As the lectionary continues its journey through Genesis, I’m continuing to spend time with some of the challenging stories of the Patriarchs, the faithful (yet wholly dysfunctional) first family of Western Religion. Two weeks ago, we saw how God stepped into the very messy situation surrounding Abraham and Sarah’s scheming to get Abraham an heir by any means; and last week we took a deep dive into the horrifying story of Abraham’s binding and near-sacrifice of his son Isaac, and suggested that it was only in obedience to the old ways of the old gods that Abraham could truly see how different his new God was. Today’s reading, the second half of Genesis 32, is the story of Jacob wrestling with a stranger, who is later revealed to be divine. I’m excited to spend time with it as it’s a story that’s played an important role in my own journey.
As I mentioned in the introduction, this is a text that has played an important role in my life. This experience, which lit the spark that eventually led to my re-engagement with my faith after my Dark Night, is always with me when I read the text. No matter what else I might glean from it, it will always carry this weight and this meaning: it is a text of new beginnings and the true nature of faith, not passively accepting what we’re taught, but wrestling with our tradition and with God. We are all “Israel.”
This morning’s reading was less dramatic, but no less beautiful. Today I saw that God’s renaming of Jacob is God’s response to Jacob’s demand for a blessing. From the moment of his birth, Jacob’s life has been defined by his twin brother, Esau. In fact his very name, Jacob, means “he who grabs the heel,” referring to how he came out of the womb grasping Esau’s foot. The sibling rivalry with Esau continues to define his life as the story goes on. By giving Jacob a new name, God reorients Jacob: no longer is he defined in relationship to his brother, but in relationship to God. Moreover, it is a name that describes who he is and what he’s all about: his whole life has been one of overcoming adversity and struggle; God has truly seen Jacob for the man he is and given him a name that suits him and him alone: Israel. It’s interesting to me that in this theophany it’s Jacob/Israel who is revealed more than God.
So what I took away from today’s reading of the passage was to think about the blessing of being seen, and how I might truly see others for who they are.
The two encounters I wanted to contemplate here were the writer/editor of the text and Jacob himself.
In terms of the writer, Genesis is clearly written from what integral theory calls a “Red” or “power gods” perspective. There are four relevant aspects of this cultural stage for our story: First, religious practice primarily concerns performative acts, such as naming and sacrificing. We see this in Genesis in the covenant-making sacrifices between God and Abraham, and in the importance throughout the story given to naming of people and places. Second, the primary goal of religious practice at this stage is to make deals with powerful deities to ensure the strength and success of the family or tribe. So throughout Genesis, we are primarily concerned with the life of Abraham and his legacy in the chosen line of his descendants. In our story today, we have Jacob’s power play: Jacob — the bookish kid who grew up to have superhuman strength — has wrestled God to a draw; he now thinks he has something over him and asks to know his name, a symbol of having power of him. (This goes less well for him than his earlier demand to be blessed by God, and he ends up with a limp!). Third, the divisions between humanity, angels and powers, and gods (or God) are very flexible. This can be seen, for example, in God walking with Adam in the Garden of Eden, the three men who are also angels who are God who visit Abraham and Sarah at the Oak of Mamre, and in today’s story in the stranger who is an angel who is God who wrestles with Jacob. And fourth, the scope of divine activity is understood to be local rather than universal. And so, we see the importance of local shrines and altars throughout Genesis, with the Patriarchs often naming sites after God’s activity there.
What all this means for encountering the text is that helps to separate out my concerns and questions from the text’s. The text doesn’t care about the greater moral implications of God dislocating Jacob’s hip or about the mechanics of how this stranger could in fact be God. The text cares about the story of Jacob and how he fits into the bigger story of his family and the land they inhabit. The three origin stories in today’s reading — how Jacob became Israel, how the place became known as Peniel, “the Face of God,” and why the Hebrews had a taboo against eating around the hip — may seem relatively unimportant to us, but were of prime importance to whoever wrote the story.
Turning now to encountering Jacob, I was taken aback in my closer re-reading of Jacob’s story by just how central his rivalry with Esau has been in his life. The text notes that the two fought even in the womb. As I noted in the previous section, he is named in relationship to Esau. As they grow older, their parents play favorites, with the quiet and reserved Jacob being their mother’s favorite and Isaac preferring the rough and tumble Esau. And there are the two famous stories in which Jacob schemes to take Esau’s birthright (which Esau trades for a bowl of stew) and blessing (which Jacob steals by taking advantage of Isaac’s blindness). But what struck me as I re-read the text is how he’s winning every battle yet somehow losing the war. He has bested Esau at every turn and yet he’s the one who is on the run. This primordial struggle with family is repeated later, as the schemer is outwitted by Laban and ends up having to marry both of the man’s daughters; later still, his success is met with the violent envy of Laban’s sons and he is once again forced to flee. Now, he finds himself near the edge of his brother’s lands yet again. He sends a peace offering to Esau but is still uncertain and unhappy about what will happen when they meet again. He sends his household across the river and waits alone. I can’t help but feel sorry for the man! Re-reading the story with the intention of meeting Jacob the man makes everything that happens in his wrestling match seem all the more meaningful. His whole life has been one great struggle and it is encapsulated and fulfilled in this physical struggle with God.
Looking at the bigger picture of history, archaeology, and biblical studies, the first thing that stood out to me was the deep anxiety in the ancient Mediterranean world surrounding twins. The birth of twins is never an auspicious moment in any story, throwing into doubt established norms around inheritance and hierarchy. In a story like Genesis, in which fraternal violence plays such a big role — Cain’s murder of Abel, the ‘unchosen’ brothers Ishmael and Esau being the fathers of many of Israel’s traditional enemies, and Jacob’s sons’ violence against Joseph — it’s no wonder the birth of twins sets this story off toward violence.
Jacob is also crucially the younger twin. This continues the biblical motif of God’s preference of the younger brother: Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over his older brothers, and ultimately, David over his brothers. This reminds me of bigger themes from later on in the Scriptures: the humility of God in God’s choosing of a minor nation over its mighty neighbours, of God’s consistent concern for justice for the poor and oppressed, and of the way of the Cross. The great twentieth century liberation theologians spoke of “God’s preferential option for the poor”; we might enlarge that to speak more broadly of God’s preferential option for the powerless over the powerful. God’s choosing of Jacob over his more imposing and manly brother fits well within this motif.
Biblical studies provides some interesting examples of worldplay with Jacob/Israel’s name from the prophets: When referring to God’s judgment upon the Northern Kingdom, Hosea calls it Jacob instead of the customary Israel, and interprets his name to mean “swindler.” Similarly, Jeremiah (9.4) warns the people to beware their brothers: “every brother is Jacob,” i.e., a supplanter. This legacy suggests that Jacob’s name must indeed have been a burden and that being given a new name by God must have been a great blessing.
The scholarship of the text is also helpful in pointing out a motif in the story that’s lost in translation. In the two verses just before the passage under consideration, the word for ‘face’ is used four times. The English, rendered in the NRSV as “I may appease him with the gift that goes ahead of me, and afterwards I shall see his face; perhaps he will accept me,” hides this fact (understandably since the idioms don’t line up well in English); a more literal, if incomprehensible, translation would be something like “I may cover his face with the gift that goes before my face, and after I shall see his face; perhaps he will lift my face.” The repetition of ‘face’ adds even more weight to Jacob’s explanation of why he named the place Peniel, ‘Face of God’: “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” Here Jacob has been concerned about meeting his brother face-to-face again and yet has come face-to-face with God and lived to tell the tale. This line of thought reminds me of the title of C.S. Lewis’ retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth, Till We Have Faces. The name comes from a line in the book where the heroine asks, “How can [the gods] meet us face to face till we have faces?” In meeting God face-to-face Jacob is truly seen, perhaps for the first time. His new name is indicative of this movement in his identity, away from being Esau’s little brother who loses even when he wins, to being his own man.
In this section, I was again led to ponder questions of violence, and especially the mimetic violence that sibling rivalry represents. It’s a disturbing form of codependence, where the two siblings find their identity and meaning in relationship to their fighting with the other. James G. Williams finds in this particularly story both “a recognition of rivalry and a disclosure of its emptiness” (The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred, 48). Instead of the tension between the brothers continuing to grow until there is another violent outburst, the divine intervention directs Jacob away from his rivalry and toward God. The change in name, in Williams’ perspective, represents an alternative to the violent sacrifice of further brother-on-brother antagonism. Now that his life is defined in relationship to God, Jacob can cross the river in peace to meet his brother, as his own man.
It’s also interesting to read the dynamic between Esau and Jacob from Esau’s perspective. Here Esau is the true firstborn, a “man’s man”, and his father’s favorite — he’s everything he should be according to the expectations of his culture — and yet his younger, quiet twin keeps getting the better of him. The fact that he often does so through trickery doesn’t do anything to make the situation better. Most of us would probably hate Jacob too if we were in Esau’s shoes! Jacob may be our hero, but, at least in his relationship with Esau, he’s not very heroic.
Putting the pieces together, the different perspectives mostly reinforced the interpretation I had in the Experience step, providing additional texture and context for Jacob’s identity-transforming experience of God at Peniel. What I appreciate most about what I learned from this exercise today is the greater consequences of God’s blessing Jacob with a new name for his other relationships. After being seen by God for who he is, as his own man, no longer defined by his relationship with his brother, Jacob — Israel — can meet him without the baggage of the past weighing down his heart and mind.
In a rare emotional pay off in the Hebrew Bible, we see in the next chapter that, his mollifying gifts to Esau notwithstanding, perhaps much of the weight Jacob had been feeling about this reunion was unnecessary. As Jacob nears him, “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (33.4).
This reading fits my integral criteria in a few ways. By focusing on the family dynamics that led to Jacob’s isolation, the reading has challenged me to give more thought to the dynamics within my own family, to bring more of that ‘family stuff’ into my awareness. By grounding this story in Jacob’s search for his identity and need to be seen for who he is, this reading has also challenged me to see others as much as possible for who they are, particularly for who they are now, versus who they may have once been. And, it offers a beautiful, expansive vision of God, who sees us all for who we are, face-to-face, and calls us by the true name of our own hearts. For all of these things, I am grateful for the opportunity to spend this time with Jacob today.