Jacob at the River Jabbok
“When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.”
“The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip”
What does a hip joint do? For that matter what does any joint do?
My father, the retired orthopaedic surgeon earned his crust working, among other things, on joints. It was the family business after all and so when a reading came up which made mention of hip joints I said to myself that I was the very fellow to speak on the subject. There are six types of synovial joints in the body. Among the three that I can pronounce are the pivot joints which run along your neck and spine, without which Chubby Checkers could not have done the Twist, the hinge joints you have in your fingers, your elbows and knees and the ball-and-socket joints you have in your shoulders, your hips and your jaws.
So what does any joint do? Well – put simply, a joint ARTICULATES
It moves according to its type, it stretches, it adapts to the load it bears and the surface it travels over If it is involved in locomotion it keeps your vital bits aloft and makes sure they don’t hit the ground and sustain an injury. And so in the full bloom of our youth, Andrew Cochlin and I leapt from crag to crag like young goats with our limbs articulating madly in the manner they were designed for – thanks to our supple joints.
If I were to say to one of our interns: “For goodness sake Ksenia, articulate when you’re in church, won’t you?” the chances are that I’m not asking her to do jumping jacks on the chancel steps. That’s because the word - more often than not - is used with respect to language and not movement.
Words move too, don’t they? As a metaphor for flexibility, utility, extension and return ARTICULATE as a verb and ARTICULATE as an adjective is now applied to the task of describing our verbal dexterity - making words move, attaching them clearly to thoughts which progress logically, keeping them clear of our accents or our bad habit of mumbling so that what we say is what is heard.
And like our joints our words work best when we’re in our prime.
By the time we arrive at this morning’s reading from Genesis 32, the progress of Jacob has covered seven chapters - seven chapters of words – clever words, strategic words, words which protect the speaker, words which undercut and impoverish the one spoken to, the enemy, the mark, the patsy. Jacob has successfully duped his father Isaac into giving him a blessing which was not his by right. He has defrauded his brother Esau out of the inheritance which belonged to him and has had to flee for his life to another country. Even in exile, words have served him well. In Aram he has defrauded his father-in-law Laban and is now in possession of his flocks. Throughout this history he has needed no recourse to arms, there has been no physical conflict – all of it has come about as the result of the skilful - the articulate - use of words. If you had a case to argue in front of a judge either to avoid a sanction which you richly deserved or to acquire some chattel which you had no natural right to you would want someone like Jacob sitting beside you in court. Jacob’s knack for language has enriched him. It has kept him safe and even prosperous in exile but now is the time to return to his home in Canaan. God has told him to do just that.
His brother Esau is understandably angry with him and so Jacob sweetens his words and sends messengers to his brother Esau with a prepared text. He, Jacob, has grown tired of living as an exile and wants to return. This is what he tells the messengers to say:
Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have lived with Laban as an alien and stayed until now; and I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male and female slaves; and I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favour in your sight”
Let me come home, Esau. You can have some of what I have. You will profit from my presence with you once again. All could be well again - tell me that all is well. Tell me that you still love me and that I will enjoy a favourable welcome. That bygones will be bygones.
The messengers convey the message to his aggrieved brother Esau in Canaan. And in due course these messengers return with an answer: The answer is yes. Your brother Esau says he will meet you. He will meet you on the far side of the river Jabbok. He …..and the four hundred men-at-arms he has with him who’ve all been told what you look like.
When did you first wake with an ache in your back which you knew would never get better? When did the doctor tell you that whatever is wrong with your knees or your feet will not improve with exercise? That the joint itself is shot and that your days of dexterity are done?
When did your well-practiced art of arguing yourself out of a corner no longer convince anybody and when did someone finally tell you that the problem is not one of other people’s perception of you, nor of a fault which lies elsewhere but that you are, in fact, quite demonstrably a turd of the very first order?
And so it is with Jacob - his bridges now burnt behind him and his present doom articulated by these messengers. At long last, words fail him. His brother is camped out against him – the lights of Esau’s fires are visible across the river.
Does it get any lower? As we jump in to the narrative at the point our first reading begins, have we arrived at the low point – the “nadir” of the story? I am afraid not. There is no record of Jacob’s thoughts here: nothing like the prodigal son who comes finally to his senses in such a way as to easily harvest a silver lining to this cloud. What comes next is a gesture – itself a form of language as well know well in this church but one which reveals an even darker side to the man’s character. Jacob ushers his flocks and his family – his wives, his maidservants and his eleven children to the narrowest part of the river Jabbok. He sends them across to the other side.
“You go first”, he says to the family he is supposed to love and to protect.
He will make a visual spectacle of these lovely young women and these little nieces and nephews to soften the heart of Esau once he sees them in the flesh. And so, the family – the least dexterous and the most vulnerable - crosses the Jabbok as a potential sacrifice for Jacob’s historic misadventures while Jacob, our hero, takes a seat on the safe side of the stream to see what will happen.
God must need to squint to see the Patriarch in Jacob.
So now, yes, we’re at the bottom.
There comes now an episode which is clouded in the dreamlike language of mystery. You are supposed to notice this change of atmosphere. You are in Via Margutta at four in the morning and need to look twice into the shadows to see what it is which is standing in front of you. It is a man who steps from the shadows to wrestle with Jacob – if you read the plain text of the beginning. God – if you read the stranger’s interpretation at the end of what Jacob has gone through. To follow Hosea’s retelling of the story and following the dozens if not hundreds of representations of this story in the history of art it is an angel which Jacob wrestles there on the banks of the Jabbok. This man-God-angel wrestles with Jacob until the dawn. The stranger exhibits no superhuman strength and begins to lose the battle but then defeats Jacob with an underhanded move and dislocates his hip.
The fight is lost. Jacob – who, of all people, knows the right moment to stumble away from a losing fight - strangely hangs on to the stranger, clutches his victorious enemy to his breast in an iron grip. You are supposed to notice this as well. At daybreak it is the stranger who tries to break the desperate clutch and to depart. Jacob cries out to the ghostly figure in his grasp:
“I will not let you go until you bless me”
In the pew leaflet this morning you will see Paul Gaugin’s depiction of the Vision After the Sermon in which a group of women at the end of Mass see or dream that very battle going on in one of their local fields – complete even with a Breton cow looking on. The battle takes place in the town and the fields and the hearts and lives of the faithful that day – a story which we must be permitted to take out of its moment in Israelite history and to transplant into our own.
This is a conversion story and I believe it’s one of the Old Testament texts which lends itself to – indeed thrusts itself into - the preaching of the Gospel. To men and women on the cusp of decision in contemporary life, to men and women who range in their self-estimate from a nagging suspicion that they are more broken than they appear to be to ones for whom it is a certainty that their honesty, their integrity, their fundamental goodness, their beauty like the fitness of their six synovial joints are in the bin. If you think that I am veering from the banks of what, in comparison to occidental waterways, is a tiny middle eastern river and from an episode in the story of the Patriarchs I must tell you I am allowed and that even the redactor of Genesis in the 3rd or 4th century BC treated this as no ordinary story.
The bottle is empty and the vial of painkillers has run out. There will be no more pretense of honour. The marriage is fundamentally betrayed, the eviction notice in is the mail. The human being is revealed in his or her dishonesty. She is a disappointment. He is a disgrace. There will be a dawn, there will be joy again or joy for the first time, even. Esau will welcome his brother in the next chapter but Jacob has needed to pass this night of redemptive struggle.
Let me break it down.
God in the form of a man appears to lose but then wins and becomes a source of blessing. I feel the need to say this a second time. God in the form of a man appears to lose but then wins and becomes the source of blessing for the one who grasps him in hope-against-hope. This is a story you know. You’ve heard it preached in different guises. The identification with Christ is not lost on the Christian reader.
What is the central part of this story - the pivot around which it turns - if it is not the pleading of Jacob to the one who has defeated him.
I have nowhere else to go. I have no one else to turn to. See through my sin and weakness. Bless me, Lord!
If not God, then nobody. If not his blessing, then nothing at all.