Jacob, the grandson of the great Patriarch Abraham, though born after his twin brother Esau, schemed his way to get the birthright of the first born son. He did the same to obtain Isaac’s blessing, which was intended for Esau. Fearing Esau’s wrath, however, he was forced to escape.
In his travels, he dreamt of a ladder to heaven with angels going up and coming down. In the dream, God stood at the top, describing Himself as the God of Abraham and Isaac. God granted Jacob the land upon which Jacob was sleeping, promising him many children and descendants, and He gave Jacob His blessings and His protection.
Jacob, as the descendant of Abraham and Isaac, was the instrument through which God continued to fulfill His covenant to Abraham and Isaac. In accomplishing this, He gave Jacob another covenant, foreshadowing the ultimate fulfillment of the Old Covenant by means of bridging the gap between man and God (represented by the ladder).
Jacob did not earn this. He did not put his faith in God, despite the covenant. He continued to rely on his own designs, which again placed him in trouble: namely, two wives and more than 15 years of toil. Still, Jacob was a clever man and became successful. His schemes once again necessitated an escape, though, this time (following God’s command), back to his land and family.
But Jacob feared Esau’s revenge, leading him to pray for help. His prayer acknowledged that he, on his own merits, was unworthy of such help, but Jacob also reminded God of His covenant to him (Gen. 32:10-11). Jacob then organized a desperate scheme to appease Esau by splitting-up his caravan.
The night before Esau and 400 men were expected to arrive, Jacob found himself alone, behind his family and all his worldly possessions. “Then a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (Gen. 32:25). After this encounter, the “man” said, “You shall no longer be named Jacob, but Israel, because you have contended with divine …” (Gen. 32:29). Jacob named that place “Peniel,” or “the face of God” (USCCB footnote on Gen. 32:31, citing several other biblical passages).
Later that day, Jacob’s encounter with Esau was peaceful, loving and historic for the people of the land now known as Israel.
Jacob was given a vision of a ladder connecting man with God— a ladder that had traffic going both ways; God fulfilled his promise to Jacob, but only after Jacob, alone and without his earthly possessions, finally contended with God, who came to Jacob as a man. Jacob was truly the beneficiary of God’s grace, a foreshadowing of the New Covenant when God would ultimately become man on earth and die for our sins so that through grace (and not our own schemes) we can climb up to live eternally with Him.