God Uses Crooked Sticks to Draw Straight Lines

Jacob wrestles with the angel, a detail from a 6th-century Syrian illuminated manuscript of the Book of Genesis, the Vienna Genesis at the Austrian National Library: Cod. Theol. gr. 31, fol. 12r: Used by permission.

The Biblical story of Jacob is problematic. His life seems to be one deception after another. To make it worse, he’s introduced to us as God’s preferred person and then seizes that identity by outwitting his brother and lying to his father. The whole time, God seems to be okay with it all. Jacob is never punished, never reprimanded. It seems so unjust! Is God a fan of Jacob’s bad behavior?

Jacob and his ever-so-slightly older brother Esau are fraternal twins, born to Rebekah and to Isaac, Abraham’s son. They had trouble conceiving. While Rebekah is pregnant, the babies are described as struggling with one another in her womb. It’s so bad that Rebekah wonders if her life is even worth continuing! In answer to her distress, God tells Rebekah that the older of the two will serve the younger – a reversal of the birth order tradition. Is God announcing a preference for Jacob or is God merely foretelling the outcome of the inevitable sibling rivalry? It’s hard to tell. Their birth continues the contested dynamic. Esau is the first-born, but the second-born emerges from the womb grasping at his older brother’s heel. He’s given the name “Jacob,” meaning literally: “The Heel Grabber” but figuratively, “The Deceiver.”   Is it pre-determined that these boys will be at one another all their lives?

If it is, it’s a pretty one-sided dynamic. Esau seems to just go about his business. Jacob, on the other hand, constantly checks himself against Esau. It’s like he’s fascinated by Esau, wants what Esau has, and maybe even wants to be Esau!

It appears that Rebekah, their mother, hasn’t forgotten what was told to her when she was pregnant and feels the need to make sure that everything happens as promised. In a most troublesome case of what might be construed as obedience to God, she takes matters into her own hands. Overhearing her husband’s plan to give Esau the blessing of one patriarch to the next, she facilitates Jacob’s impersonation of his brother while Esau is away hunting on his father’s behalf. Esau returns and discovers that Isaac has given Jacob the blessing that was his and realizes that Jacob has now indelibly confirmed Esau’s earlier, rash action to sell Jacob his own birthright as the firstborn for a bowl of food. “He has outwitted me twice! He is rightly called ‘The Deceiver!’” There is no denying the underhanded nature of Jacob’s actions. Esau vows to kill him once their father is dead. It will be cold-hearted revenge.

Fearing for Jacob’s life, Rebekah concocts a reason for him to visit her brother in far away Haran, the old country from which Abraham came. It’s on this flight to safety, that he has the dream of the ladder connecting heaven and earth with angels ascending and descending upon it. Why is this vision given to Jacob? What does it mean that Jacob is granted insight into the connection between heaven and earth between the life of humans and the being of God?

He finds refuge with his uncle Laban, though his uncle shares the family’s penchant for deception and passes his older daughter off to Jacob as her younger sister. Nevertheless, as the years play out, Jacob prospers. He does so well that Uncle Laban begins to regard his presence as a problem. Jacob resolves to go back home and face his brother. Jacob’s wheeling and dealing continues. He hears from an advanced party that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men. This can only be bad news. As the meeting point draws closer, Jacob splits up the traveling caravan into two groups, hoping that at least one group will survive an attack. Strung out with worry, he pleads to God to grant them all safety and sends hundreds and hundreds of livestock on ahead as a gift to his brother. It’s a desperate situation. Finally, he sends everyone including his wives and children across the Jordan River, the boundary that marks the edge of the land of Canaan, their destination. They will be the first to meet Esau. Will Esau kill them? Will their vulnerability serve as an appeal to Esau’s kindness? Is Jacob really using his own children as human shields?

Jacob is alone. He’s sunk to an all-time low.

Then, the Bible tells us that he was confronted by a man who wrestled with him. They wrestle until daybreak with Jacob holding his own. Then this mysterious man (Is he a man? Is he an angel? If it’s an angel, is the angel God?) realizing that Jacob will not give in, dislocates Jacob’s hip! Now we’re fighting dirty! The man proposes that they call the fight. But Jacob will not let go. “I will not let you go until you bless me!” cries Jacob. 

Where did this come from? Does Jacob think this man is an emissary of his brother? Is the man an emissary of God? Is Jacob wrestling with himself and his own anxiety? Has he been wrestling since those days in the womb?

“What is your name?” asks the mysterious night wrestler.

And then, for the first time in the whole decades-long story, Jacob owns up to who he is. The one who wanted to be his older brother all of these years replies,  “I am Jacob. I am the ‘heel grasper,’ the ‘deceiver’.”

In reply, the man, who will not reveal his own name, gives Jacob a new name “He who strives with God” – “Israel” and then declares a blessing over this new limping man, Israel. Jacob calls the place “The Face of God” as a memorial to this encounter.

Everything changes. 

Israel/Jacob crosses the river and catches up with the caravan. Limping, he goes ahead of them and comes face to face with his brother, Esau, and the two men, both weeping, are reconciled. “Seeing your face,” says Jacob to his brother, “is like seeing the face of God.”

We can read these accounts and understand them simply as origin stories for the people of God. We might even wonder about how they were heard by the people who would be called “Israel” when they were in exile, longing to cross back over the Jordan to be home. I think we can also read them as ways of understanding our own humanity in the presence of ourselves, one another, and before God.

Commenting on this story, the journalist Bill Moyers remarked “God uses crooked sticks to draw straight lines.” There’s no question that Jacob was a crooked man. His conniving ways got him a long way, but they were ultimately going to be his undoing. It’s not until he comes to the end of his rope – wrestling with someone who will make him limp – that Jacob finally opens up to who he really is. And it’s in coming face to face with who he really is, that he finds himself coming face to face with God. It has been my experience that it is in our lowest moments, when all our options are played out, that we are most vulnerable to divine grace. Until we’re empty, we think we’ve got something to offer. When we’ve exhausted ourselves, all that we thought we brought to the table, that’s when we can really see that it’s not what we bring, but the love that meets us that makes the difference. The love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus shows up in Esau, and Jacob recognizes him for who he is. “When I see your face, it’s like seeing the face of God.”

Pr. Jim

Sept. 20, 2023

Rev. Katherine Museus and Rev. James A. Wetzstein serve as university pastors at the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University and take turns writing weekly devotions.