By most measures, Jacob led a troubled life. Joined from birth in a competitive struggle with his fraternal brother Esau, Jacob (whose name means “the schemer”) got ahead, but only through deceit that forced him into years of exile. (Genesis 28) He spent most of his adult life mourning the death in childbirth of his beloved wife, Rachel, and drove his sons to their own intrigue through his parental favoritism of Rachel’s eldest son, Joseph.
Jacob, the schemer, lives by his own wits, but the defining moment of his life comes at the hands of another. Having outlived his welcome in the land of his self-induced exile, Jacob is challenged by God to return to his homeland and a sure confrontation with Esau. On the journey, Jacob meets a stranger who engages him in a nightlong wrestling match. The sun rises and the two men are locked in a draw. Jacob, who is looking for any sign that things will go well for him in his meeting with Esau, refuses to let the stranger go, saying, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” (32:26). The stranger’s blessing takes the form of a name change to “Israel” (one who wrestles with God) and a dislocated hip that induces a life-long limp as a memento of the occasion. The name and the limp become the new story of Jacob’s life. Wounds and blessings are the result of a lifetime of struggle.
There’s not much to recommend Jacob as a role model of ethical leadership and service. Students of the Bible are often outraged that such a deceitful jerk could be the object of divine blessing at all, much less an ancestor of the Messiah. But this indignation risks missing the greater message: Jacob’s life is not blessed because of his moral character, but in spite of it. The well of God’s blessings will not be dried up by Jacob’s arid deceit or the tragic circumstances of his life.
Jacob’s character is nothing to emulate, but God’s continued graciousness toward flawed and failing human beings is worthy of our trust and praise. God manages to wrestle blessings for Jacob who is Israel, even when Jacob is only able to make a mess of his life. In doing so, God prefigures the greater blessings that will be wrestled from the mess of the cross of Christ, the favored Son of God, and Jesus’ resurrection is proof of this persistent divine creativity for the sake of your life.
Certainly, this is’t your call to willfully make a mess of things in order to see the creative work of God first hand. But Israel’s story is a reminder of how much more persistent God’s blessings are when compared to our failures. And that’s no trick.
Rev. Charlene M. Rachuy Cox and Rev. James A. Wetzstein serve as university pastors at Valpo and take turns writing weekly reflections.