Last week we heard about Isaac and his near death experience. As we know, the knife in Father Abraham’s hand was quickly repurposed – used to cut the cords that bound Isaac instead of being used to kill him, and a ram was sacrificed in his place. These events took place to everyone’s great relief – perhaps to God’s as much as to the other principal players.
This week Isaac is an old man. Nothing much is told of the intervening years except that he marries Rebekah and they have sons – non-identical twins, Esau and Jacob.
In Genesis chapter 25 the boys are born. Jacob comes into the world gripping his brother Esau’s heel. His name means “to follow” or “to come behind” or “heel grabber” and we will soon learn that he is one. Jacob is a scoundrel, a trickster. Brotherly love is not in his tool bag. In the second episode related about their lives, Esau returns home, famished, from a long day of hunting, and the scheming Jacob greets his hungry brother with a pot of stew bubbling on the stove. Esau wants the stew; Jacob wants the firstborn’s birthright. For the price of bread and lentil soup, Esau swears an oath relinquishing his rights.
These boys might not be role models for intelligence in one case, or integrity in the other, but they are real models – they seem like real people. Sibling rivalry, skewed family values, jealousy, favoritism, greed, disappointment, deceit – it’s all here in the Bible and in the families that might live in your neighborhood. There are cultural differences, but the dynamics are familiar.
The story continues: Genesis 27 :1-4, 15-23
“When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see, he called his elder son Esau and said to him, “My son,” and he answered, “Here I am.” Isaac said, “See, I am old; I do not know the day of my death. Now then, take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and hunt game for me.”
But Rebekah was listening and told her favorite son Jacob to bring two choice kids in from the flock outside their door; and she made a feast and took the best garments of her elder son Esau, which were with her in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob; and she put the skins of the young goats on his hands and on his neck. Then she handed her son Jacob the savory food and the bread that she had prepared. So he went in to his father, and said, “My father”; and he said, “Here I am; who are you, my son?” Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, so that you may bless me.”
But Isaac said, “How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?” He answered, “Because the Lord your God granted me success.” Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Come near, that I may touch you, and know whether you are really my son Esau or not.” So Jacob went up to his father Isaac, who felt him and said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” His father did not recognize him, but, because his hands were hairy like his brother Esau’s hands; so Isaac blessed him.
Even though Isaac isn’t entirely convinced that he’s got the right son, he bestows the blessing based on touch and smell and food. He exclaims: “Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the LORD has blessed. May God give you the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!”
That’s it; the blessing has been spoken. It cannot be retracted or repeated.
When Esau returns home and discovers the deceit he is in a rage, but what can he do? In summing up what has just happened to him, Esau alludes to yet another meaning of Jacob’s name when he says, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright; and look, now he has taken away my blessing.”
Jacob “the deposer, deceiver, double-crosser.”
Jacob crosses every line that presents itself in the story. No rule, no tradition, no relationship appears to be out of bounds as he schemes to get what he wants. In short order, he alters the line of inheritance, disrupts the chain of blessing, disrespects his father, and puts his brother out in the cold. I hope you don’t have a brother like this.
But Jacob’s win isn’t decisive – it isn’t even obvious. His is not a happily-ever-after, healthy-wealthy-and-wise kind of blessing.
In fact, in the next episode, Jacob is on the run. He has won what he wanted from his father, but can’t stay around to enjoy it. Esau, in addition to being hairy, must be quite a bit bigger than Jacob, and could beat the stuffing out of him – and Jacob, having pulled off the heist of a lifetime, but expecting retribution, finds himself on the run – alone, somewhere between the home that he has left behind and the refuge he seeks with his mother’s brother. His path leads through the wilderness – through the place where demons dwell.
In this next section of reading, Jacob is portrayed as a fugitive fleeing for his life; a vagabond wandering between a conflict-ridden past and an uncertain future. How hollow his stolen blessing must feel about now, with a stone for a pillow and the Milky Way his only covering.
Chapter 28 (10-17)
“Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
So, contrary to appearances, Jacob is not alone. The dream reveals that his resting place is full of busy angels, divine “messengers.” These beings are purposeful in their coming and going on steps joining earth to heaven. They are on the move doing God’s work in the world, and he is surprised to discover that he has been a guest in the “house of God.”
In his dream, God repeats the promises made to Abraham and Isaac for land and heirs and prosperity, to be blessed in order to be a blessing to others, but there is also a promise that is unique to Jacob. God promises to bring Jacob back home. Partly, this is a promise that speaks to his unique situation of being on the run, but also, it stands as a promise many generations into the future. I’ve said before that this book of scripture probably received its final editing during the time of Israel’s exile in Babylon – which would make this promise to their forefather all the more poignant.
When Jacob awakens from his dream he finds to his surprise that the place has not been changed by God’s presence. He looks around – the desert is not blooming, there are no snow angel prints in the sand – but Jacob is changed. Professing God’s presence in this rather ordinary place, he builds a monument of remembrance, converting his “pillow” into an altar in the world. He calls this place without a name “Bethel” — which means the house of God.
Jacob’s discovery that God is in this place – and the fear he feels – remind us that God is in every place, each rock and tree and field and pond bear the presence and activity of the divine. It’s worth a little fear. This land is only ours for a generation. It belongs to the future and to the past. We are stewards for only a moment. The trees will outlive us, the piles of stones we pull out of a field, the polyester pollution we leave behind, the plastic islands in the oceans. Is this not worth building an altar of stones set here and there to bump our shins against to help us remember?
In what seemed like a desperate, lonely flight, Jacob discovered that he is in good company.
Just as Jacob left his home in Beersheba, so God departs from his “house” in the heavens to join Jacob on the road. The blessing is on the move. We aren’t told why Isaac had only one blessing to give, leaving Esau to weep and plan for revenge when he arrived too late and found that Jacob had taken the blessing, but when God renews the promises of land and descendants, God compares Jacob’s descendants to dust: “your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.”
The metaphor spreads divine blessing far and wide. Dust blows around, it settles deep and thick in some places, produces a fine covering in others. Dust floats in the air – little moats refracting sunlight. Compared to the single blessing Isaac had to give, God seems to be indiscriminate – or at least exponential.
Jacob’s story is a long one, and for a story that’s 3 to 4000 years old, it’s quite well written and interesting. I commend it to you. Through the twists and turns it follows the path of blessing – teaching us something along the way. Jacob doesn’t get what he wants simply because he wants it and because he’s been blessed. And Esau doesn’t seem to suffer for not receiving his father’s blessing. After 20 years they are reunited. Jacob is a wealthy man – wealthy in terms of wives, children, flocks and herds and staff. He separated from his father-in-law and is coming back home when he learns that Esau has gotten word and is heading out to meet him. Esau is coming with 400 men. Jacob feels an old dread rising: Esau and his murderous threats. He strategizes to protect his wealth and placate his brother, dividing his family and herds sending them ahead in different batches while he stays behind on the far side of the river, pacing in the dark, accompanied only by his schemes and fears. And in the starless night, he is attacked.
24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ 27So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ 28Then he said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, (The one who strives with God) for you have striven with divine and human beings and have prevailed.’ 29Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel,(the face of God) saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel, limping because of his hip.”
Jacob’s story reaches a climax here at the Jabbok river ford. He doesn’t do much after this, the narrative soon passes on to his children. But we’re given this episode to think about our struggles with God. The scene is dark and broody and confusing. The dialog ambiguous. This encounter with God has no ray of starlight beaming through the terror of Jacob’s dark night of the soul, there’s nothing comforting in the sound of silence as Jacob paces. Instead he is pounced on from behind. He ends up struggling, fighting, grappling with God.
It’s not such a far-fetched tale. It happens on the world stage and in individual lives. Have you ever felt tripped up or pounced upon or under attack by God? And are there times when you wrangle with God just to fight, because you don’t know how else to face the pain of some situation? We hang on, demanding something good to come from the struggle.
Jacob wouldn’t let go of his adversary until he received a blessing, but the end seems more like a tie than a triumph; an exhausting fight to the death, that ends not with death but with a wounding, a mark, a limp, a sign that the God of blessing doesn’t keep one safe, that we may strive and wrestle and still not be particularly enlightened, but rather that the process itself might be the blessing.
If Jacob’s story speaks a truth about us, it also speaks a truth about God.
Wrestling is the most intimate sport. God is not content to stand aloof and direct matters from afar. God is engaged bodily, face to face, breath to breath. One can’t keep much dignity wrestling. As we continue to read, it becomes clear that God is willing to lose all dignity for the sake of his beloved creation and creatures, to become as humbled and vulnerable as it takes to save us and transform us and connect to us.
Jacob walks away. Before he crosses the river and continues toward his meeting with Esau, he names the place of his struggle. Peniel – here I met God face to face and yet I survived. When Jacob and Esau do meet, completely at odds with Jacob’s expectations, Esau runs forward to embrace his brother, and kisses him and weeps, and Jacob – stunned – says “Truly, to see your face is like seeing the face of God, for you have received me with such favor.”
Being reconciled to God opened Jacob’s eyes to be reconciled with his brother, and to see God in his brother’s face.
This story doesn’t have a clear moral or obvious meaning, but it lifts up several things – the value and importance of struggling with God, with faith, with our identity; the value and importance of confession and asking for forgiveness, of reconciliation; the value and importance of claiming the name that God bestows. Names can limit us, hurt us. But names can also heal and make alive.
And so a part of what we do each week, I believe, is to be reminded once again of our name in God’s sight and our identity in Christ, so that we might go out into the world reconciled and forgiven, as God’s own beloved, and – stunned by it – see and pronounce – perhaps even with words – the face of God in all whom we meet. And this story reminds us, again, that being blessed doesn’t necessarily show, or change our situation according to our timeline of expectation. God’s blessings tend to show best, most clearly, in hindsight. If you can see a blessing at the time it is bestowed, build a little altar in the world to mark the spot and give thanks.