had enough of his father-in-law, wants to return to his native place with his two wives and eleven children, but he is afraid. He remembers his brother Esau’s wrath and expects the worst. So, he plans his journey well to protect his belongings and his family. At the head of the caravan he positions multiple gifts followed by different groups, his family next, and then he himself follows them at the back. After he sends the others on across the ford, he is alone. There he meets the man.
The man enters a wrestling match with Jacob. They wrestle the whole night. Finally, the man dislocates Jacob’s hip. Though handicapped, Jacob does not leave him and says, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ (Genesis 32:26)
A self-made man who is trying to move up in life and is seemingly in control suddenly finds himself lame. From that day on, when he wakes up in the morning he will wake up with a limp. When he gets out of bed, he will be reminded of how on that day at Peniel he was crippled, broken and made vulnerable.
As individuals and as nations, we can recognise that we are in a Peniel moment of our own. Many of us have been reminded that we are not in control of our lives. The nations and their leadership have realised that they are not in control either. The systems on which we put our confidence – the economy, stability, health etc – have all been taken away. We are being reminded that we are a broken world. Let us not reject but embrace this season of disability.
After crippling Jacob, the man at Peniel asks him to state his name. Names in the Jewish culture denote character. The supplanter and the one who struggled with man – Jacob – is now being asked to state his name and thereby his character. When he does this, he is given a new name – Israel, the one who struggles with God. A change in name also means a change in who he is. From being a person who struggles to control his life he becomes one who hands his life over to God!
In this Peniel moment we as individuals and as nations not only need to embrace our brokenness, but also need to allow God to change our name and character. Let us change from being needy of control to handing it all over to God.
What could be the outcome of this?
If we follow Jacob’s life after the encounter at Peniel, two things stand out.
First, there is a renewal of his relationship with God. Until then, unlike his father and grandfather, he has not built an altar or worshipped Jehovah. While running from his brother he had bargained with God and promised that if brought back safely to Bethel, he would build him a house there. (Genesis 28:20-22) He forgot that promise. Post the crippling and name change, we see Jacob building an altar to God at Shechem. (Genesis 33:18-20) But after settling down, he again forgets his promise about Bethel. God comes to him and reminds him, so he returns to Bethel, builds an altar and worships God there. (Genesis 35:1-7)
Second, if we follow Jacob’s life after the Peniel moment, we see that he is not leading himself anymore. Instead, he is being led – peaceably – by God and his loved ones. This is what will happen to us if we do not waste this precious Peniel season. We should pray for our world to receive this experience too. Let us pray that the nations and their leaders will develop a sense of confidence, dependence and restfulness – not in their own ability to control the situation, but in God.
May this season be one of proactive engagement with God through which we are broken, made vulnerable and allow God to change our name and character. Such a season will lead us to a renewed relationship with God and the peace of being led by him.
Dr Santhosh Mathew is Regional Secretary for South Asia and Head of Training at ICMDA