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B'resheet/Genesis 33:1 And Ya'akov raised his eyes and looked. And behold, Esau is coming and with him four hundred men
Biblical Hebrew uses the phrase "to lift up one's eyes" in much the same way as we do today: we look up from what we have been doing in order to look around, to scan the horizon, to see what is going on. Ya'akov has just emerged from his all-night ordeal with the mysterious 'man' with whom he had spent the whole night wrestling; it is dawn and, now walking with a limp as a permanent reminder of the wrestling match and his new name 'Israel' - meaning that he had "striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed" (B'resheet 32:29, NJPS) - Ya'akov lifts his eyes to check that nothing has gone on during the night. To his horror, he sees that the report originally brought to him the day before - "Your brother Esau ... is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him." (32:7, NJPS) - and which he had attempted to stave off by lavish gifts of generous appeasement - has now hardened into dramatic reality.
In the same way as speech in the Bible is represented by two verbs - the verb , which actually means "to say", and an action verb such as 'speak', 'reply', 'call' or 'announce' - our text uses two verbs for Ya'akov's status check: the action verb "lift up" and , "to see". He lifts his eyes and then OMG, if you will pardon the phrase, he sees. If this were a film, the first shot might be from the front as Ya'akov walks towards the camera, then switch to a sideways view as he lifts up his head to look into the distance: his eyebrows rise and the eyes jerk fully open, then back to a full-face close-up as he rubs both eyes with his clenched fists before finally looking over Ya'akov's shoulders to see what he sees. The text contains the almost theatrical three-step movement: he lifts his eyes, he looks or sees, and then behold!
Can you imagine a master story-teller keeping his audience in suspense? In this text, the pointing shows us how it is done. The first phrase, "And Ya'akov lifted his eyes", is followed by a short pause; the second movement, "and he saw" has a longer pause after it, while the next three words - "and behold, Esau, coming" - all flow in a little rush towards the zakef katan that marks the first quarter-verse break. Take a deep breath and look around the group to make sure everyone is listening. The next word - "and with him" has the more unusual zakef gadol accent, used to highlight single words; we might hear this in the same way as the sing-songy voice of a pantomime actor saying, "And who do you think he had with him?" as he teases the hero who has been caught breaking the rules (in a good cause, of course). Another pause, then: FOUR HUNDRED MEN!
Scholars have often suggested that the biblical writers used numbers symbolically - that a number might have more significance than the precision of the number might by itself signify. When David fled into the wilderness and gathered his supporters together to him there, the biblical narrative tells us that, "there were about four hundred men with him" (1 Samuel 22:2, NJPS) in the Cave of Adullam. After Samuel's death, David decided to attack Nabal the Calebite after he refused to share hospitality with David's men and the text says that, "about four hundred men went up after David" (25:13, NJPS). Following a raid by the Amalekites in which David's two wives were taken, he set off to recover them and the wives and children of his men and "continued the pursuit with four hundred men" (30:10, NJPS). From these verses, Drazin and Wagner conclude that "The number 400 ... appears to be the standard size of a military unit. Thus Esau seems to be marching against his brother with a full hostile force." Ya'akov surmises, as theSforno comments, that "the gift had not appeased him"; in the words of Nahum Sarna, "The 'four hundred men' are a reminder of possible aggressive intentions. What was earlier merely a report is now stark reality."
Commenting on the fact that seeing Esau caused Ya'akov to divide up his family and uses this as an example to teach the need for human action and involvement: "He saw Esau, not disarmed by the gifts, he had not disbanded his troops, so he divided, etc. As our sages take this whole story as being the programme for our behaviour towards our Esaus, so we learn from here, that though we are filled with confidence in G-d and His promises, we still have to do all we possibly can do ourselves." Each of us, saysHirsch, have our own giants to face and challenging situations to overcome. However much faith and confidence we may have in G-d, we cannot just sit on our hands leave everything to G-d unless He has explicitly told us to do so - as Moshe told the Israelites on the Egyptian shore of the Reed Sea, "Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the L-RD will work for you today" (Shemot 14:13, NJPS) - we have to do everything in our power as well. This isn't doing what we can first and only turning to G-d when we have failed; on the contrary, it is acting in parallel with G-d and trusting that He will work with and through us to bring His deliverance.
Although it is only a few verses, perhaps no more than an hour or so in time, since Ya'akov was given a new name - Isra'el - by the man of whom Ya'akov himself said, "I have seen God face to face" (B'resheet 32:20, ESV), it is noticeable that he is clearly called by his old name here rather than his new name. In fact, as Richard Elliott Friedman points out, "Ya'akov is still called Ya'akov many times after his name is changed to Israel." Commentators over the centuries have tried to discern a pattern between the way he behaves and the name by which he is called but have failed to find a completely consistent answer. Perhaps this is an example of how we as believers sometimes find it hard to declare with Rav Sha'ul, "I have been crucified with the Messiah. It is no longer I who live, but Messiah who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of G-d, who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Galatians 2:20, ESV). All too often, we are painfully aware that we act and speak in ways that belie that truth - that Yeshua would have never have said or done what we just did. Perhaps Ya'akov is having a hard time putting his new experience of G-d into practice and seeing how to prevail right now.
Nahum Sarna comments that "No sooner does the patriarch emerge from the night's ordeal than he sees Esau approaching with his troop." This may seem to be a completely obvious statement, telling us what we already knew, but it is pointing to a key principle of life in the kingdom of G-d. Ya'akov has just had a first-hand, close up, personal encounter with G-d. He comes down to earth with a bump and immediately looks an existential challenge in the face. A spiritual high point, what some writers call a "mountain-top experience", is often followed by a challenge as the enemy kicks back and tries to make us disavow that recent time of blessing or to trip over and fall flat on our face so that we lose confidence. We might look at Yeshua's own baptism as an example. He has been baptised by John in the Jordan, been filled and empowered by the Holy Spirit for ministry, heard the voice from heaven saying, "You are My beloved Son; with you I am well pleased" (Mark 1:11, ESV), but is then promptly led off into the wilderness "to be tempted by the devil" (Matthew 4:1, ESV). Similarly, after the Transfiguration, Yeshua is immediately confronted by a demon that the disciples - although they have been doing this for some time now in Yeshua's name and with the authority He gave them - cannot cast out. Without any argument, Yeshua "rebuked the unclean spirit and healed the boy, and gave him back to his father" (Luke 9:42, ESV).
How often do we need to lift up our eyes and see what is going on around us? Every day we meet with the L-rd as we study His word and spend time with Him. What comes next? We must learn to look around and see the broken and hurting people of this world and reach out to them; we must challenge and rebuke the forces of darkness as they try to wrest control of this world away from the kingdom of G-d. More, we must expect to be challenged by those dark forces who want to silence or disable us through shame, fear or distrust.
That leads us on to another important question: what do we do when we see something nasty? Before his encounter with G-d, Ya'akov tried appeasement. It didn't work for him and it won't work for us - we must never appease the enemy. As the old saying goes, "Give him an inch and he'll take a mile!" Firstly we have nothing that we can rightly give - it isn't ours to give - and secondly we are told to "Submit yourselves therefore to G-d. Resist the devil" (James 4:7, ESV); then comes the promise "and he will flee from you" (ibid.). We have been given powerful weapons of spiritual warfare to "to destroy strongholds ... arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of G-d" (2 Corinthians 10:4-5, ESV) so that "you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm" (Ephesians 6:13, ESV). We are not to wobble, quiver, tremble, run away or hide, but to stand firm trusting in our Captain and secure in His victory.
Once Ya'akov saw that Esau was coming, he faced up to the situation and did what was necessary. He split his family up into logical units and took the lead in facing Esau and trusting that G-d would do the rest, which He did. In his conversation with Esau, Ya'akov realised that "to see your face is like seeing the face of G-d" (B'resheet 33:10, NJPS); it was only at that moment that he saw the salvation that G-d had already prepared for him. We have an advantage over Ya'akov because we already know Yeshua, who is our salvation who G-d has provided for us in advance. This means that we already have everything we need to look challenges squarely in the eye and know that we see God in the face of Yeshua.
Further Study: Isaiah 43:10-12; Matthew 28:5-7
Application: Have you had to face any challenges recently and felt out of your depth? Know that God had provided your salvation before you even knew the situation existed. Lift up your eyes, recognise the enemy's sabre rattling and call on the One who has already defeated the enemy.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2019
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