Monday, March 23, 2015

I will not let thee go except thou bless me

Dorothy Sayers has her character Lord Peter Wimsey say that the personality of Jacob irritates him. I have been recently re-reading Genesis and am tempted to agree with Lord Peter. The personality of Jacob is both very distinctive and highly irritating.

The Anglican divine John James Blunt, who wrote an excellent work on undesigned coincidences in Scripture, argues persuasively that the vividness and consistency of Jacob's personality is evidence for the veracity of the sections of Genesis that tell his story. I think Blunt is right. Jacob is always the same--calculating, tricky, greedy, nervous to the point of cowardice, a master of self-pitying drama, pessimistic. In Laban he meets his match--a trickster and dodger after his own pattern. But after putting up with it for fourteen years, Jacob takes the opportunity to make a gigantic, Middle Eastern family scene about it.

When Jacob returns from Laban to Canaan and sends messages to Esau, whom he tricked out of his birthright, Esau decides to give little brother a good scaring. One can just see Esau chuckling into his beard when he sends the message, "Tell your master that his brother Esau is coming with four hundred men." As it turns out, Esau never meant Jacob any harm, but he knew quite well that Jacob would not have changed in twenty years and that the message would send him into a veritable frenzy of worry and fret.

So Jacob sends elaborate gifts ahead to Esau and, finally, sends everyone else on ahead, including his wives and children. But when he stays behind alone, he encounters Someone a good deal more formidable than Esau.

And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two womenservants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok. And he took them, and sent them over the brook, and sent over that he had. And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed. And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there. And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved. And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh. (Genesis 32:22-31)
I submit that this is a truly great passage of Western literature. Try reading it aloud sometime. We move almost seamlessly from the all-too-real cowardly Jacob, staying behind the women and children, to a vision scene fraught with a depth of meaning impossible to pin down.

What does it all mean? Why does the angel (or God in a theophany) call Jacob a prince with God? Jacob, of all people! Merely because he is persistent in a wrestling match?

One can just imagine what a film version of this scene would be like--the mysterious man who shows up, barely visible in the night, and falls into a wrestling position, the match, the dramatic dialogue. The attempt to "pin" each other, not only in wrestling but in the telling of names, as though knowing your adversary's name gives you power. But it is God who obtains Jacob's name, and gives him a new one.

And then the last verse: "And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted on his thigh." The sun rises on a Jacob permanently changed by something that could not have been only a vision, for it left behind an undeniable physical mark.

Yet in the text, Jacob is not changed in personality. He continues to be just as cautious, just as pessimistic, just as full of worry. He doesn't act any more like a prince with God after he receives the name Israel than before that all-night wrestling match.

What does it all mean?

To which I answer: I don't know. I think it happened, mind you. At the risk of trivializing its depth, I will say that one obvious application is that we ourselves are, or can be, God's instruments, even God's crucial instruments in sacred history, despite our absurdities.

If such a scene could come to Jacob, and such a name, then any of us may hope to see the face of God, and live.

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