Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Two Camps

Jacob was a natural manipulator. Born the second of a pair of twins, he came out of his mother’s womb hanging on to Esau’s heel. That makes sense: why expend your own effort when you can just ride along in big brother’s slipstream? That act, probably completely unconscious, defined him and became his name, and “grasping the heel” became a Hebrew metaphor for taking the easy way out.

Cheating, we call it. And Jacob did it over and over again.

An Unexpected Heel Turn

He bamboozled his brother out of both a birthright and a blessing. Stealing the blessing was admittedly his mother’s idea, but the birthright was all Jacob. Later, on the run from his furious twin, Jacob’s conniving continued. Blessed by God with a series of unconditional promises, Jacob still contrived to negotiate a few of his own specifics into the deal. It was all quite unnecessary, but manipulators need to have at least one hand on the wheel at all times.

Manipulation apparently ran in that side of the family. In his uncle Laban, Jacob finally met an arch-bamboozler, a man who thought four steps ahead to Jacob’s three. So Jacob was cheated in marriage and cheated on the job year after year. Behind his back, Laban’s daughters made deals to micromanage his sex life. Without God’s help, Jacob would have ended up in perpetual servitude as Laban’s uncompensated lackey. But far from doing unto others as he would have them do unto him, Jacob learned nothing from all this. Despite having the direction of God and the promise of his protection, when he saw it was time to return to his father in Canaan, he plotted with his wives to deceive his uncle/father-in-law by stealing away in secret.

Again, all quite unnecessary.


In fact, the family escaped Laban not because they had been especially clever, but because God intervened on their behalf. So then, after Laban first confronted them and then left them in peace, Jacob, his servants, his flocks, herds, camels and family carried on toward Canaan, and were met by the angels of God.

Now, you might think an overt display of God’s power and goodwill toward him would have encouraged Jacob and enabled him to sleep peacefully in those days, but he was too caught up in trying to orchestrate events to sit back and enjoy the blessings he had been given. It’s not even clear he fully understood the angels’ purpose there. Irony of ironies, he named the place where he met the angels Mahanaim, which means “two camps”. One camp was obviously his own, the second was God’s — or at least so thought Jacob. In fact, the text explicitly tells us not that Jacob met the angels by coming across their “camp”, but that the angels were there to meet him. Angels don’t generally do a great deal of camping. While they can eat, it’s doubtful they need to, and they certainly don’t need sleep.

So on one level, “two camps” reminds us of God’s undeserved love and protection. On a second level, “two camps” reminds us of our own natural obsession with controlling our circumstances. The very next thing Jacob does is to divide his company into ... yes, two camps. Why? He thought “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, then the camp that is left will escape.”

All quite unnecessary.

Decently and In Order

I suppose technically it’s sin too, isn’t it. It’s certainly a sad lack of faith. God had the situation completely under control. He didn’t need Jacob’s help to accomplish what he had promised. It wasn’t even a particularly good plan. Esau had 400 men with him. Nobody was escaping anywhere if Esau was determined to hunt them down.

Now, is it possible God’s deliverance may come through the natural intelligence he has given us, or through an idea that comes to us about how we might make a bad situation safer or more desirable? Sure, it’s possible. But Jacob had the order backward: he plotted first and prayed second. If I pray first, there’s a chance God may choose to answer that prayer with an idea about what to do. But if prayer is only an afterthought when I have already chosen a course of action and embarked on it, why am I praying at all? I may still be seeking God’s blessing, but I’m certainly not seeking his direction. It’s my plan, not his.

And God always has better plans than we do.

Shall I Go Up?

Contrast Jacob with David. How many times did David look to the Lord first? It’s quite a list. The phrase “David inquired of the Lord” crops up all through 1 and 2 Samuel: “Shall I go and attack these Philistines?” “Will the men of Keilah surrender me into Saul’s hand?” “Shall I pursue after this band?” “Shall I go up into any of the cities of Judah?” “To which shall I go up?” “Shall I go up against the Philistines? Will you give them into my hand?” David’s psalms reflect the same spirit of dependence: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.”

What was Jacob’s problem? Fear. What was the answer? Seek the Lord first, plan later.

Double-mindedness breeds instability in everything. There was no need for two camps. It made no difference whatever to the outcome of Jacob’s meeting with Esau.

God doesn’t need his people to contrive; he needs them to inquire. What comes out of that process is guaranteed to be far better than anything we would ever come up with on our own.

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