From the time they were born, Jacob knew what it was like to be second best.
His twin brother Esau was an athletic marvel. His father bragged on him to all his friends, the same way a dad might boast today. His boy Esau was the strongest, fastest, bravest kid in school. He was shaving daily in second grade! I imagine he never lacked for female companionship. He was loved and admired by all his peers.
And Jacob was his brother.
Jacob was smooth skinned well into adulthood. While Esau was fighting women off, Jacob had to work years to get a woman to pay attention to him. Jacob was less strong, less fast, and less brave.
Jacob was less.
And he was sneaky. Perhaps it was because of his brother's large shadow, but Jacob was always proving himself to everyone. He wanted to have the things that Esau had. I suspect it was a bit of an obsession for Jacob. He would've given anything to have his father's approval, even for just a few moments.
The Bible says that their father, Isaac, had been chosen by God to be a blessing to the whole world. One day, he would pass that mantle on to one of his sons... the responsibility to be God's ambassador to the world. In Isaac's mind, that son has to be Esau. He was the oldest (by a few seconds), but he was everything you would want in a leader. Esau was bold, well-balanced, honest to a fault, and imposing.
And Jacob was less.
The confusing part of this story is that God chooses Jacob.
In spite of his flaws.
In spite of his weaknesses.
In spite of him being second-best.
In spite of his sneakiness.
In spite of the fact that Jacob didn't really even believe in God. It takes a powerful vision of a stairway to heaven ("Jacob's Ladder") that inspires him to seek God at all. But God chooses Jacob to be his standard bearer. And I have to confess, it's always been a little confusing to me as to why God chose as He did. I would have picked Esau. Sure he was overly hirsute, but he seems more reliable.
Over the course of one long afternoon, Jacob cheats his brother and lies to his father in a way that did powerful damage to their family. The kind of damage that makes you have to move away from home for 20 years. On the way home, while he is terrified about meeting his family again, he spends a whole night wrestling with an angel of God. At the end of the night, as the angel is about to leave, Jacob - in great pain - refuses to let go until he receives a blessing.
It's a metaphor of Jacob's whole life. He was always striving, always wanting to be someone different... something MORE than what he was. Now, on this quiet night when he is all alone, he discovers it is really God that he has wrestled since the day he was born.
It was God who made Jacob who he was. God is the potter who makes us into what He decides. Jacob, like Paul would a thousand years later, had used every waking hour to kick against God's plans for him. It's like he finally realizes it, and he lays down his pride and begs God for a blessing.
Jacob gets a new name. He will now be called Israel, which means "he struggles with God". It is said that Jacob has struggled with men and with God and prevailed.
This is likely the reason that God chose Jacob to begin with - his willingness to stubbornly hang on. Jacob would wrestle with God, while Esau never gave it too much thought. Jacob's faith is messy, but it's real.
I think God meets us where we are, He recognizes how our past scars can drive us to new poor decisions. He sees how our hunger for approval will sometimes push us to seek it from the wrong people. He knows all that. Yet, he can see deeper into our hearts than anyone else - He knows us better than we know ourselves, I think. He keeps calling.
When I learn to lay down my pride, and hang on to him, then in my weakness, I am strong.