Jacob wrestles with a Shadow

Our story begins long before we get to this moment. In our own lives we make choices every day. Sometimes these are choices that contribute to our own well-being, the well-being of those around us and the well-being of creation. Sometimes our choices end up being destructive.

In order for the story to make sense we need to go back to last week and back a few years in the life of Jacob. A synopsis of the intervening years might go like this: Last post I looked at the story of Abraham and Sarah and the birth of their promised child Isaac. Isaac eventually grew up and married Rebekah. Rebekah had twins – Esau (meaning hairy) and Jacob (meaning heel). Esau and Jacob like many siblings carried on a rivalry. As the oldest brother Esau would inherit everything including the blessing. When Esau came in from hard labour and was tired, Jacob traded a bowl of stew for the inheritance. Jacob and his mother Rebekah plotted together so that Isaac would give the blessing to Jacob instead of Esau. Isaac was old and blind so they put goat skin on Jacob’s hands and face so he would feel hairy like Esau. Jacob pretends to be Esau and tricks Isaac into blessing him. Now Jacob is set to inherit everything…all the land, livestock and the blessing. But it doesn’t work out the way Jacob hopes. He has to go on the run to escape Esau who is out to kill him. He leaves everything behind that he has just accumulated through questionable means and goes on the run.

Jacob goes to his uncle Laban and immediately decides on the cousin he wants to marry. His uncle Laban also has a bit of the trickster in him and tricks Jacob into marrying his other daughter. Jacob works for his uncle in order to earn the right to the woman he really wants to marry. While he’s looking after Laban’s sheep he breeds them so that the sheep Laban has agreed to give him will be healthy and strong and Laban’s own flock will eventually be made up of the weaker sheep. Now Jacob has to go on the run again.

This time Jacob is able to take his wives and children, his flocks and other animals when he runs. And he heads for home—back to the Esau. He’s not sure how Esau will respond—Jacob appears to be returning to claim the inheritance that he stole from Esau. Jacob sends herds and flocks ahead as gifts to Esau. The night before he is to meet Esau he sends everyone across the river and stays behind alone.

This is where the story picks up today:

Jacob has made some bad choices in his life. He’s been a trickster and con-man for most of it. His name means heel because he was born holding onto Esau’s heel but he has also spent his life behaving like a heel. And now Jacob has reached a moment of decision:

The river that the rest of his family has already crossed is the Yabbok River meaning crossroads. What will Jacob do? Will he continue on this path of tricking and plotting and stealing things that aren’t rightfully his or will he cross that river and reconcile with his brother?

While he is facing this moment of decision, a mysterious stranger arrives at his camp and wrestles with him. We aren’t told who this person is or why they attack him. There is a tradition that identifies the stranger as an angel or God in human form. The literal translation is closer to mortal. There is some suggestion in several commentaries that Jacob is actually wrestling with his shadow side or his conscience. As they are struggling, Jacob is struck and his hip is dislocated. The Inclusive Bible has a note indicating that Jacob “was struck at the centre of his being, and that we was changed—losing his own power but gaining God’s.”

This story is characterized by defining moments. That first moment when Jacob stole the inheritance from Esau set his life on particular path. As a young man Jacob saw that he would have nothing—no inheritance from his father—unless he stole it. He understood that he would have no blessing unless he stole it. Now Jacob is at another defining moment. He could choose to come back and claim the inheritance and the blessing. He could choose to be the “lord of the manor” even though Esau had been managing the crops and livestock all the years he was away. It was his right as the inheritor.

And so Jacob wrestles with this unknown assailant. In Jacob’s culture, names had power and meaning. Knowing someone’s name gave the other power over someone. Here we find Jacob demanding a blessing in the midst of a conflict and his opponent asking Jacob his name. We already know that Jacob’s name tells us he is a “heel.” He is a trickster who steals. He’s a con-man and his name reveals this.

And suddenly Jacob is given a new name. Israel. There are two possible meanings for Israel. The first relates to wrestling with God or striving with God and we’ve just heard this story about the all night struggle. Jacob was able to overcome whoever or whatever he was struggling with. Even though he was injured in the process, Jacob won the blessing.

The second meaning of Israel is “one who sees God.” When Jacob asks his opponent his name he doesn’t receive a direct answer. The response is “why do you ask?” Once his opponent has blessed Jacob/Israel, Jacob identifies that he has seen the face of God and survived. In the next chapter, when Jacob and Esau meet, Jacob says to Esau “seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.” God is suddenly everywhere.

God is found internally as Jacob wrestles with himself and as he tries to decide what kind of person he wants to be going forward. God is found in the face of Jacob’s estranged brother Esau as they reunite and come to a peaceable understanding.

Esau could have continued to hold a grudge or keep a bounty out for Jacob. How could Esau trust that Jacob had really changed? How could Esau trust that Jacob’s return wasn’t the next big scam?

One of the core values in Christianity is that there is always a place for transformation. There is always the possibility that what was—and is—is not what will be. There’s always the possibility that God re-imagines us and that we can re-imagine our own lives with God. That re-imagining is not an easy process and it requires wrestling with habits and patterns that we create over a lifetime. Most of us have moments that we regret or wish could be different but the challenge is whether those moments define who we will always be. Unless we wrestle with our shadow sides—with the God within us—we can find ourselves stuck. That’s where Jacob seems to be for most of his life. He goes along doing what seems easiest or whatever seems to gain the most in a particular moment.

But that is not all his life is to be. As he wrestles with himself, he wrestles with God and chooses to do one of the most difficult things. He chooses to reconcile with his estranged brother. It took courage for Jacob to meet Esau face to face without knowing what kind of reception he would receive. He stole a blessing and had to run because of it. Now he asks for a blessing and is reunited with Esau. In that struggle and in that reconciliation he finds God.

It is tempting to want to avoid our shadow sides and sometimes—like Jacob—it just seems easier. But that struggle with our own shadow places us in a position to wrestle not only with ourselves but with God. In that struggle we can see God.


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