Beyond the Lectionary Text: Genesis 33
by Bill Sytsma
When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent,” he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
Early in his monastic life, Martin Luther was consumed with the worry that his righteousness was not great enough. He tried fasting, praying, and self-flagellation in order to convince himself that he was truly remorseful for his sin, and that his repentance was sincere. He knew that his sinful nature caused him to walk out-of-step with God, and he wanted the assurance that he was making the necessary adjustments to
Repentance can be viewed as a one-time event. In his book, Dealer: A Soccer Pro’s Deliverance from the Cocaine Underworld, Jon Kregel tells the story of the evening he turned to the gospel of John while sitting in a prison cell. His life had followed a path that had included professional soccer, nightclubs, and cocaine. In his cell that evening, John prayed for the first time in years, “Jesus, please forgive me for running from you for so long. I am so sorry for all the sins I’ve committed against you. Please forgive me. And please come in and fill that lonely place inside of me.”
John’s prayer marked a moment of repentance. In that instant, his life was changed. He trusted in God to forgive him, and he took on a new identity. He was no longer named “Convicted Drug Dealer,” but instead, “Child of God.”
But that drastic life changing moment when Jon’s identity shifted was not the only adjustment God made in Jon’s life. In the following years, God guided, corrected, and shaped Jon so that he was transformed. The prayer of repentance began a life of repenting. His identity changed in that moment, but he was called to live into that new identity.
For Jon, repentance was more than a one-time incident. It became a way of life.
It is difficult to isolate narrative episodes in the book of Genesis from the surrounding stories. For the original readers of Genesis, this book explained their origins, their national identity, and their current circumstances. It is difficult to understand and preach on Genesis 33 without grasping how this story relates to the rest of the events that occurred in the lives of Abraham and his descendants.
According to Genesis 25, Jacob came out of the womb fighting and cheating, and his name could be translated “cheater” or “deceiver.” He lived up to his name. Jacob’s life had been filled with deception and manipulation. He had connived to trade for his brother’s birthright (Genesis 25) and lied to his father to receive a blessing (Genesis 27), As a result of his actions, Jacob ended up fleeing from his home to start a new life in the house of his uncle, Laban.
Life with Laban meant a new location and new relationships, but deception and manipulation continued to mark his life. Laban deceived Jacob into marrying his older daughter, Leah (Genesis 29), while Jacob manipulated Laban’s flocks in order to increase his personal wealth (Genesis 30). Jacob departs from Laban’s house very similarly to the way he left his father’s house. Deception and manipulation caused him to flee.
If we have one bad experience in life, we can blame it on our circumstances. We do poorly in school and we blame it on the teachers. We get fired from our jobs and we dismiss the experience as the result of an inept employer. However, when we find ourselves facing the same unpleasant results repeatedly, we have to face our own contributions to the situation. Jacob was learning what a life of deception reaps.
As Jacob flees from his father-in-law, he faces the prospect of seeing his brother, Esau, again for the first time in years. Esau had expressed the intention to one-day kill Jacob for his deceptions (Genesis 27:41), and Jacob had not seen him since that time.
The worry of facing his brother again overwhelmed Jacob, and just prior to their tenuous reunion, Jacob wrestled with God (Genesis 32). During that encounter, Jacob is told that he no longer be called Jacob. He is going to receive a new name, so that the way of the deceiver and cheater would no longer characterize his life.
Although Jacob is beginning a new chapter of his life with a new name and by returning to his homeland, we still see the manipulative and deceptive traits at work in him. On the one hand, he is showing remorse and turning back to God. However, his repentance is somewhat incomplete.
Repentance is not a one-time event for God’s people. We are understandably drawn to dramatic testimonies of life changing moments when eyes are opened to the reality of God’s grace and hearts are softened to submit to Him as Lord and Savior. However, event these dramatic life-changing moments do not capture the entire story. Repentance is an ongoing process of turning to God and then readjusting our life’s course so that we conform to His will. Jacob had just wrestled with God, and was told he would receive a new name. The story of meeting his brother, Esau, is one of the first new episodes after that life-changing wrestling match. Jacob has turned back toward his home. He is being reunited with his brother. He is sending gifts, rather than trying to manipulate his way into more wealth. Yet his new name has not yet taken full effect. We still see signs of the old deceiver and manipulator showing his old nature in this story.
Jacob’s evening of wrestling with God was a life-changing event, but God had not made the final adjustments. In fact, the transformation in Jacob’s life could be viewed as somewhat shallow in the events of Genesis 33. He acts in a way that is deferential toward his brother, Esau, but we still see signs of manipulation. He sends gifts and his family before facing Esau himself. Even though Esau gave Jacob a warm greeting, Jacob was suspicious. He seemed to fear for his life, and he made excuses to get away from Esau. Before the chapter ends, we see that even though God has given Jacob a new name, he is still prone to practicing deception. As Esau departs, Jacob assures that he and his family will meet them in Seir. In truth, Jacob travels to Shechem, and establishes himself in a place that would have felt like a safe distance from Esau.
Jacob’s deception is not portrayed as a successful event in his life. Although he escapes Esau, his actions lead to further isolation. In chapter 34, his sons imitate his deceptive ways, and Jacob and his family become unwelcome and isolated in their new land.
Jacob’s deceptions regularly led to isolation. Even though God gave him a new name, he was called to live into that identity, and initially, Jacob seems to fall short of living up to his new name. Yet in spite of his incomplete repentance, God’s faithfulness allows Jacob and his family to be established in the land, and eventually become a blessing to the world.
When preaching about Jacob’s deceptions, we want to avoid condoning or excusing his actions. This episode is part of the story of God’s work to redeem Abraham’s descendants so that they become a blessing to the world. Before the book of Genesis, Jacob’s son, Joseph, plays a key role in blessing the nations by carrying out a plan to provide food in times of famine. Ultimately, that Abraham’s descendants bless the nations in the Gospel account of Christ’s work to redeem all nations.
Some of the following ideas might be helpful in preparing our sermons on Genesis 33:
1. “Deception leads to isolation.”
We should not reduce the story of Genesis 33 to a series of moral lessons, but there is value in pointing out that Jacob’s life of deception regularly led to him running away from the people he had deceived. Jacob is not a virtuous hero in this story, but rather, a sinful person who is being renewed by God.
2. “God renews His people.”
God renames Jacob in Genesis 32, but Jacob was not successful in ridding himself of deceptive and manipulative practices. Even so, God does not give up. Even though deception leads to more trouble in Genesis 34, God keeps his promises, and reminds Jacob of his new name in Genesis 35. God is the true hero in this story.
3. “Our hope lies in God’s redemptive work, more than in our ability to change.”
The call to repentance can be challenging and comforting. It is challenging, because it calls for us to recognize our own sinful tendencies, and then strive to live in a new way. Like Jacob, God’s people are easily capable of falling into old patterns, even after we have been identified as God’s children. When God forgives us, He desires that our new identities as His children shape the way we live. This is a challenge.
But the call to repentance is also comforting. We recognize that our hope does not rest in our own virtue, nor our ability to quickly repent. Instead, we hope in God’s faithfulness. Even though Jacob does not immediately shed the practice of deception, God does not abandon him. Our hope for renewal and redemption rests in God.
Driving Our Cars: When we drive, we understand that the journey will require numerous adjustments. We do not merely determine our destination, set our cars in the right direction, and expect to arrive safely. We regularly make turns. Sometimes those turns are part of the directions. Sometimes those turns are slight adjustments to avoid potholes or keep our vehicle from drifting into oncoming traffic. Sometimes those turns are part of detours around accidents, road construction, or other obstacles.
Repentance is a kind of turning. When we submit our lives to Christ, we make the major turn of submitting to Christ’s lordship, and accepting His grace to redeem us. But that is not the last turn. Christ’s followers will make adjustments as they confess their sins, practice spiritual disciplines, or encounter trials and struggles. We know our destination, and we set our focus on Christ, but the practice of repenting will continue as we adjust to the conditions we face.
Rev. Bill Sytsma is the pastor of New Life Christian Reformed Church, Highland, Indiana.