Yesterday I mentioned the manuscript I wrote for this week’s chapel. The topic was Jacob’s encounter with God. The task was partly to retell the story to an audience who has a basic knowledge of the story. Here’s a cleaned-up version of the sermon’s first half.
I wonder if his feet were still wet then the confrontation happened. He had, of course, just crossed over the stream twice, hoping that doing so would move his family to safety. He was worried, had been worried for years, that the hammer would finally fall and that his brother would finally extract his revenge.
It had been years since Jacob had left home in a hurry, running at his mother’s prodding from the anger of his tight-rope-tempered brother. First the birthright, which had been easy. Then the blessing, which was the straw that broke the camel’s back. And so in haste he ran. And ran. And ran. And before he knew it, he had met his father’s God in a dream. This God had renewed the covenant he had made with Isaac. Did this omniscient God not know that he was making a promise to the younger brother, and a scoundrel at that?
But fled he had, and as time passed, he had found a new home. He worked his way to one wife but found himself tricked into taking a second. Two wives hungry for approval and children meant bringing two maidservants into the drama, leaving the trickster tricked with a dozen kids: sons and a daughter.
And he had known it was time to return home. He had taken no chances, though. The day before he had divided up his wealth: his people and his livestock. He had sent some of the best ahead of him in waves, all in hopes of appeasing the wrath of the brother he had done wrong. And then, in one last move, he had helped his family across the Jabbok and returned to the other side for only God knew what. He was left alone in the dark. Or so he thought.
I wonder if his feet, still wet from crossing the stream, slipped any when the stranger came out of no where and wrestled him to the ground. I wonder if, in a moment’s thought, he imagined this was Esau, big and buff and fueled with the kind of rage that wouldn’t wait until daylight. Jacob had come a long way from moving about the tents as a child: whoever he was facing, Jacob would not give up without a fight. It was when the stranger wrenched his hip with just a touch that Jacob realized he was in the presence of something holy, divine. He asked for a blessing, only to have his name changed. Then he asked for a name, only to receive a blessing. Jacob named the place Peniel, because he had seen God face to face and had lived.
But that was only half of the story. Wrestling with God is one thing; confronting a brother you had imaged had nursed a grudge for years is another. “Jacob looked up, and there was Esau,” the story tells us. Not much of a chance to catch a breath. Jacob with his family. Esau with his four hundred men. First Bilhah and Zilpah and their children. Then Leah and hers. Finally Rachel and her son Joseph. And then Jacob himself, worn out from a night of wrestling. Jacob, bowing seven times. Jacob, likely muttering panicked prayers for protection and favor, that maybe the God of his father would be with him now as He had promised. Jacob, who looks up to see Esau (the brother who had probably haunted him in nightmares), running towards him. And instead of a kick or a punch or an all-out assault by Esau’s 400 men, Jacob finds himself in a hug, fully embraced, tears welling up in his eyes. “Who are these with you?” Esau asked. “Children God has given me, your servant.” “And why all these flocks and herds?” ‘To find favor in your eyes, my lord.” “I already have plenty. Keep it,” said the brother without birthright or blessing. But Jacob would not relent: “If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably.” How strange, that the man who deceived his aged and blind father has so much to say now about seeing the face of God, both in the stranger in the night and in the face of a brother who had every reason to take revenge but extends his arms in affection.
(image from the 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster)