Our lectionary– the collection of readings we use day by day at Mass–concentrates on key stories of the bible, but unfortunately it leaves out a lot. We’re reading two key stories about the Patriarch Jacob from the Book of Exodus this week. Jacob discovers the presence of God on his journey; then he wrestles with an angel.( Genesis 23, 33-43)
The other readings about Jacob from the bible– which our lectionary leaves out– seem far from edifying, however. Jacob and his wife Rachel, Laban and his sons don’t seem to be the most honest people as they strike deals and, by hook or by crook, try to get the best deal they can get. At least to me, they don’t seem like people you want for neighbors or do business with.
Yet, God promises Jacob what he promised Abraham:
“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)
Even 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.
I suppose that’s one reason for us to keep reading the Old Testament: 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 we all can make. God is there and we don’t know he’s there.–except afterwards.
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.