Year A, Proper 13
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
This is our last installment in the story of Jacob; next week our Old Testament reading will move on to the story of Jacob’s twelve sons—Joseph and his brothers. Our lectionary in fact is kind of maddening in the way it tells the stories of the Hebrew ancestors; it keeps leaving out important episodes, so that the parts that it does include are robbed of much of their nuance.
So, to review: Jacob and his twin brother Esau were rivals from birth. Esau, the firstborn, was a skillful hunter, beloved of his father Isaac. Jacob, who was born clutching his brother’s heel, was a stay-at-home, and the favorite of their mother, Rebekah. One day Esau comes home famished from hunting, and finds Jacob stirring a pot of stew. When Esau asks for some stew, Jacob drives a hard bargain: Esau must trade his birthright for his meal. Esau, believing himself to be at the point of death, accepts the bargain: “I am about to die: of what use is a birthright to me?” The story continues,
So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
In this narrative, if Jacob comes out on top, it’s because he deserves to. He’s enterprising and quick on the uptake. Esau is a shallow, thick-headed redneck—“Esau” means “red”—who so disrespects (“despises”) his birthright that he trades it for the quick gratification of a good meal.
However, the book of Genesis goes on to tell the story again, in a different way. It’s a well known story, though our lectionary omits it. Their father Isaac is old and blind, and sends Esau out to the field to hunt game, to prepare savory food, “and bring it to me to eat, so that I may bless you before I die.” But while Esau is out hunting, Rebekah cooks up a dish from the domestic beasts—so much quicker and more efficient—and sends Jacob in with it to his father, wearing Esau’s clothes and with scraps of kidskin on his hands and neck to deceive Isaac into thinking that this is Esau, the “hairy man,” and not Jacob, the smoothie who hangs around at home with Mama. Isaac is not immediately convinced. He asks, “Who are you, my son?” and Jacob replies, “I am Esau, your firstborn.”
Jacob lies outright, here and twice more. But the old man smells the smell of Esau’s clothes on him, and blesses him. He has scarcely finished speaking, when Esau returns, with the venison.
Then Isaac trembled violently … [and Esau] cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry, and … said to his father, “Have you only one blessing, father? Bless me, me also, father!” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept.
Isaac can only repeat to Esau that he has already given his blessing to Jacob. There is indeed only one blessing: once given, it cannot be taken back or redirected; nor can it be redoubled so as to bless Esau also. It is a zero-sum game: giving to the one means taking from the other.
Jacob has not simply exploited his brother’s hunger and impetuousness, as in the story of the lentil stew; he has, at his mother’s instigation, deliberately deceived his father and defrauded his brother. This narrative gives us no reason to admire Jacob, and every reason to sympathize with Esau, and with old Isaac who has been so cynically duped by his wife and younger son. Jacob, in fact, at his mother’s sensible suggestion, leaves home to seek his fortune away from the vengeful fury of his brother.
Yet it is with Jacob that the story continues—and God goes with him on his journey, as he sleeps with his head on a stone and dreams of a ladder to heaven with holy beings traveling up and down between heaven and earth. Waking from sleep, Jacob is briefly awestruck—“Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”—but then he continues to take care of Number One as if there were no God of abundance out there ready to bless him whether he does what is right or not.
He hires himself out to his kinsman Laban, who, as we read last week, serves him up a dose of his own medicine by substituting his elder daughter Leah for the younger Rachel on Jacob’s wedding night. With both of them as wives, and their two handmaids as concubines, Jacob has many sons, and grows rich with the help of some cagey selective breeding of his father-in-law’s sheep and goats.
Then, having worn out his welcome on his father-in-law’s land, he sets out to return to Canaan, where Esau had vowed to kill him. He sends out scouts to sound out Esau’s mood; he divides his household—the wives, the children, the slaves and the livestock—into two groups so that if Esau attacks one, the other may be spared; he prepares extravagant gifts for Esau and practices a speech. That’s where today’s story picks up. Alone on one side of the brook, with his retinue under guard on the other side, he encounters a mysterious stranger and wrestles with him all night—and, as day begins to break, having wrestled the stranger to a draw, he does not give up, even though the stranger puts his hip out of joint. And he will not let the stranger go; he exacts a price: “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
God has been blessing Jacob all his life, yet he will not believe it. He insists on believing that he has to connive and bargain and cheat and struggle in order to make the blessing happen. Yet God goes on blessing him. And when the angel has left him and he looks up and sees Esau coming towards him, and he lines up his wives and children with the least favored in front and his favorite wife and son at the rear, and steps forward to meet Esau, with an offer on his lips to fend off his brother’s wrath with gifts, he finds that Esau too has been blessed, and Esau has forgiven him. Esau’s words to Jacob, in the 33rd chapter of Genesis, are the greatest blessing of all, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.”
This pattern we see in the Jacob story is one of the key themes of Scripture. When God chooses an individual or a family or a community and blesses them, that blessing occurs through a journey, or a series of journeys, into the wilderness. In settled, established communities, people become lazy and spoiled; they compete and fight for resources and engage in cheating and violence. Eventually, their jealous competition causes enough conflict and disruption that there is a rift or upheaval of some kind, and the individual or the group or tribe flees, or is driven out, into the wilderness. And it is in this exile, in the wilderness, that they meet God, who promises a blessing: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
The broadest, clearest statement of this theme in the Hebrew Scriptures is, of course, the foundational story of Israel’s bondage in Egypt, their liberation at the Red Sea, their encounter with God at Mt. Sinai, their years of wandering in the desert, and their eventual entrance into the promised land. It’s worth noting that the stage is set for this story in the story of Joseph, which we will begin reading next Sunday—in which the jealous older sons of Jacob ambush Joseph, their father’s favorite, and sell him into slavery to traders who take him to Egypt. Later, in search of food during a time of famine, they will join him there, only to find themselves enslaved in a foreign land by a jealous ruler who is afraid they will outnumber him and rise against him. They cry out to God, and God sets them free—and again, it is in the wilderness that they encounter God, and receive God’s blessing and God’s promises.
In the Faith Study Group, the book we are reading, “Manna and Mercy,” highlights this contrast, between the jealous competition—the favoritism, privilege, systemic oppression, and rigid hierarchies—of densely settled communities or “advanced” civilizations, and the greater simplicity, equality, mutual trust, and openness to God’s provision of daily needs, that attend the wilderness experience. In the wilderness, there is no point in setting up a ruling class supported by an underclass of slaves: all are equally at the mercy of the environment, and dependent for food and water not on hard labor but on the serendipity of a well in the wilderness, or water from a rock, and a rain of manna in the desert—that is, on daily provision from the hand of God.
The image of that manna in the desert comes to stand for the kind of radical trust and rejection of competition, hoarding, and exploitation that are to characterize God’s people—those who live in a relationship of blessing. The manna falls each day—enough for that day. If it is saved or hoarded, it rots and stinks. On the sixth day of the week, a double portion falls, allowing God’s people to rest and give thanks on the Sabbath day; on that one day, manna kept for a second day does not rot or stink.
God’s people spend forty years in the wilderness, learning the lessons of what the book, “Manna and Mercy,” calls “the wilderness school”—learning to become people who live lightly on the earth, who know that all they need will come from God if they can trust God and each other enough to refrain from grabbing, hoarding, stealing, cheating, and jealousy. The members of the Faith Study Group were amazed by some of the provisions in the Law that was given to the people in the wilderness as guidance for how to live once they would settle in the land. Those who harvest the crop are not to pick up what falls to the ground, or reap all the way to the edge of the field; they are to leave that excess for the poor, the homeless, and those who are passing through. Those who buy or own land are not to keep it and pass it down to their descendants; rather, every fifty years (seven times seven, plus one: a compound Sabbath of years), all transferred land is to be returned to its original owners.
We know from the Bible itself that once in the land, God’s people did a very imperfect job of following these laws, if indeed they even tried. And so the pattern continues: the people fall further and further away from God’s vision of a beloved community—a “partner people” who would show the nations how to live—their society becomes stratified into a few rich and a great number of poor, oppressed, and outsiders; their kings accumulate power and riches and build magnificent palaces and an enormous Temple; they tax the people to pay for these projects and for constant wars … the rich get richer and, not content with just being rich, they rob and cheat the poor … the prophets cry out for justice but no one listens … and eventually, the accumulated strife and injustice lead to the nation’s collapse and its conquest by the Babylonians, the destruction of Jerusalem, and another wilderness experience: the exile of the people in Babylon.
Perhaps you’re beginning to see some parallels to our own times. As the Bible also says, there is nothing new under the sun; a way of life based on competition, jealousy, exploitation and oppression is bound to bring about upheaval and conflict, and if it takes a time in the wilderness to learn our lesson, then it is our job to make as much of that “wilderness school” as we can—to relearn the lessons of manna and trust; to grasp that the model of a zero-sum game in which my having enough has to mean that you have to go without, is an insult to God and to our neighbor.
In this light, let’s look briefly at the Gospel story, the familiar account of Jesus’s feeding a crowd of five thousand with just a few loaves of bread and small dried fish.
When it was evening, the disciples came to Jesus and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
So: the story is set in a deserted place, a wilderness place, a place where God’s people learn to live not on bread alone, not on the toil of themselves and others, but on the mystery of wrestling with God for a blessing of abundance.
The Loaves and Fishes story is at the heart of the Gospel: other than the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection, it is the only story told in all four gospels. And it is the event to which Jesus himself refers, in trying to help his disciples understand the meaning of the Good News: “Remember the loaves,” he says to them. “Do you still not understand?”
Imagine, for a moment, the scene: the itinerant preacher has kept the crowd spellbound all day, the light is starting to fade, and now the crowd is getting restless as people who are packed tightly together in a narrow space between the lake and the rocky slopes begin to realize that they have let the day get away from them: they have nothing to eat and no easy way out through the crowd. Children are crying, and people are saying to each other, “Let’s get out of here;” there is pushing and shoving, parents struggling to hang on to their children, and then someone near the front says something about “He’s going to feed us all,” and other people are saying, “What?” and “Did you hear that?” and there are rumors spreading, then one of the preacher’s followers starts trying to tell the crowd to sit down and wait patiently and there will be food enough for everybody.
There are two miracles here. One is that there was indeed bread enough for everyone. And the other is that at the moment when those in the crowd saw that one little basket, and the disciples starting to hand out those half dozen loaves to the people in the front rows … that there was not a stampede and a brawl.
The Good News is that in God’s economy there is enough and more than enough for all. The challenge to the Good News is that we must receive it with faith: as God’s children, God’s “partner people,” God’s beloved community, we must let go of the impulse to make ourselves feel safe by grabbing, hoarding, plotting, exploiting, accumulating more and yet more.
There is room in God’s family for all. There is room for both Jacob and Esau; there is a blessing for both, undeserved by both of them: undeserved by Esau, because he did nothing to deserve being the firstborn; undeserved by Jacob, because his hard work on behalf of Number One was only destructive. Before he said to the angel, “I will not let you go until you bless me,” God had already said to him, when he woke from his dream about the ladder of angels, “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
It is all a gift, as Paul reminds us: “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.” We can refuse it; we can insist we made it happen ourselves by hard work or by being born into privilege; we can spoil the gift for ourselves by sulking because the gift is also offered to others, who are different from us. The gift is still there, waiting for us. Our spoiling and refusal can do real harm in the world; but the gift is there, now, waiting for us, as soon as we drop our spirit of fear and accept the spirit of generosity and adoption, the “manna way,” the lessons of the wilderness school. There is enough for all to eat and be filled, with twelve baskets left over. What will it take for us to let go of our fear and give thanks?
Let us pray.
Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.