Friday, September 25, 2009

Wrestling with God and Man: Part 3- The Deciever Becomes the Bargainer

Genesis 28:10-15 (NIV)
Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. 11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. 12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway r
esting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it stood the LORD, and he said: "I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."

[Jacob's Ladder, by William Blake, 1800]

The story of Jacob and Esau is an intriguing tale on self-identity, deception, struggle for power, and redemption. If you sit down and really read Genesis you may find that it is an amazing text which touches on several areas on the human experience. Here are the verses I will be referencing on Jacob and Esau.

After deceiving both his father and brother, Jacob is sent to Laban's house for protection, at his mother's request, and marriage, at his father's. This seemed confusing at first since it's almost as if he is being sent away for two different reasons. I wonder if Rebekah finally spoke to Isaac about her encounter with God after the incident in Chapter 27 and had to come up with a reasonable solution to fix the problem. I also wonder how long Esau could have held back his anger out of respect for his father, but if Jacob stayed it may have been only a matter of time before his anger would have taken over. Esau may have even threatened the blind and aging Isaac by moving away with his family, taking the strength and any tribal protection he provided with him, if Jacob was not dealt with properly. One of the brothers had to leave and the tribe could not afford the loss of manpower and strength that Esau afforded them, so the weaker and younger brother was banished. This may have caused Isaac to counter this threat by reconfirming the "accidental" blessing he gave to Jacob with another blessing! Karen Armstrong puts it best as "the family that was supposed to reverse the curse of Babel and reunite dispersed humanity had itself been scattered and fragmented." (In the Begining: A New Interpretation of Genesis. "The Blessing of Jacob")

Yet, it is Isaac's second blessing, or rather Rashi's commentary on the blessing, which caught my attention.

Genesis 28:3

3. And may the Almighty God bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, and you shall become an assembly of peoples.
ג. וְאֵל שַׁדַּי יְבָרֵךְ אֹתְךָ וְיַפְרְךָ וְיַרְבֶּךָ וְהָיִיתָ לִקְהַל עַמִּים:

Rashi's Commentary

And…the Almighty God: Heb. שַׁדַּי. May He Who has enough (שֶׁדָּי) blessings for those who are blessed from His mouth, bless you.
ואל שדי: מי שדי בברכותיו למתברכין מפיו יברך אותך:

Blessing is transmitted through the mouth, AND He (God) has enough blessing for everyone. This stood out like a sore thumb as a description of our very fallible nature. We CAN bless/forgive others immensely (Limitless blessing only after we begin to bless others) yet we struggle to open our mouths and we selfishly keep those blessing for ourselves (others don't deserve to be more blessed than us). Once we begin blessing others the only limits we have are self-imposed. Isaac's second blessing over Jacob was more than just a reconfirmation of the first, Isaac was telling Jacob that he was strong enough to undo the damage caused by their family and humanity. And the key to that strength dwells within us if we only learn to open our mouths.

It is with these words that Jacob leaves to Haran and arrives at a "place". No name is initially given to this unnamed place, but one of the Talmud commentaries associates this place with Mount Moriah, the Jewish axis mundi, which bridges the Divine and mortal realms. Mount Moriah is also said to have been the place where Abraham set out to sacrifice Isaac, the location of Solomon's Temple, linked by some Christian traditions to the location of the crucifixion, and within Islamic tradition Mount Moriah is associated with Mohammad's point of departure into the heavens during his Night Journey. Regardless of the actual location, the place he arrived at was to be considered holy. It is in this place that Jacob dreamt of a ladder to Heaven with angels ascending and descending as God reconfirmed the blessing Jacob had taken from his brother. Three times he had been blessed and yet after being blessed by God himself, and recognizing the holiness of the place where he experienced the Divine, Jacob makes a conditional bargain with God.

Genesis 28:20-22 (NRSV)

20Then Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 22and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.’

Jacob, unable to forgive himself for what he has done to his family and what's been done to him is even cautious about receiving a blessing from the Mouth of One who has enough blessings for all. In their book The Torah: A Modern Commentary, W. Gunther Plaut and David E. Stein explain Jacob's anxiety and fear driven prayer.
"He is only at the beginning of his quest. This is his first experience with trial. Understandably, with anxiety he cries out that he will do anything if only someone will help. Jacob, to be sure, does not deliver a "proper" prayer. He prays realistically from the heart. The vow is his human response to the covenant that God has offered him."
During times of crisis we call out for help begging and pleading on our knees, willing to do anything for help to dig us out of our troubles. I've been in this state countless of times bargaining with God that if he helps me with my current woes I'll go back to church, pray more, etc,etc. Yet we fail to realize that this type of mentality is only a way out of claiming personal responsibility. If God does not answer our prayers, we become calloused towards asking for any help from anyone which in turn leads to more and more division and separation. Once we stop bargaining for help we can discover the strength and potential that has been tucked away within our inner being. Like Jacob, we all seek to redeem and reunite ourselves and humanity yet we fail to realize that paradise can be found if we simply open our mouths and begin to bless one another.

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