What is the defining moment of a person’s life? The point at which you become you – when everything that has happened to you and everything that will happen converge in a single moment, and who you are becomes real? All the other moments matter – maybe even more so in the light of this single moment, maybe they all suddenly reveal their meaning, the way they were leading up to or coming out of this moment, anticipating it before it happened, flowing from it forevermore.
For Jacob, this is the moment. When his name is changed. For Israel, born Jacob, all of life was anticipating or coming out of this moment. And not just for him- but for all of Israel to come, for the blessing bearers and the people of God from this point onward, this is the moment that sets the trajectory.
The moment Jacob wrestles with God.
But how did he get here? In the dead of night, alone, fighting a stranger in the dark all night long until dawn, struggling to spare his own life? How does one get to the point where there is nothing else happening but the struggle? No sound but scuffling and grunting, panting breath and pounding blood, no sensation but falling and gripping and flailing, no awareness but the present moment, mind and body unity of hanging on for dear life so that life will not be lost, and it seems it will never end?
For Jacob, it was a tumultuous journey, and it began with his name.
It is said, that in some ancient cultures, a name could be so closely linked with the bearer of the name as to put words to something of that person’s character. And so it was with Israel, born Jacob, son of Isaac. Jacob is the second of twins, holding onto his brother’s heal, and so he is named, he who supplants, the one who takes over, the heel.
So, perhaps like all of us, from time to time, Jacob lives into his label, he claws his way up and over in his deep yearning for blessing, for recognition, for place and acceptance in this a home where he is his mother’s favorite but his father loves his brother Esau best.
There are other moments, that, before this moment here, Jacob would have said were his defining moment. The biggie. The game changer. And one of them goes like this:
Now Isaac was getting older, and decided it was time to pass down the blessing to his oldest son. He called Esau to him and told him to go and hunt some game and prepare a savory stew and bring it to him, so that he could bless him. So Esau left to do as his father had said.
But Rebekah heard what Isaac said to Esau and she went to Jacob and told him to quickly go and kill a kid from the flock so that she could prepare a savory dish, and Jacob could bring it to his father and receive the blessing intended for Esau. But Jacob was worried that despite his father’s failed eyesight, he would be found out and be cursed instead of blessed. “Besides,” he tells his mother, “Esau is hairy and I am smooth!” And so they took the skin of a kid and put it on his arms and they put Esau’s clothes on Jacob, and he went into his father, bringing him the bowl of stew.
Hearing Jacob’s voice, Isaac doubted at first that it was Esau, but he reached out his hand and felt his son, and he pulled him close and smelled him. And apparently this was enough to convince Isaac, who proceeded to give to Jacob his blessing, and the blessing of God.
Just after Jacob leaves his father’s tent, Esau returns, holding the bowl of savory stew he had prepared from his hunt, and tells his father he has returned and is ready for the blessing. “Who are you?” Isaac cries.
“I am Esau, your eldest son.”
And Isaac trembled violently, and asked, “Then who was it that I blessed?
Blessed he was, and blessed he shall be!”
Esau cried out with a great and terrible cry, “Then bless me too father, please!”
But Isaac could not. He spoke words of heartbreak to his son instead. And Esau burned with rage towards Jacob, and plotted to kill him as soon as Isaac passed away.
But Rebekah heard what Esau was planning, and called Jacob to her. “You must go now, to the people of my brother, at least until Esau’s anger abates, then I will send for you and you can come home. I could not bear to lose both sons in one day.”
So Jacob packed up his belongings, and departed from his people.
And so he leaves, both the betrayer and the blessed. But blessing or not, Jacob finds himself cut off from his family and sent out alone. And not long after comes another defining moment. One that most certainly could have been the high point of his life – the unmistakable path-shaper. And was, for a while anyway…
On his journey Jacob stops for the night and lays his head on a rock and dreams. He dreams there is a ladder stretching up to heaven and the angels are ascending and descending the ladder between heaven and earth. And suddenly God is standing beside him and says,
‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14and 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. 15Know 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.’
16Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ 17And 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.’
And now the promise rests within and upon this rootless, wandering, undeserving one. As does a new awareness, both of the blessing and of the terrible guilt of what he has done. Jacob moves on with the understanding that God is real, God is there, God has made some promises, and life is not merely what you make of it, nor is it yours to make of it what you decide.
Twenty years follow. Twenty years in which Jacob’s cunning and deception are on full display, and so is karma, because Jacob gets from his uncle/father in law the same kind of deceit and trickery he practices. Twenty years pass, during which his mother Rebekah dies without ever summoning him home; his brother Esau and father Isaac move on with their lives, and he himself has eleven children between two wives and two concubines. Twenty years in which Jacob struggles and strives for success and recognition, in which he knows love and loss, is cheated and vindicated, and all the drama of life and love and families and fortune unfold. And finally, it is time for Jacob to return to the land of his fathers.
And so he sets out and gets ready to face Esau. He is terrified. He does all sorts of things to try to lessen the blow, such as sending gifts on ahead of him in waves so that Esau will receive them first and perhaps be softened towards Jacob. He has with him everything that matters to him – his wives and children, his flocks and household, and he is aware that in a very short time he could lose it all.
Which brings us to this night, this moment. The big one that trumps all the other big ones. The one which could not have been reached without the others, and which makes him who he is. Jacob brings his wives and kids across the water and then he is alone. And with no explanation and out of the blue, a life and death struggle with a powerful stranger begins.
This is a good spot to stop for a moment and remember that for all the ways this is Jacob’s story, this is first and foremost God’s story. We must keep reminding ourselves of this as we go, because if we don’t we either dismiss them as someone else’s “stories,” having nothing to do with us and even less to do with reality, or we try to make them all about ourselves – pulling from their lives lessons to apply to our own belief and behavior, turning these messy, complicated human beings into two dimensional characters, archetypes, illustrations and saints.
But this is God’s Story. And for that reason it is also Jacob’s, and ours. But in a far more significant way.
And so we see that before Jacob can face his brother, he must face God, and himself, for that matter. And God must face him. The one who supplants is now confronted with a force he cannot undermine or overcome. All night long, he struggles. And what must this be like? What could be going through a person’s head at a time like this? Will I die? Will I prevail? Who am I fighting? And why am I fighting?
Have you ever found yourself sitting in front of a movie, and a sad thing happens to a character – their mother dies or their child disowns them – and you find yourself weeping? Not for this fictional person at all, but for the places in your own life where you’ve disowned, buried or lost another? Have you ever found your anger kindled at traffic, or broken technology, or asinine comments from a politician, and realized with a start that the irrational rage bubbling up has a different source entirely? That it may have more to do with broken promises than broken technology, or shame over your own foolish and arrogant comments that have hurt another?
“In the night,” it has been said, “the divine antagonist tends to take on the features of others with whom we struggle in the day.” (Walter Bruggeman - Genesis)
And so Jacob struggles. And perhaps all the struggles of his whole life arise and work themselves into and out of this battle. And a curious thing happens. He doesn’t lose. He holds his own. And when his assailant realizes he is not giving up or wearing out, that Jacob wont be defeated, he strikes him on his hip. This is a serious injury, not a battle scar, but a lifelong crippling. And he says to Jacob, “Let me go, for day is about to break.” But Jacob, the cheeky heel, says aloud the longing of his whole life, and demands that his opponent bless him.
And so it comes to this – what is your name? Who are you?
And he answers that he is Jacob. Jacob – heel/trickster/overreacher/supplanter.
But the man replies that this is no longer his name. That now his name shall be Israel – God rules/God preserves/God protects, because he has striven with God and prevailed. And his belonging shifts, from himself to God.
And then Jacob - because, why not? - demands to know the man’s name; because knowing someone’s name is power, knowing a name is possessing and revealing something about the being it represents. But the man will not tell Jacob his name, and so while Jacob is given a new name, God remains a mystery.
And there is an unsettled and unsettling ambiguity as to just who is powerful in this exchange, and who is weak. And there’s an astonishing inference about divine and human roles, strength and weakness, and God’s relationship with humanity that might find echoes centuries later in the Story when the Creator of the whole cosmos hangs limp and broken on a cross, and when the symbols of God’s relationship to humanity are not thrones and trophies, but spilled blood and poured water and torn bread. Power and weakness, God and humanity, it’s unclear sometimes who is prevailing - What does God want from us? How does God relate with us? One wonders.
Now the blessed Jacob rises, exhausted, wrung out, injured and made clean.
“I have seen God face to face and lived.” he says.
And now he is ready to face his brother.
I imagine him passing back through the water and climbing the banks as the sun is coming up, returning to his family and looking different. Broken and whole at the same time. Blessed and injured. He is made new. And they see him coming over the ridge and squint in the rising sun, looking twice to discern who it is that approaches.
Jacob swaggers, you see. But this one, Israel, he limps.
Because sometimes newness looks like limping.
And so, that day, Jacob is reunited with Esau. He approaches him in conquered strength, a mighty weakness, with humility and deference to Esau’s justified anger, not expecting mercy, but Esau falls on his neck and kisses him. And Jacob responds, “Seeing you is like seeing the face of God”, because in the morning light there is something of the face of God in the forgiveness of a brother, just as there is something of a brother’s face in a piercing confrontation with the divine in the darkness.
And it’s not a completely triumphant reunion between brothers, it’s awkward and bumbling, there appears to even be more deception or distrust in the exchange, because reconciliation among human beings is never as clean and simple as we like to think it is, and because we are who we are, and patterns of relating are hard to break. But there it is anyway. And when Isaac dies, the two sons, side by side, bury their father.
And the Story continues.
And it makes me want to know, as I look around this room full of complicated and messy human beings chosen and loved by God, What are our defining moments?
Where are the places we have been invited, or forced, to wrestle with God?
Where are the places where everything we thought we were, and the world recognized us to be, gets taken away, and we become, instead, who we are?
How have you been made new- whole but broken, blessed and also limping?
How does the Story live in you?
I am indebted to Walter Bruggeman's Geneis in the Interpretation Commentary Series... His vivid exploration of these texts shaped my view and approach to this text. His perspective is reflected herein.