Rembrandt-Jacob Blesses his Grand sons
Some stories in the Bible comfort us like a warm cup of chocolate on a cold day. Others haunt us like a bad dream that we would rather forget. Some stories draw us in with an intriguing main character that we want to emulate, while other stories pursue us like a hound dog on the hunt. Since 1994, the story of Jacob has been all of those things for me. I have studied him, read novels and commentaries, lead Bible studies, painted pictures, and written poetry about him. His story captivates me still.
To share some of what I have learned, I imagined a conversation with the patriarch in which he comes to me in my world and interviews me. That is how it has felt. Like a camel that nuzzles its nose into his owner’s tent, it feels as if Jacob has nuzzled himself into my consciousness. At the end of the article, you will find links to poetry, and books that further explore the Jacob story. In addition, there are three retreat guides on the topic of Formation and Identity that were used at the Spiritual Formation and Prayer Conference done at Marytown in April 2016.
Interview with Jacob
We sat in my back yard under the shady oak tree. Jacob was dressed in a floor length dusty white tunic. His grey beard extended to the middle of his chest and his white hair was shoulder length. He had a wooden staff that I noticed he used to help him walk. The fingers on his large hands were gnarled from arthritis, but his grip was strong when we shook. His brown eyes sparkled with curiosity while his warm smile helped me to relax in his presence. Before we met, I imagined him to be a tall man. I was surprised to discover he was barely five feet in height. After an extended time of getting acquainted, the interview began.
Jacob: Time seems to move much more quickly in your world than mine. Over the past twenty years, as you took time to slow down and listen to my story, where did you identify?
Steven: I remember first reading that you were a quiet man of the tents and I thought, “He’s an introvert like me.” I also noticed that in your early years, you seemed to live in your brother’s shadow. Esau was the favored one by your father, Isaac. Esau seemed to be outgoing, good with the ladies, and certainly more aggressive than you. In your world as in mine, it seems that favor is given to those who are outgoing and confident.
Jacob: Neither Esau nor I chose our natural dispositions. We were born that way and were forced to figure out life from different starting points.
Steven: Esau seemed to live from the gut and dealt with life by taking control of his environment. That is one way to live. Another is to hide from life either through distraction, acquisition, or submission to an authority figure. I noticed that you did some of that when you lived with your father-in-law Laban. A third strategy for living is to meet the expectations of others and give them what they want. That was my chosen pathway. I figured out early on that I could gain peoples favor if I met their expectations and became the person they wanted me to be. When I read about the time you and your mother deceived your father Isaac in order to gain his blessing, something in me clicked. You became Esau in order to gain Isaac’s favor. I thought, “Wow! I do that all the time without even knowing it.”
Jacob: That’s the curious thing about deception, isn’t it? In deceiving another, we end up deceiving some part of ourselves. We end up becoming someone other than the person we really want to be deep down.
Steven: Yes. I could see that in your story. Your deception of others was the result of your fear and longing for acceptance. But I also saw glimmers of your true self. You questioned your mother’s plan to deceive your father, you protested Laban’s deception of you on your wedding night, and you worked hard to be an honest business man. So in reading your story, I began to feel compassion for you and in the process, I began to feel compassion for those parts of myself locked in the cellar of my unconscious mind.
Jacob: The cellar dwellers—I know them well. By chance, was it a dream that opened the door to the basement? That was my experience—Bethel and Jabbok—those are two nights I will never forget.
Steven: Dreams play an important role in my life now, but it was art that the Lord used to open my cellar door. I wanted to paint your story and in the process of figuring out how to do it, I had to think differently using image and metaphor. I discovered those two things are the keys to my basement. When I stepped back and thought of your story, I saw that it was all about hands.
Jacob: Tell me more.
Steven: When you were born, your hand grabbed your brother’s heal, as if to pull him back in so you could get out the womb first. That is how you got your name, Jacob—heal grabber. Then there was the day you deceived your father by covering your hands with goat fur. So the first part of your life involved grabbing and deceiving. At the end of your life, when you were on your deathbed, you reached out your hands and blessed your two grandsons. Blessing others was an important part of the second half of your life. So you went from grabbing and deceiving to blessing others. Jabbok was the transition point when you let go of everything you had gained in the first half of your life and grabbed onto the angel and would not let go until he blessed you. Your life was about what you did with your hands.
Jacob: When the angel blessed me, I could finally let go of my fear, hurt, and pain. I could start to forgive myself for the mess I made of my life. I could start to forgive others for what they did to me. I felt free for the first time. I am forever grateful to the Lord.
Steven: What a struggle it was for you to get to that point. What a struggle it continues to be for me and my generation. Transformation into the persons God intends for us to become never seems to happen without the wrestling match. How did you remain hopeful?
Jacob: I discovered that wrestling is the most intimate of all sports. There is painful struggle, but there is also intimate embrace. We wrestle with the one who loves us and wants the best for us even when we don’t want the best for ourselves. We wrestle with our lover. That is what gave me hope.
Editorial Note: After Jacob’s last comment, the two of us sat quietly for a long time thinking about how the Lord has blessed both of us. Jacob then leaned over to pick his staff up from off the ground.
Steven: I know you must leave, but before you go, I wanted to comment on something you just said. You mentioned your messy life. When I first read your story, I was initially repulsed by the conflict, deception, and family dysfunction. But as I have lived with your story these past twenty years, it is your messy life that I have come to treasure the most. My life is messy, my mind is messy, my church is messy, my organization is messy, and our world is messy. But out of the mess of your life, the Lord created something of beauty and meaning. That gives me hope. So I thank the Lord for you and your willingness to share your journey with me.
Jacob: As one of my descendants, may the God of Jacob bless you and your family and friends.
Additional Resource Material
Poetry- Jacob and the Wrestling Match
Jacob Wrestled- Readings
Formation and Identity Retreat Guides: