Unfortunately, as we read the bible at Mass, especially the Old Testament, we abbreviate and leave a lot of it out, only taking key stories like the one we read today: Jacob wrestling in the dark with the mysterious stranger at the edge of the river. ( Genesis 23, 33-43)
The rest of the readings about Jacob, which our lectionary leaves out, are far from edifying. Jacob and his wife Rachel, Laban and his sons don’t seem to be the most honest people as they strike deals and try, by hook or by crook, to get the best deal they can from each other. At least to me, they don’t seem to be people you want for your neighbors or people you would want to do business with.
Yet, God promises Jacob what he promised Abraham, as we heard in yesterday’s reading when God spoke to Jacob in a dream.
I, the LORD, am the God of your forefather Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you are lying I will give to you and your descendants. These shall be as plentiful as the dust of the earth, and through them you shall spread out east and west, north and south. In you and your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing. Know that I am with you; I will protect you wherever you go, and bring you back to this land. I will never leave you until I have done what I promised you.” (Genesis 22,1 8-28)
Then, with those sublime words ringing in his ears, Jacob seems to go back to his wheeling and dealing, as if the most important thing in the world is the extra sheep he’s going to wheedle out of his father in law.
The Old Testament certainly portrays real life. The early Christian scholar Marcion wanted to throw out the Old Testament altogether, because he claimed it wasn’t spiritual enough. God wouldn’t promise such great things to people like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives and relations and slaves, who are far from being blameless human beings.
I suppose that’s one reason for us to keep reading the Old Testament: to recognize God works in real life. “God is a Potter; he works in mud,” the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis entitled a chapter in one of his books.
Two things commentators note about the stories of Jacob. First, he doesn’t recognize the presence of God until afterwards. “When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he exclaimed, ‘Truly, the LORD is in this spot, although I did not know it!’” That’s an interesting discovery all of us are called to make. God was present and we didn’t know he was there.
Second, the commentator for the New American Bible says this about the story of Jacob wrestling in the dark at the river edge with the unknown figure: “The point of the tale seems to be that the ever-striving, ever-grasping Jacob must eventually strive with God to attain full possession of the blessing.” God engages us and wrestles with us, whether we like it or not, and we will have scars to prove it.