Friday, 30 September 2016

Jacob Wrestles 2: The One Who Struggles

Uncle Laban seems a decent enough guy, and even gives his nephew a job as a herdsman.  Jacob settles in to watch the flocks... and also to watch Rachel, Laban's younger daughter.  Older sister Leah might not be much of a looker but Jacob thinks that Rachel is the cat's pajamas and offers Laban seven years of labour to pay the dowry he doesn't have and make Rachel his wife.

Seven years is a long time.

Now I do not know how bronze age marriages are performed, but based on this story I imagine they involve lots of veils.  Either that or someone must have gotten extremely drunk at the party because when Jacob wakes up the next morning it's not Rachel curled up in bed next to him.
It's Leah.
And when Jacob confronts his uncle about such a dirty trick, Laban comes back with the ultimate burn.  "In our family, Jacob, the eldest children go first."  His nephew has been tricked, fair and square, in exactly the same fashion as he tricked his own family.  He has met his match for cheating and been well and truly snookered.
Laban does let him marry Rachel too, once the week-long honeymoon is over, but in exchange for another seven years of work to pay off the second dowry.  For seven days Jacob is married to Leah, a woman he does not love, pining for her more beautiful sister instead.  And it's no secret that for the rest of their marriage, Jacob loved Rachel more, and favoured Rachel's children more.  The two sisters end up in another sibling war over who can give Jacob more sons and thereby claim his affections.

Poor Leah.  She makes her peace with it in the end, but a man had to be tricked into marrying her and she never gains his love.  I always feel so sad for her.

Interestingly one of Rachel's kids is Technicolour Dreamcoat Joseph, who pees off his older brothers (Leah's boys) so much with how well Jacob treats him that they throw him down a dry well and then sell him to slave traders.
There seems to be a serious problem in this family with having favourite children.  I'm not sure this whole thing doesn't belong on Eastenders.

Having sized each other up now, Jacob and Laban continue to try and out-sneak each other until Jacob has put in a good twenty years of labour on his uncle's farm.
As a payrise Jacob asks to be keep any spotty (substandard) goats that are born in order to start his own herd, and Laban agrees but then has the spotty nanny goats kept away from the billies.  Cheating!
But Jacob puts something in the drinking water of the remaining spotless goats and an alarmingly high number of them have spotty babies.  Cheating again!  He also singles out the strongest ones to breed for himself, which of course come out spotty too, and eventually ends up with the better flock.  No matter what Laban does to try and scupper Jacob's fortunes, God's promise of favour seems to be kicking into effect.
In some ways I wish we had a little more information from these twenty years, because it seems to me that this is where all the juicy character growth is probably happening.  But we don't get to see that.  What we do see is that Laban's family are getting (understandably) a bit pissy about Jacob's success, and Jacob has experience of what a grudge can do to your survival chances.  Nevertheless, twenty years of sweating and working to get the things you want, pushing towards a set of promises made to you in a crazy dream when you were at your lowest point... all of this changes a person, and how they react to problems.  It can't have been easy to hold onto that dream.

He consults God, and God tells him to pack up his family and flocks, and go home to his parents and brother.
We don't learn what Jacob's initial response to this plan was.  Goodness knows.  The important thing, though, is that he agrees.  Rachel and Leah, not best pleased with the way their dad has been treating them either, are also on board.

Now here's an interesting thing.  The first time Jacob fled his home, running away from the anger of his relatives because of his ill-gotten gains, nobody stops him or comes after him.  They let him leave.
This time he's doing the exact same thing, but events (and Rachel) conspire to have Laban chase him down looking for some lost property.  Imagine the hairs standing up on the back of Jacob's neck as his uncle comes over the horizon, the horrible flashbacks to the first time he fled for his life.  But Jacob's not the man he was twenty years ago when he left home, before he'd worked for anything of his own.  Even though he's leaving the family, he and Laban manage to come to some sort of understanding over their grievances with each other, and make a pledge not to approach each other with an intent to harm if they meet in the future.

I can't imagine that Jacob was expecting this outcome, partly based on his reaction.  He up-ends another rock, the same way he did twenty years ago when God first promised him protection and heirs - a promise that he may realise has begun to materialise, as he sits round the fire with his wives and children, and his pacified employer/uncle.  He and Laban part ways in peace.  Maybe for the first time in Jacob's experience, a family grudge has been confronted, resolved, and turned to something better.
This is quite a moment for Jacob.  Not his instigation, but still a step in a new direction.  A glimpse at some other way of doing things...

It doesn't last long.  When he sends servants ahead to warn Esau of his approach, they come back with news of a four hundred strong force headed in his direction.  Terrified, he splits his party into two groups, in the hope that at least one group will escape if they are attacked.
From what's left he sends gifts ahead to try and sooth Esau's inevitable wrath.
And he prays, because the massacre he's expecting is the exact opposite of the powerful promises God made him at Bethel, twenty years ago.

That night his family cross the river Jabbok.  Jacob stays behind.
Why?  Why not be with his wives and children on what might be their last night together?
Why spend the night alone, on the side farthest from his brother?

Is he steelng his nerves?

Is he thinking about running again.

Instead he ends up fighting with a stranger in the dark.  They go at each other and go at each other until it's nearly dawn, at which point Jacob's hidden antagonist pulls a killer move he's been saving up and injures Jacob's hip.  Knowing how helpless he is, Jacob demands the favour and mercy of a man he doesn't know, and instead receives a new name...

I once saw a film called 'Signs'.  It's a not-very-good film about some aliens and Mel Gibson, but that's not important.  The point is that there's a very tense scene were Mel has heard that a hostile alien has been trapped in a pantry and he wants to have a look.  He enters the room, listening for the tiny scratches and movements from behind the wooden door.  Very slowly, he creeps across the room, a foot at a time, crouches down ever so slowly and is about the use the reflection from a knife to look underneath when he bottles it and almost leaves.  He gets all the way back to the door before deciding that no, he just has to go for it.  The entire scene that took several minutes to play out now happens again in just a few seconds.  Mel grabs the knife, ducks down by the pantry and comes face to face with the alien, which startles him so badly that he takes a swing at it and ends up chopping of a few of it's fingers.

This is what the wrestling match is.

The patterns of Jacob's entire life now occur again in microcosm, careening past each other in just one night.  He goaded and squabbled with his brother to get what he wanted, he tricked his father to get what he wanted, he deserted his family to save his own skin, he dishonoured his uncle in pursuit of a wife he wanted, at the cost of one he didn't.  Every time Jacob dodges, or slithers out backwards, or runs away.  Never has he stuck around to do a thing the way it should be done - honourably and honestly, regardless of the outcome.  Never has he seen a thing through.

He fights a stranger now on the banks of the Jabbok, with no tricks left to use, and nowhere left to run.

Now that it's light the two men can see each other better.  He knows his opponent has a good sense of him now, and is showing no sign of weakening or uncertainty.  As for Jacob, his arms are shaking, his legs strain, he is covered in sweat.  He has moved past fear for his life, and past tiredness, and past shame.  He feels as if they've been fighting forever, he and this man.  They are not strangers any more.  Their eyes meet.

And suddenly his leg gives way beneath him, a sharp bolt of pain shooting through his hip.  His opponent has done something, some trick, some push and shift, and Jacob has wrenched the muscle in his leg under their combined weight.  Still he hangs on, tightening his grip and pulling the stranger down with him.  After so long wrestling, it cannot end this way.  
"Let go."  The stranger speaks for the first time, his voice oddly calm and very close to him.  "It's morning; our struggle is over."  
It seems almost incomprehensible now, to release this man.  What will happen if he does?  To let go is to surrender the higher ground, to risk his vengeance.  So much hangs on tomorrow - today - the future of his children, his wives, his tribe.  If he cannot part ways in this man's favour, it cannot happen at all.  He has forgotten how to stop fighting.  He will fight him in the dust if he has to.
"I will not let go," he gasps.  "Unless you bless me."
"What is your name?"
"Jacob."  Troublemaker.  Supplanter.  The thief who rides on your coat-tails and comes up from behind.  The stranger shakes his head.  Perhaps he smiles a little.  The light is dim, the approaching sun is behind him; it's hard to tell.

"No longer.  Now people will call you Israel, the one who has struggled against God, and struggled against man, and has overcome them both."

Jacob has overcome.  Because Jacob, for the first time in his life, has persevered and stayed in the fight.  He has trusted God enough to not need to run, to demand the blessings he was promised by the God who gave him a vision, despite all of Jacob's own failings.  And he has received it.

And the man he has overcome is not the opponent before him.  It is not his uncle, or his parents, or even his brother.  It is himself.  After a lifetime of trials, Jacob has overcome Jacob.

And so he collapses, wounded yet safe, in the presence of the God who has met him at every turn.  To challenge him, to spur him, to lead him, and ultimately to re-make and re-name him.
Because he is not Jacob the Supplanter and Heel-catcher any more.  He is Israel: the one who, with God, Perseveres and Prevails.

Jacob and the Angel   1940    Alabaster
And Esau is happy to see him.

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