Holy Chutzpah – Jacob

Holy Chutzpah – Jacob

Holy Chutzpah – Jacob.

“This left Jacob all alone in the camp, and a Man came and wrestled with him until the dawn began to break. When the Man saw that He would not win the match, He touched Jacob’s hip and wrenched it out of its socket. Then the Man said, ‘Let me go, for the dawn is breaking!’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go until you pronounce a blessing over me.” (Genesis 32:24-26). 

Chutzpah (hoots-pah) is a Yiddish word that long ago entered English usage. It is from the Hebrew word, “hutspah,” which means insolent or audacious. Chutzpah is a neutral word that can be either positive or negative. Chutzpah can be righteous or unrighteous, holy or unholy. It is an idea difficult to define, so there are a lot of synonyms for it, especially in the biblical sense: spiritual audacity; brazen gall; tenacious stubbornness; headstrong persistence; outrageous guts; shameless nerve; feisty assertiveness; brazen impudence; unyielding boldness; courageous spine; expectant defiance. The Holy Scriptures, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, are overflowing with examples of holy chutzpah. One wonders not only if it’s a job requirement for saints and prophets, but also a faith requirement for all believers. In fact, God seems to love chutzpah in us when it is based on our ultimate trust in Him and His character, our unselfish motives, our yearning for justice and mercy. Chutzpah in front of others becomes holy when it is done in obedience to the Lord and is an outworking of our faith in Him. As Rabbi Schulweiss once said, “Spiritual audacity toward God finds a place of honor in Jewish religious thought.” The rabbis of old have always insisted that chutzpah is a valid expression of faith. Just a quick glimpse at the Gospels reveals that Jesus and His followers fully embraced the ancient Jewish ethic of holy chutzpah. When Jesus saw chutzpah in action, He usually said things like, “Great is your faith!” Maybe Christian scholar Dr. Brad Young said it best. “True faith requires bold perseverance. Sometimes it is expressed by brazen impudence. Faith can be defined as chutzpah. Persevere with unyielding tenacity.” (Brad Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian).

The Hebrew patriarch with the most chutzpah, for both good and ill, was Jacob. He displayed audacity right from birth, and then demonstrated it clearly when he cheated his brother Esau out of both his birthright and his father’s blessing. Somehow God continued to weave all of Jacob’s shenanigans into His overall plan for Jacob’s life. Jacob was certainly a very complex man, and yet was a major part of God’s plan for His Chosen People. God never gave up on him, and even used Jacob’s clever chutzpah in a redemptive way. God continued to meet Jacob wherever he went, especially at night.

The Jewish sages based each of the their weekday prayers on the character and actions of the patriarchs. Thus, the recommended daily prayers of Jewish believers were inspired by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Abraham represents the morning prayer, since he often “rose early in the morning to the place where he had stood before God” (Gen. 19:2722:3). Isaac inspired the midday prayer, since he “went out to converse with God (or, to meditate) in the field toward evening” (Gen. 24:63). And Jacob represented the night prayer, since his powerful encounters with God were in the night, including his visions and dreams (Gen. 28 and 31) and his momentous wrestling with the mysterious “angel” (Gen. 28:11, 32:22).

Jacob’s unusual life inspired the night time prayer, the evening encounter with God that takes one’s own life into account at the end of the day. Jacob trusted in God and wouldn’t let go of Him, and his encounters with God left him transformed. “That is how Jacob found God – not by his own efforts, like Abraham; not through continuous dialogue like Isaac; but in the midst of fear and isolation. If Abraham is originality, and Isaac continuity, then Jacob represents tenacity.” In our night time prayers, we would do well to remember the spirit of Jacob’s encounters with the Lord during his midnight travels. God was at his side for fresh encouragement and vision, with inspiration and courage, and ultimately peace. (Covenant and Conversation: Genesis, the Book of Beginnings, Rabbi Jonathon Sacks).

Jacob reached the height of his chutzpah when he engaged in an all-night wrestling match with a mysterious stranger. This stranger, described simply as a “man” in Genesis, has been accepted as an Angel of Yahweh in rabbinic tradition. And the Angel of Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible has been seen by Christian scholars as none other than the Christ of the Godhead. The pre-incarnate Jesus made appearances at momentous times throughout the Old Testament and in the lives of the three Patriarchs in the Hebrew Bible. Christ made personal, life-saving interventions with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their lives were changed forever. When God shows up in the form of a man, or as the mysterious Angel of Yahweh, then that heavenly Being is Jesus Christ. God is a Spirit and can’t be seen, while Jesus in His eternal body can be seen. And no one can see God and survive the experience. In the OT, if one encounters a visible manifestation of God, then that encounter is with God’s Son as His incomparable representative.

Jesus With Jacob. In Genesis 32, we find Isaac’s son Jacob fearful about his meeting up with his long-lost brother, Esau. It’s been 20 years since Jacob, the con man, cheated Esau out of both his birthright and his father’s blessing. Jacob by now was wealthy, had 11 sons, and was frantic with fear. Knowing Esau was coming to meet him with 400 soldiers, Jacob decided to send lavish gifts ahead of their meeting, hoping to soften Esau’s heart toward him. He would do whatever it took to save the life of his family, and of course save his own skin in the process. While waiting until morning to meet his fate with Esau, Jacob wrestled with the Angel all night. “In his strength he struggled with God. Yes, he struggled with the Angel and prevailed.” (Hosea 12:3-4). Jacob was determined to receive a blessing from this man, this physical manifestation of God Himself. (32:24-31). This wrestling Angel could be none other than Jesus, God in the form of man. This mysterious wrestling match demonstrated Jacob’s strength of will and determination. He would not be denied a blessing from heaven, from this Messenger of Yahweh. The Angel changed Jacob’s name to Israel after the match, “because you have fought with God and with men and have prevailed.” The name of Israel has been translated in many different ways by Hebrew scholars: Someone who has successfully struggled with God; One who is a prince with God; God contends and prevails; May God show His strength; He who wrestles with God.

Jacob was tenacious in his wrestling match with this divine being. He stubbornly fought with the Lord all night without surrendering. Finally, when the Lord politely suggested they cease wrestling, Jacob refused. Jacob held on strongly to this mysterious Angel and wouldn’t let Him go. Jacob shamelessly told the Lord that Jacob was stuck to Him like glue until He blessed him. Talk about chutzpah! Jacob had the spiritual audacity, the gall, to force a blessing out of God! Jacob didn’t even give God a choice… Either bless me, or I never let you go, says Jacob. One could almost conclude that Jacob extorted a blessing out of the Almighty God! It takes a lot of nerve to be pushy with God, but sure enough Jacob got his blessing.

After receiving his hard-fought blessing from the Lord, Jacob named that place Peniel, which means “Face of God.” “For I have seen God face-to-face, yet my life has been spared.” (32:30). The next day, Jacob and Esau reconciled, and made peace with each other. And because the Angel threw Jacob’s hip out of joint, Jacob had to limp for the rest of his life. He had to lean on his staff and learn how to depend on God instead of his own wits. Jacob the Trickster became Israel, whose extended family founded the nation of God’s Chosen People. Jacob’s faith never wavered from that day onward. Because of his encounter with Christ, Jacob was a changed man, and he enjoyed a whole new and deeper relationship with God.

“It was by faith that Jacob, when he was old and dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons and bowed in worship as he leaned on his staff.”  (Hebrews 11:21).

It’s easy to picture this poignant scene as Jacob was close to death. He gathered all his sons around him, and wanted to offer his last words to them. Jacob’s life to this point had been one long spiritual roller-coaster. He had his moments of deception, and ambition, and running for his life from brother Esau. On the other hand, he had been privileged to experience spiritual moments that are unmatched in Scripture, from the ladder to heaven at Bethel, to the Angel of the Lord, Jesus Christ, wrestling with Jacob all night. Jacob was determined to receive a blessing from this divine Angel, and he finally did, from God Himself. His name was changed to Israel and was given a disabled hip to remind Jacob that dependence on God is now the order of the day, and not dependence on his own resourcefulness and cleverness. Jacob limped thereafter, he was never the same man physically or spiritually. As he walked, leaning upon his staff, he lived, leaning into his God. As someone who seemed to live spiritually bent over so much of the time, he now was finally spiritually upright. After the name change, he was upright even as he was physically bent over. He turned to God, and enjoyed a deep relationship with Yahweh until his dying breath.

So Jacob, still stubbornly resolute at the end of his life, was outspoken and brazen in the face of God. He was boldly determined to invite God into the future of his sons. Jacob was taken over by the Spirit of God as he offered prophetic blessings for each son. Jacob had words of knowledge for them all as he spoke his last words to them. “These are the twelve tribes of Israel (Jacob), and this is what their father said as he told his sons good-bye. Jacob blessed them everyone with the blessing appropriate to him.” (Gen. 49:28). As the Message put it, “Jacob blessed them with God’s blessings – not his own.” (Hebrews 11:21).

But Jacob’s farewell blessings were not the end. Revealing the importance Yahweh had become in his life, Jacob in his dying act worshipped the Lord. He leaned on the top  of his staff, bowed his head, and offered reverent prayers to God, his deep friend. We don’t know the words Jacob used, but they were certainly in the spirit of his opening words to his blessing of his son Joseph. “May the God before whom my grandfather Abraham and my father Isaac, walked – the God who has been my shepherd all my life, to this very day, the Angel who has redeemed me from all harm – may He bless these boys.” (Gen. 48:15-16). We do know that Jacob went from clever schemer to faithful believer, and in his humility before the Lord, his final words were spoken in reverence and gratitude to the God of his fathers. In the Aramaic, the word for worship means “to surrender,” and that’s what Jacob did in his dying words, he surrendered his life one more time to the Lord. Despite the profound ups and downs in his long life, Jacob had come to believe that the Lord had been his shepherd through everything. Isn’t it wonderful that Jacob’s final recorded act was worship, his offering of adoration and devotion, a final act of astonished wonder? Jacob died well, as bold as ever.