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Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Blessing of Defeat

So the man who has wrestled all his life comes to his final battle at the Jabbok ford. He’s been wrestling all his life, since his birth, even before his birth. He tussled with his twin brother, Esau, within the womb, grasping his heel, still trying to win over him on the way out the birth canal. He strove with his brother for the birthright and the patriarchal blessing. He wrestled a stone away from the mouth of a well to impress his future bride. He contended again and again with his father-in-law.  And now comes the culmination of his life, the climactic, defining event. He wrestles with “a man” at the Jabbok ford.

But what kind of man is this? Jacob, the trickster, thief, deceiver encounters a stranger in the dark – a man without a name and without provenance; he grapples with the mysterious unknown in the dark of the night. And in that long battle neither opponent is able to toss or pin the other; they are unable to hold or throw the other down.

This man in the dark may be more than a man. There is something strange in this encounter. Is he some sort of night spirit or troll that will lose its power or be turned to stone at the breaking of dawn and the light of the sun? Is he an angel of the Lord or a demon from the desert? Is he, perhaps, even God himself?

Or is this man in the dark the embodiment of all Jacob’s guilt and fear – a psychic projection.  In this man that he cannot defeat, Jacob sees the face of those he has offended and wronged. He sees the face of God and his own face, and the face of his twin brother Esau.[1]

Jacob struggles on heroically determined, and stubbornly relentless.  He refuses to admit or accept defeat. But then, with a touch (and not a crushing blow), the slightest touch, the man from the dark blows Jacob’s hip out of joint. He is hobbled, wounded. The supplanter is supplanted. He falls – but even in this defeat he finds a victory of sorts. Even in defeat he demands a blessing.

All his life he’s wrestled for and demanded a blessing from others. Give me the birthright and patriarchal blessing. Give me a bride. Give me sheep, and goats, and camels. Give me a blessing! But what kind of blessing has he won here? The blessing of defeat and a limp to remind him of it. He is no longer Jacob, the deceiver, but Israel who has wrestled with gods and men and has won.

[1] Compare Jacob’s words: in Genesis 32: 31 he says, “I have seen God face to face and I came out alive,” and in 33: 10 he says to Esau, “…for have I not seen your face as one might see God’s face, and you received me in kindness?” (Alter 183, 186)

Alter, Robert. Genesis: Translation and Commentary. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. 1996. Print. 

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