February 20, 2008
My brother Tim is only 11 months younger than I am. We’re almost twins, like Jacob and Esau, and like them we were always fighting. I used to walk around with my finger on Tim’s shoulder. I’d follow him everywhere, touching him, and he’d scream and scream. Mom, Chris keeps touching me!
Finally Dad bought us two pairs of boxing gloves, real boxing gloves, only smaller, and whenever we started fighting he’d say, OK, boys, time for the gloves! Then we’d knock each other senseless.
Jacob and Esau start fighting each other in their mother’s womb. They “struggled together within her,” Genesis tells us, using the Hebrew verb for “wrestle” or fight, and when they’re born--Esau first, then Jacob--Jacob is still holding on to his brother’s heel. In fact, that’s what the name Jacob means, the one who supplants, or tries to, and Jacob keeps on trying to supplant his brother, all through their growing up, tricking him out of birthrights and blessings and anything else he can trick him out of--with his mother’s guidance and help.
A typical family, in other words. Like all of ours. Dysfunctional. Full of inequities and power struggles. And that’s the first encouraging thing in this story, the first lesson, because God loves this family anyway. He doesn’t come into the lives of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Rachel and Leah because they’re any holier or nicer or more deserving than we are. He loves them because he loves them, because He is love, and all these egotistical and boneheaded people have to do is stand back and receive it. And even when they don’t, even when they keep wrestling for power, God continues to love and bless them, as he continues to love and bless us, despite our own selfishness and urge towards domination.
The second lesson in the story of Jacob has to do with a second moment of wrestling. Whoever these writers were, they were really good writers, and wrestling is one of the images they keep building into their narrative.
This wrestling match happens, of course, on the banks of the river Jabbok, twenty one years later. Everything has changed. Jacob has had to leave home and live with his uncle, who cheats him and uses him as he cheated and used his brother. He’s married now--has two wives--and many children, and many possessions. He’s a middle-aged man, beaten down by life and longing for home, and on the way back, in the middle of the night, he wrestles with a man who could be an angel or could be even God himself. He wrestles until dawn, the scriptures say, and wins, in a way, though he is also wounded in the hip and from that point on forever limps.
This is a very different moment. It’s not about power, it’s about powerlessness. It’s about accepting limitations. It’s about being humbled, as we are all humbled, or should be, and what it leads to finally, is honesty. All his life Jacob has been unable to say or accept who he really is. He’s always pretending to be his older brother. He’s always hiding. But here, in the darkness, at the end of their long fight, when the mysterious figure asks who he is, he answers truthfully. I am Jacob.
I am not who I want to be. I am not who I think I should be. I am not who anybody else wants to be. I am who I am.
And that’s the second lesson: that living in a family involves pain and sacrifice and the experience of being wounded--we can’t avoid it, we can’t run from it. But more, that living with others involves being honest. It involves speaking the truth, whatever the consequences. It involves saying who we really are.
And still more. Because when Jacob finally dies to his pride and his ambition, he is transformed. He rises. His name now is Israel, he is now the father of the nations--only now, in his woundedness--and that name, too, means wrestling. It means, he who wrestles with God.
Which is our name, or can be. It’s who we can become--if, like Jacob, we stop running away. If like him, we stop trying to deceive others and ourselves.
And then there’s a third example of wrestling in this finely woven story, at the very end, and it involves Esau. Big, galumphing, not too bright Esau. Esau the hairy one. Esau the one Jacob is so afraid of he hides his children and his wives behind his servants and approaches on all fours, bowing and scraping. He assumes what any of us would assume, that Esau is angry and vengeful, as who wouldn’t be, tricked and abused the way he was?
But here’s the miracle, here’s the best part of the story, because Esau, too, has been transformed, and in his transformation he brings his brother unexpected grace and unexpected compassion.
Seeing Jacob from afar, he runs to meet him, embraces him, and “falls on his neck,” the Genesis writers say, and this is a pun, a wonderful and moving pun, because in the Hebrew “to fall on his neck” involves the same verb as the verb for wrestle. Look, the Genesis writers are saying: how what begins as conflict can end in embracing, how when we least expect it the grace of God can enter in and everything can change again, for the better, for the unimaginably better.
In our families, too, this can happen, and does. We give up our illusions, we accept reality, we admit our own limitations. And suddenly, out of the blue, there comes a hope, a new truth. Somebody moves towards us, in a way we never thought possible. There’s a shift. A gift.
And it’s not from us. The best things never are, and the joy comes when we not only realize that but come to expect it. Whatever is broken in our families, the Lord can mend. Whatever burden is too great, the Lord can bear, however much we may need to suffer first, however wounded we may be.