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A reformed character

July 7, 2015

Genesis 32:23-33                                          7th July 2015

For nearly half my professional career I worked with a man who I consider to be a role model in terms of leadership and integrity. He is a genuine friend, a nice guy, looked up to by the people who know him. But a lot of them would, I’m sure, be surprised to learn that whilst at school he had a reputation for being a bit of a bully. But his life experiences changed him. Despite his youthful character flaws, he was given opportunities that he seized. His character traits were the same, but they were to be moulded towards a nobler end – one of service to others rather than being self-serving.

Today’s story of Jacob having a wrestling match with another man has intrigued biblical scholars down the centuries. What is it all about? In the original Hebrew it is apparently deliberately written to cause ambiguity and confusion. Who was it fighting Jacob? Not sure. What was the fight about? Not sure. Who won the fight? Not sure.

But it seems to me that central to this story is the character of Jacob. What was Jacob’s character? Well, up to this point in the Book of Genesis Jacob has been depicted as quite an unpleasant character. The name ‘Jacob’ means ‘trickster, supplanter, heel grabber (he was born supposedly holding on to his older brother Esau’s heel). Jacob lived up to his name – he was willing to cheat his own twin brother out of his inheritance; he had been manipulative with his closest relatives, cheating, misleading, deceptive. In fact that’s why he is where he is today’s extract – he has run off from his family to escape the consequences of his bad behaviour. Oh dear, not exactly someone you would think would be chosen by God to be a role model.

As Christians our tradition shrinks from people like Jacob who seem to get away with bad behaviour, even seem to thrive on treating other people badly. How are we supposed to reconcile that with being expected to look up to Jacob as one of the Patriarchs, a central character in our salvation history?

There may be a clue in the fact that Jacob has been on a long journey. Christianity itself has been traditionally known as ‘The Way’. We are all on a journey through life. Our journey through life may not have always be comfortable; we can look back at our younger selves and perhaps feel ashamed of some of the things we may have done; or we may be a bit wiser now and recognise the mistakes we’ve made. Perhaps even now we struggle through life, struggling with life to be a better person, and that is not always easy. We all have our own particular character faults.

This story of Jacob we have heard today comes at a critical point in his life. A crunch point. A mid-life crisis even. Jacob has been away from home for at least 20 years, travelling from Canaan to Syria, and now he is close to getting back home. Very close: we’re told he’s at the Jabbok river, which flows into the River Jordan 25 miles north of the Dead Sea. He knows he is likely to meet up with Esau, the brother he cheated all those years earlier. When they meet, will Esau want to get his own back, want to exact revenge? No doubt Jacob has considered turning and running away again, as he has done all his life, trying to escape the consequences of his bad behaviour. It’s decision time, and he is struggling about what to do for the best. To protect his family, the story starts with Jacob sending them away.

This leaves Jacob on his own, in the night, and we are told a man “wrestled with him until daybreak.”

The word ‘wrestled’ is a strange word. But in Hebrew there is some wordplay going on here: Jacob (y’kv) wrestles (y‘vk) at the Jabbok River (y’bk).

Jacob, Wrestles, Jabbok – it doesn’t work in English.

But in Hebrew the text goes something like:

Y’kv           y’vk           y’bk

This is an amusing use of alliteration, repeating different words with similar sounds. To get something like the same effect in English, to describe Jacob’s struggle, it might go something like

     ‘Jacob jumped in jubilation’.

We never actually find out for sure who Jacob’s mysterious wrestling opponent is. But Jacob himself says it is God.

I think the story behind this epic struggle is one of repentance. Jacob has come to a decisive point in his life. He has to make some hard choices. He is confronting his inner demons if you like. And it’s a bruising experience. He struggles through the night with his conscience.

And he experiences a theophany.

Remember that from yesterday? A theophany – an appearance of God, where God is made present to human senses. Jacob had a theophany yesterday, when he dreamt of Jacob’s Ladder. Today, he encounters God in a violent struggle with another man. Maybe that other man is himself. Who knows?

And as a result of that theophany, that encounter with God, Jacob receives a blessing, and he also receives a new name: no longer Jacob the cheat, he emerges with the new name ‘Israel’, which is believed to mean ‘struggles with God’.

God takes us, takes our character, and moulds us. But we must be willing to engage with God. That engagement may be a struggle, it may be bruising, it may leave us physically weaker. We may choose to face that encounter only after years of denial. But our God is the God who always stays with us, loving each one of us as an individual. God has infinite understanding of each of us. He knows about our inner turmoils and struggles; God is willing to engage with us, patiently waiting for the right moment.

I think that is what happened to Jacob in his wrestling match, and he certainly met his match.

Jacob comes away from the theophany as a changed man. Changed for the better. Jacob has faced down his demons, and now he is spiritually ready to meet up with his brother Esau again. And we know that when it happens, Jacob and Esau are reconciled.

Jacob’s story is our story. We encounter God, and it prepares us for the challenges ahead. As Catholics we regularly encounter God, are very close to God, experience theophanies of God, through the sacraments. We remain the same individual, but we are slowly and mysteriously moulded through a combination of our worldly and our spiritual experiences to achieve a better end. And we thank God for that.

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