Text: Genesis 32: 21-31 (Jacob wrestles with an angel)
The ancient biblical story about wounds and blessings we just heard strikes me as a strange and provocative one.
I decided to focus on this snippet from the story of Jacob today because this passage was the subject of an hour-long CBC radio documentary broadcast on “Ideas” in September; and because today is Thanksgiving, a day in which we think about our blessings.
In the story, Jacob receives both a permanent wound in his hip and a divine blessing after a night-long wrestling match with a man or angel, whom, the text implies might even be God Himself.
Jacob is one of the founding patriarchs of the Jewish people, and the one who gets the most ink in the book of Genesis – more than the first patriarch, his grandfather Abraham, more than his father Isaac, and more than his 12 sons, including the most famous one, Joseph of amazing technicolor dream coat fame. Jacob’s story covers 25 of the 50 chapters of the opening book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis.
Although Jacob is considered to be a hero in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths, he often acts in unethical ways. As the second-born son of Isaac, he is called heel-grabber, or Jacob, because he emerged from his mother Rebecca’s womb holding onto the heel of his twin brother, Esau. Rebecca prefers Jacob to Esau and teaches him so-called womanly arts like cooking. Esau is his father’s favourite, perhaps because he is so masculine. Unlike Jacob, Esau is hairy, strong, and a hunter.
Despite being the second-born, Jacob acquires his father’s birthright through two acts of trickery. The first comes when Jacob refuses to feed Esau when he returns famished from a day of hunting unless Esau cedes his birthright to him.
The second comes when, with the help of his mother Rebecca, Jacob tricks Isaac into conferring a deathbed blessing on him as head of the family by preying on Isaac’s blindness and wearing Esau’s clothes and some sheep skin.
This trickery also earns Jacob the murderous anger of his twin brother. So, Jacob’s mother sends him off to live at the home of her brother Laban.
At Laban’s house, Jacob falls in love with his cousin Rachel. His uncle Laban offers Rachel to Jacob in marriage in return for seven years labour. But after seven years, and in what might be considered an early example of karma, Laban tricks Jacob. On his wedding night, Laban sends his oldest daughter Leah into Jacob’s tent instead of Rachel. So, Jacob then labours for another seven years to win Rachel as his second bride. After that, Jacob fathers 12 sons, each of whom become the head of one of the 12 tribes of Israel.
Jacob builds a prosperous life on Laban’s land. But after many years, he yearns to see his mother one last time and to claim his ill-gotten birthright. So, Jacob extricates himself from Laban through yet more trickery.
In today’s story of a night-long wrestling match, Jacob and a huge entourage of spouses, sons, slaves, and livestock are about to encounter Jacob’s brother Esau. After his night of struggle in which he receives a wounded hip and a divine blessing, Jacob completes the journey and is surprised when Esau welcomes him affectionately instead of killing him. So, all’s well that ends well?
When I was a child, I learned this tale of deception, sibling rivalry, and multiple-wives in Sunday school. That’s just what children in Christian families did in those days. But does Jacob’s story have anything to teach us, other than the origin of the name Israel, which the angel confers on Jacob as part of his blessing?
I believe that the church would be OK if it never focused on stories like this from Genesis. But I am also OK when we do so, with a few caveats.
One is to realize that stories like this one are not history. The book of Genesis, like most of the Hebrew Bible, was stitched together from various manuscripts and stories between 587 and 539 BCE when the Hebrew elite of Jerusalem lived in exile in what is now Iraq. That was about 2500 years ago. But the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are set about 1,000 years earlier than that.
Instead of viewing them as history, I view the tales in Genesis — from Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, through Noah and the flood, and to the stories of Abraham and his sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons — as tribal myths; and I think a good way to approach them is as dreams that have been retold around campfires for generations.
Dreams do have their uses. Last Friday, I was privileged to join a spiritual direction circle that focuses on dreamwork. For the past five years, it has been led by a spiritual director at Providence Renewal Centre and has been comprised of a rotating group of ministers. This year the circle includes myself and three other United Church ministers. I enjoyed the first session, and I look forward to our monthly meetings.
This spiritual director, who taught Pastoral Counselling Education and theology at St. Stephen’s College in Edmonton before retirement, has long been influenced by Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist and philosopher. On Friday, she directed us to return in November with some dreams to discuss.
At our meeting on Friday, I suggested that dream analysis is also a way to approach Scripture. And I think today’s story makes a good case study.
The wrestling match is dream-like because it occurs in the night and leads to a resolution of a long-standing inner conflict within Jacob.
Despite being effeminate and the second-born son, Jacob has worked hard to become the patriarch who will succeed his father Isaac. Perhaps Jacob thinks he has proven his manhood not by tricking his brother and his father, but by building a fortune on his uncle’s land and by fathering 12 sons. And what could be more masculine that wrestling all night long with a divine angel and prevailing?
This dream gives Jacob the courage to complete his journey home to Esau. It also leaves him with a permanent hip injury.
The wounding and the blessing occur just before daybreak, which might symbolize enlightenment. After wrestling through the night with his fears and his flaws, Jacob finally brings to consciousness some of his shadow side. Having dreamed his dream, he emerges both wounded and blessed; both injured and healed.
Perhaps the wrestling match symbolizes a conflict between the feminine and masculine sides of Jacob. Perhaps he wrestled with the pain that flowed from betraying his father and brother. Viewing Jacob from today’s perspective, we could imagine he was also wrestling with the burden of being a slave-owner and a polygamist. Regardless, in wrestling with his inner demons, Jacob fights his way to a blessed state that is also accompanied by an acceptance of some of his wounds.
On the surface, Jacob’s story strikes me like a bad plot line from a TV series like “Dallas” or the “Godfather” movies. But viewing his story as a dream turns it into archetype that might resonate with us.
Like Jacob, we often find wounds in our blessings. Our family relationships are among our most precious and life-giving of blessings. But they also open us to some of our deepest losses. The longer we live, the more loss we experience . . . parents die, our physical abilities wane.
On top of these losses are the challenges of family life. We may both love a sibling and envy and compete with them. We may both love our spouse and find ourselves yearning for someone else. We may be blessed by many children, but find that our affection for one has led to conflict between them and the others.
And as much as we love the wonder of existence and the mysteries of life, the human condition is challenging. We are fragile and mortal. We are capable not just of gusts of ecstasy, joy, and delight, but also of waves of grief, pain, and disappointment. For good or ill, the blessings of life are accompanied by wounds. It seems that can’t embrace the things we like without also accepting the reality of some of the things we don’t like.
In today’s social conflicts, we might also hope for blessings to emerge. Could news of environmental destruction finally spur us to create a society in which the production of goods and services didn’t destroy habitats? Could the attempt to achieve reconciliation with Canada’s first peoples finally lead to a country in which the wounds of colonialism, which scar all Canadians regardless of ancestry, had been healed? Could confronting the reality of war finally lead to a world in which all nations were united in diversity and peace? In our struggles to heal these wounds, many blessings can flow regardless of our success in achieving our goals . . .
Another inspiration for today’s reflection comes from the hymn we will sing in a few minutes. “My Love Colours Outside the Lines” is filled with metaphors for different aspects of a life of faith. The one that ran through my mind this week is found in the second verse — “turns wounds to blessings and water into wine.”
Jacob’s wrestling match connects wounding with blessing. The same connection is made much more starkly in the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. As people of faith, we trust that our lives will be marked by many deaths and resurrections. Each time we encounter a wounding trial — whether in family, church, or society – we have a gracious chance to die to an illusion and be reborn closer to Love. With each painful blessing, the reality of the Risen Christ burns brighter in our hearts and minds.
We are people blessed by new life in Christ. We are also individuals, families, and communities who bear the marks of many struggles and wounds. May we give thanks for the enlightenment, self-acceptance, and love that sometimes flow from dark nights of the soul.
And on this weekend when we give thanks for our blessings, may we also give thanks for wounds that open us to a love so deep that it passes all understanding.
May it be so. Amen.