A friend in America requested a Scots name for her new Border Collie pup. So I pondered, but as I did so, she decided on my name, Jamie. The pup is OK with it, I am OK with it, and so it goes..
But she did some digging into the original meaning of names, and found that ‘James’ at root signifies ‘the supplanter.’ This is not because of some tribal rivalry in ancient Scotland, but because the name James is the translation from the Hebrew ‘Jacob.’ It is the Hebrew name ‘Jacob’ which means ‘the supplanter.’
As a result of this, I got interested again in Jacob’s story, and went back to look at it in more detail. Its central motif — Jacob’s wrestling with God — is embedded in a very strange tale indeed. Some people regard Jacob as a type of trickster [like coyote], but reading the story in full suggests he was not a trickster, not a sacred clown, not a holy fool, but something altogether more prosaic and human. What comes through is almost endless deceit. Jacob was a deceiver, and involved in other people’s deceit, right up to the moment when he fought with God, and won the name of his people, ‘Israel.’ How could such a flawed human being rise to such a profound event as the battle by the river with the unknown man, or mysterious spirit, who stands in for God, and in some sense is God?
Even more fundamentally, how could such a flawed human being, living repeatedly in untruth, both his own and that of other people, become the vehicle through which is revealed the truth about God’s relationship with the people chosen as the preparation for the coming Messiah, the Redeemer of All?
How can God mold such poor clay to his purpose?
This is the most important thing about all the Old Testament stories= the Bible portrays the Jews constantly, not in any magically grand light, but rather in a hyper realistic light that reveals the human clay in all its weakness, flaws, foibles, evasions, and ‘sin.’ Never before or since was a ‘holy people’ so manifestly full of craziness, and downright evil… On one level, it is bizarre that the Jews are painted in such an unflattering manner. On another level, it is wonderful and really the whole point that they are portrayed as ‘losing the plot’ and wandering ‘off focus’ virtually all the time..
They are a people who, like their father Jacob, fundamentally struggle with God, and this very struggle is the ‘good ground’ God wants, and from which he brings forth unexpected fruit.
When it comes to the human heart, out of the worst God brings forth the best, out of weakness God brings forth strength, out of brokenness God brings forth change. It is human vulnerability that gives human power its point of contact with divine power. When we eliminate our vulnerability, in order to try to self-improve and expand our power by our own efforts, divine power abandons us, and leaves us to it.
This is a hard, and strange truth. But such truth is the driving engine of the Daemonic God.
The God revealed in the story of Jacob, and the human relationship to him which he blesses because he can indwell its heart and remake it, is not the God of the pious, not the God of the moralisers.
Jacob was the Third Founding Father, after Abraham and Isaac. Abraham’s story is astonishing– Kierkegaard wrote an inspired book on it [‘Fear and Trembling’]. Isaac’s story seems a bit quiet [and might therefore be seen as establishing Eros in distinction to the Daemonic], but with Jacob we are back with the extraordinary. That this man won the name of Israel, through battling with God, is a key ikon of the Daemonic God, not just in his dealings with the Jews, but also in his dealings with the whole world. Jacob’s journey from deceit into the profoundest truth of the heart of God in contention with the heart of humanity makes Jacob not just the paradigm for all of Israel’s future travails, but also the paradigm for all of humanity’s travails on the very long and very hard road of redemption.
For this paradigm establishes what is at stake in God’s promise to Israel to redeem the entire world process, in its materiality, space, time, history, and in all its persons, creatures, beings, and things. A redemption not fully physical, and not fully all-inclusive, would be a sham, a cop out, a betrayal. Consequently there is nothing magical about redemption; it is on the contrary bitingly existential and savagely realistic. Because the existential truth of the world is hard even to face, much less transform in the direction of a total redemption, a Jew will always be the first to say, ‘there is no transformation, there is no redemption.’ The Jews were the people chosen by God to suffer for the reality or unreality of the transformation involved in the universal redemption.
Redemption is all or nothing. No Jew will accept as redemptive a scenario that improves the spiritual part of the human being, but abandons the material part; the founder of Hassidism, the Baal Shem Tov, declared that ‘for a Jew, the physical is spiritual.’ Nor will any Jew accept as redemptive any scenario that elevates a few human beings, but jettisons the rest of humanity. Redemption is audacious, yet subject to the harshest conditions, and severest limits, that challenge and stretch its power. In a sense, there is a contest, a clashing, an opposition, going on between the world’s refusal, or inability, to shift, and redemption’s implacable Daemonic power that will not settle for anything less than total change.
This is why Jacob’s life is always full of strife, trouble, turmoil. Absolutely nothing in Jacob’s life comes easy. Everything comes hard. Hardship was forced on Jacob, at every turn.
Thus, Jacob’s story founds struggle with existence and struggle with God as the only path in which God is dynamically — Daemonically — brought into existence.
This is why ‘stones’ form a constant leitmotif through-out Jacob’s life= he puts a stone under his head as a pillow, he constructs a marker of stones after his vision, he has to remove a stone blocking the well to draw water for the woman he loves, he makes peace with his father-in-law by setting up a border of stones between them; one writer interprets this metaphor of the stone as ‘contending with the hard, unyielding nature of things.’ The transformation involved in redemption must contend with the hard, unyielding nature of things, or it is a lie, a piece of romanticism, or mere idealism, a flimsy chimera– not something to stake your life on.
However much Jacob starts as ‘crooked in heart’ — another word play on his name — he is ‘straightened out’ not by pious or moral living, but the sheer intractable existential truth that constantly scars and burdens him, and which drives him ever deeper, whether he wants this or not. His love for God is shown in this= he keeps faith with this terrible and beautiful road, he does not give in or give up prematurely along the way; he leaps into the unknown, and undergoes testing trials, for something great, without in any way fully realising where this odd path he walks is really going. He contends, he wrestles, he strives, with the intractable truth, the hard unyielding existential truth, of the world. Such truth is crucial to the purpose of the Daemonic God for the world.
The three crucial and earliest ikons of the Daemonic God in action are the three Biblical stories of  Abraham, the father of the real meaning of faith;  Job who suffered innocently and came to accept its necessity;  Jacob who literally wrestled with God= the deceiver became true in battle with God. Each of these stories is profound, but Jacob’s is foundational for the Daemonic God of heart passion in strife with the fallen — the lost and betrayed — human heart passion. Jacob becomes more and more ardent as he goes along because his journey gets more and more arduous.
In Jacob, the human heart is scorched by the divine heart, but Jacob does not just passively take this. He actively strives against it, and only by his active striving against God does God’s striving reforge him.
This is the peculiar paradox at the heart of Judaism, the koan for which there is no solution.
Such paradox where a contradiction holds is sometimes referred to as being caught in ‘the horns of a dilemma.’ If you side with either horn, you will lose the paradox. If you deny either horn as a danger to be surmounted, you will lose the paradox. Only if, between the tension of the two horns, you find the mysterious and difficult third that encompasses yet transcends both, will you have ‘come through.’ This is what Jacob does, in all his life, but especially in his battle with God.
Hence Jacob’s story is no comfort to  authoritarians or conservatives, who think that God should rule over humanity like a dictator over his subjects, and that this is done by the dictator handing down fiats from on high. Nor does this story comfort  liberals and relativists who think God tolerates anything and everything.
In stark contrast to  authoritarianism and  liberalism, this story  not only shows God working with human failure — Jacob gets the blessing precisely as a bad boy, the blessing emphatically does not go to any good boy — but also shows God forcing humanity to stand up for itself, give account of itself, and ‘honestly’ lock horns with him in a battle neither can win in any ordinary meaning of victory.
This is the strangest and most mysterious truth of the story. What was the battle between God and Jacob? What was at stake in this battle? What does it mean that in a sense Jacob prevailed and God lost, what does it mean that in a different sense God prevailed and Jacob lost?
The paradox cannot be reduced to ‘obeying God’ or reduced to ‘defying God.’ It is neither, it is both. It is something more than these usual human categories in which we articulate ‘patriarchy.’ There is no doubt that, largely against their will, the Jewish people are forced to come out of a motherly relationship to God and bear the brunt of a fatherly relationship to God. But this father, this ruler, this lord, is stranger and more mysterious than any human patriarchy can grasp. ‘Call no man father’ indeed.
Jacob’s life, which started in deceiving and theft, and went more and more into fated and fateful wrestlings with the hard and the profound, is not a story about  a father subduing and dictating to a son, nor is it a story about  a son rebelling against and overthrowing a father= the only two options with the usual sort of worldly father-son relationship.
Jacob in no way merely ‘submits’ to the will of the father; on the contrary, he is the very archetype of one who resists the discipline, the correction, the direction, of any father, first in his own flesh and blood father Isaac, but more especially in the fateful battle by the river, he takes on God’s spiritual fatherhood, his rule, his position as lord, and he challenges it by demanding something from it. Jacob neither submits to nor rebels against God, yet he seeks something from the father, and through the fight with God, Jacob wins what he has sought. At the end, in a certain peculiar sense, Jacob prevails with God, but in another reverse sense, God prevails with Jacob. For Jacob finds in God the different fatherhood he challenged God to give him, and God finds in Jacob a servant, a friend, a son, worthy to carry that more difficult but redemptive meaning of the divine fatherhood in his human heart.
Jacob is not merely ‘brought to heel’ by an angry God determined to demonstrate his fatherly authority and domination. Nor is Jacob flattered, or ‘let off the hook’, patted on the head for being himself, and seeking to ‘please himself.’
It is a stunning paradox. Jacob strives against a false fatherhood he will not accept, yet he does so for the sake of the darker, stranger, true fatherhood he is seeking– but only by contending with God does he find it.
A tremendous truth about the mystery of the Daemonic in its working with, and working in, humanity is revealed in this story..
Both sides lose something, both sides win something. What is lost and what is won unites the divine and human hearts in the most suffering fate, in the most weighty burden, in the ultimate sweat, tears, and blood, of redemption.
Jacob’s story, at its beginning, is all about the deceit born of human rivalry. Rivals do not give away to each other, or share with each other. They steal from one another, and kill each other, over what each one wants exclusively for himself.
Jacob has a twin brother, called Esau, and the story tells us that Esau just managed to pop out of the womb first, making him the elder sibling, but Jacob was battling in the birth process to get out ahead of Esau and so was right on Esau’s heels. In fact, he was born grabbing Esau’s heel. This gives the origin of the Hebrew name Ja’aqob, for ‘aqob’ implies a ‘crooked’ heart [Jeremiah, 17, 9], while ‘aqeb’ means ‘heel.’ Jacob is born saying to his brother, “you cannot get ahead of me, I’m right on your tail, watch out, I will overtake you.” This theme of ‘sibling rivalry’ predicts the whole future relationship Jacob has with Esau, and thus competition and dissension among brothers, rather than cooperation and unity, becomes the central theme of Jacob’s life. There is surely a kind of resonance here back to the two brothers who are the children of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. Cain is the grower of crops who is not blessed by God, while Abel is the nomad keeping flocks who gains the blessing, but in revenge Cain kills Abel. Cain is the metaphorical figure of the high civilisations that began their ‘rise’ with storing grain, while Abel is the metaphorical figure of the earlier Shamanic hunting and gathering societies always on the move, and travelling light. God prefers the nomadic life of few possessions and human inter-dependence to the settled life of acquisition and hoarding; the former creates human sharing of the good things, the latter creates ‘every man for himself’ in regard to good things.
Hence, ‘rivalry between brothers’ is the first manifestation of human fallenness, and symbolises much more than the rivalry among children in the family setting. It manifests the crooked heart in humanity that makes brothers into competitors. When the true relationship with God is lost [Adam and Eve], then the true relationship of brotherhood among humans is lost [Cain and Abel].
At any rate, Jacob is rivalrous with Esau from his first breath [though there is a suggestion in Genesis 25, 22 that both babies in the womb struggled within Rebecca to get out first]. Jacob is also battling against ‘primogeniture’, the whole notion that the first born takes the lion’s share. Or is he merely claiming this unfair privilege, which exemplifies everything wrong in the usual [false to God] kind of patriarchy, for himself? Jacob is the selfish person who, almost against himself and in spite of himself, is driven beyond his own narrow boundaries in search of something on a deeper level. This depth intrudes, and he cannot ignore it. But that suggests Jacob is initially ambiguous. He is, if not a trickster, then at least Ambiguity itself. He is someone who deceives to get his own ends, but it is this very person who has it in him to father a people in the true fatherhood of God.
Simple right/wrong morality is no use with Jacob; we cannot neatly split right and wrong in his case. Though much in his heart is like Cain, something else in his heart is like Abel. The wheat and tares are mixed together. More importantly, the wheat and tares are not fixed in their opposition, but are in dynamic inter-action. Such a heart can change.
None the less, Jacob is obviously the kind of child that any traditional patriarch would disapprove of. Isaac doesn’t much interfere with him, but it is clear early on that he is a mother’s boy, spoiled by mother, cosseted by mother, protected from father by mother. This kind of son is well known to modern therapeutic psychology. Jacob learns from an over indulgent mother to cut corners, to use charm, to avoid masculine challenges coming at him from other boys, as well as from his father. Self-discipline is far from such a boy= he grows up expecting to get by on talent, or on his wits. He isn’t pushed by masculine influence to develop muscle, character, strength. This doesn’t mean he is effete. It means he is more like Eros was as a child in Greek myth= his mother’s delight, because he has a masculinity not closed off to women, not armoured, not shut in and shut down– in the name of masculine toughness. Like Eros, he enjoys women, and there is a flow between his kind of eros-ic masculinity and the feminine. Each likes the other= they are in a dance. But masculinity of a more abrasive and more aggressive kind is excluded from their twosome, by definition. Jacob is certainly not yet the kind of warrior toward God he later becomes; and early on we see nothing to reveal he will go in that direction.
The story tells us that Esau worked in the fields, while Jacob stayed in the tents. Esau was never appreciated by the mother, he was a father’s boy of a certain kind, rough and ready, toiling all day, not afraid of hard labour and physical difficulty. His complexion was ‘ruddy’, that healthy red which comes from bracing activity in the outdoors. What was Jacob doing in the tents? Scholars disagree on this, and some very ultra kosher interpretations exist that are not in tune with the whole thrust of who Jacob clearly was in his early years. So, while some people say Jacob was praying in the tents and studying like a religious good boy should, that scenario is very much to be doubted. He was hanging around in-doors, laughing and flirting with the females of the household, playing, doing some obligatory study, but mostly just listening to and telling stories, or enjoying music, no doubt being a delight to all who inter-acted with him, but pointedly not going outside; he was in the tents to have fun and avoid the gruelling labour Esau had conquered as the mark of his manhood.
The first indication of the limitation of the kind of traditional father’s boy Esau was, and Jacob’s future path, comes in the famous incident of Jacob conniving to trick Esau out of his inheritance. Rebecca must have helped Jacob, her favoured child, with this plot. Esau comes in from the fields, starving from hunger, and Jacob uses a soup of lentils he had just cooked to persuade Esau to give up his right, as the first born [‘bekorah’ in Hebrew], to the father’s blessing [‘berekah’ in Hebrew]. The bargain is= Jacob will let Esau eat the steaming food, and Esau will let Jacob go in his place to Isaac to receive the old man’s recognition as the son to receive the first-born’s inheritance. This inheritance is not simply material, but really it is spiritual. The covenant with God, forged by Abraham, will pass from Isaac to Jacob instead of from Isaac to Esau.
The text gives hints at this point in the narrative of why God prefers Jacob’s mother-derived ambiguity to Esau’s father-derived solidity. Esau is covered in hair, he is virile and potent, a man confident and at ease in the world, while Jacob is described as a bit ‘simple’ and this does not mean stupid or backward, but implies someone who lacks his brother’s ‘worldly confidence’ needed for surviving ‘the ways of the wicked world’; the description can be read to mean that Jacob is ‘innocent.’ Jacob’s relationship with his mother has in fact spiritually preserved a quality of childlike innocence– does this even prefigure or anticipate Christ as the Lamb of God, the innocent one? Jacob may be charismatic, but his real saving grace is his innocence. He has the latent integrity that indwells those innocent of the world, and not powerful in overcoming the world according to its own lights and its own methods [the Hebrew ‘tam’ can mean both ‘integrity’ and ‘innocence’]. This lack of worldly power allows innocence to become a vessel of divine power, for it preserves something pure in the human heart in its relationship to God. Jacob may be a rivalrous supplanter on the surface, but deeper down he has the real purity of heart that marks those who are innocent. It is their curse and blessing.
Again, ultra pietistic interpretations disparage Esau at this point, and try to whitewash Jacob. This does not respect the actual account in the story, which is not clear, but partakes of the usual messy double-sidedness inhering in and surrounding Jacob. Esau makes an odd, almost throw-away remark in justification of why he prefers the immediate food to the long-distance promise of God to Abraham, and that is it. Personally I do not believe the Midrash reading which claims Esau had committed murder, adultery, and idolatry, the three cardinal sins, that morning, and was famished from his exertions! This is the very good-bad/right-wrong/good-evil ‘splitting’, or dualism, that this story is manifestly not about. Doubtless Esau did not take the religious dimension of his inheritance all that seriously, and stated this — maybe as a dismissive joke — in his willingness to trade his birthright for food. Maybe he thought Jacob was ‘having a laugh’, and didn’t really believe it would happen. Esau feels like a robust and cynical man, and thus this trade-off might have been done in an almost dismissive spirit.
The implication is not so simplistic, and easy, as saying Esau is the man of flesh and Jacob is the man of spirit; it is more subtle than that. Esau is the father’s man who, in conquering the world, has been conquered by the world. Jacob is the mother’s man who, in being innocent of and therefore not tainted by the world, stands a chance to discover the radically different relationship to the world that the true father has. The promise to redeem the world is the true father’s heart. Jacob could end up, as so often happens with the innocent, as someone simply destroyed by the world; or he might have escaped being moulded and fixed into worldliness for a different end.. As his story goes on, it becomes clear where this hidden, or latent, pureness of heart leads him. It leads him to reject the false father dominating the civilized world, yet it does not make him a rebel [and we know from mythology and real life that many rebels against tyranny end up worse tyrants than the authoritarian boss they depose].
Rather, his heart purity drives Jacob, unbeknownst even to himself, towards the fateful encounter in which he becomes the ultimate warrior, the warrior whose adversary is God. It is out of God being our adversary that God becomes our advocate, our redeemer.
If Esau is only too happy to sell his birth-right for a ‘mess of pottage’, it is because he is taken up with overcoming the world in its own terms, which requires much masculine grit, but this very triumph inherently rejects God, because God overcomes the world in a different way, and therefore needs a different kind of masculine ‘fighting spirit’ to represent his way. Esau reveals himself as the man who thinks he has defeated the world by his power and potency in worldliness, but such a man has lost the true father’s blessing because he has in fact sold out to the world.
Esau’s kind of father-oriented masculinity has conformed to some image of mastery, or control, that it thinks of as victory, but which in fact is a defeat for it without there even being a fight; and thus this kind of tough-guy stance, and combative virility, is in fact the castration of a man. Tell that to all the tough-guys wandering around in every culture on the face of the earth= you think you are in command, you think you are men, but the spiritual truth is the reverse= you are not men, you are castrated. These men have no power to redeem the world= they have no Daemonic spirit, they have no heart passion. They dominate the world– and fear the world dominating them; thus they see themselves as winners, and fear being losers. But in God’s eyes this stance has already lost the good fight, and will never be able to win it.
This is why the Jewish Bible [Malachi, 1, 2-3] says that God hated Esau and loved Jacob, from before either of them were even born. It is the stances they existentially took up that God hated and loved. There is plenty in Jacob’s character to hate, and plenty in Esau’s character to love. And by the end, Esau has forgiven Jacob and found a certain nobility, while Jacob’s tumults and problems continue on and on, into the story of his son Joseph. But that is not the point= a certain balance, a certain justice, is finally achieved between Esau and Jacob simply as two human beings equally dwelling in God’s love. But, it remains the case that Jacob’s way of ‘being in the world’ with his masculine heart is embraced, and Esau’s way of supposedly defeating yet actually conforming to worldliness with his masculine ‘brain and balls’ is rejected, by God. The latter is and will always be a part of the problem, even though it touts itself as the solution; the former is also no less a part of the problem, but has the potential dynamis to grow through travail into becoming part of the genuine solution. This is the spiritual difference between the brothers.
Jacob, as a man of the mother, has two directions in which he can go.
If he responds to the narcissistic and oedipal potentiality in the relationship to his mother, he will become as a man what is depicted in Greek myth, and well known to therapeutic psychology, as the Narcissus–Oedipus kind of man. The world is full of these ungrown up boys who get by on charisma, and beneath its glittering surface are often deceivers and thieves. But there is another way it can go, and Jacob’s story shows us this other way. It is this other way that is blessed, reluctantly, by Isaac, but is confirmed by God.
The other way is how innocence grows into passion. This is the secret of Jacob= his innocence became passion. This is what saved him, and what God took on, to reforge into something more. Jacob the unworldly innocent was destined to become the man of passion whose fight is with God.
This fight was God’s call to him, and in his innocence, Jacob heard it and responded.
Jacob was destined to fight God, and by this fight, to become the man in whom God fights for the world.
But we are getting ahead of the story. The incident where Isaac gives Jacob the blessing that Esau has thrown away is instructive.
Isaac has decided he is so old, it is time to give the blessing, and so he asks Esau to go out and hunt some meat, so the father can have a meal before the big event with his son. Rebecca overhears this, and tells Jacob, pointing out it is ‘now or never’ for Jacob’s trick to be put into motion.
The old man is semi blind. But he has perfectly good ears. Jacob fears the ruse of pretending to be Esau will be found out; this is our typical fear of punishment when we know we are about to do something lacking in integrity. Rebecca comes up with the solution; Jacob comes to Isaac dressed in a hairy coat, to simulate Esau’s body, and sure enough, Isaac runs his hands over the hair and says, this indeed feels like my son Esau. Isaac prefers Esau, it is clear from the context, simply because he buys into the ‘first born son’ ethos of that time and place. The first born not only gains the superior rank in the family, a double portion of all the father’s goods, and the family’s priestly office, but most significant for a Jew, the promise God gave Abraham in the first covenant. Yet Jacob is forced to speak to his father, and in claiming he is Esau, the old man has to know from the voice that the person in front of him is in reality not Esau but Jacob, and that Jacob is therefore lying. Why then does Isaac continue with the blessing of Jacob, instead of his preferred Esau?
Isaac is not fooled, at least not fully so, but against his wishes gives in to a fate that seems to be working against his natural inclination. Some impetus from God is present in the situation, and it stays Isaac’s hand= he does not unmask the deception, as he could and perhaps from a purely social and cultural perspective he should, but he goes with it. He blesses Jacob.
The text says that Isaac, after coming to full awareness that he had blessed Jacob instead of Esau, ‘trembled’ with great fear [Genesis, 27, 33]. It is as if Isaac has existentially chosen to risk the implicit and mysterious spirit over the explicit and defined rules of tradition. Yet after this choice, he fears he has transgressed.
No doubt Esau hardly cares about the spiritual dimension of what a father passes on to a son in regard to the new Jewish covenant, and cares only that his material inheritance, thus his worldly standing, will be diminished, if Jacob ‘gets the nod’ ahead of him. Once Jacob has left his father’s tent, and Esau has returned to it, the elder son realises the enormity of what has happened between Isaac and the younger son to his own detriment. He pleads with Isaac to rescind the blessing, but Isaac cannot; all he can do in the face of Esau’s entreaties is offer his more favoured son a lesser blessing.
Not surprisingly, Esau becomes enraged. He had forgotten the deal he struck with Jacob, as if he never took it all that seriously, but he remembers it now with resentment, and regards himself twice deceived [Genesis, 27, 35]. Esau determines to take revenge, and thinks in his heart he will kill Jacob. After all, Jacob did not beat Esau in any fair contest. The younger brother just manipulated his older brother in a moment of weakness, then snuck behind his back. How can your worldly power be stolen from you, by some little creep who is his mother’s favourite, but has never done a single decent day’s work for their father? We can easily imagine and empathise with Esau’s murderous hate for Jacob.
But Esau remains the archetype of the man who cannot discern what is of ultimate value in the world from what is ephemeral chintz. He is remembered, rightly, as the kind of man who, blinded by the false vision of masculine power and potency, throws away in the dirt his own truest dignity and real ‘standing’, for the sake of conquering worldly things that, at the end, don’t amount to a hill of beans. At this point in the story, Jacob is far weaker than Esau, far more the fast sleight-of-hand boy than the hard working and accomplished man, yet Esau cannot see and discern with the heart, he is comfortably accomplished in the world but for that very reason he is also eaten up by the world, and thus his virility of manhood is lost to God and in God’s eyes is castration. It is in the mother’s boy that the true father sees a latent power and potency like his own terrible Daemonic strength. The only strength that matters in a man is the strength penetrated and illumined by God’s strength, for God’s strength is what takes on the redeeming of the world.
This also prefigures Christ= only those who start innocent and vulnerable will grow into the real power= the power to redeem the world.
Jacob has to run– because Rebecca intuits Esau’s murderous intention toward her beloved son; she knows full well that if he stays, then sooner or later he will be killed by Esau. Hence, Rebecca commands Jacob to flee to the house of her brother, Laban, in the far away land of Haran. This will kill two birds with one stone= hopefully it will create the conditions [Jacob’s absence] in which Esau’s rage might slowly fade away, and Jacob can find a wife among his uncle’s daughters, Leah [the elder], or Rachel [the younger].
Fleeing from Esau, Jacob comes to a place called Luz, where he spends the night. He has left home so quickly, he has brought nothing with him. He is destitute, frightened, adrift. This is where he uses a stone for a pillow. During the night he has an awesome visionary dream– the vision of the stairway, or ladder, between earth and heaven, with the spirits going up and down upon it [Genesis, 28].
The next morning Jacob anoints the stone, naming it ‘house of God’ [beth-el], and then he makes a vow. As is usual for Jacob, the oath is more of a demand than anything else= “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that [one day] I come again to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God” [Genesis, 28, 20-21].
Jacob verges here on the presumptuous, but the Jews have always been bolder with God than anyone else, and God likes ‘chutzpah.’ Boldness only works with God when a person is sincere; otherwise it is arrogance. Often we have to be between a rock and a hard place before we will drop our play-acting and pretence, our defence and self-protection, and become real. It is when we are in extremity, stripped bare, that we have power with God.
But in reality the stupendous vision of two-way traffic between heaven and earth is an encouragement to Jacob. Heaven is being embodied in earth, the earth is being transformed redemptively by heaven. The ladder, or stairway, is the ‘gate’ of heaven, and it is being flung wide open. This is a second blessing of Jacob, this time by God, not by any human father. Jacob, whatever failings were the trigger for his ‘leaving home’, is henceforth on new terrain, in deeper waters, existentially in the hands of God. If ‘it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God’, then the terribleness of the Daemonic God has now begun to seize hold of Jacob as his son, in order to remake him. Even the root of Jacob’s name has another meaning in Hebrew, which only seems appropriate from this point on= for the verb ‘ye’aqeb’ can mean ‘he wrestles.’ Jacob has begun the journey toward his wrestling with God. From now on, he is more and more neither the man of the mother, nor the man of the world, but something different forged by the terribleness of God= ‘he who contends’, the one who seizes his fate, the one who takes on his adversaries with both hands. His evolution into a strange kind of warrior has begun.
One scholar thinks that Jacob’s ladder, or stairway, is the inverse of the Tower of Babel. Babel implies confusion, and a scattering of peoples. Thus Jacob’s vision must prophetically point towards, if this interpretation holds up, a coming clarification and gathering in. Israel is the immediate target of this, but beyond the Jews themselves, the ultimate target is the world. In the redemption, there will be a permanent spirit road between the spiritual and physical realms, and this will be for the nations a new ability to understand each other and a collecting together. The ‘Babel’ of confusion and division will finally end.. But this is still far off= a prefigurement, a pretaste.
Over the next years God will protect Jacob. But at the end of this period of plenty, more deception kicks in, another flight happens, and Jacob has to meet the God in battle whom he has both in a sense defied yet always sought.
This story does not found the kind of patriarchy fundamentalists, evangelicals, conservatives, and authoritarian Christians of every ilk claim that it does. Jacob’s story does not confirm patriarchy. Nor does it throw away any fatherhood, and revert to matriarchy. Jacob’s story subverts patriarchy, religious and political, for the sake of a fatherhood that is key to the love God has for the world.
This love is ultimately redemptive, and thus sacrificial. It does not command the world by force, nor rule over it from a great height, but gives itself away to the world, to plant a seed deep within it that has the power of a spark to ignite from within. Such will be the way the world changes..
After the vision, Jacob goes to the far country of his uncle, and meets the love of his life, Rachel, whose beauty spears him to the quick when he first lays eyes on her. So here is a man in whom God’s Eros has not disappeared, even if the grip of the Daemonic is upon him. He is moved by the beauty of woman. The woman signifies the sacred, and much else vital to creation= thus a redemption that suppressed, rather than liberated, the feminine would be as useless as a redemption that could not take on the intractable existential truth of the world.
On his way to Laban’s settlement, Jacob stops by the well where the shepherds were gathering their flocks to water them, and at this symbolically feminine place, he meets his uncle’s younger daughter, his cousin Rachel, who is a shepherdess. His attraction to her is instant. There is a sparkle in her eye and she is shapely and beautiful, the story says. He falls in love with her immediately, and remains in love with her for the rest of their days.
It is probably significant, though not much commented on, that in his first encounter with Rachel, the usual canons of patriarchy in regard to the man–woman relationship are reversed. Thus the betrothal convention stipulates that the woman should draw water for the man– and in a Jungian archetypal sense this makes sense. Water is feminine, and thus women gift its sacredness, life, and mysteries, to men. But when Jacob meets Rachel, it is he who draws water out of the well for her. Moreover, given the difficulty inherent to his path, there is a stone blocking the mouth of the well which he must exert himself to remove, before he can draw up water for the woman he loves. Jacob is being chivalrous toward Rachel. But perhaps the reversal in this scene is a way of saying that Eros remains in the hands of the Daemonic. Eros is not eliminated by the Daemonic, but Eros rests within the Daemonic= this is Judaism. Other religions might seek Eros alone, or as in puritanism, seek the Daemonic without any husband-wife relation with Eros. This too is paradox= Judaism retains the Eros of the ancients, but the Daemonic holds it in its hands, because the Daemonic is responsible for the world process. Eros is a part of the world; it cannot save us from the world. In the same way the soul is part of the heart; the soul cannot save us from the heart. The Daemonic is the heart’s existential fate, as it is the world’s.
Typical of the obstacles he must always overcome, Jacob will only win Rachel after protracted labour against resistance. The mother’s boy thinks women are there for the asking, it is all too easy, but Jacob will have to unlearn that in fighting for the only woman he wants to marry. God even ‘shuts up her womb’ to Jacob for years until she finally gives birth to Joseph. A man who can wait for a woman really loves her. Jacob is a lover.
This too is beyond the usual patriarchy, which downgrades women, and certainly fears any Eros linking the man to the woman. Such patriarchal men only see women as sexual provocateurs, because of not being able to love them; and they also split the dangerous sexual woman, the whore, from the safe mother figure, the madonna.
Even if not stated in black and white, it is clear from the colour of this story that Rachel is essential to Jacob’s struggle on the narrow ridge, with reversion to pagan matriarchy versus ‘macho worldliness’ as the converse abysses on either side of it. Without Rachel, the redemption for which Jacob suffered, carried a burden, made earnest endeavour, and paid a cost, all his life long, would not have been reached, and grounded. Marriage is not some concession to the human need for sex. In its totality of love, sex, and friendship, it is crucial to redemption. Thus Jacob’s story is spiritually not his alone; it is Jacob’s and Rachel’s story.
But even this is still a prevision, and will take much time to work its way to the forefront.
Jacob spends a month in the camp of his relatives, and then asks Laban for the hand of Rachel in marriage. Another deal ensues= Jacob will work 7 years for Laban, and only then will he be allowed to wed his beloved. These 7 years seemed to Jacob “like a few days because he loved her so much” [Genesis, 29, 20].
But the theme of deception is far from finished in this story, for now Laban tricks Jacob. It seems that what Jacob did to Esau he must experience the other way round in Laban doing it to him. Why is this? Is it because ‘what goes around, comes around’? It is not clear. Deception remains a central part of what Jacob must wrestle with. Even Laban’s name, on one interpretation, means ‘the deceiver.’ It is as if in ending up inextricably involved with Laban, Jacob has to meet the externalised apotheosis of his own self.
Be that as it may, Laban’s trick is to switch Leah, as the veiled bride, in the place of Rachel, at the very last moment before the wedding ceremony takes place. According to Jewish tradition, Rachel and Jacob feared that Laban might pull such a stunt, so they worked out a way to expose it, but Rachel catches the eyes of her older sister, and feels compassion, which means she cannot publically shame Leah. The wedding of Leah to Jacob goes ahead.
What is clear is that the theme of rivalry between Jacob and Esau is repeated with the younger and older daughters of Laban. Some commentators claim that the tension between Leah and Rachel will ‘cascade down the centuries’ and be reflected in the fractiousness of their descendants. Later Rachel will say of Leah, when her son by proxy is born= “With great wrestlings have I wrestled with my sister, and I have prevailed” [Genesis, 30, 8]. Hence the rivalry, and the deception that accompanies it, does not end with the sisters, for the children of Leah and Rachel will also be rabidly competitive. This results in Rachel’s firstborn son Joseph being sold into slavery to Egypt, through yet another trick played on Jacob. This trick is similar to how Isaac was fooled; Joseph’s tunic is soaked in goat’s blood. It is as if the struggle between, and necessary connection of, deception and truth is constantly being repeated in this narrative, through later events that have a spiritual analogy — thus a causal connection — with earlier events.
It would seem that deception stands in some dynamic relation with the truth towards which Jacob is so painfully striving.. Deception provides the travails that are like the birth-pangs for this truth.
When the switching of brides is unavoidably exposed the next morning, Laban comes out with a lame excuse to Jacob= in this country we don’t let the youngest daughter be married off before the firstborn daughter. He implies Jacob was at fault for being naive, and he was not at any fault. Moreover, he is quick to turn this situation to his advantage. He offers Jacob another deal= if you will work for me another 7 years, then you can have Rachel as well as Leah. I will let you have a second marriage of the heart to the younger daughter at the end of the week, when we have finished celebrating your first marriage of obligation to the older daughter. This is an offer Jacob cannot but accept, even though it means he will be tied to Laban in a kind of labour slavery for another long stint. This chunk of time will not pass so quickly..
Jacob slept with Rachel and loved her more than Leah [Genesis, 29, 30]. God sees that Leah is neglected and opens her womb, while Rachel remains barren. Leah’s first son Reuben is born. Then second, third, and fourth sons are born to Leah, and by this point, Rachel is seriously jealous. Rachel demands children from Jacob and he gets angry with her, saying it is God who has refused her motherhood. So Rachel gives him her slave girl, and two sons come through this. Rachel feels she has won against Leah now. Not to be outdone, Leah gives her slave girl to Jacob and two more sons are born. The race is back on! God is moved by Leah’s sorrow at being unloved, and so she gives birth to more sons, her fifth and sixth. Later she gives birth to a daughter, Dinah.
Rachel is one down again, but not counted out! For God remembers Rachel, and “opened her womb” [Genesis, 30, 22]. She gives birth to Joseph, declaring that God has finally taken away her shame.
It is at this moment that Jacob says to Laban that he wants to depart, as the full 14 years are up and the contract between them is finished. Laban offers Jacob wages, but Jacob wants his wives and children, and agrees to stay longer if he can choose from Laban’s flocks — which have hugely increased under Jacob’s stewardship — the striped he-goats and speckled she-goats, as well as all the black sheep. He wants these particular animals for breeding purposes. Laban sees no threat in this request, and agrees. This will commit Jacob to further years of work.
Jacob figures out a way to keep the superior mating stock he has taken out of Laban’s flock entirely separate from it, so that when their stronger offspring are born, they will belong to him, not to his father-in-law. As this genetic selection proceeds over time, it obviously must happen that Jacob’s herd is increasingly giving birth to better, more sturdy animals, while Laban’s herd is giving birth to worse, more feeble animals [Genesis, 30, 37-43]. The usual ambiguity inhering Jacob and those surrounding him is still in play.. Laban’s animals have increased quantitatively under Jacob’s management, but gradually he is without those of the highest quality, and is left with those of inferior quality. Has he benefited, or lost out? Who has tricked whom?
Whatever its meaning, Jacob’s stratagem makes him rich, in the next 6 years. Finally he is a man of property, “the owner of large flocks, with men and women slaves, camels and donkeys” [Genesis, 30, 43]. But this, as is usual with this story, only stirs up rivalry= Laban’s sons become bitterly jealous, and start complaining that “Jacob has taken everything that belonged to our father; it is at our father’s expense that he has acquired all his wealth” [Genesis, 31, 1]. Laban has reached the same dark conclusion. And who can say they don’t have a point? Despite his mystical experience, and the promise God made to him in its midst, Jacob is still on the receiving end of deceptive dealings, and is giving back as good as he gets.
There is an ambiguity in the human heart in regard to being good and being bad. The fact is, all human beings are both, but the key thing is the tension and dynamic between the ‘two hearts.’ Jacob lives in the ambiguity of this tension and dynamic, and this is paradoxically what makes his heart reachable by God.
Thus Jacob is the affected and affectable heart that can go either way. Leonard Cohen’s song declares the ambivalent reality as only a Jew could= ‘I will love you if I can, kill you if I must; I will kill you if I can, love you if I must.’ Jacob’s road is not separating deception from truth, but working through deception to truth. This is the royal road, the heart road, in Judaism– which has been so misunderstood. The conservatives have made this road rigid, when it is inherently dynamic; the liberals have made this road sloppy, when it is inherently discerning.
Jacob founds what Christ will later say to St Paul= ‘My strength is revealed in weakness.’
In the midst of the increasing tension between Laban and Jacob, God’s voice tells him to flee= “Go back to the land of your forefathers and to your kindred; and I will be with you” [Genesis, 31, 4]. Jacob then gathers Rachel and Leah out in the fields, and puts his take on Laban’s cheating, and his own fidelity to what God wanted, for he tells them that he had seen the idea of separating the goats for selective breeding in a dream. Is this excusing himself, or is he speaking truth?
When you just are keeping to the rules, there isn’t a conversation with God about life. However, ‘to live outside the law you must be honest’ [Bob Dylan]. The people involved in this process are struggling, taking risks, sifting and being sifted, as they go along.
The sisters rather predictably agree with their husband, and this sparks Jacob to ready his family and herds for departure to the land of Canaan.
From this point on, much action occurs in a short space of time.
Rachel steals her father’s household idols. Jacob yet again tricks Laban by getting away without being seen. He crosses a river, and makes for Mt Gilead. Within 3 days, Laban is told Jacob has pulled up stakes and fled, and, taking a retinue of male relatives with him, he chases Jacob and overtakes him at the mountain. Big trouble looks immanent.
Laban confronts Jacob, and they have a blazing argument– which might explode into physical violence at any second. Laban accuses Jacob of tricking him and driving off his daughters like prisoners of war. Laban claims he would have sent them away rejoicing, with songs and music. This seems more a debating point than anything else; given Laban’s track record, it is to be doubted this would have been his reaction to the climax of the bad blood simmering between him and his nephew. He says Jacob has acted like a fool, and he is within his rights to do him harm for this; but then he confesses that God visited him in a dream the night before, and told him to ‘say nothing to Jacob.’ Well, he has just said it.. He ends by asking why Jacob stole his household gods?
Jacob defends the rapid departure, saying he had been fearful Laban would snatch back his daughters. Then Jacob deflects the obvious anger between the two men by saying he will put to death whoever stole Laban’s gods– not knowing it was Rachel. So for the umpteenth time, we are thrown into moral ambiguity, and confronted by the complexity that constitutes human relationships. Laban proceeds to check inside all of Jacob’s tents, one after the other. When he comes to Rachel’s tent, she has hidden the family objects under her robe, and is sitting on them. She says she cannot rise, as it is her woman’s time; this lie is designed to protect her theft, and it works. Laban buys her excuse for remaining seated, and leaves the tent. He is empty handed, after his search.
Jacob loses his temper now, and turns the accusation back on Laban, asking what crime has he done to be set upon in this rude manner? He goes on to say that in all the 20 years he worked for Laban, he dealt straight with him. Ten times, Jacob accuses, Laban changed his wages. Jacob points out the vast amount of labour he has put in for Laban. He ends by saying, last night — referring to Laban’s dream? — God has delivered judgement.
Laban insists he could still claim as his all Jacob’s wives and all Jacob’s herds, but he decides to be magnanimous. “Come now, let us make a covenant” [Genesis, 31, 44]. This seems like the typical argument rooted in patriarchy, over which man owns the women and which man owns the goods– with the two not regarded much differently. But a redemptive touch is reached in the making of peace, for rivalry gives way to brotherhood. It is early days in redemptive history= the time of women, and even of animals, will come..
Jacob seals this covenant by making a cairn of stones, to act as the witness. Jacob names the monument marking the boundary between Laban and himself Galeed, and Laban says he will not cross it to attack Jacob, nor will Jacob cross it to attack Laban. There is an animal sacrifice that night, a parting meal, and the next day Laban rises early, kisses his daughters and grandchildren, and leaves. But Jacob’s troubles are not over. As he departs the camp with the people and animals, spirits appear. It is like that brief glimpse of ghosts walking through the walls of your dwelling, portending something, but you don’t know what.
Jacob has Esau to contend with, and he thinks this will be the last challenge, the final contention, in his life of trouble and strife.
But things are about to be radically reversed.
Jacob’s expectation could not be more wrong.
Jacob sends messengers ahead of him to Esau, to try to smooth things over. They return and say “Esau is already on his way to meet you; there are four hundred men with him” [Genesis, 32, 7]. Not surprisingly, Jacob is fearful and distressed. He makes a plan for meeting the onslaught, but knows perfectly well he will be overwhelmed. If this is payback time, he is done for.
Now, arguably for the first time in his life, he prays to God out of the deep heart in real repentance. It declares, I am here, I know what I have done to my brother. I need you. It is one thing feeling God is pouring his bounty of Eros on our heads, it is another thing entirely to be facing death, facing the real existential crunch, and having to decide if we trust God to be with us in this place. Jacob’s heart cries out to God. This is a moment when some of the moral fudging possible over the question of women and possessions has to stop. This is stark. This is clear. This is it.
This is ‘the battle on the rim’ Lorca speaks about. This is for life, this is for death. It all has come down to this.
What Jacob cries to God — squeezed out of his heart that has been squeezed by existential apprehension and agony — is twofold. He asks for help, for protection, for God’s strength, and he asks if God’s promise to make him the father of a people more numerous than the sands on the seashore, granted in the vision of 20 years ago, is true. All our heart rooted crying to God, all our prayer of the deep heart, asks God= is your promise, is your vow, that stakes your big divine heart to my small human heart true? It is not believable, of course. It makes no sense, obviously. It is too personal, too much a relationship of your Thou to my I, to be possible, isn’t it? The divine is an impersonal immensity, and the best I could wish for as a personal and limited being is to disappear into that. Why should God want my heart, and why should my heart trust that God has a heart? Why should God’s heart have dealings, terrible and deep, as well as great and awesome, with the human heart?
Why has it come down, at this time and place, to my heart? I am frail, vulnerable, exposed, too affected and affectable.
But it does come down to this.
It comes to my heart, and your heart. It comes down to a particular personal heart in a particular time and place.
It comes down to this. God is staked, and you must be staked where God’s promise, where God’s vow, bites. Where it can stand, or flee. Where it can contend, or fail. It is worse to trust God being staked to the ground, than to trust my, or your, being staked to the ground where God has come.
But this is what it is. This is what it comes down to, in this place at this time. We stand together, and we stand over an abyss. Both God and I are in this test. It is safer that heaven remains above, and does not come below.
But this is what it is. It is now. It is here. Time is up. The abyss is beneath us, and fate is ahead of us, but coming fast.
“Then Jacob passed that night there” [Genesis, 32, 14].
Morning brings dawn, and that encourages hope. Jacob decides to choose a gift for his brother. Your conscience is far from blameless, so that ratchets up the tension as well.. What if it is God in the shape of Esau that is the nemesis which comes back at you for what you have done? So you decide to really gild the lily= you will send your wronged brother, out for your blood to put that old wrong right, scores of goats, sheep, camels, cows and bulls, donkeys. Lay it on thick, and maybe that will mollify him. Address Esau as your lord, and call yourself his servant. You are being humble, and conciliatory. Will it succeed? Will it be enough? Look at you= this is your last trick, this is still the tricky-dicky boy trying through sleight of hand to avoid head on battle. But you know perfectly well you are whistling in the dark.
In the deep dark of your heart, in the black of the God who has seized and is squeezing your heart, you know a battle is coming. Even as you try to again cheat your way out of it, you know it is coming, and has all but arrived. Beneath the crooked heart of the mother’s boy, the heart strengthened by the difficult, hard road you have walked down, your true manly heart, is calm. It is at peace because it knows the war is on, and strangely it also knows, in this last instant before it all happens, I was born for this.
I was born to this. Fate has overtaken me, and now is my destiny revealed.
I was born to a battle, and now it is come. Amen. There is an ‘alas’ in this, but there is also a ‘thy will be done.’
I am ready. This is the real surrender= the acceptance of the Daemonic. You cannot run anymore. There is no fudging it, and there is nowhere to hide. There is nowhere to go. It has arrived, and you have arrived with it, and that is all there is. Even prayer, now, is no more.
The day passes in a stunned and yet peaceful silence. I am waiting for what has already come.
I expected you in the first light of morning, but you came in the night, unexpected, and when I saw you, I could not believe it, and yet I knew you, because I had been carrying the wound of the knowledge of you all my life.
You came like the thief in the night, but you were not a thief, you were the ultimate enemy of and the ultimate strength in my heart. I waited for you all my childhood. I was restless being flattered by the women, and impatient around the bragging of the men. I knew what awaited me. I was sucked in to what was all around me, but I waited underneath it all, for your coming. I relished the battle, and now I join it with an exulting heart. You will wound me, but I will wound you first, as the mark of my sincerity towards you. Then I will bear forever the wound you leave in me as the meaning of our encounter.
I am he who fights God, and is fought by God.
I am he who wounds God, and is wounded by God.
The women imprisoned in flattery and the men imprisoned in bragging will not understand our fight. The world will be indifferent to it.
I am he who fought God for love, and was fought by God for love.
I am he who wounds God because of God’s love for me, and I am he who is wounded by God because of my love for him.
God has fought me, God has wounded me, because he will not give up on that love. I was tempted to put many other things in its place, and I gave in, many times, day in and day out, but I never forgot what I knew in my childhood was stalking me, and secretly my life became my hunt for it.
God has fought me, God has wounded me, because he will not give up on this love, and I fought him, I wounded him, because I resisted it and then embraced it.
I am he who prevailed over God because God loved me; I am he whom God prevailed over because I loved God.
I am he whom God is wounded for, and I am he whom God wounded, for this love.
No, you cannot comprehend it at your safe distance. Step into the arena where there is a fight, where there is a wound, and you will know for yourself what I knew that night.
I had ceased running and turned round to embrace it.
Its fight prevailed over me, because the fight for love prevailed in me.
Its wound remained with me, because the wound in love went deep in me.
You came, unexpected, in the black of night, and in that blackness we contended, hour after hour, and in the morning the red blood of sacrifice was spilled.
The red of this blood was also the red of the fire to come.
The account of Jacob’s battle with God is sparse, enigmatic, elusive.
In the night, sometime before the stranger came, Jacob sent all his wives, children, and animals, over to the far side of the river called Jabbok. He remained on the near side. “And Jacob was left alone” [Genesis, 32, 25].
Without any warning, a man appears — or it is a spirit — and this mysterious intruder is immediately locked in battle with Jacob. There is no build up, no ‘introductions’, no preamble. A man, or a spirit, suddenly is wrestling with Jacob. This man, or spirit, stands in for God, and in some sense is God. The man, or spirit, is nondescript= there is nothing to be said about him. He just is. He grasps hold of Jacob, and Jacob responds. The fight erupts out of nowhere, but once on, it stretches through the long hours of the night.
Can Jacob lose this fight? He can. The two figures battle on the edge, by the dark waters of the fast flowing water. If Jacob loses, he will plunge into this water of lostness and be swept away. Can he win? The fight becomes what boxers call a ‘war of attrition’, in which neither side overwhelms the other, but both simply go on inflicting maximum damage on each other. Jacob and the stranger must be equally exhausted, but as the hours wear on, the fight does not let up.
Jacob fights. Jacob strives. Jacob wrestles. Jacob contends. Jacob struggles. All these words are true to Jacob’s battle on the edge, near fast flowing water that will carry him into oblivion if he loses his standing, and falls down, and in. He has to hold his ground, and he does. As the night deepens, Jacob exerts a pressure born of the effort that comes to you when all effort is spent; you are no longer fighting on your limits, but fighting beyond yourself. Slowly, imperceptibly, Jacob begins to win. His heart is found true, and found strong, in this battle that he never chose but had been awaiting, and secretly seeking, all his life. Little by little, Jacob’s heart waxes, and his opponent’s wanes.
The dawn is coming.
As the first faint light starts to push back the night in which they had striven, this stranger –the intruder, the non-descript adversary — realises he cannot overcome Jacob, but is by small degrees being overcome by him. The man, the spirit, who stands in for and in some sense is God, then wounds Jacob, to make him relent. The wound is variously translated as a stab to the thigh, or even as a blow in the socket of the hip on the sciatic nerve. In truth it should not be literalised over much, because this wound, like the fight that it climaxes, is in the heart.
Jacob is fighting, striving, wrestling, contending, struggling, with God about the heart, in the heart, for the sake of the heart. The future of the heart is at stake. Neither party to this heart, divine and human, can withdraw from such a battle. Both are staked to what is at stake for the heart.
What is at stake is battled over, and the battle culminates in a wound. A wound ‘resolves’ the fight.
Jacob will forever afterwards limp.
Yet even after he is wounded, Jacob will not let go, and goes on “wrestling” [Genesis, 32, 26]. The man, or spirit, does not want to stay in the day-light. His appearance, and mission, needs the night. He says, let me go, for day is breaking. But Jacob replies, I will not let you go unless you bless me.
What happens next explains it all, and is inexplicable.
I strove with you, to show you I was sincere, to show you the heart you gave me, not to run from it, but to lean on it and act from it, as you wanted. I affirmed the will in my heart you put there, but I also strove against your will, I had to resist it, I had to question it, I had to honestly declare its otherness, and my mistrust in your otherness. I always demanded you be as I needed you to be. And, it did not distress me, or throw me, that you resisted this insistence of mine that you serve my scenario of the heart’s life. I knew it could not be as easy as this, to make you a part of the circle of my heart’s affections. But I had to believe I mattered to you, and it was through your beneficence to my need that I first was drawn to you. Yet I always knew there was something greater than this, something deeper than this, and even as a child living in the circle of my affections, I prayed for this to break in upon my life. So, when you came, I had to try to prevail, and yet I knew that it would be reversed, and you would not prevail over me but prevail in me. Your greater and deeper heart would fight, and wound, my small and shallow heart, in order to enter its life.
In the long hours of contending with you, I became exalted, and the wound you inflicted in my power to stand and to fight brought me back down to earth. You enabled me to stand up to you as a man, and affirm my human heart, but in the end I was grateful that you both acknowledged my power with you and demonstrated your power is greater and deeper. This is why I would not relent, until the wound was inflicted.
In what they remembered of our encounter, they recorded only my name with you. But they left out your name with me. You would not give me your name, but our encounter revealed it.
My name became Yisra-el, which means many things all pointing toward the same paradox. One who has struggled with God, striven against God, battled God. They called me, he who has been strong with God. They even said of me, he is one who has power with God.
They called my children Yisra-el, because the blessing I asked from you was granted in the changed name you gave me. Only you know the name each of us has in your heart, burnt into it through a wound. My name, and my people’s name, remembers my journey from a crooked heart that was rivalrous with the brother to a heart that was strengthened, and empowered, through fighting God, but they also forgot something that only you and I know.
You would not give your name to be remembered, and recorded, because only those who fight you and are conquered by you in conquering you, only those who restrain you and are restrained in the restraining of you, only those who wound you and are wounded in the wounding of you, can know your name.
God fights, through a wound.
That we are made strong against you is not the full paradox of the name you gave me, and my children. My name contains a plea, a request, a prayer. In the end I was not the gifted boy, nor even the exalted man battling in the full immovability of his strength, in the full flow of his power. In the end, I knew you would wound me, and I accepted it, because I wanted you to conquer in my conquering, I wanted your strength in my strength, I wanted your power in my power, and in the end, I even understand the last amen in my heart. If there was a submission in my life, it was only then, and only to that. God fights, through a wound. To fight for us, God is wounded. And thus for us to fight God’s fight, we must be wounded by God’s wound.
God’s strength, God’s power, is not a majesty that imposes itself upon the world; that night, as the hours of struggle and battling wore on, a false father died, and a true father was born.
The wound not only showed your heart to me, it opened my heart to you. I saw the greatness and depth, and I aspired to it, I admired it, I honoured it, I respected it, and yes, I Jacob, deceiver and thief, corner-cutter and easy-way taker, bent my knee to it. I fell on my face, and I sang inarticulate praises to you. A child who had not had a father, I found in you a father stranger, darker, more fiery, than any of my scenarios, wishes, hopes, could have arranged in my head. All that nonsense died. Before, I had always asked things from you. Give me protection in the dangerous world beyond my familiar home, give me Rachel who delights my heart and stirs my loins, give increase to my wealth and worldly position, defend me from my two faced uncle, save me from my aggrieved brother. Always, I was asking for something. When I held onto your emissary and your presence, in the last of my strength, in the fading of my power, I ceased asking for anything. I asked for your blessing. I could not take this for granted, but humbled and even contrite, I stayed your departure a moment longer to confess I wanted, more than any strengthening by you, more than any empowering by you, your approval. I wanted you to say my heart was worthy of the one and only heart of supreme worth. I had begged before, for your bounty and your help, but now, beyond the limit of my persisting, I abjectly pleaded with you. Father, may I have your blessing.
This is the significance of the name you gave me. It came with your blessing. It was your blessing. You pronounced my struggle, my striving, my wrestling, my battling, true, and worthy, and you made it the door-way into a reversal that only you and I knew, but was not remembered when our encounter was recorded. You are the God of reversal, the God of the strength in weakness, the God of the power in vulnerability. You fight, and you reverse this fight through a wound. The wound was not the climax, but the whole point, of our fight.
This is what you blessed, as the dawn stole away the night in which we had contended.
The next day Jacob assembled his family and his animals, and went out to meet Esau. Esau’s spirit of revenge had been draining away over the years, and the gift of stock had touched him. It was an acknowledgement, in Esau’s terms, of what Jacob had stolen away. The meeting of the brothers is joyful. Esau offers to accompany Jacob home, but Jacob will go more slowly because of his children. Jacob’s convoy will rejoin Esau at Mt Seir.
Jacob arrives in a place called Shechem, where more disaster befalls his entourage. He buys some land, and his only daughter Dinah is raped by the local prince, who wants to marry her. Two of Jacob’s sons take terrible revenge, tricking the local men involved in attacking their sister, and by that ploy killing them as well as the prince. Jacob is silent during this incident, but on his deathbed he rebukes Simeon and Levi for their vengeful anger [Genesis, 49, 5-7].
As Jacob and his retinue nearly reach Canaan, Rachel dies in childbirth, giving birth to Benjamin. He is ‘the child of sorrow.’ We can only imagine Jacob’s sorrow. After the stupendous event, beyond human comprehension, at the river, he loses his beloved. God gives and God takes away, almost simultaneously. God changes our relationship to the world, but despite the exulting, and the suffering, and the final revelation, in the divine encounter, the world is still there. The world goes on, just as before, because it is the world that has to be changed. We are changed, only to change the world.
Jacob buries Rachel, and leaves a monument to her. The place is just outside Bethlehem, where Christ will be born more than a thousand years later. Pilgrims still visit Rachel’s tomb, to honour her willing suffering of a wave tossed husband. They loved each other.
Jacob finally saw his father Isaac again in the place called Mamre, outside Hebron. When Isaac died at the age of 180 [maybe this is measured by lunar months, but the old man was very old indeed], Jacob and Esau buried him together, as two loving brothers grieving for a father, in the cave of Machpelah which Abraham had bought as the family burial plot many long years before. Abraham was gone. Isaac was gone. It would be many years more before Jacob, the third of the early fathers of Judaism, would go.
After the fight, the wound, the blessing, at the river, Jacob’s troubled life went on, and the weird intermixing of the holy and the profane that marks the way of redemption in this world just continued. Only in extreme old age, near death, was he granted peace. Jacob died at 147. According to Jewish tradition, he died trying to prophecy the exact date when redemption would arrive, but he failed. Instead he asked his sons if they were righteous, and this meant, would they carry on in the fight, the wound, the blessing, he had undergone for them, and by their reply he understood they would. He died content. We will not be told the when, but it is up to us to faithfully fulfil what we can do towards the how. The rest is with God, and what he will do. No one can know this.
Though Jacob’s existence in this world of ‘sturm und drang’ continued into extreme old age, I imagine him sometimes remembering the fight by the fast flowing, dark waters, and not being able to picture it but recalling it with a stab to his heart. It was something too great for a man, too deep for a man, and thus the human heart that bears and endures it, that carries it as the weight whose load is too heavy for the poor and frail human clay, is ripped asunder, and joyfully weeps tears of grief and fire.
The man [Genesis, 32, 24], who was a spirit [Hosea, 12, 4], and showed the human face of God [Genesis, 32, 30], revealed the great and deep heart of the father.
This is the real denouement of Jacob’s story, and the painful but luminous hurt that cannot be described in words, but will never be excised from memory.
You were defeated for love of me, I was defeated for love of you.
My prayer secretly pleaded, may God prove strong. My unvoiced thanks declared, God will prevail.
We know your name. Yisra-el captures the journey toward it, but leaves out the reversal that climaxes it, and is its whole point.
God fights. He who fights God truthfully, and with honesty, will, through a wound, become he who fights for God.
This is the God I met at the place I renamed Penu-el. I chose it because it means, ‘for I have seen God face to face, and lived.’
We were told this God never manifests in human form, but he did with my grandfather Abraham, and he did with me. He has a human face, a spirit’s potency, and the heart of a father.
This is the true God whose blessing I strove all my life to be worthy of; this striving is what God blessed.
I will fight for, I will be wounded for, I will bless, what he loves.
This is the secret of what changed over that long night, as the heart of God and my human heart contended.
I am Jacob, and became Yisra-el.