—Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Marc Chagall
If you know the biblical story of Jacob, then you know that our hero is a real piece of work—a crafty con man, always working an angle, manipulating the system, scheming to get ahead. He was, in fact, born trying to get ahead. His twin, Esau, was delivered ahead of him, but not by much. There’d been a struggle in the womb, and when Jacob emerged, he was still snatching at Esau’s heel, as if trying to pull him back in and overtake him so that he could be born the elder. As one commentator noted wryly, Baby Jacob seems to have known from the start that in this world, you only matter if you come in first.
Esau makes it out of the womb first, but it’s the last time in his life that Jacob will come in second. Before the boys are fully grown, Jacob will have bribed a famished, foolish Esau with a bowl of stew, stealing his elder brother’s birthright. And if that weren’t brazen enough, he will also cruelly manipulate his blind, dying father into bestowing upon him, the second son, the irrevocable blessing reserved for the first.
These may not seem like life-and-death matters to us, but our spiritual forebears tended to kill each other over such things. Sure enough, when he discovers Jacob’s deceptions, a distraught Esau vows to do away with his chronically deceitful brother. In a wonderful new translation of The Five Books of Moses (Everett Fox), we learn that in Hebrew, Jacob’s name means “Heel-Grabber,” or “Heel-Sneak,” or, even more to the point, “the Cheater.” His name sums him up nicely.
To be fair, however, it isn’t ‘all swindling all the time’ with Jacob. Occasionally he gets what he wants the old fashioned way—by working for it. The most celebrated instance occurs when he’s on the lam from Esau. He hides out with his mother’s people in the land of the Easterners, in Harran. On the day he arrives, he meets his cousin Rachel coming to fetch water at the family well. Jacob is smitten, and subsequently agrees to hire himself out for seven years to her father, his uncle Laban, in order to earn the right to marry her.
Now, Laban is no slouch in the dirty tricks department himself. When seven years are up, he deceives the Deceiver into marrying Rachel’s older sister, Leah. To Laban’s mind, this is only fair. A first-born child is supposed to have precedence over the others (a cultural rule that Jacob never quite got right). Here Laban metes out a bit of poetic justice to his ambitious nephew.
Laban knows that Rachel is the woman of Jacob’s dreams. Leah, not so much. So he tells Jacob that if he still wants to marry Rachel, he can, providing that he agrees to keep Leah as his wife too, and work another seven years. Jacob goes dutifully back to work. (All this took place, by the way, back in the good old days when marriage was the way God intended it to be, the union of one man and… any number of women.)
Jacob settles in at Harran. It isn’t long before he’s up to his old tricks. He figures out a way to breed robust livestock for himself and weak animals for his uncle. For Jacob, all’s fair in love and agri-business, and as time goes by, he gets really rich. He also gets really sick of living in the witness protection program. He’s had enough of his in-laws. They’ve had enough of him too, especially once they figure out his smarmy breeding practices and decide to take him down. In the nick of time Jacob has a dream in which God commands him to do what he’s obviously already decided he’d better do—get out of town.
What’s surprising, however, is his intended destination. He wants to return to Canaan, to go back home. But home means Esau, and Esau means accountability. Our hero, the Heel-Sneak, has always found accountability an unnecessary distraction. So why go home? Why now?
The text doesn’t say. Maybe the long absence from the tents of his people has dimmed Jacob’s memory and made his heart grow fonder. In the grip of nostalgia, home cam sometimes seem better to us than any other place, even if it’s a snake pit.
Or maybe Jacob is thinking more like Jacob, banking on smoke and mirrors. Maybe he thinks that when he marches in with his showy caravan of wives and concubines and children and goats and donkeys and camels, the family will be so awed by his power, so snowed by his wealth, that no one—not even Esau—will remember the things of the past.
Or is there something deeper going on? Perhaps there’s a voice, a question, in Jacob’s twisted little soul—a question that only going home can answer. When are you going to stop fooling around with your life? Is now the time to find out who you are without all the games and lies? Is it time at last to ‘fess up, give up, pay up, face up—grow up?
Whatever it was, Jacob packs up his family and everything that belongs to him (and a whole bunch of stuff that belongs to Laban too) and heads for Canaan. And this is where we enter his story in the reading today.
They are all encamped at a stream called the Jabbok. The scouts have just brought alarming news. It’s Esau. He’s got an army, and he’s headed Jacob’s way. Jacob immediately prays to God, and if you listen carefully to what he says to the Lord, for the first time in his convoluted story you get the feeling that Jacob is really, really worried. What if the wiles and wits that have charmed his life so far don’t work? What of he can’t weasel or cheat his way out of trouble this time? “I am afraid…” he says.
And so he prays and puts his life in God’s hands. Then he hedges his bets. Swinging into action, he prepares a lavish gift for his brother and sends it on ahead of him to try to appease him. Then he splits up his huge household and sends the two groups in different directions, hoping that if one is attacked and lost, he may at least still end up with the other. He himself stays behind.
All alone at the Jabbok, he waits.
For what? For the other shoe to drop? For the past to catch up with him? For the thing he most dreads to happen? For the disguises and defenses of his life to drop away? For something or someone to come out of the river mist and find him, finally stripped down, finally vulnerable?
A friend of mine waited a long night like that. But not at a river. In a southern city jail cell. He’d been sober for over a year, but he’d started drinking again. On a bender, his buddies took all his money and left him passed out in the street. He had a fine education, a fabulous job, a loving family, but, had they known about it, none of that would have mattered to the cops who picked him up from the gutter and tossed him in the drunk tank. He was just another bum.
The last time this happened, his bosses paid for him to go to a first-class rehab. When he came out, they gave him his job back. His relieved family supported gladly him with love and money. But this time? What would they do this time? He had to call and tell them where he was. They’d believed in him—this was going to kill them. He made the calls. Left messages. And waited…
You know people who are waiting too. Not exactly like that friend of mine, maybe, but something like it. Maybe it’s you. Waiting for chickens to come home to roost, waiting to pay the piper, waiting to find out what you’re made of, what your bottom line might be.
Maybe it’s a long wait while your spouse decides whether to stay in the marriage. Or a short one—only as long as an intake of breath from an old friend who doesn’t know you are gay, but is finding out as you finally come out. Maybe it’s a wait for something only you can give yourself, but you don’t know if you have it in you to give.
I know a woman who’s lived with a tight knot of dread in her stomach for as long as she can remember, a dread that someone will find out that she’s not all she’s cracked up to be, that she’s not fine, but rather that she is exhausted by the burden of trying to be fine and appearing to be fine. She dreads people discovering that she does not have the perfect marriage, the perfect kids, the perfect job, but is perfectly enraged that she expects herself to be perfect because she thinks she needs to be perfect in order to be happy and to make everybody around her happy.
She’s waiting. Waiting for official orders to come down from Permission Central, orders that will authorize her to throw her Superwoman costume away, and with it, the shame she feels for being lousy in the role. Permission to be who she is and who longs to be—normal, ordinary, and perfectly adequate. It hasn’t happened yet.
Jacob waits. He waits alone. Soon it is night. He doesn’t see the stranger approach him out of the dark—we never do. No matter how much we’ve longed for or dreaded the approach and the ensuing struggle; no matter whether we’ve been preparing for it or fleeing from it all our lives, it always feels like an ambush when it finally comes.
Jacob fights like hell. Just before daybreak it appears he’s winning—and he is, until the stranger deals him a cheap shot below the belt, and he crumples in pain. Yet Jacob holds on to that mystery with more strength and skill than he knew he had. The man who preferred to win by deception is in this struggle fair and square.
This is a revelation. It’s something completely new. And maybe that’s why he starts to suspect that the stranger is God, the source of every blessing. And so he asks for one. But the stranger refuses to bless him unless Jacob tells him his name.
Ah! His name! There’s the rub. In the biblical world, your name is the expression of your being. To give away your name was to open an access road to your soul. But, as another preacher has noted, all his life Jacob has been hanging back, hiding behind his ambiguous personality. But you can’t get a blessing by keeping your distance. You have to be up close, you have to say your name. Blessing comes only when you lay open your life and your character before God. The stranger who demands Jacob’s name is calling him to nothing less than confession. To confession, and to surrender.
And so Jacob, exhausted and hungry for blessing, gives in and hands over his given name: “I am Jacob,” he says. “I am ‘the Cheat.’”
Finally! Finally a simple truth comes out of his mouth! He confesses who he is, and how he lives.
But what will God do with his confession? Perhaps something worse than what Esau is coming to do? No, the stranger has a surprise in store—a new name: “You are Israel—‘the One Who Stood Up to God.’” The new name wipes out the shame of being ‘Jacob.’ It is a name to live into, a name to live up to. A blessing.
No longer just Jacob, always scheming to survive. Now he’s Israel, full of inner strength for leading a forthright life. No longer only Jacob, the furtive one. Now he’s Israel, who sees God frankly, face to face. In the honest display of his sordid life, summed up in the syllables of his old name, a different future becomes possible. Out of the terror of the struggle, he receives the most prized blessing of all—a blessing he didn’t have to steal—the deep, abiding blessing of being named anew and fully known. Fully known as Jacob, and still loved. Loved more than he deserves, he is Israel.
In the dark of that long night’s struggle, as Fred Buechner says, Jacob looked right into the only face more frightening than Esau’s, the face we all flee from, unable to bear its unrelenting tenderness towards us—the face of God. One never goes that deep without injury. Jacob comes away limping, and as he crosses the stream to meet his brother, he drags that trailing leg behind him like a prize.
It’s dangerous to call on God to come and bless us, because God always shows up determined to change us. For most of us, it’s a rearranging that occurs through deep, painful, even devastating experiences. Not every human battle is a revelation of divine purpose, to be sure; and not every kind of human suffering brings new health and growth. But sometimes such things are nothing less than a holy wrestling with God. And in those instances, contending with the mystery with everything you’ve got until the day finally breaks can bring the blessing of a new name, new purpose, new truth—new and lasting wholeness.
Meanwhile, back at the Jabbok, there’s another surprising twist. The much-feared avenger, Esau, turns out to be one of the nice guys of the world. Like the father in Jesus’ story of the prodigal son, even while Jacob is crossing the river to meet him and take his lumps, Esau is running longingly towards his long-lost, wayward sib. He throws his arms around him, kisses him, waves off his groveling speeches and the lavish gifts meant to buy off his imagined righteous anger. “Let us travel on from here,” he says, “I’ll go at your side.”
It would be great if this were the happy ending it appears to be, if they walked off into the sunset, reunited and tight. But there’s a lot more to Jacob’s history, and not all of it is pretty. Read it for yourselves if you have the stomach for it. But whatever you do, don’t be scandalized by Jacob’s subsequent behaviors. Don’t be too disappointed if he goes back to some of his old ways: this is not an episode of Dr Phil: lives don’t change forever during an hour-long program with four commercial interruptions. Things don’t get better overnight, even over a night like that powerful one at the Jabbok. Conversion takes a long, long time. Jacob is still Jacob most of the time. He still lives mostly by working the system, scheming for success, and pretending to be in control of his own destiny. He’ll be Jacob till the day he dies.
There is plenty of good news for us in his story nonetheless. The good news is that until that day he dies, Jacob-being-Jacob is also always Israel—a man who knows in his heart, indeed, in his hip joint, that God does not despise us for our supplanting and deceit, but is forever ambushing our lives with new chances.
He knows in his bones that God will not renege on a blessing, even when made under duress. He knows in his flesh that God may slip away at daybreak, but never abandons us. He knows that God can render us finally vulnerable to all our fast-approaching Esaus, siblings whom we robbed of birthrights and with whom we must make peace. He knows that the gracious reunion of sinners and sinned-against is the best blessing of God.
Until the day he dies, he is still the old Jacob, but he is also the new one, Israel, whose every halting step is living proof to all the rest of us deceivers that Someone knows us deeply, loves us fiercely anyway, and is waiting to go to the mat with us and make us new at the next river crossing in the dead of night.