“The greatest mystery is not that we have been flung at random between this profusion of matter and the stars, but that within this prison we can draw from ourselves images powerful enough to deny our nothingness.”
— Andre Malraux, from Les Noyers de l’Altenburg
The third patriarch in the book of Genesis was named Jacob at his birth. That word in the original means “heel-catcher”, “supplanter”, “leg-puller”, or “he who follows upon the heels of one”. According to the story, he was born the second of fraternal twins, hanging on to the heel of his brother Esau who emerged first. This is a teaching story. It evolved over centuries of oral tradition. It was told and retold through generations before it was written down. There are deeper meanings to everything that happens in the story.
Esau was a man of action. He brought home lots of game and was his father’s favorite. Jacob was a momma’s boy. He tended the herds and thought a lot. The two brothers were often in conflict. Because he was the first-born son (barely), Esau was supposed to receive special status. Jacob was clever and took advantage of his brother’s lack of self-control. Esau traded the right to be considered first-born for a bowl of stew. Can’t you see him trying to explain that one afterward?
“Hey, I was hungry!”
When their father Isaac was old and blind, Jacob deceived him into granting a special “after I’m gone you get to be the boss” blessing (as if he were the first-born) by pretending to be Esau. Mom helped pull off the swindle by dressing Jacob in Esau’s clothes and putting goatskins on his arms and neck so he would seem more like his big, hairy brother.
After the blessing was given, Esau showed up to say “Wha hoppen?” but Isaac said basically that he couldn’t un-bless Jacob. He gave Esau a sort of “you’re nice too” blessing that didn’t fix anything, and Jacob had to get out of town fast because Esau was now angry enough to want to murder him. He didn’t come back for 14 years.
Let’s step back a bit to put this tale into a wider context. In the Jewish wisdom tradition, it’s usually better to be smart than macho. The Jews have some manly heroes, but the ones most favored by God tend to be those who employ brains over brawn. Jacob is one of these types. However, there’s a cost for bending the rules to get ahead.
After 14 years, Jacob is on his way back to the home of his parents. Though he left town in a hurry with nothing but his walking stick, he was good at turning small herds into big ones and he’s rich now. He gets news that his brother Esau is heading for him with a posse of 400. He’s understandably frightened and he prays to God to save him. He also sends a bribe of livestock and a statement affirming Esau’s superiority. Right after he does this, a mysterious being appears. The ancient storytellers have left it ambiguous on purpose. Maaaybe it’s an angel. Maaaybe it’s God, in disguise.
Whatever. Jacob knows this is an extraordinary event, and it is. God rarely shows up in person in these stories, and angels don’t drop by every day either. You would think Jacob would go to his knees or go wide-eyed and slack-jawed. Instead, he seizes the being. Jacob and the being wrestle all night until daybreak.
The being says, “Enough already. Let go. I have other things to do, you know.” Jacob replies, “No way, Hosea. Gotta bless me first.” By previous cleverness (or lying, depending on your point of view) Jacob had already been blessed, but he saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get permanently ahead.
Humans have a supply of hubris that is never depleted. We are the only animals that have the nerve to rule the world and remain ungrateful. We poison the planet and then complain that the cleanup costs too much. Since no other predators can control our population, we think up newer, more efficient ways to kill ourselves or each other. We are the cleverest, most devious beings resident on this globe and we never stop trying to muck about with forces currently beyond our control. We get away with it over and over again, but not without consequences.
Because we’ve figured out ways to make bodies work longer without dying (longer, not better) we now have huge increases in occurrences of heart disease, cancer and dementia. Because we insist on traveling long distances over short time periods, one out of three deaths under age 30 is caused by a motor vehicle crash. Civilization causes innovations in technology without correspondent increases in wisdom. We end up under threat by atomic weapons over disagreements about what disguise God wears or whom God shall bless as “first-born”.
When Jacob demanded to be blessed before he would let go, he crossed the line. With a mere touch, the mysterious being dislocated Jacob’s hip joint – permanently. Jacob would never walk right for the rest of his life. However, Jacob also got blessed.
The being said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” When Jacob asked the being what his name was, he received the cryptic reply, “Why do you ask?”
We can’t stop ourselves from wrestling with the unknowable, taking risks and screwing around with the forces of nature. It’s how we are made, no matter who did the making. But, if you wrestle to the point of breakdown, you must learn to accept being out of joint.