Jacob and Grounding (Part 4)

The Jabbok River (Jordan)

Having resolved matters with Laban in the land of Gilead, Jacob continued on his way toward the Jordan River. He is no longer running from anything; to the contrary, he is returning to his homeland and directly seeking out communications with his brother Esau. His location, in light of later biblical narratives, is significant. This is the wilderness region where Elisha was fed by ravens, and possibly where Jesus took his vision quest. It is a liminal zone between a place and time behind you and a place and time ahead of you. It is also a place of waiting.

Eventually Esau, to the far south, receives Jacob’s message and commences to move north with 400 men. This final bit of information makes Jacob more afraid, since he is still mindful of the electrical charge between himself and his brother. But what is significant here is that Jacob does not revert to Fight or Flight mode. Jacob feels his vulnerability, knowing that Esau could slaughter his entire crew. Nevertheless, Jacob stays present to the conflict. He decides to split his company into two groups, and then stages several waves of livestock to precede his family. All of this amounts to a present for Esau as a way to appease a tense situation. (Genesis 32.)

This is a fascinating picture of what it is often like to approach a difficult conversation. We all know what it is like to avoid someone with whom we eventually need to reconnect and reconcile. We mull things over in our mind, we deliberate, we tarry, but at some point we muster up the courage to take a step forward. It’s a risk, but not a blink risk. We are counting on something positive happening, even if that ‘positive’ is a total surprise beyond our own doing. And so we can identify with Jacob in this situation where he is still very protective, but he is not backing away. Note how he tells his servants to “put a space between drove and drove.” This illustrates the buffering we often need as we approach a tense encounter. And yet, the buffering is also part of a bridge! What a paradox as we feel our way into an uncomfortable and unpredictable encounter.

“…put a space between drove and drove”

We finally see that Jacob the Grasper is more trusting than ever before. His prayers to God reflect a new humility (32:10). This itself is helping him to relinquish his pattern of relational rivalry which previously produced an excess of negative electrical charge. He is now at a turning point where his striving tendencies can be transformed into new patterns of relating to others and even to God. After settling his family on the other side of the Jabbok River, Jacob “was left alone” at nighttime (32:24). That is when a man wrestled with him until daybreak. Jacob would not let go of the man, and in the end, it earned him his new name, Israel, He Who Strives With God.

So much can be unpacked from this narrative, and I will not attempt to do justice to that task. The part that fits best with this series has to do with the way our inner, spiritual lives are inseparable from our outer, relational lives. In this case, Jacob, who once wrestled with Esau both physically and metaphorically, was now having to wrestle (simultaneously) with his fears and with God. This duality is reflected in the phrase, “struggled with God and with men and have overcome” (32:28). Another angle on this is that Jacob’s inner victim and inner offender finally had to tussle a bit and have a heart-to-heart conversation. Life had caught up with him, but at the same time, Jacob had caught up with himself with more honesty. By encountering his chief inner contradictions, and not letting go of them until some sort of blessing happened, Jacob could finally reach a point where he could encounter his greatest rival in the world, Esau.

“I will not let you go until you bless me.”

The wrestling match, then, is one more encounter that allows for the discharging of negative energy into the ground. One can only wrestle well when their stance is well-grounded. But there was a cost: his opponent touched his thigh, and as if by electrical shock, Jacob’s joint was never the same again. Jacob’s initiative to have his own wilderness vision quest was not without a cost to himself, yet it was a holy cost. The text suggests that the visible weakness shown by limping became a sign of new-found strength. Why is this? Because immediately after the wrestling scene, Jacob “lifted up his eyes and looked.” And there was Esau and his 400 men coming up the canyon!

Stay tuned for what happens next. In our final entry to this series, we’ll consider the significance of seeing a person’s face in the context of resolving harms or conflicts for which time itself cannot fully heal.


(Final Note: While this past spring has been busier than usual for me, a main reason for being tardy in writing the above piece is because I have struggled with several relationship situations that could improve with reconciling opportunities. Having to write this particular post, thankfully, has prompted me to ‘practice what I preach,’ hard as that can be at times. I find it very empowering to locate my current stories within biblical stories, since the latter ones not only give us wisdom for moving forward but also courage and a sense of solidarity.)

Contacting Ted Lewis

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