August 2: Genesis 32:22-31 and Psalm 17:1-7, 15 • Isaiah 55:1-5 and Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21 • Romans 9:1-5 • Matthew 14:13-21
Between last week's Genesis reading – where Jacob's father-in-law Laban tricks him into marrying the older sister of his chosen bride – and today's reading, where Jacob is wrestling all night, a lot has happened. Jacob has gotten rich, outwitting Laban through an elaborate scheme for breeding sheep. He has fathered eleven children through wives Rachel and Leah, and their slaves. He has left Laban's household with flocks, family members, and much wealth, to return to his father Isaac's home.
As you might expect from this saga, the leaving itself was not without its own deceitful dramas. Jacob sneaks away without telling Laban his plans; Rachel steals the household gods. When Laban catches up to them, he complains that he didn't even get to say good-bye to his kids. He searches for the household gods, but Rachel successfully hides them from him. They have one last night together, and Laban bids them farewell, demanding that Jacob promise to treat his daughters kindly and setting a clear boundary between their lands.
Once Laban is gone though, the story shifts. Jacob faces a different problem; his brother Esau is on his way, with 400 men, enough to destroy Jacob's entire family and take all the wealth. Jacob splits them into two groups, thinking that if Esau finds one, he may destroy it and not look for the other. Then Jacob prays, and in that prayer, he freely admits that he is afraid of Esau. He comes up with a plan, sending Esau a bunch of gifts of sheep in advance. He gets his wives and eleven kids to the safest spot he can find. And then he finds himself alone – where today's Genesis reading begins.
It was a sleepless night, a night spent wrestling with a mysterious figure, first identified in verse 24 as a man, although in verse 30, Jacob says he had seen God face to face. Eventually Jacob is injured. The figure asks him for his name; then he changes it from Jacob to Israel, meaning one who has striven with God and people, and prevailed. He blesses Jacob and departs.
Although the story has elements of mystery, much seems familiar. Sleepless nights spent worrying about a family member, anxiety and fears escalating, are not uncommon. Tossing and turning through the night as one imagines the possible outcomes can seem like a wrestling match almost, although seldom causing physical injury. A bad conclusion to the night is when one gets up, still afraid, and with no clarity about who one is nor what one will do. A good conclusion is when one gets up, still afraid, but having gotten a little clearer about oneself and decided what one will do and not do.
Jacob seems to have been blessed with a good conclusion. When he meets his brother (just a few verses ahead), he is a different person. Deceit is replaced by humility. He restores, to the best of his ability, all that he has taken from his brother, all that the stealing of his brother's blessing had involved. It is not merely property that he seeks to restore – it is a recognition of place, calling his brother "Lord," as the blessing intended for his brother would have involved. He comes without an apology or rehashing of past wrongs, but with a decision to approach his brother differently, with respect, going forward.
Who knows how far back the enmity between the two brothers went, or what had happened between them? Esau was his dad's favorite; Jacob was his mom's; they had never learned how to relate to each other outside of those parental shadows. Their parents had selected each of them as favorites without thought, but automatically, based on patterns they had grown up with. Their family had no framework for thinking together about how to go forward with the resource needs and responsibilities of each of its members in mind. In Jacob's struggle, though, as he finds a way out of automatic emotional processes to a more intentional way of living, the entire family unit can begin to mature.
Morning: How do I think about my family's resources and responsibilities to one another?
Evening: What anxieties and worries do I have at the end of the day? What do I need to get clear on?
Psalm 17:5 My steps have held fast to your paths; my feet have not slipped.