Right where we are
When Jacob lays his head down to sleep, using a large stone as a pillow, it follows months, if not years, of contentious rivalry with his brother, Esau. The two men are twin brothers, though they could hardly be more dissimilar. Esau is a big, hairy guy. He’s an outdoorsman, a man of the hunt. Direct and crass, he’s made his way through the world by force of physical strength and violence. His brother Jacob is a homebody. His name means “the trickster” and Jacob lives up to its meaning. He is described as a peaceful man, but there’s a strong current of cunning under that calm surface.
Both men are working to make their way in the world. Both are striving after those things that will bring them a sense of accomplishment, of satisfaction. For Esau, it’s the quest of the hunt that is his constant pursuit. So, he learns the ways of the hunter. His successful imitation brings him game and their father, Isaac’s admiration. Isaac, who is not a hunter, loves to dine on the game Esau brings to him.
Jacob sees that favoritism and conspires to gain this favor for himself. He embarks on his own strategy of imitation, first providing food for a famished Esau, like Esau does for his father (in exchange for his status as the first-born son). Then he actually mimics Esau before their blind father with goat skins that resemble Esau’s hairy arms and Esau’s clothing to provide the right scent while he presents his mother’s cooking, spiced to resemble Esau’s game. He does this because Isaac, who knows that he is dying, asks Esau to prepare a favorite meal for him so that he might be strengthened enough to bless him as his first-born son. We, in our culture, might miss the significance of this blessing. It’s a monetary inheritance, yes, but it’s also a father’s declaration of divine favor upon the favored son. Such a blessing is all the success that both Esau and Jacob wish for themselves. They both seem convinced that such a blessing is necessary for their lives to be complete and fulfilled. It is in this sense that the story of Esau and Jacob is universal.
We all strive after things that we believe will bring fulfillment. What’s more, as some have observed, our striving often takes the form of imitation. This observation may come as somewhat of a surprise; after all, we’re all free individuals, making our own choices. What’s more American than the freedom to make choices? So many of us heard from supportive parents and teachers, “You can be anything you want to.” In most cases, however, what’s really going on is we look around, first to our parents, and then others for behaviors to imitate. Imitation is how we learn to be with others, how we learn to talk, to read, to write. Imitation is good!
But it doesn’t stop there. When we look at people who appear successful, we note how they are, what they say, what they have and the striving to imitate continues. “I want to be her.” It’s all fine until we achieve at such a level that our influencers become our competition. That’s the destructive dynamic at play with Esau and Jacob. It also breaks down when we achieve the goal we set for ourselves, as Jacob did, and discover (as we always do) that it doesn’t net us the joy and fulfillment we thought it would.
Jacob is on the run for his life. This is hardly the blessing he imagined when he and his mother, Rebekah, made their plan.
Which brings us to the stone on which he lays his head.
As Jacob sleeps, he dreams. In his dream a ladder is set up that connects heaven and earth, and angels, the messengers of God, are going up and down. This realization of the presence of God doesn’t happen in a special place. It happens at the spot where Jacob happens to be on his travels when he can go no further because the sun has set.
After all his striving, as he deftly maneuvered his way toward a blessing, Jacob was blind to the fact that the One who was his real source of blessing, the God who had promised to bless his grandfather Abraham, was present with him the whole time.
It’s only when he stops running, stops striving, stops contending in an effort to make his own success that he has this realization.
“Surely this is the House of God!” he says. In an effort to remember the encounter, he marks the place with the same stone as a monument, as though it was some rare place that he needed to get to. The truth is, it wasn’t.
A lesson here is that for all our goal setting and hard work, for all our future orientation as though our true success is just outside our grasp, the place of blessing under our gracious God is right where we are at this very moment.
Rev. James A. Wetzstein
Oct. 6, 2021
Date: 1973; Saint-paul-de-vence, France
Style: Naïve Art (Primitivism)
Genre: religious painting
Media: oil, canvas
Location: Private Collection
Dimensions: 73 x 92 cm
- James Wetzstein
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