Jacob’s story begins decades before this moment. It begins long before Jacob tells his family and his servants to journey ahead and to leave him alone, long before Jacob lies down on the cold ground and looks up at the stars, long before he wrestles with the stranger in the night. Jacob’s story begins – as your story and my story begins – when he is born.
Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, is in labour. She is about to deliver twins: the two children who shall be Jacob and his brother Esau. Esau comes out first. And then Jacob immediately follows, his hand clasped tight around Esau’s heel. Because this is an archetypal story, a story about brothers like Cain and Abel, like Romulus and Remus, a legend that is about specific people but also a legend that is about everyone, Jacob’s parents name him in a legendary way.
“Jacob” means “he who grabs by the heel” or “he who usurps.” It would be a liberty – but not a big one – to translate “Jacob” as “thief” or “trickster” or “con artist.”
Jacob comes out with his hand around his Esau’s heel. From the very beginning, Jacob is trying to catch up with his brother.
The two boys grow up in a patriarchal culture, a culture that privileges the first-born male. Jacob sees his brother’s privilege, he knows that privilege in his bones, he endures it every day. And he sees that privilege is magnified still further in the way that the boys’ father, Isaac, looks at Esau, in the love that Isaac has for Esau that he does not have for Jacob. Scripture tells us that Esau is a skillful hunter and Jacob a quiet man. And then the Bible goes on, synopsising all the pain of Jacob’s lonely childhood in eleven simple words: Isaac loved Esau, scripture says, because he was fond of game. There you have it. Much like thousands or maybe millions of dads who are drawn to the child who reminds them of themselves, Isaac likes to hunt and to eat meat, and so he is drawn to the child who likes to hunt and eat meat.
As Jacob grows up, his sadness and his resentment builds. And so maybe we can understand, maybe we can even forgive, what he does next.
One day, Jacob is cooking. And Esau comes in from the hunting, famished; we may infer that he has been out in the bush for days, that he is dehydrated and exhausted, that he is at the limit of human endurance. Esau stares hard at the food that is roasting in a pot above Jacob’s fire. Let me eat some of that red, red stuff, he says to his younger brother. But Jacob keeps his ladle clutched close to his chest. First, sell me your birthright, he tells his brother. Esau replies, I am about to die. Of what use is a birthright to me? And so Esau, faced with starvation, gives away his birthright, gives away the privileges of being born first. And he eats.
But it doesn’t end there. There is more.
Later, when the boys’ father has grown old, when Isaac’s vision has become dim, his memory failing, and his movement halting, he calls Esau to his side. He tells him to go hunt and prepare for him the meat that he loves so much. And then to come back so that he may bless him. But Rebekah, the boys’ mom, who loves Jacob in a way that her husband does not or cannot, concocts a plan. She prepares the food that Isaac likes and then she helps Jacob dress up as his brother. And Jacob – he who usurps, the con man – takes the meal to his Dad as he lies in bed.
The scene that follows next is equal parts comedy and pathos. Part of it genuinely is funny – Rebekah has put furry sleeves on Jacob’s arms, a simulation of the abundant hair that grows on Esau, and something close to slapstick happens when the almost-blind Isaac feels these arms that are wearing what amounts to a toupee. Isaac says, “The voice is Jacob’s, but the arms are Esau’s.”
But another part of the scene – a bigger part – isn’t funny at all. I imagine Isaac lying in a contemporary hospital or hospice bed, white sheets and a bedpan and high stainless steel railings, the old man drifting in and out of awareness. And then I imagine one of his adult children doing what amounts to cajoling him into blindly sign a new last will and testament. Because that’s what this blessing-stealing is, it is an effort to trick an old man into changing his will. What Jacob does to his aged father – well, it is contemptible.
When Esau returns from hunting, he and Isaac realise what has happened. And they are left holding a profound injustice and the profound grief that comes with it. Scripture makes it clear that, in the Ancient Near East, a blessing is somehow irrevocable and irrepeatable. Esau asks his Dad, Don’t you have another blessing for me? But the answer is no. And so the two men, father and son, shake with the enormity of their loss.
When the initial wave of Esau’s grief passes, it turns into rage. He promises to kill his brother.
And so Jacob flees. As he journeys away from home and towards a new land, towards danger and possibility, he stops to rest. He lies down beneath the stars with a rock as his pillows. And he has a dream in which angels ascend and descend upon a ladder.
Once he gets to the new land, Jacob does well. Really well. Years pass, during which he makes a fortune for himself, he gets married, he has kids. Life, in other words, is mostly good for Jacob. But his heart is never easy, it is never light, it is never at rest. In it, there is a strange cocktail of emotions: his old resentments towards Esau and their father, his shame and self-loathing at having stolen from them, his abiding loneliness. And all of those things are covered in a patina of fear. Fear that his brother will find him, that he will make good on his promise to end his life.
And yet something – something that Jacob cannot name – calls him to reconnect with Esau. He sends Esau a letter. And he sends him a present, an extravagant gift, made up of several different kinds of livestock. “I hope that this gift will appease him,” Jacob says.” And then comes a sentence that is as full of longing as any sentence to be found anywhere in the Bible. “Perhaps when he sees my face, he will accept me.”
Esau writes back. He is coming to meet Jacob. But the news is not entirely good. Esau will be accompanied by 400 men.
And that brings us to the reading that we heard a few minutes ago. It is in this place of anxiety and loneliness that Jacob journeys forth, that sends his family ahead of him, and that he is left alone. Once again, he is by himself under the immensity of the stars. Perhaps Jacob falls asleep immediately, the deep sleep of one who knows that the future is out of his control, the strange freedom of knowing that he has said and done everything that he can, that there is no way that he can control what comes next, that there is no trick available to shape what Esau will do when they meet the next day. Or perhaps he has the opposite reaction. Perhaps this is a night of insomnia, and Jacob paces the cold ground, shouting at the stars. Scripture doesn’t say. Here is its awesome brevity:
Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
All night, the two of them struggle. Jacob cannot win. But neither can the man. They are in a stalemate, sometimes rolling around in the dirt together, sometimes back on their feet, swaying like two lovers left on the dance floor long after everyone else has gone home. When the man sees that he will not prevail, he strikes Jacob on the hip socket. Jacob will limp for the rest of his life.
But still Jacob does not let go.
All through the darkness and the cold of the night the two wrestle. The stars spin around above them. And then the sky changes: the first glow of the sun appears in the east.
Let me go, says the man. Like the angels on the ladder, this man does not belong to the day.
But Jacob says, No. No, I won’t let go unless you bless me.
So the man asks, What is your name? And Jacob replies:
He who usurps. Thief. Con Artist.
And all of the shame and the hurt of his life is back in an instant. It hits him hard like so much cold water.
But the man says No. No, that doesn’t have to be your name. That doesn’t have to be your story. Someone gave you that name years ago and you have carried it ever since, but you don’t have to live with it any longer. You aren’t Jacob. You are Israel – the one who strives with God.
And then the sun rises and the man is gone. Standing in his place in the first light of the morning is Esau.
Jacob, scripture us, bows to the ground seven times.
Now, at the beginning, I said that this was an archetypal story, a story like Cain and Abel, a story like Romulus and Remus, a story about a pair of siblings who have struggled to love and trust one another, who have struggled to escape the stories that they inherited as children. And perhaps, as he bows – one two three four five six seven times – as his forehead touches the dust, each bow whispering the words forgive me, forgive me, forgive me, Jacob wonders if his story will end as the stories of those other brothers ended, if the knife will enter his body, if the 400 men will set upon him.
But that isn’t what happens. This story has a different ending.
Esau runs to meet him and embraces him and falls on his neck and kisses him. And the two of them weep. They weep the tears that they have been saving up for years, the tears of their jealousies and their resentments and their anger and their screwed up relationship with their dad. The tears of their grief and their self-doubt and their shame. Their tears fall into the dust where they are swallowed up by the earth.
And Jacob understands. He understands that this embrace, these tears, this reconciliation with his brother, Esau: these things are the blessing for which he asked the stranger in the night. This is the blessing that he did not have to steal, this is the blessing that he did not have to usurp. This is the blessing for which he asked – in openness, in total vulnerability – and it is the blessing that his brother gave to him freely.
The two brothers hold one another in the first light of dawn. Esau and the one who strives with God.
And then the sun rises higher in the sky and the new day begins.