I wonder if Esau’s face haunted Jacob in his dreams? All these years after he tricked his elderly father into giving him his brother’s blessing, I imagine Jacob still relived the moment Esau discovered the betrayal of his twin brother. Why would a brother do this to another? Jacob has added two wives and eleven sons since then. After enduring years of manipulation by his father-in-law, Jacob is fleeing again. But this time it is toward home, the place that calls out to him. Inevitably this means an encounter with the one he had deceived. So he develops a plan. Jacob sends waves of servants ahead of him and his family. They are herding cattle that will be presented to his brother in hopes of appeasing his wrath. After setting up this lavish scheme of emotional bribery, almost to himself Jacob says, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterwards I shall see his face; perhaps he will accept me.”
I wonder if Esau’s face robbed Jacob of sleep after all these years.
The night before the encounter Jacob sends his beloved wives and children across the stream and sleeps alone in a very dark place. The mood to the story is heavy. Jacob knows that he is deserving of Esau’s harsh retaliation. He seems to realize that no one else can pay the price for his sin. So he assumes the posture of a penitent and lowly servant before a more powerful master. Like a dog who crouches submissively when afraid, the younger twin hopes for mercy from the elder.
This is another Genesis story that really shouldn’t be read at bedtime. Whatever assumptions you have that this tale from our ancestral tree wraps up neatly, cast those aside and listen closely!
Jacob has learned that his brother is coming out to greet him—with 400 men! Whatever anxiety plagued Jacob as he set out on this journey is now ratcheted up to code red. He lays down his weary head across the stream from all he holds dear hoping to trick his tensed body into sleep. He needs to be ready for the fraternal encounter the next day. But, that very night, Jacob faces off against a fiercely strong competitor. In this nocturnal struggle his enemy is faceless and relentless. But the story boasts of Jacob’s strength. He holds his own throughout the night. As the first light of dawn stretches toward this tumbling mass of entwined sweaty bodies, the antagonist asks for mercy. Jacob, ever the schemer, wants to manipulate this powerful enemy by asking for a blessing. At a standstill with their fighting skills, they have to resort to speech.
My guilty confession is that I watch Big Brother in the summer. In the cool of the basement my kids and I watch as exhausted competitors hang off moving platforms, while being pelted with cold water and tipped at impossible angles. Who will stay up longest? Who gains the upper hand for the next week? Quite often there are two left clinging to their tilting, slippery world, exhausted but tenacious. They want the agony to be over so they start to talk. They make deals. They offer promises they may or may not keep. When they’ve met their match and no one seems to pull off a win based on brawn, the opponents use their words to end the fight.
Jacob refuses to let go unless the stranger blesses him. As the man’s face begins to appear in the morning light, he asks Jacob for his name. It means “schemer”. He had certainly lived into that title! Jacob then asks the stranger for his name. This will allow him to keep the advantage. In the ancient world, to know someone’s name is to have power over them. The man is not willing to give this but he offers a blessing to the one who had tricked his way into his father’s blessing decades before. This time it’s a gift and it comes with a new name: Israel. The Master Manipulator will leave this wrestling match against a faceless opponent with the name Israel which means God rules or protects or preserves. With this name a new future stretches before Jacob that was not possible before. Some of God’s power has rubbed off on the younger twin and the axis on which his family’s future turns has shifted. When daylight finally appears, the stranger is gone… and so is the Schemer. The man with the new name called that place Peniel, which means “The face of God.”
But there’s one important detail about how this nightmare ends. Before resorting to verbal bargaining, the powerful stranger brought a sudden end to the encounter by showing off his strength. He touched Jacob’s hip and that was enough to knock it out of joint. Remember when you learned as a child that your dad had been letting you win? Jacob realized that this was no ordinary human being. When bestowing a new name on this lifelong manipulator, the stranger helped Jacob understand how significant the struggle had been: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Jacob limps away from the place he had chosen for a bed but turned into a wrestling mat. His identity is changed in the nick of time before he will face the brother he had robbed and deceived years before. Finally Jacob fought for the right reason: to be blessed. Nearly overwhelmed in the fight, he limps toward his brother, humbled. Pastor and writer Frederick Buechner calls this “the magnificent defeat.” The egotistical scrapper who always gained the advantage met God and everything changed. The limp would forever remind him of the night when he faced his demons and, by God’s grace, was forgiven. It was a fresh start for him, his children and all who would follow. In this defeat, a nation would be blessed.
And, by the way, when he met up with Esau, groveling with fear, the elder twin grabbed onto the younger and they wept into each other’s necks. All is forgiven, as only brothers can do.
We shake our heads at Jacob’s character as if it is foreign to us. But Buechner points out that the Jacob’s of the world can thrive! Scheming—in legal ways—can serve you well! He writes, “…what does it all get him? I know what you expect the preacher to say: that it gets him nothing. But even preachers must be honest. I think it can get him a good deal, this policy of dishonesty where necessary. It can get him the invitation or the promotion. It can get him the job. It can get him the pat on the back and the admiring wink that mean so much. And these, in large measure, are what we mean by happiness. Do not underestimate them.” This time Jacob got it right! He fought with all his might to preserve his life in order to be blessed by the only proper Authority. He admitted defeat. Buechner states, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief is the best any of us can do really, but thank God it is enough.”
I love this story! The wrestling mat is emblematic for me of where we encounter God. No sooner do we think we’ve got all the answers to life and God shows up to challenge us. With each magnificent defeat, our life goes a needed direction and we are humbled anew. I remember meeting with other clergy to plan a high school baccalaureate service. What passage would we use to congratulate the seniors on their accomplishments and send them out into the world ready to live their faith? Some suggested “God is love” or “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” or a host of other passages. But this story was the one I promoted. Many of us were baptized into the faith, coached into Christianity by the example of our protective parents. They fend off our enemies, put band aids on our knees and hearts when we get hurt and say prayers with us at bedtime. When the time comes to own the faith for ourselves, outside the influence of our parents’ home, the journey can get down and dirty. Remember the prodigal son who self-righteously heads off with his father’s money to make his mark in the world? That’s us. Each of us. Until we experience the magnificent defeat that comes when God knocks some sense into us and we cry out, “Thank you!”
Last Sunday I had the profound privilege of baptizing my young grandson into the faith and family of Jesus Christ. We had planned a baptism for March 22. It was to be in the 145-year old church sanctuary with the prayerful support of our church family. But COVID showed up and we no longer met in person for worship. So we waited…and waited. Finally it made sense to baptize him in Clear Bottom Lake, a family-owned setting that means the world to Levi’s parents and the rest of the family. Immediate family members gathered at a safe distance from each other, filled with joy at such a great occasion. Levi’s mom spent time swimming in those waters as a girl. Levi’s father proposed to his mom on a deck that overlooks the lake. At the family cottage they had a rehearsal dinner the night before their wedding, when sweet Levi was only a dream. There was a grand baby shower in which blue confetti exploded out of balloons to announce that a boy would be joining the family. Church members were among the guests as gifts were bestowed on the parents-to-be, preparing them for this beloved son. So this was the perfect setting for his baptism. My husband sang while my son strummed the guitar. Parents and family members made vows to teach this little boy the ways of the faith so that he would know he was never alone when he faced with the inevitable struggles in life. We videotaped the ceremony and included it in our on-line worship service yesterday so that our church family could take ownership of this life entrusted into their congregational care, even if in non-traditional ways!
As little Levi moves through school, into college, a career and lifelong relationships, hanging onto faith in our increasingly secular world will be a challenge. The readily available gods will be technology, money, relationships that meet his personal needs, success at work and self-promotion, at the least. So God meets us in the dark of night, when our defenses are down, and we engage with each other on the wrestling mat. Ultimately, when we’ve fought for as long as we possibly can to hang onto our false gods, we give up. We ask for God’s blessing and we know that we finally get it right. This is the relationship for which we were created. All our yearnings point toward God. When we finally understand the sacrifice God made for us in Jesus, we no longer regret the limp we have from so many divine encounters.
The nutshell of the Gospel is offered in this story. It comes from the older twin who had given Jacob his birthright one day because he was famished. He came in from a hard day’s work and Jacob was cooking a fragrant soup. Esau told Jacob he could have his birthright if Jacob would pour him a bowl of that soup. Esau was duped by Jacob a couple of times when his priorities were misplaced. So it makes me wonder if Esau, perhaps, didn’t have the character needed to be at the helm of the nation of believers God was shaping. And maybe Esau recognized that over time and traded in bitter resentment toward his conniving brother for peaceful contentment. When the brothers met up after years of separation, Esau, the deceived, embraced the deceiver. Esau doesn’t mete out just punishment, as Jacob knew he deserved. Esau extends grace.
And because of the magnificent defeat Jacob suffered the night before, he was able to receive it.
For you, for me, for my tiny grandson, Levi, newly baptized into this crazy family called Church, I pray that we will get it right each time we stand at a crossroads and ask not for money or fame or power or beauty—but blessing. A blessing from God.