How do you like your heroes and heroines? All virtuous and squeaky-clean or slightly, maybe even seriously, flawed? On the one hand you might have a character like Superman who always does the right things and for the right reasons. But then he didn’t ever quite get the hang of wearing his underwear under rather than over his trousers. Then, on the other hand, there’s something quite compelling about anti-heroes. Those who are morally a little dodgy. Those who only sometimes do the right things and only sometimes for the right reasons.
You might have your own favourites. But depending on your reading or viewing habits, those anti-heroes might be Tony Soprano, Han Solo from Star Wars, Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Thelma and Louise, Sara Connor from Terminator, or maybe Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina. And perhaps Jacob, son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham.
Liar and a cheat
Because Jacob is one of the Bible’s anti-heroes. There aren’t too many redeeming features on display. Not too many laudable characteristics to emulate. But you end up rooting for him, just the same. He’s a liar and a cheat. A deceiver and cutter of shady deals. He conspires with his mum against his dad and steals his brother’s birth right. He later gets his comeuppance when, the morning after the night before, he wakes up married and bedded with the wrong woman, thanks to his new father-in-law, who also happens to be his uncle.
The first half of Jacob’s life is marked by rivalry with brother Esau and the destructive favouritism of their parents. We’re told that ‘Isaac loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob’. Perhaps we should be encouraged that those of us from and in dysfunctional families are not disqualified from being part of God’s plan. The God of the Bible seems to consistently choose unlikely candidates to get the job done.
Because Jacob still gets that dream of the ladder between heaven and earth and all the angelic traffic going up and down it. He still gets God’s promise, of both descendants and land, given first to his grandad Abraham and then his dad, Isaac.
Turning for home
Twenty years on, this father of 12 children from 4 different women is now turning back for home, back to the land of promise, with the huge flock of sheep and goats that he’s built up. He’ll be meeting Esau for the first time since he ripped him off all those years ago. And quite understandably he’s not sure of the reception that he’ll get. He projects his fears and thinks the worst of his brother.
Then we hear that Esau is approaching along with 400 men, which seems to settle any doubts. Jacob may have gathered a flock, but Esau has successfully gathered people. Jacob is worried enough or sensible enough to divide all he has into smaller parts and send them in different directions to minimise the risk if attacked.
But then he puts his women and children in harms’ way on Esau’s side of the river and crosses back to be alone on the farther side. Was that cowardice or did he just want time alone to prepare for what was to come? Whichever it was, it sowed yet more seeds of dysfunction for later in the family saga. Maybe his thoughts went back to when he first entered the land: on his own, with no possessions, a stone pillow and that divine dream of a ladder to heaven. Was he hoping for another vision?
Alone again and not knowing what he would face in the morning. But not alone for long. If he wanted a quiet night, then he wasn’t to get it because Jacob is attacked in the dark. We’re not really told who it is. Was it a dream rather than reality? His unconscious conscience wrestling with the nightmare of Esau. If reality, then was it a man, or an angel? Or was it indeed God in the form of a man? God deliberately becoming vulnerable, dare I say, incarnate. Jacob dared to think so.
In Hebrew we’re told it was an ‘ish’, a man, who contended with Jacob. We first come across ‘ish’ in Genesis 2. God makes an earthling from the red soil and breathes life into it – then he puts the earthling to sleep to make male and female. In Hebrew, ish and isha. So, does the God who made an ish now become an ish to wrestle on the soil with Jacob? His breath hard with the exertion?
They wrestle for hours. It’s an intimate thing to do, isn’t it? To hold and be held for such a long time. As the commentator Rashi once said: “for so is the habit of two people who make strong efforts to throw each other down, that one embraces the other and attaches himself to him with his arms.”
We don’t often think of Jacob as being strong. That’s somehow more Esau. But Jacob had lifted a stone pillar at Bethel and then a slab of rock off a well in Haran. He and his opponent are seemingly evenly matched until that in-between time when night becomes day and the other puts Jacob’s hip out.
Strangely there’s no conversation till that point. Then Jacob says that he won’t let go unless he’s blessed. Maybe, with his injury, he now holds on out of sheer stubbornness rather than strength. We know he was determined and persistent since he worked 14 years for the woman that he loved and then 6 more years to grow the flock that he was now taking to the promised land.
And he must have had some idea of who he’d been wrestling with. At the very least, it was someone worthy of giving him a blessing.
What’s your name?
The other says: “what’s your name?” And I think it’s not so much that the stranger didn’t know who he’d been fighting with but more that he wanted to hear the answer. Because the last time that Jacob had been asked that question by someone close to him who was in the dark, the answer that he gave was ‘Esau’.
He’s forced to confront his past of lying and cheating – and this time he tells the truth and gets given a new name in return. No longer Jacob the supplanter, but now Israel the survivor, the striver with God. Names were important – and changes of names were significant. The man who takes by the heel is now he who perseveres. It’s still a struggle – but rather than it being because of a wrongful relationship with his brother, it’s now in legitimate if challenging relationship with God.
And over the centuries that’s been true of the nation of Israel. The nation which bears Jacob’s new name. The nation who refuses to let go of God, who continually risk being damaged to attain a blessing.
Scarred and limping
At some time or other, most of us will have dark nights of struggle. Terrible, unsettling nights. But the dawn always comes and those nights can become a source of blessing. But there is every chance that it won’t leave us unscathed. We’ll be tested and challenged and conflicted – and we might be left scarred and limping – but also transformed.
In our story, the other gives his blessing and the night-long embrace is over. Before our verses today, Jacob prayed to be protected from injury from his brother. Instead, he receives injury from God – a God who sometimes fights and wounds if it helps us to understand who we are and who we could be and should be.
We don’t know if it was temporary or permanent, but perhaps the injury served as a reminder of the promise given by God in that dream when he first went on the run – a reminder that he who had clung on for a blessing was himself destined to be a blessing to all nations (Genesis 28:14).
Our tough stories
Jacob limps away from the encounter and towards Esau. And you wonder if he saw God for the second time that day, this time in the face of his brother. Because in the verses that follow our reading, Jacob, arguably the original prodigal son, limps home from a distant land. Unlike the parable in the NT, it’s not his father but his very slightly elder brother who runs to meet him, kisses him and embraces him. It might have taken two decades but it’s seemingly a tender story of reconciliation. Though there is a rather cynical saying by an ancient Jewish sage, that when Esau kisses you, count your teeth afterward!
Maybe we take heart, when the threads in our own lives take years to come together, and we may struggle with our identity in the meantime, that God has everything in hand. And maybe it’s our wounds that give credence to our message. Just as Jesus showed his disciples the scars in his hands and his side to help them believe, maybe it’s our tough stories, our suffering, that brings good news to others. Is that why we’re drawn to anti-heroes? Because we see something of ourselves in them?
Sometimes, perhaps, we need to wrestle with God’s identity and our own – and we might just get hurt in the process. But, in doing so, we become both blessed ourselves and a blessing to others. Amen.
‘Anti-heroes’ was delivered by Ian Banks at St John and St Mark’s on 16th October, 2022. It was based on Genesis 32: 22-31.
- Buechner, F. (2006). Secrets in the Dark. HarperOne.
- Kandiah, K. (2018). God is Stanger. Hodder.
- Taylor, B.B. (1995). Gospel Medicine. Cowley.
- Visotzky, B.L. (1991). Reading the Book. Anchor Books.