HEADLINE NEWS: For the first time in almost five years of Midwestern residence, the author of this blog found someone who adheres to the traditional American family value of going out to eat after church.
I just had to mention that. But this post isn’t actually about that historic moment, but about a powerful image discussed during that shared meal.
Consider Jacob. He was born into a family that had a defining promise, a tradition that surely they had, as children, been told—how grandpa Abe had spoken with and followed God through the unknown, leaving the thriving and powerful city to their current tribal home. Their promised home. And consider the sense of responsibility, the weight of being directly related to grandpa Abe and gramma Sarah, of your own father being the sign of a huge promise, and your own responsibility to live up to that promise, a promise you hardly understand.
Jacob is known for pretending to be someone he wasn’t, and his pretense, he believed, would be the path to a blessed life. Jacob used the blindness of Isaac to his advantage, melding into the role that his social structure determined as the acceptable, the honorable, the leadership role.
Jacob was the deceiver.
This we know; this we’ve been taught (some of us) since childhood. But it was his deceit that got him the blessing of his father—it is the deceit of pretending to be the accepted son, the the elder, the one who fit the accepted role that got him the blessing of society.
And Jacob lived his life in this deceit, and the guilt of the reward he was given, and the estrangement with his family.
Who knows what went through his mind during those years away from the only place he had known? And who knows what went through his mind when he contemplated the dream of promise that God gave him at Bethel, knowing that the blessing was to his family, and that he had received his father’s blessing only because he pretended to be somebody he wasn’t?
Jacob was the deceiver. No matter how blessed his life was, the weight of that deception to his father must have eaten away at him. Everything he had was because of that pretense. What if he’d not have done what his mother told him to do? What if he’d risked honesty, standing up as himself, not tried to find acceptance by putting on the pretense? What if he’d gone to his father as little skinny Jacob, little farmer Jacob, little smooth-skinned Jacob—honestly? Would his father have blessed him, accepted him? Would the family tradition have allowed him to share in the promise of Abraham? Would God ever use him like that?
It was hard to say. And besides, it was too late now. He’d chosen to pretend to be what he wasn’t, and what was done was done.
And Jacob lived there with his in-laws, acting the dutiful son to his wives’ father, a son who received honor. He was here the beloved son that back home, back before he put on the facade, he was not. And still concerned about living up to the blessing, he suggested the great sheep swap. And all went swimmingly, except that in his desperation to live up to the promise, he did economic damage to his in-laws, thus estranging himself from them, too.
Jacob was the deceiver.
And when he was estranged from everyone, yet felt the responsibility of heading his own family tribe, when he had nothing else, he decided it was time to quit being who he wasn’t. It was time to reconcile with his brother, time to own up to who he really was.
He sent his family to safety across the river, determining he had to face his deception and its consequences alone. Vulnerable. Honestly.
And that night he prayed. And God answered by sending him an opponent to battle all night.
Oddly enough, when Jacob fought with God, he was blessed for real. When Jacob had entered his father’s tent, Isaac asked him his name, and he pretended. But here, when he was asked his name, he finally owned up to who he really was. Skinny Jacob the sheep-swapping smooth-skinned farmer. When he dropped the socially-accepted pretense, when he admitted who he was, things changed.
“I’m the heel-grasper,” he said.
“No,” replied his divine opponent, “you’re not.” Not anymore. By finally acknowledging who he truly was, he was blessed. “You are the one who struggles with God. You are the one who struggles with God and society, and you are the one who overcomes through struggle.”
It was when the heel-grasper, the one who believed he had to meet certain expectations in order to be acceptable, the one who pretended to be the socially respectable, when this Jacob finally accepted and acknowledged who he was that he was transformed, empowering him to accept and live in the dependence of faith and vulnerability, that the promise of Abraham descended upon him. He was no longer trying to live up to expectations. He was no longer being who he thought he was supposed to be to properly represent the family name. And it was then that the truth of his nature, a deeper reality that he was unable to understand because of his facade, was revealed.
He had been a heel-grasper because he was one who struggled with God and man, and because he thought he was supposed to make the promise happen. But when he risked honesty, the heel-grasping left, and the essential self was revealed. Who God had made him to be was revealed. He was the struggler, the one who would his whole life struggle. That was his calling. That was who he was. He didn’t have to be the deceiver. He didn’t have to be socially acceptable or respectable. He didn’t have to be what they thought was necessary for the promise. He was the struggler. And it was through this that he would overcome, that he had overcome. His blessing was hard-fought for, and that was the key. Here he had thought, all those years, it would be by his meeting social standards, and instead, it was a product of his fighting with God, struggling to find the truth, battling for a reconciliation between who he was and what he was supposed to be.
It was this struggle that filled him with awe, for it was this intimacy with God that overwhelmed him. He must have caught a taste of grace—having fought with God and yet lived. Being honest about who he was, and yet being blessed. Struck lame, true. But liberated in so many more ways. He was the pretender who quit pretending. He was the one who struggled with God and lived.
He was the socially inferior who embraced his measly attempts at greatness, at fulfilling the promise. And it was this man, the one who quit pretending, whom God blessed. He was the one defined by struggle, and the struggle was the only means whereby he could overcome, and the overcoming was the promise. A promise that would shine through the dark times of the consequences of his deceptive influence, that would ever remind of grace to the socially inadequate and sometimes hotheaded. A promise that would ever show the nature of grace, the nature of God.