Over these last years, one biblical story has taken particular hold of my imagination. Like a solar eclipse, the shadow of this story looms over my heart, playing with the light, reshaping how I understand what it means to read the Bible and follow Christ–ultimately, what it means for me to be human.
The tale of Jacob wrestling with God through the night (Gen. 32) reentered my life a couple years ago with renewed vigor; its holy, brooding mystery captured my mind and began molding my heart toward a much more expansive, earthy love of God. As a pastor’s kid and Bible college grad, I was of course quite familiar with it, yet had failed to capture the deep spiritual significance of this story. While the reasons for my blindness are extensive, I think this has at least something to do with the story’s location within the Bible.
As the first book in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, Genesis has often been asked to be many things which it is not equipped to be. Whether we’re attempting to make it the prooftext on the origins of the species, an accurate genealogical log, or a complete picture of ancient Near Eastern geopolitics, we often bring unnecessary presuppositions to the text. This causes either disappointment in the paucity of solid historical information, or unfounded confidence in claims it doesn’t actually make. Readers often end up needlessly rejecting the tales within as “just stories,” or doubling down on unnecessary literalism.
Yet when we approach this book as both the Jewish teachers and the earliest generations of Christians did, we find a reservoir of deep spiritual truths. When we allow these stories to be filled with mythical and typological significance, rather than searching for historical information that is of little consequence, it has the power to recast the molds of our interpretive lenses.
The tale of the Jewish patriarch Jacob bears the classic signs of community-building myth. When I say “myth” in this context, I mean that which is precisely true in the deepest senses of the word. A myth is that which contains utterly unresolvable tensions. Bathed in darkness yet pierced with light, myth perhaps more than any other narrative form has the power to cut through our post-Enlightenment sensibilities and unpack truth beneath the level of paradox. And as with all great myths, Jacob’s story is endlessly unpackable; it holds the ancient frayed ends of many major biblical motifs, providing a rich soil out of which the people of Israel–and the Church–could tell their communal story.
Jacob’s narrative reaches its climax in Genesis 32 when he wrestles the Unknown Traveller in the dark. All that he has been and becoming led him to that moment; all he would be later–and all that the people of Israel would aspire to be–find their source in that fateful night.
The contest between our anti-hero and “the man” (as the Hebrew text simply calls him), is charged with ambiguity and mythic overtones. The people of God are about to receive their name–in ancient terms, their identity and mandate–so this is no ordinary event. There is a resonance in this tale with both past and future, as deep calls to deep–an almost sacramental level of contemplation experienced in its remembrance. The rabbinic principle ma’ase ‘abot simman lebanim (“the actions of the fathers are a sign for the children”) is directly at play: one could make the claim it originated from Jacob’s life.
In short, Jacob’s narrative contains the seeds of Israel’s entire history.
In the immediate lead-up to his wrestling match, we find the soon-to-be eponymous ancestor (who nevertheless was “least” of his family [cf. Deut. 7:7]), toiling in a foreign land under unjust conditions (Gen. 31:36-42).
He is now en route to his promised homeland, accompanied by the eponymous ancestors of Israel’s Twelve Tribes, hotly pursued by an angry former master, yet also journeying toward a potentially hostile enemy.
He has a moment of panic and negotiation with the Divine at the banks of a body of water (which, though named the Jabbok, he refers to as “this Jordan” [32:11]), ultimately resulting in a miraculous contest and deliverance.
Following his reunion with Esau, he journeys to Shechem–Abraham’s first stop (Gen 12) and Israel’s place of covenant (Josh. 24)–and builds an altar, calling upon “El, the God of Israel.”
Oh, and don’t forget that since Jacob and his family survive all this, his then-youngest son, Joseph, ends up bringing this growing family into the land of Egypt, where they emerge 400 years later as a nation under the leadership of Moses . . . and we find the actions of the fathers are a sign for the children.
So yeah, you might could say Jacob’s story has bearing beyond the end of his narrative. In the next post, we’ll discuss some of the ways his night by the Jabbok has reshaped the imaginaries of my faith.