Friday, 30 September 2016

TLDR: Jacob Wrestles

Night has fallen in the wilderness.  Beneath dim moonlight there's not much to be seen, and only the soft rushing babble of water somewhere down the bank.  A man sits by the river, his mind like the landscape, full of darkness and the inexorable coming of tomorrow.

Now he stands; a figure is approaching.  He's hard to make out, a shadow among shadows.  Is he a tall man?  Does he come as a friend?  Are there more following him?  
Perhaps these questions are asked, but they go unanswered as the two men fall, somehow, to grappling with each other.  Hooking limbs with feet and clinching necks with stubborn arms.  They wrestle to throw, to try and take the other to the ground and overpower him.  The river's rush is forgotten amidst grunts and panting and the sounds of grasping hands and flesh on hair.

Hours pass   This was not what the waiting man had intended, to spent the entire night contesting with a stranger (Is he a stranger?  He's no longer sure.  Can you be so close to someone for so long without beginning to know them?) when he has so much occupying his mind.  

He does not want to DO this now.  He could surrender.  He could stop the fight, and try to deal or negotiate.  But something in him knows it's pointless.  They aren't even speaking.  There are no tricks left that he can play, nowhere left to run.  He plants his feet, pushes back, and despite the ache in his bones, and the hollows under his eyes, he stays.  He endures.  He does what is before him.  He wrestles.

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 now; light again.  Our struggle is over."  
And yet 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 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.
"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."

This is an image that's followed me around for years.  It's from Genesis 32:22-31, where a man named Jacob wrestles with a stranger on the banks of the river Jabbok.  The (later inserted) chapter heading has it down as Jacob wrestling God.  The text itself mainly describes Jacob's assailant as a man, but that man says a few things that show he has an uncanny sense of the divine (you can, of course, do both at the same time).  Other versions have chosen the middle road and named the mysterious figure as an angel.

On a high school trip to the Tate gallery, I came across Jacob(!) Epstein's sculpture in one of the stairwells.  I couldn't take my eyes off it.  I drew it, I walked round and round it.  I still think about it sometimes - I'd love to see it again.

Jacob and the Angel   1940    Alabaster

The figures were twice my height, solid and fleshly and brawny in a way I'd never expected.  In my mind Bible characters, and certainly God, were ethereal and otherworldly, and yet here they were, carved out of thick stone right in front of me.  Two and a half tonnes of alabaster give the scene a physicality that's hard to run away from.  The pose Epstein has them in is strangely human and almost shockingly intimate.  The fight is clearly over; Jacob's injured leg has given way under him and he is mid-collapse after his exertions, entrusting his weight entirely to the person he'd been battling with only a moment ago.  Both are naked, exposed to each other.  As far as the story was concerned, they were opponents, if not enemies, yet here they were now in each others arms.  And one of them was angelic and perfect, while the other was deeply wounded, but still they embraced.  It was powerful, in a way teenage me didn't really understand.

I knew the story of course.  Jacob is on his way to see his brother, who he last encountered as a young man and parted with on very bad terms.  He has sent his family away, his two wives and children, his servants and livestock, to escape the rage he is expecting to be met with (because who would harm a gift of cattle?  Who would hunt down children?), and in the morning he will follow them.  While he's waiting there a man comes up and begins to wrestle with him.

The text has this down so matter-of-factly that it took me a long time to realise just what a strange occurrence it is.  In Jacob's life, almost everything he's encountered has been practical and very un-weird.  There's one heavenly dream he has about a ladder but other than that all his major life events have been decidedly non-miraculous, almost like a soap opera, and now we have this mystical throw-down in the middle of the night.  How does that even happen?  Could Jacob not just have walked away?  What on earth was going on in his head?
And the strangest thing in the whole episode is what happens at the end.  They grapple until morning, at which point the stranger decides enough is enough and puts Jacob's hip out in a move that he presumably could have done at any time during the match.  Jacob is down and out, but refuses to end the fight until he gets the stranger's blessing so that they'll part as friends.  The man asks his name.

This is the strange bit.

Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”     ~   Genesis 32:28

No he didn't!

That's wrong.  The story is wrong!  He didn't overcome anybody.  He lost.  He lost!  He even picks up an injury that leaves him limping into the next day (a testament to the flesh-and-blood nature of this mystical opponent).  

And it's not even true in a wider sense.  It's no exaggeration to say that Jacob has never won anything fairly in his entire life.  He's a cheater and a schemer, a nasty little weasel who's always sneaking round the side door and trying to get away with the largest gain for the least amount of effort.  It's literally what his name means.  And yet he receives a blessing for winning.  
This baffled me.  For years I didn't understand it.

No one thrills likes Esau
Makes a kill like Esau
Swaps some soup for his blind father's Will like Esau!
I should explain.  Jacob is a twin.  His older brother is called Esau and is the perfect model of an ancient Middle Eastern son and heir.  Tall, strong, good at hunting, extremely hairy and manly looking.  Likes a nice hot meat stew.  Jacob, and the Bible puts it very delicately here, prefers to "dwell amongst the tents" where the cooking and weaving and soft skills all happen.  
Translation: he's a bit of a mummy's boy.  And to be fair, why shouldn't he be?  Nobody's really expecting anything from a second son anyway, and there's no way he's going to amount to anything with his brother taking up all the limelight.  Esau is the oldest, if only by a few seconds, so he has the birthright of the eldest.  This means he will succeed his father as head of the family, and inherit all his best property and land.  Jacob, born only a few moments later and coming literally hot on the heels of his twin, gets only half as much.

Imagine the teasing.
You can see how a guy could get a complex.

The major trouble starts when Esau comes in one day, tired and hungry from hunting, Jacob's cooking some stew, and in one of those stupid brotherly squabbles that I think we're all familiar with, Esau gives up his birthright to Jacob in exchange for some food (a sort of "I'm going to starve, Jacob!  Do you want me to starve? What good will my birthright do me if I starve?!" situation).  Having had the honour and responsibility of the oldest son his entire life, Esau seems a bit un-enamoured by the prospect and is taking it for granted.  Interestingly he also ends up marrying women from tribes who don't follow God, messing up the spiritual solidity of the family tree he's supposed to be building.  So maybe he wasn't the best candidate in the first place.  Nevertheless, sibling rivalry was probably not the best way to go about handing on the job.

So Jacob, on a technicality, now has the birthright of the eldest and has to move to secure this privilege before Esau takes it back.  His father Isaac's blessing is the confirmation he needs.  Birthright was a tradition, but it was the father's blessing that really sealed the deal.  Isaac is old and blind and, with the help of Jacob's mother, easily tricked.  He mistakes one son for the other, with Jacob dressing up as his older brother, donning some fake arm hair and mimicking his cooking, and gives the blessing.
Isaac is horrified at what has happened, and Esau is furious and distraught, but Jacob has done it!  He's beaten his own brother, his own father, secured his place as the head of the family...

He flees for his life.

Knowing that Esau will probably kill him in his rage, his mother sends him to his uncle Laban, in Haran.

Not the original Stairway, but still a fair representation of the vision.
Just imagine a bunch more angels that are a bit happier.
On the way there Jacob has the weirdest dream...  He's laying with his head on a rock when suddenly he sees... wait for it... a Stairway To Heaven!  Yes, that is where the phrase originally comes from.   It goes from earth up into the stratosphere, with God's angels going up and down it, presumably on important missions.

At the very top of the stairway stands The Lord.  The Actual Lord.  Somehow Jacob's head doesn't explode and God begins to talk to him.

God introduces himself as the deity that Jacob's father Isaac and grandfather Abraham had both followed.  (I like the way God phrases it, as if He and they had belonged to each other somehow).  Then he begins to promise Jacob things.  Things Jacob has never asked for, and certainly doesn't deserve.  The same things that had been promised to Abraham two generations before.  A land for his future children to call their own.  Heirs that will cover that land in all directions.  A blessing that will comes through Jacob's family to benefit all other families on earth.  And finally, a promise that God will stay with him until he has seen all this happen.

When Jacob wakes up he is shaken and awestruck.  He rolls the stone he was using as a pillow upright to mark the spot where God was, and renames the place 'house of God' (Bethel) so that he can find it again once God has kept his word, and thank Him properly.  Then he continues on to Haran.

Onward to Part Two

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