Ancient Testimony ~ Genesis 32:22-32
February 19, 2012
Well I hope you like stories, because today I have a story for you, and it starts with one of my very favorites. The story of Jacob wrestling the Angel is one of the most fantastic images out of the Bible. It sticks in the brain with some kind of power. In a single image it seems to tells us, not only that blessings can be given, but that humans – by sheer force of determination, and perseverance, and heart – can wrestle up their own blessings, that we can reach out beyond the every day life, and contend with primal forces, draw down the celestial intelligences of our world, and shape them into serving us. There’s a kind of science-fiction ring to it. It’s amazing. And in many churches, it’s used as a kind of reminder that sometimes we have to struggle. Sometimes God tests us, and blessings come only when we hold on and don’t let go.
But when we read this story in context of the larger Jacob Cycle, as we have been, a very different story emerges – and it’s more mundane, more true to life – but it’s just as amazing. What’s happening immediately before the so-called ‘wrestling with the angel’ story, is that Jacob and his family and his servants and his livestock, are returning back to Canaan, where he came originally came from. For the past twenty years he’d been living in Harran, amassing a small fortune and a family for himself, and now the time had come for him to return. Well as you may recall, the reason Jacob had left Canaan in the first place, is because he had tricked his older brother Esau out of the blessing their father had intended as his inheritance. Jacob breaks all the rules. And when Esau found out that he had been cheated, he was furious. It’s said that he “burst out with a loud and bitter cry,” and Esau promised to kill Jacob.1
Well now it’s twenty years later, and Jacob is finally returning. And it’s obvious that the estranged brother he left behind is at the forefront of his mind. Does Esau still intend to kill him, or will the years have soothed his anger? Jacob sends a messenger ahead of his caravan to greet his brother with a friendly gesture, but the messenger comes back with a most dire warning: your brother Esau is heading out to intercept us, and he’s bringing 400 of his men along with him. Well this is not good. Jacob’s caravan is no match for such a force. So he sends out more messengers, but this time he sends them with gifts and offerings to his brother, entire herds of goats and cows meant to honor and appease Esau. So anxious is Jacob to stave off what seemed like impending doom, he is prepared to give away his entire fortune. But when none of the messengers return, Jacob splits his camp into two separate locations – hoping to protect at least half of them – and it is the night after he does this, that Jacob – lingering by himself at night – encounters the angel.
Well here’s the thing: I don’t think it was an angel at all. In the story it’s never actually described as an angel, it’s described as a man. Jacob fights with another man all night; they fight, but as promised, in context with the wider story, a very different picture of this wrestling match emerges. It’s my belief that Jacob wasn’t fighting with an angel all night, Jacob was fighting with his brother all night. He was fighting with Esau, and this isn’t a story so much about determination, as it is about forgiveness, making amends, and transformation. There are several clues in the text that this is the case, that it was his brother, Esau, who had come out with 400 men, but who waited until it was night and Jacob was alone to confront his brother under cover of darkness. And the image is just as powerful, but now it is haunting in a very different kind of way. After all the build up of anxiety and fear that Jacob had of Esau and his army, here at last he meets his brother – alone, without any of his trappings – ready to square off and settle the old score one on one.
Now all that said, I think that Jacob really did see the face of God that night, but that the face of God is something that none of us supposes or can properly conceive of. I think what this story tells us that it is in the act of forgiveness that God is revealed. Exhausted by Jacob’s determination, and perhaps recognizing that all this had happened as part of God’s plan, Esau ultimately forgives his brother, and this blessing is a transformation. The very next morning, immediately following the confrontation, Esau and his 400 men are already upon Jacob’s encampment. And I imagine everyone except Jacob was surprised when Esau doesn’t attack them, but instead greets his brother and welcomes him back to Canaan. Jacob seems to reference the night before in a subtle wink-and-a-nod kind of way that only the two brothers would understand. He says, “Esau, seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.”2
Today our Ancient Testimony point us to one of the foundational principles of Judeo-Christian spirituality. It is the keystone of any real spiritual practice, it can change the quality of your whole life, and it doesn’t require you to believe in God, or religion, or any of the other constructs that people often mistake for real practice. The author of our Modern Testimony, Lewis Smedes, says it very clearly: “When you forgive the person who hurt you deeply and unfairly, you perform a miracle that has no equal. Nothing else is the same. Forgiving has its own feel and its own color… different from any other creative act in the repertoire of human relationships.”3
He also reminds us what forgiveness is not: it is not excusing, smothering conflict, accepting people, or tolerance. Forgiveness is unique, and it’s not a general attitude either, it’s always something specific, only applicable to specific circumstances, and usually it’s something you really have to wrestle with. And this is true whether you’re the one who needs to forgive, or if you’re the person who needs to be forgiven. We are Esau when the world feels unjust to us, when we feel that we have been wronged. All of us, if we’re honest, we build up a lifetime of resentments, and all these big and little hurts accumulate into a subtle body of tension and ill humor within us. From an early age, these resentments solidify inside our personalities, narrowing and distorting everything we experience, and everything we come to believe.
But we are Jacob when we feel that we have wronged someone, or something. It can be a looming guilt or shame that gnaws at you from the inside until all imagination and hope are lost, or the dull dread and building anxiety that something is out there, something growing and festering and waiting to come back and bite you. And it could be something as pedestrian as an overdue bill, or an avoided meeting, but it’s whatever thing in your life has the emotional force of 400 men coming out to kill you.
So premise: we live inside resentment/anxiety prisons, and these prisons can be personal, or political, or anything else you can imagine. They represent the emotional superstructure of the actual world we live in, the narrow confines of the life we’ve grown accustomed to while bricking ourselves in, one bad idea about the world at a time. But the promise of God is the possibility of freedom, and this is what the story of Jacob wresting his brother is all about. Spiritually speaking, forgiveness is freedom. And it is only in our freedom that we can see for ourselves what God really is.
Taken in this light, all those resentments and anxieties we accumulate, all the little hurts and traumas that assault us, all of these become, in their own way, messengers of God. They remind us that all forgiveness begins with acknowledgment, and that God’s messengers must be acknowledged. And sometimes this means great struggle. Sometimes it does take determination, and perseverance, and heart. But if our struggle is only on the external level, if our call for accountability is only externalized into the pursuit of justice, the subtle root causes are left unchecked. In order to go beyond justice, in order to find freedom, the full force of our fear, our anger, and our righteous indignation must all be brought out into the open, and only once this happens can real forgiveness take place. But when it does take place, as Lewis Smedes says, “you are given the ‘magic eyes’ to see… your memory is healed, you turn back the flow of pain, and [you] are free again.” 4
In the story of Jacob wrestling Esau, this transformation is represented symbolically. Esau does forgive Jacob, for breaking all the rules, for breaking his heart, but there seems to be a condition: that he abandon the name Jacob – the name of the trickster – and that he take the name of Israel, one who has struggled with God and Humanity and who has overcome. With this, the brothers are reconciled, and their world gets a little bit bigger.
I will not belabor the point, but will leave you with this: your world can get bigger too. You may have to wrestle for it, but your world gets bigger with every single resentment or anxious thought that gets transformed into a blessing through the power of forgiveness. Every time this happens that subtle body of tension and ill humor inside us dissolves just a little bit, and that doesn’t mean that you won’t still have to deal with an outside world that is unfair, and it doesn’t mean that we won’t always have to struggle and wrestle for accountability and justice. But it does mean that one by one all the old rules will not apply to you. Like Jacob, you can even change your name if you want to, because the truth is there are no rules here, this is made clear in scripture every time God breaks the rules, all the rules, the rules that yesterday were meant to guide us, the rules we set down in God’s name because we thought we had to, any rule there is God will break in order to get to us, to love us, to forgive us, to transform us.