For at least one, and maybe two, weeks of my vacation, I binge-read murder mystery novels. Finally, I just had to step away from the books, having spent way too many late nights reading to find out how the story ended, and then too amped to sleep, listening for creaks in the floorboards, looking for movement in the shadows of the hallway. Luckily, I didn’t have too many responsibilities during the day for which I had to be on top of my game, so other than a few hours of sleep lost, there was really no harm done.
You don’t have to go much farther than that Bible gathering dust on your bedside table to find characters and storylines that rival any mystery novel on the market today, especially the story of Jacob, which you can find in 12 chapters in the midst of the book of Genesis, Genesis 24-36. Talk about your intrigue, lies and deception, nightmares, bargaining, jealousy, redemption, not to mention a reality check about the “biblical notion” of marriage! It’s been the inspiration for countless works of art and novels, including Frederick Buechner’s Son of Laughter and Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, the story told from a woman’s perspective, from the perspective of Jacob’s one daughter, Dinah. I believe you sang the song of Jacob’s dream a couple weeks ago, his vision as he was leaving home. “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.”
Jacob. The twin born second, though holding on to his brother Esau’s heel, refusing to be left behind. Jacob means “He takes by the heel” or “He supplants.” Jacob, the fair, smooth-skinned brother, as opposed to his ruddy-faced, hairy brother Esau. Jacob, the quiet, thoughtful, indoor brother, Esau, the boisterous, outdoor huntsman. Jacob, the son favored by his mother Rebekah. Esau, the eldest, whose stews of game were loved by his father Isaac. Jacob, the brother who took advantage of his brother’s hunger and exhaustion and forced him to sell him his birthright for a bowl full of lentils, Jacob who, with the help of his mother Rebekah, tricked his blind father into giving him the blessing of the elder son, the blessing not just a string of nice words, but a powerful intention and energy passed down all the way from his grandfather Abraham, who had received it from El himself, and then passed it along to his son Isaac, who knew God as “the Fear.” Having been strapped to an altar and a match-light away from being offered as a sacrifice, you can understand why Isaac would call God “the Fear.”
In today’s passage, it has been over 20 years since Jacob tricked his brother Esau out of a blessing, and he is returning home. As one writer says, he knew that he had changed, but he couldn’t imagine that Esau had. [Barbara Brown Taylor cited by K. Matthews in Sermon Seeds, 8/6/17] True to character, Jacob sends his herds and flocks, along with his servants and even his wives and children, on ahead of him, to meet Esau first, and he stays behind for a night on the other side of the river Jabbok. It is here where our reading for today picks up the story, and Fred Buechner recounts it this way–
Out of the dark someone leaped at me with such force that it knocked me onto my back. It was a man. I could not see his face. His naked shoulder was pressed so hard against my jaw I thought he would break it. His flesh was chill and wet as the river. He was the god of the river… He was not the god of the river. He was Esau. He had slain all my sons. He had forded the river to slay me….We struggled in each other’s arms. He was on top. Then I was on top. I knew that they were not Esau’s arms. It was not Esau. I did not know who it was. I did not know who I was. I knew only my terror and that it was dark as death. I knew only that what the stranger wanted was my life. …I did not know why we were fighting. It was like fighting in a dream…
He outweighed me, he out-wrestled me, but he did not overpower me. He did not overpower me until the moment came to overpower me. When the moment came, I knew that he could have made it come whenever he wanted. I knew that all through the night he had been waiting for that moment….Then the moment came, and he gave a fierce downward thrust. I felt a fierce pain. It was less a pain I felt than a pain I saw. I saw it as light. I saw the pain as a dazzling bird-shape of light. The pain’s beak impaled me with light. It blinded me with the light of its wings. I knew I was crippled and done for. I could do nothing but cling now. I clung for dear life. I clung for dear death.…For the first time he spoke. … “Let me go,” he said. …”Let me go, for the day is breaking.” Only then did I see it, the first faint shudder of light behind the farthest hills. I said, “I will not let you go.” I would not let him go for fear that the day would take him as the dark had given him. It was my life I clung to. My enemy was my life. My life was my enemy. I said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Even if his blessing meant death, I wanted it more than life. “Bless me,” I said. “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” He said, “Who are you?” [What is your name?] ….”Jacob,” I said. “My name is Jacob.” “It is Jacob no longer,” he said. “Now you are Israel. You have wrestled with God and with men. You have prevailed. That is the meaning of the name Israel.”
… I tried to say the new name I was to the new self I was. I could not see him. He was too close to me to see. I could see only the curve of his shoulders above me. I saw the first glimmer of dawn on his shoulders like a wound. I said, “What is your name?” I could only whisper it. “Why do you ask me my name?”…He did not wait for my answer. He blessed me as I had asked him. I do not remember the words of his blessing or even if there were words. I remember the blessing of his arms holding me and the blessing of his arms letting me go. I remember as blessing the black shape of him against rose-colored sky.
I remember as blessing the one glimpse I had of his face. It was more terrible than the face of dark, or of pain, or of terror. It was the face of light. No words can tell of it. Silence cannot tell of it… [Son of Laughter]
In a sermon on this story, Buechner describes it as “something more terrible than the face of death–the face of love. It is vast and strong, half ruined with suffering and fierce with joy, the face a man flees down all the darkness of his days until at last he cries out, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me!” Not a blessing that he can have now by the strength of his cunning or the force of his will, but a blessing that he can have only as a gift.”[The Magnificent Defeat, in Secrets in the Dark]
He never told me his name, [Jacob says]. The Fear of Isaac, the Shield of Abraham, and others like them are names we use because we do not know his true name. He did not tell me his true name. Perhaps he did not tell it because he knew I would never stop calling on it. But I gave the place where I saw him a name. I named it Peniel. It means the face of God.” [Son of Laughter]
What are we to do with this ancient, ragged story–perhaps old even in the time of Abraham? One commentator says that it tells us that God seeks out “openings” in our lives– moments when we are at a loss, worried, defeated, without options–”in order to enhance the divine purpose and to get us in shape, so to speak, for the challenges ahead. To go through it with God [he says] before we go through it with others provides resources–of strength and blessing for whatever lies in the wings of life.” [Terence Fretheim, cited in Matthews, op cit.]
Resistance training, in other words, like lifting weights or using our own body weight to strengthen our muscles.
Another writer suggests that this story challenges our preoccupation with a comfortable faith in a God who will take care of us and keep us safe and comfortable. [BBT, Ibd.] “Comfort doesn’t change you,” Brooke Castillo writes. “It keeps you the same. It pretends to be safe. Comfort too long is stagnation. Comfort prevents courage and pride. Comfort calls when things get scary. Comfort weakens us when overused. Comfort is best when it follows risk and hard work and a period of showing up. We appreciate our pillows so much more when our head hasn’t been on it all day [long].” [FB post]
Tough words to hear on a mid-summer Sunday morning, when comfort and rest are perhaps what we long for. But, as Castillo says, “You don’t deserve comfort. You deserve better.” We are meant for joy and courage and fullness of life, not just “comfort.” The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. ” [cited by C. Bourgeault, in Wisdom Jesus, p. 179]
On any given day there are dragons to fight, demons to wrestle with–our own doubts and failings, diagnoses that seem to come out of the blue, worries about loved ones, national and international crises too numerous to count. But ignoring them or simply wishing they would go away will not help. As singer/songwriter Micah Christian says, “Only by seeking the source of our nation’s wounds will we gain the strength to heal them.” [BU School of Theology, focus 2017]
The story of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, or the demon, or God challenges us to not let go too quickly or try to escape those forces in our lives that challenge us, that confront us, even that wound us. There is blessing to be had in the struggle, though we will most certainly not be the same afterward. We may have a new name, maybe a limp for the rest of our lives, but both the name and the limp remind us that God will be present with us every step of the way forward. Jacob said that when he saw the face of Esau the next day, it looked like the face of God. The face of love which we may glimpse in the midst of our wrestling–”vast and strong, half ruined with suffering and fierce with joy,” as Buechner puts it–is the face of One who will not let us go to our destruction, but who even now, sets a table before us, providing us with food and drink for our journey. It is the face of courage, the face of light and love, the face of blessing. Let us keep the feast.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark