Saturday, April 24, 2010

Wrestling with God

It may seem lunatic to suggest that a single episode in a work as complex as the Bible could encapsulate the meaning of the entire text, but I’m going to make exactly that claim. The episode occurs in Chapter 32 of Genesis, when the patriarch Jacob, preparing to meet for the first time in 20 years with his estranged brother, Esau, spends a troubled night wrestling with a mysterious stranger who may be God, or may be an angel, or possibly is just a man.

It’s an enigmatic story, one that seems to spring up out of nowhere and bear little direct relationship to the surrounding narrative. No cause for the wrestling match is given; it just happens. There’s not really a winner; Jacob holds his own through the night but at daybreak has his hip dislocated by a touch from the stranger. And yet at the conclusion of the wrestling match, the stranger confers on Jacob a blessing and gives him a new name, Israel, which means to struggle or fight with God. And of course that name becomes the name of the nation founded by Jacob’s descendents, the chosen people whose history is the primary narrative line of the Bible.

Jacob is the most complex character to emerge in the Bible up to that point. His life has not been particularly admirable -- he extorts his brother’s inheritance from him, tricks his sick father into bestowing upon him a blessing intended for that same brother, escapes his brother’s vengeance by running away, is himself tricked into marrying a woman he does not love but by whom he proceeds to father seven children, etc. – and yet he has at least three close encounters with God, culminating in the nocturnal struggle.

Jacob’s life has been more or less a continuous struggle, beginning in the womb, where his wrestling with his twin causes his mother, Rebecca, an uncomfortable pregnancy. Jacob emerges from the tomb second after Esau, but holding onto his twin’s heel, determined not to be left behind and willing to hold his sibling back if needed so that he can catch up.

The younger twin, described as a simple tent-dweller, becomes his mother’s favorite, while his father favors the firstborn, an outdoors-y sportsman. Mama’s boy and Daddy’s little man are destined for conflict.
In the first important adult encounter between the sons, Esau has come home from a hunting trip hungry and tired. Jacob has prepared a savory lentil stew, but will only share with his brother if Esau gives up his expected inheritance to his slightly younger brother.

And while their father, Isaac, is an almost entirely passive figure, Rebecca is a schemer, willing to deceive her husband to get what she wants for her favored child. Jacob goes along with Mom’s scheme, putting on his brother’s clothing and allowing Rebecca to cover his arms and neck with goatskin so that he can trick his blind, failing father into believing he is Esau and gaining the heir’s blessing intended for the firstborn. Jacob is depicted as unsure about this move, conflicted about the deception, but ultimately acquiescent to his mother’s plan.

He gets the blessing, but lands in a world of trouble. When the deception is discovered, Esau plots vengeance and Jacob hastily escapes, heading east to the home of his uncle Laban, Rebecca’s brother, where he is to find a wife (so that he doesn’t intermarry with the Canaanites and cause his mother grief as Esau did).

Laban is every bit as crafty as his sister. When Jacob falls in love at first sight with Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel, Laban extracts seven years of servitude from him, then, on the wedding day, switches Rachel with her older sister Leah. Jacob wins Rachel’s hand only by promising another seven years of service. After that, Jacob labors another six years to breed sheep and goats to support his growing family, before escaping from Laban’s clutches.

But this second escape sends him back to Canaan, where he awaits an uncertain reception from his wronged twin. It is at this point where Jacob, fleeing from oppression into danger, encounters his wrestling partner.
In art, the stranger is typically depicted with wings, an angel. But that common interpretation is not supported by the text, which calls the wrestler first a man, but then has the stranger tell Jacob that he has “prevailed with God and with men.” Further, we are told that “when the form of God passed by, the sun rose on him” and that Jacob names the site of this encounter “The Form of God.”

Jacob has demanded to see his opponent’s face; again whether this happens is left a bit unclear, although I think the implication is that he does not. He never really knows what God looks like, despite the fact that he has spent hours in his arms. With a perfect flourish, the stranger disappears just as the sun rises.

It’s an intriguing mystery left hanging, and that’s perfect. As such, it embodies the mysterious, shifting relationship that God has with humanity throughout the Bible, one minute all-powerful, the next bending to the will of his creations; one minute loving, the next angry and vengeful.

Jacob’s life suggests he has felt the full impact of God’s shifting temper. He’s been blessed (literally) but he has also paid a heavy price for his misdeeds. He’s seen a stairway to heaven, but has remained earthbound.
It’s important to remember that if Jacob is wrestling with God – the concept of God, the reality of God, the powers of God – God is also wrestling with Jacob. And the creator does not win out over the creation. The way he dislocates Jacob’s hip with a touch suggests that he could prevail – I mean, after all, he is God -- but he chooses not to. He’s willing to engage, willing to deal with His creatures’ struggles for supremacy.

God made this mess we call humanity, and now he has to live with it.

Over and over throughout the Bible, we see this conflict play out. God sets down rules, humanity disobeys them. He forgives, they forget. He metes out justice, they ignore the intended lessons. I frankly get tired of the lesson being repeated over and over in books like Chronicles, but in Genesis, this episode has a raw and immediate power. God is right there, being grappled with, demonstrating his power but not too much, and then letting Jacob win, or think he has won.

Jacob embodies all of the conflicting thoughts and behaviors that we humans are prone too. He’s a submissive, obedient son to one parent but betrays the other; he cheats and lies, but remains faithful to the God of his father; he flees from the scene of his crimes, but when they catch up with him, he deals with the consequences manfully. There’s no character quite like him in the rest of Genesis. We don’t encounter another, similarly conflicted and comparably complex character until David (although Moses shares some of these qualities).

And this story only works, I think, with a protagonist as complex and contradictory as Jacob. For the action to make sense, Jacob has to be a fully rounded character, one who can stand in for all of us, collectively. Up to this point, God has been the only character in the Bible with this many shades; now his creation has come into adulthood, and God has himself a real contender to face off with.

Jacob’s partial victory in the nighttime struggle presages Jacob’s reunion with Esau, where his brother, who has evidently made a raging success of his life, forgives his errant sibling. They embrace and then agree to go their separate ways, to live and let live despite their past differences, but they come together once more to bury their father (who has somehow survived 20 years after the deathbed scene that prompted Jacob’s flight).

And the story of Jacob and Esau's brotherly conflict presages the next major narrative in Genesis, the story of the conflict among Jacob's own progeny that leads to Joseph's sale into slavery, his rise above servitude and his ultimate reunion with his brothers.
Families. Can't live with them, can't live without them. And by diving in and engaging in the hand-to-hand combat, God makes it clear that He is part of our family, for better or for worse.

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