Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon Theologian
Sunday, 17th October 2004
Readings: Gen 32:22-31; Luke 18:1-8
I think Jesus must have loved the stories about Jacob, because he made them the basis for one of his own best-loved stories. As I re-read the story of Jacob wrestling with the man, probably all night, ‘until daybreak’, which we heard as our first reading,‚ I was very struck by this.
You remember how we are told that Jacob sent his wives, Leah and Rachel, his maids, his children who became the fathers of eleven of the tribes of Israel, and all his possessions across the river Jabbok ahead of him. He was left alone on the far side of the stream, and there he wrestled with a man until the break of day. In the course of the wrestling Jacob’s hip was dislocated and as the day came, the man said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking’, and Jacob replied, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me’. The man asks Jacob’s name, and when he is told, says that from now on his name is going to be Israel, ‘for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed’. In return, Jacob asks him his name, but is not told it. The man simply blesses him, and Jacob calls the place where this happens ‘Peniel’, because there he saw God ‘face to face’. The story closes with Jacob limping on as the sun comes up and he leaves Peniel behind. The next thing we read is that he saw his brother Esau coming with four hundred men.
We have to look at the story of the wrestling in the context of Jacob’s feud with his older twin Esau. Clearly, he was fearful as he returned to his home with his wives and possessions because there he would be faced with Esau. The two had fought, we are told, since they were in the womb of their mother Rebbekah. Twice Jacob cheated his hunter brother, first of his ‘birthright’, that is his special right to an inheritance from his father as the firstborn, and then, when his father had become old and blind, of the blessing his father intended to give to Esau. Later, we are told how Jacob left his father’s home to seek a wife from the family of his mother. On his journey he had a dream of a ladder reaching up to heaven and angels ascending and descending on the ladder. At the top of the ladder stood God, who said, ‘By you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves. Behold I am with you and will keep you wherever you go’ (Gen 28:14-15). With this blessing, at a place he called Bethel, God’s house, Jacob went on, to work for his mother’s brother Laban for twenty years and in the process to become very rich. Only then did he turn for home.
His must have expected this to be a bitter homecoming, and that the old hatred with Esau would spring up again. Perhaps he sent his wives and children ahead to prepare the way, to show he came in peace.
My guess would be, and it can only be a guess, is that the man Jacob wrestled with was Esau. It is often thought to be an angel, but the writer of the story, who was clearly interested in angels, doesn’t say that it was. ‚ When he wants to tell us about angels, as in the story about the ladder at Bethel, he makes it clear that’s what he has in mind. Jacob fought with ‘a man’, and we know that Jacob had fought with Esau all his life, in fact from his mother’s womb. ‚ I guess Jacob was also in some sense wrestling with his conscience. It’s very odd that when we have so clearly been told, several times over, that Jacob had been blessed, what Jacob really wanted was this man’s blessing. Why another blessing?‚ Could it be the blessing Jacob really wanted was the blessing of forgiveness, of acceptance by his brother?‚ One would like to think so, but I’m not so sure. It may just have been that Jacob wanted the assurance of peace from someone he very much feared because he knew how much had wronged him.
The next thing we read in the story, after the experience at Peniel, is that Jacob saw Esau coming. Jacob had clearly caught up with his family, because he divided up his maids with their children, then Leah and Rachel with theirs, but he himself went in front, bowing seven times until he came to his brother. ‚ What we then read is that Esau, far from rejecting him for being a cheat and a liar who had never done a decent day’s decent hunting in his life, ‘ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him’ (Gen 33:4) which is exactly what the father does in the story of the prodigal son (Lk 16:20). My guess is that Jesus knew the Jacob stories very well, but adapted them when he re-told them for a different purpose. After all, like the story of the prodigal son, the Jacob stories are about the rivalry between an elder and a younger son; about a younger son who pushes in to claim his right to an inheritance; about his going to a far country; about his return and his asking for forgiveness; and about the elder son’s never having left home. What Jacob says, when Esau greets him so generously and, we are told, ‘they wept’, is ‘Truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God’ – which I think gives a final clue as to the identity of the man with whom he wrestled at the place he called Peniel, which means ‘face of God’. I guess too that may have given Jesus the clue to shift the roles round in his story of the prodigal son, so that the one who was wronged by the younger son, the one who ran and fell on his neck and kissed him, was more clearly seen to represent the one whom he called ‘Abba’, ‘Father’.
We need both. We need Jesus’ parable to teach us of the joy there is in heaven (if you like, all the way up the ladder) when we come back to God and ask God’s forgiveness for our stupidity, our selfishness and the unspeakable pain we have caused. We also need the story of Jacob and Esau to remind us that it is in the face of the one we have wronged that we may see the face of God. I guess the wrestling that went on in Jacob was partly about which face of his brother, and so which face of God, he would see. Would he see his brother’s face cold and bitter in rejection; would his God confront him with the condemnation that his sins deserved?‚ Or would his brother’s face be shining with welcome, his eyes bright with love; would his sins be forgiven and forgotten in a moment?‚ All night long, struggling with his knowledge of Esau and with his own conscience, he sought to fight his way through to a confidence that his brother would welcome and forgive him, which would be blessing indeed.
Throughout his ministry, and by the very way he died, Jesus taught that Jacob’s lack of confidence before God need not be ours, that God always welcomes the penitent sinner, that the joy of God’s heart lies in the humbled and hesitant return of his children, whatever appalling things they have done to each other, and to him.
In taking the story of Jacob and re-working it, to make the point so very clear none of his hearers could miss it, something important was, however, lost;‚ is something we need to remember at the beginning of the week of Prayer for World Peace. It is made very clear in the text of Genesis that Esau and Jacob are the ancestors of the warring nations of the Middle East: Jacob becomes Israel, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, and Esau becomes the father of some of the surrounding Arab nations. The struggle continues today. Both Arabs and Jews find blessing as they read these same scriptures, as do we Christians also. The need for a generosity in forgiveness like that of Esau remains the same for all of us as it was in the distant time of the patriarchs. Clearly, with the later inheritance of the Crusades, of the forced division of the land, of the suicide bomber and the occupation, what is needed in the Middle East today on all sides is the generous forgiveness of which Esau gives a shining example. Perhaps, during this Week of Prayer for World Peace, we can pray for ourselves and for those caught up in the contemporary struggle of Israel and Esau that we shall begin to find reconciliation as we seek to identify the one whom we have wronged and to say to that person or persons, ‘Truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.’