Israel: God Fights.

Now the famine was severe in the land. And when they had eaten the grain that they had brought from Egypt, their father said to them, “Go again, buy us a little food.” But Judah said to him, “The man solemnly warned us, saying, ‘You shall not see my face unless your brother is with you.’ If you will send our brother with us, we will go down and buy you food. But if you will not send him, we will not go down, for the man said to us, ‘You shall not see my face, unless your brother is with you.’” Israel said, “Why did you treat me so badly as to tell the man that you had another brother?” They replied, “The man questioned us carefully about ourselves and our kindred, saying, ‘Is your father still alive? Do you have another brother?’ What we told him was in answer to these questions. Could we in any way know that he would say, ‘Bring your brother down’?” And Judah said to Israel his father, “Send the boy with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live and not die, both we and you and also our little ones. I will be a pledge of his safety. From my hand you shall require him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever. If we had not delayed, we would now have returned twice.” – Genesis 43:1-10 ESV

Two names become more prominent in this section of the story. First of all, Jacob is mentioned by name in verse three, but then just three verses later he is referred to as “Israel.” This is the name God gave Jacob after their wresting match at the Jabbok River.

“Your name will no longer be Jacob. From now on you will be called Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have won.” – Genesis 32:28 NLT

The name, Israel, means “God fights” and was an apt name for the man who wrestled with God until he received a blessing from God. Jacob walked away or, better yet, limped away, from that encounter with God with a damaged hip – a painful reminder of his confrontation with the Almighty.

Jacob named the place Peniel (which means “face of God”), for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been spared.” – Genesis 32:30 NLT

Jacob would become the father of the Israelites. And this story is all about God’s sovereign plan for the nation of Israel, not just the immediate family of Jacob. There is far more going on in this narrative than the story of one son of a single man and their restoration as a family. It is about the word of God to Abraham and His promise to give him more descendants than there are grains of sand on the seashore or stars in the heavens. But not only that, God would raise up a descendant who would be a blessing to all the nations. Paul refers to this very promise in his letter to the Galatian believers, providing them with a Spirit-inspired interpretation of God’s meaning.

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. – Galatians 3:16 ESV

That is where the second name in this portion of the narrative comes in. Up until this point in the story, the two oldest brothers, Reuben and Simeon, have played the most significant roles. It was Reuben who had tried to prevent his brothers from killing Joseph and suggested they throw him in a pit and let him die. But in reality, he was planning to come back later and rescue Joseph. It would be Simeon, the second-oldest who would be chosen by Joseph to remain as his hostage while the brothers returned home to fetch Benjamin. But now, the name of Judah comes to the forefront. This is significant because it will be through the tribe of Judah that the Messiah will come. In the genealogy of Jesus, recorded in Matthew 1, the name of Judah take a prominent place because of the part he played in God’s plan for Jesus’ birth and incarnation.

Abraham was the father of Isaac.
Isaac was the father of Jacob.
Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers. – Matthew 1:2 NLT

It would be Judah who finally convinced their father to allow them to take Benjamin back with them to Egypt.

Judah said to his father, “Send the boy with me, and we will be on our way. Otherwise we will all die of starvation — and not only we, but you and our little ones. I personally guarantee his safety. You may hold me responsible if I don’t bring him back to you. Then let me bear the blame forever.” – Genesis 43:8-9 NLT

Why is all this so important? It is a turning point in the story. Whether he realizes it or not, Jacob (Israel) is wrestling with God again. Just as he had at the Jabbok River, Jacob is fearing the future. He is doubting God’s sovereignty and questioning His word. The famine and the threat of losing yet another son have clouded his thinking and caused him to fear. So in the middle of this portion of the narrative, Moses, the author, suddenly refers to Jacob as Israel – God fights. God was not going to let Jacob get away with remaining in Canaan. The unrelenting famine was taking its toll. The return to Egypt was inevitable and unavoidable. God had promised years ago to be with Jacob wherever he went.

“Your descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth! They will spread out in all directions—to the west and the east, to the north and the south. And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants. What’s more, I am with you, and I will protect you wherever you go. One day I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have finished giving you everything I have promised you.” – Genesis 28:14-15 NLT

God had promised to give Jacob descendants, not take them away. From Jacob’s limited perspective, all he could see was the loss of Joseph and Simeon and the threat of losing Benjamin. Leaving Canaan and moving to Egypt made no sense in his mind. It would be heading in the wrong direction – away from the very land God had promised to give him. But all of this was part of God’s plan. The loss of Joseph, the famine, the arrest of Simeon, the threat of losing Benjamin, the rising prominence of Judah, the availability of grain in Egypt – all of this was divinely ordained. While Jacob was willing to settle for buying a little food from Egypt to extend their lives a bit longer, God was wanting to bless them beyond their wildest dreams. While Jacob was willing to eke out an existence in the land of Canaan, God was bringing about His divine plan for the salvation of mankind. As men, we are notoriously short-sighted and temporally-focused. God is eternal in nature and always focused on the final fulfillment of His promises. Paul would have us constantly remember to keep our eyes on the future, trusting God for what He has promised.

For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. – 2 Corinthians 4:17-18 ESV