Scripture can be found here...
Jacob, grandson of Abraham, and son of Isaac, has been struggling since the womb. His mother Rebekah implored God to relieve her of the battle going on between the two babies she would bear. God’s response was, pretty much, it is what it is.
And Jacob struggled coming out of the womb. The second-born, he grabbed onto the heel of his older brother Esau, as if to say, “Not so fast, buddy.” Hence his name, which means “heel-grabber.” Or maybe, just, “Heel.” Or even, “Cheat.”
Jacob proved true to his name. When we next see him he is his mom’s favorite, an indoor cat who likes to cook. His brother Esau is dad’s favorite, an outdoorsman, hunter, and described in almost animal-terms—hairy and red, more in tune with his appetites than with the wiliness of his twin. On one occasion, this enables Jacob, who’s cooking a nice pot of lentil stew, to persuade Esau to swap his birthright for a steaming hot bowl of the stuff. Esau’s too hungry at the moment to really think this through.
With the help of his mother, Rebekah, Jacob steals something even more precious. As their father Isaac enters into his later years, he prepares to give his elder son, Esau, his blessing.
Blessings in scripture are construed differently than we understand them. For Jacob and his family, this blessing came with the full weight of the inheritance. To bless the firstborn was to affirm that he was receiving the double portion—both of property and of God’s good gifts.
But Jacob dresses up in animal pelts, brings his nearly-blind father something nice to eat, and dupes the old man into giving him the blessing that was intended for his brother.
I want to pause for a moment to contemplate the idea that, the only way you could get a blessing from your parent would be to steal it.
Not long after this, Esau lets it be known that, once Isaac is dead, he’s going to kill that miserable, pencil-necked mama’s boy.[i] (I’m paraphrasing.) Soon, Jacob is running for his life. His struggles have only just begun.
But before we see the struggles, we learn something important about Jacob. He is a man who is capable of seeing visions, of experiencing the ethereal beyond the material. He stops to sleep one night, and is visited by a startling dream: a ladder is set upon the earth that reaches up to heaven. Angels are on the ladder, going up and down. And then, God, the God of his father and grandfather, stands 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; and 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. Know 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.” ~Genesis 28:13-15
Jacob has received the covenant promise from God, the same one given to his grandfather and father. It is an open-handed promise—it asks nothing in particular of Jacob, except his “yes.”
Unfortunately, Jacob’s response goes like this:
“If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God…” ~Genesis 26:20-21
It is a little shocking. This would seem to be the moment when we see that Jacob is indeed willing to wrestle with God as well as with his fellow humans. He takes nothing at face value. He promises nothing until he has a guarantee. That is, until Rachel.
The man named “Cheat” finds out soon what it is to be the one who has been cheated. In his travels, he meets and instantly falls in love with the beautiful Rachel—she too is the younger of two siblings. Her father, Laban, agrees to give her to Jacob in marriage in exchange for seven years of labor. When he wakes up the morning after his wedding, though, Jacob finds out that he has not been married to Rachel, but to her sister Leah. His father-in-law says, well, for Leah you can work seven years. For Rachel, it’ll be another seven.
The stories that follow of the painful relationships between these sisters who are now sister-wives strongly suggest that the practice of polygamy is doomed to failure. In the end, Jacob has two wives, two concubines, and thirteen children; and the path to that particular family constellation is filled with jealousy, heartbreak, and people being used and abused.
Jacob works for his father-in-law, and he has the Midas touch when it comes to breeding livestock. In the end, through the deals he strikes with Laban, Jacob amasses a small fortune. He’s a wealthy man, with a large household of people and livestock. But his relationship with Laban goes sour, and once again Jacob is on the run.
And now, he is on a path that will take him directly towards an encounter with his brother Esau.
The last Jacob heard, Esau was planning to kill him. So he sends emissaries ahead, to greet Esau. And the messages they send from Jacob reveal a man significantly older than when he pulled a fast one on his father and brother. They also reveal a man who is no longer full of arrogance—it may be that years of hard work for a hard case like Laban have worked on Jacob. His language is deferential, respectful, even submissive.
The messengers return with the news that Esau has 400 men with him. Which sounds an awful lot like an army.
Jacob is scared.
Jacob sends gifts to his brother—enormous gifts of flocks and herds. He is panicking.
This is the moment when we meet Jacob in this morning’s reading.
This is the Jacob who then proceeds to send everyone and everything away—wives, concubines, children, and property.
This is the Jacob who remains alone, on the most terrifying night of his life, on the other side of a stream from everything he holds dear, and everything he has either worked or schemed to obtain.
This is the Jacob who wrestles with a “man” until daybreak.
I was looking for some paintings of this very famous scene from scripture, and based on the names of works by Rembrandt, Bambini, Moreau, Gaugin, and countless others, the consensus, at least among artists, is that “Jacob Wrestles With an Angel.”
That may be.
The Hebrew word, however, is “man.”
Angel, man, God… who is Jacob struggling with?
Isn’t he, ultimately, struggling with all of them? Isn’t he, truly struggling with himself? With whatever that impulse was that told him he needed to wrestle away a blessing from his father no matter what?
We have seen the other side of “No matter what.” It is a life lived on the run. It is a life lived far from home. It is a life that is made rich—by love, by children, by work. It is also a life that is made painful—by deceit, by jealousy, by the ultimate struggle with who Jacob is and what he has done. In the end, it seems that Jacob has to find a way to live with himself, and his brother.
Another word for that is “healing.”
One of the things we are discovering as we move through the stories of God and God’s people is this: God is close, closer than we realize. And sometimes God reveals the divine presence through other, ordinary human beings. Like a father. Or a brother. Or a stranger. The text is, I think, deliberately various about the identity of the one with whom Jacob wrestles and struggles. Because he is none of these, and all of these.
Jacob struggles. He has been struggling since the womb. And here, at the end of his struggles, we find that whomever it is he has been struggling with blesses him with a new name. He is no longer “Cheat.” He is “One who struggles with God.”
The healing part… well, that comes later. As healing often does. If you want to weep, read the reunion between Jacob and Esau in chapter 33. Jacob is ready for Esau to kill him, and instead, the older brother runs to meet him, and embraces him, and falls on his neck and kisses him, and they weep together. Jacob says to Esau, “To see your face is like seeing the very face of God” (Genesis 33:10).
We struggle. We struggle from the moment we are in the womb. We struggle with one another, and with God, and with ourselves. And in the end, when we know ourselves, and find healing, we realize that, in encountering one another, we have seen the very face of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Thanks to Pastor Timothy Jay Wittwer from St. Cloud, MN for the colorful description!