Reflections on the Book of Genesis by Luigino Bruni

Jacob finds a new name
and the way back to his brother


On that day, the dawn was shorter than usual: the sun rose two hours before its usual time … And the early appearing sun was of wondrous power: the same glory that shone during the six days of creation and will return to flaunt the end of time’ (Greater Midrash of the Genesis, LXVIII).

In contrast to the ways of our consumer society, in the Bible the names of people (and places) are very serious things. They are always chosen to indicate, symbolically, a vocation or a destiny. But when the first name is changed by an event or a special encounter, the name becomes also a call to a special and universal task. This is how after the Alliance Saray and Abram become Sarah and Abraham, and after his night struggle Jacob becomes Israel.

Once reconciled with Laban, Jacob now knows that he is awaited by a more difficult encounter, with his deceived brother Esau. But Jacob did not know that before he can meet Esau again, another special encounter was waiting for him in the ford of the Jabbok (a tributary of the River Jordan). After twenty years of exile, Jacob is afraid to return to the land of his brother. The blessing stolen twenty years earlier has accompanied him during his exile, and now he fears that Esau has not forgotten the deceit. As a first step he announces his arrival: ‘Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau’ (32:3). However, he learns that his brother was advancing towards him with four hundred men, and he was ‘in great fear and distress’ (32:7). He is afraid of Esau and, seeking reconciliation, sends abundant gifts to his brother to precede him and prepare their big meeting: ‘two hundred female goats and twenty male goats … ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys …’ (32:15). And he hopes that, ‘I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead’ (32.20). Ancient practices: communities used to meet and re-meet using the gifts as first words. The preparation of the meeting between Jacob and Esau is thus one of the oldest stories that reveal the deep connection that exists between gift and forgiveness. Jacob sends gifts to Esau to ask for the gift of forgiveness. True forgiveness is never a unilateral act, but a meeting of gifts.

Between the preparation for the meeting with Esau and the meeting itself, the sacred writer, however, places a strong narrative discontinuity: he takes us to the ford of a river by night, and makes us experience one of the most extraordinary episodes of the Bible, when Jacob, who is “blessed by deceit”, becomes “blessed for the struggle”. Jacob arrives at this late-night encounter with a huge, complex and painful human-divine luggage. To that ford, along with the flocks, goods and his family, Jacob also brings his birthright, the dish of lentils, the theft of the blessing, the lies told to his old father Isaac (and YHWH), the deceits committed against and received from Laban, the pains that live in him together with the dream of the “stairway” and heaven, the angels, the promise, the call, the renewed Alliance. So let us accompany Jacob up to the Jabbok, and follow him that night as if it was the first time we read this story (the first is the only fruitful reading of the Bible), and fight alongside him.

That night Jacob got up and took his two wives … his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. …So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. (32.22-24). A man (“ish”) confronts him in the ford. We do not know the reason for this as it is presented as a real and proper ambush. The man looks like a creature of the night who must leave the fight at ‘daybreak’.

Their struggle is long, and the mysterious man cannot prevail over Jacob (Genesis shows us Jacob as a person of extraordinary strength several times, cf. 29:10), and to break him, he hits him on ‘the socket of Jacob’s hip’, dislocating it, but still not winning over him (32:25). His opponent asks Jacob: ‘Let me go, for it is daybreak’ (32:26). It is at this point of the dialogue – struggle that Jacob returns to being a beggar of blessings: ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ (32:26). His opponent asks: ‘What is your name?’ ‘Jacob.’ ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.’ (32:28). Jacob also asks for his opponent’s name and as a response he gets the blessing he asked for: ‘»Why do you ask my name?« Then he blessed him there.’ (32,30). In fact the name of the mysterious wrestler had already been revealed: ‘because you have struggled with God and with humans.’ His opponent was a man, it was Elohim. Jacob was blessed and wounded by the same (P)person. This is a great metaphor of faith (the one of the Bible, not the one of the sellers of emotional and psychological consumption), which is an experience that blesses us only through wounding us. This is a great image that is also true for human relationships (the opponent was also a man), where the blessing of otherness comes to us when we are willing to expose ourselves to the possibility of injury. But this fight is also a powerful image of human relations in our market society, in businesses and organizations where we are losing the blessing of the other because we are afraid of being injured by them. And so we have entered a phase of famine of blessings and happiness.

Still limping ‘Jacob looked up and there was Esau. … he bowed down to the ground seven times’. But ‘Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him.’ (33:4) We can generate endless processes and win a thousand causes, but true reconciliation comes only when we ‘cry together’. Anyone who has received a great wrong, especially if by family members or loved ones, will know that the pain is much deeper than any sentence to be served or cash compensation: the only effective treatment for the wound is reconciliation, embrace. When you do not get to ‘cry together’, the differences between the pain and compensation are too large, and the wounds remain open and continue to bleed. The many tears shed for the killings of loved ones, for the deep injustices suffered, for slander, for the blessings stolen can be dried up only by mixing them with the tears of those who made ours fall, in an embrace. We know this; we also know that it’s very difficult, but most of all we know that there is no other real way to try to heal the wounds of the primary relationships of our lives – criminal and civil proceedings should facilitate the realisation of these embraces.

One question – among a thousand others – remains open: why has God dealt and fought with Jacob on his way towards the re-composition of fraternity? Why did He place Himself between Jacob and His promise? In this battle we can discover one of the deepest and least explored laws of human nature. In a decisive moment of life, what actually fights the righteous is righteousness, the founder is wrestling with his work, the charismatic with his charisma, the poet with poetry, the entrepreneur with his business. And it is not because of a perversion or an intrinsic evil of life, or maybe God, but because when the person who has received a call and answered it reaches the culmination of his moral existence, he or she inevitably reaches the “stage of the new name”. He must fight with what had been the first mission and his blessing to be able to receive – after the injury of the struggle – others that are more true. Jabbok and Jacob are Jewish-sounding names, the one being almost an anagram of the other. During these battles, the main opponent wrestler is that which is more beautiful and larger than life, that does not want to ‘die’ inside, and fights and wounds the other: deus contra deum. But only when you pass this ‘ford’ does the flight to infinity start: it is then that Raymund Maximilian Kolbe becomes Father Kolbe, and becomes that forever.

At the end of the fight, ‘Israel’ receives the blessing from ‘Jacob’, as he understands and feels that his life task of yesterday was not an enemy to fight, but a friend who embraces us and blesses us, and with that wound an access was opened to the deepest and best part of us. Until that night at the ford, the blessing of Jacob was the one stolen from his brother. Now that he has received a new blessing that is completely his own, and will remain inscribed forever in the flesh – according to the rabbinic tradition Jacob limped for the rest of his life – he can bless Esau, too: ‘Please accept my blessing’ (33:11). And the circle closes. We too, like Jacob, are beggars of blessings. But today we risk losing the ability to understand the spiritual blessings that are hidden inside the wounds carved into the flesh of our relationships. ‘And Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan.’ (33:18)

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 25/05/2014