I think a good title for a book would be "Rascals of the Bible." Rascals may be to tame an expression to identify some of our Biblical "heroes." But we do know that there is a willingness in the Biblical record to describe both the strengths and the weakness of the characters as they are presented. I think unfortunately we gloss over the weaknesses and inconsistencies in an attempt to highlight the heroic and even the perfectionism of those who live real and often blemished lives. I have said before that the Bible is true only in as much as it is true to life and that means presenting human beings as flawed and fallible.
Welcome to the story of Jacob, a complex man who will become the cornerstone of the new nation of Israel. I have to admit that I am drawn to these flawed and inconsistent characters in both the New and Old Testament. Perhaps it is because I sense myself to be both flawed and inconsistent, and in them I find a sort of comradeship. Or that they, regardless of the fact that they often missed the mark, were still incorporated into the realm of God.
Jacob was an interesting man. The name Jacob ??????? meant "heel" or "leg-puller" or "tricker". The Hebrew scriptures cast him as the son of Isaac and Rebekah, the grandson of Abraham and Sarah and the younger twin brother of Esau. Jacob had twelve sons and at least one daughter by his two wives, Leah and Rachel, and by their handmaidens Bilhah and Zilpah. The children named in Genesis and become the twelve tribes of Israel.
Jacob did a terrible thing: he deceived his father and robbed his brother Esau of his birthright for a bowl of porridge. In a good moral story this should have been the end of Jacob, but no, he goes on to triumph while his brother must assume the lesser light. How can that be so? Dont good and justice always triumph over evil and deception? Welcome to the real world - and I dont mean by that the world of everyday life. It is also a world in which the source of life has rules beyond rules.
If it was so simple that every good cause had a good effect and every bad action and intent had a bad effect, we would be living in another world, not the world we live in today. There is even a greater good than this simple cause and effect and that is the law of human growth and reflection.
Jacob the Wrestler:
We pick up the story of Jacob as he has left all that he has on the other side of the River Jordan and is to meet his brother perhaps for the first time since he has betrayed him. Jacob may be a trickster and usurper, but he is not so courageous as to meet a man who is a hunter and a fighter. He finds a place to sleep. To rest before the forthcoming encounter. And he dreams.
That same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok sending them across the stream, with everything he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he could not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.
In this vision, this dream, this mystical experience, Jacob the man wrestles with a man. There are so many interpretations of this scene. But for me the most credible is the sense of inner turmoil an individual faces when they are confronted with a significant experience in their life. In the current spiritual lingo this is regarded as the "Dark Night of the Soul," It is a painful experience but it is also the place of birth and new life. This is the experience of Jacob .
I want to slow down at this point and recognize that not all pain and deep wrestling is redemptive. Honesty demands the admission that there are difficult situations that we do not always recover from. Nevertheless, the great spiritual writers have encouraged us to see our future in the presence of dark times. It was Nelson Mandela who said: The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.
And even the Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius said: The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing.
The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing. I know that I would prefer dancing any day (not that I am much of a dancer) but reality says that real life is about wrestling with the big issues and they, as Jacob experienced, are often in our dreams and imaginations.
Jacob is Wounded
Then the man said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." So he said to him, "What is your name?" He answered, "Jacob." Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled vigorously with God and humans, and have prevailed."
Jacob continues throughout the night thrashing and wrestling with this inner turmoil. But this travail must reap a reward: "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." Jacob wrestles a blessing for the man and it is a new name. Not just a name but a new identity. His name shall be Israel ??????????, which means to "persevere with God." Ah! This was no ordinary man: his wrestling was with Gods self.
And now comes the bitter pill, the difficult pill to swallow. There is no blessing without a curse. Nothing worthwhile can be achieved without sacrifice and struggle.
When the man saw that he could not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.
The Wounded Healer:
But is it a curse or identification with all humanity? Many ministers of my age were influenced by Henri Nouwens book, The Wounded Healer. Nouwens book was a breath of fresh air to the divide clergy had lived with between themselves and their congregations. He said:
Who can listen to a story of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in his own heart and even losing his precious peace of mind? In short: "Who can take away suffering without entering it?"
The true professional is not someone who hides behind techniques and acquired skills, but rather enters into the experience of others through their own woundedness.
And as Nouwen says " the hope is that Jacob, having wrestled with God, leaves Jabbok as a wounded healer, not as a wounded wounder." Because we know the damage that wounded wounders do to others and in communities.