10 July 2007 Tuesday of the 14th Week in Ordinary Time Genesis 32, 23-33 Jacob and the Angel
The story of Jacob wrestling with the angel in the first reading today has been depicted in art. Rembrandt van Rijn (1569), Gustave Dore (1855), Eugene Delacroix (1861) and Paul Gauguin (1888) are among the many painters inspired by the scene. The paintings and the scene from Genesis 32, 23-33 needs some explanation.
Jacob and Esau were twins; sons of Isaac and Rebekah. Esau was born first, and Jacob came afterwards holding Esau’s heel. As the firstborn, Esau holds the birthright. What is the birthright? The birthright granted superior rank and the priestly office in the family, plus a double portion in the inheritance given by the father. Moreover, in this story, it also means the blessing of Abraham, which promised that his descendants will be a source of blessing for all nations.
When Isaac was old and blind, he wanted to give his blessing to Esau. Isaac then sent Esau to hunt to prepare a meal before his blessing. When Rebekah heard this, she sent Jacob instead to Isaac’s tent, preparing a meal of goatmeat and covering his body with goat hair since Esau was hairy. Thus, when Esau returned for his blessing, he discovered that Jacob deceived Isaac and took his birthright. Esau vowed to kill Jacob.
Jacob escaped from Esau’s wrath by fleeing to the house of Laban, Rebekah’s brother. Laban had two daughters, Leah and Rachel, whom Jacob would take as his wives. Jacob fell in love with the youngest, Rachel. But Laban would deceive Jacob on his wedding day by disguising Leah as the bride instead of Rachel. Jacob would work for 7 more years to be able to take Rachel as his wife. To Leah, Jacob would father Reuben, Simon, Levi & Judah; Rachel was barren, so she gave her handmaid Bilhah who bore Dan and Napthtali. On the other hand, Leah found her childbearing ceasing, so she gave also her handmaid, Zilpah, who bore, Gad and Asher. Leah became fertile again, and bore Issachar, Zebulun and Dinah. Finally, God remembered Rachel who gave birth to Jacob’s favorite sons, Joseph and Benjamin.
With Jacob becoming richer than Laban’s sons, Jacob decided to return to Canaan. He sent emissaries to Esau with a present to his brother. Eventually Esau came to meet him with 400 men. In Jacob’s apprehension, he prepared for the worse. Here we come to the first reading today. Jacob was preparing for the worse, so he spent some time with God in prayer. Jacob thought that at this point, there is no one to turn to, but God. A man (Gen 32, 24) or an angel (Hosea 12,4) appeared and wrestled with Jacob till daybreak. Since Jacob was strong and the man/angel could not overpower him, he touched Jacob on the sinew of his thigh or the sciatic nerve which made Jacob limp. Jacob demanded a blessing from him; and the mysterious man/angel would change Jacob’s name into Israel, meaning, “one who has struggled with God.”
Esau would eventually forgive Jacob in an emotional reunion. And when Isaac died, both Esau and Jacob would bury their father.
Many of us struggle with God; and especially struggle with the truth in our lives. We have been professional liars that often, we begin to live the lie itself. There are truths in our families that we would rather hide or deny. There are truths in our past that are shameful and hurting that we would rather relegate them to history. There are truths about who we are and what we are that we would rather disguise, afraid that if our friends discover our secrets they would leave us or despise us. The struggle to finally come face to face with the truth —- the Truth is God — takes a long time; and these times are like Jacob’s struggle in darkness.
Eventually when we surrender to the truth, we are liberated from our fears. Our lives change, as Jacob’s name changed to Israel. And eventually, when we are able to accept and reconcile with our lies and bring our darkest secrets to the light, we are able to live in peace, as Esau and Jacob come together and bury the hatchet. But more importantly, when we struggle, we discover the importance of the ties that bind us. We discover who counts in our lives.