“Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I WILL NOT LET YOU GO UNTIL YOU BLESS ME.” The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob” he answered. Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” Genesis 32: 24-28
The final question in the question-box sermon last week was, “Do dreams mean anything.”
I launched into a psychological and psychotherapeutic dream-theory explanation. Later that afternoon I realized that fifth or sixth grader who asked the question might have been asking if dreams foretell the future, as indicated in Bible stories, like Joseph’s famous explanation of the Pharaoh’s dreams about the coming famine.
If I thought he was asking if my dreams, or yours, could foretell things that were going to happen I would have responded differently. I don’t think dreams tell the future; I think they ‘tell the past,’ and about ‘the present,’ but you have to pay attention to what the dream is saying. I said that dreams mean something to the person having the dream, and that we should pay attention to the powerful dreams…talk about them, write about them, think about them.
Dreams are often mentioned in the Bible, suggesting a special kind of communication between God and man, or between man and the angels. That’s metaphorical language, however. As a child Freud was immersed in the Bible (it was his first ‘reading book.’) He identified with significant figures in the stories, especially Joseph, who interpreted the Pharaoh’s dreams–Freud was, of course, to become like Joseph, famous for his interpretation of dreams. He also identified with Moses, the liberator who brought a new, deeper understanding to humanity. (His famous dictum: “Insight is the royal road to recovery,” is about ‘liberation.’)
We Unitarian Universalist clergy don’t tell you what you should believe about the Bible, about God, about dreams; but we try to provoke you to think again about what it is you say you believe; to think, again, about old beliefs you may have discarded—challenging those who threw the proverbial theological baby out with the bathwater; those who have thrown out the Bible without really looking closely at the marvelous mythologies that are held up to us like mirrors, so we can see ourselves more clearly, so that we can understand ourselves and understand one another, so we can live at peace with our fallible selves and live at peace with our brothers and sisters—the others who inhabit the earth with us.
Just as there is a useful function in simply telling a dream, without necessarily trying to interpret the dream, so there is a useful function in simply telling a story, like the stories in the Bible.
The story of Jacob wrestling with God symbolizes the life-long struggle each of us has with life–with our inner lives, our spiritual life, if you will. Do you know the story?
The portion of the story cited above, when ‘Jacob was alone and wrestled with a man all night long,’ seems to me to be about a dream. It was night. He was alone. He was grappling with the person inside of himself: perhaps it was an aspect of himself that he wanted to change; it was about the person who tricked his twin brother Esau out of his inheritance, the person who fooled his father into giving him his brother’s inheritance; the person who tricked his uncle, etc.
It’s an old story. There are two or more parts to every person. So it’s a story about what it means to be human. It’s about authenticity, on the one hand, and deceit, on the other; it’s about the need for reconciliation—the need for forgiveness of oneself, symbolized by the need for forgiveness between two brothers who have been estranged for 21 years. (It’s interesting that 21 is the age of ‘majority,’ in our culture.) It’s about growing up. It’s about the ingredients in the process we call ‘maturing.’
The book of Proverbs says, ‘get wisdom and get understanding.’
I think of Esau and Jacob not as two separate persons, but as the two parts to every person, not as two different characters, but the different characteristics that describe what it means to be human, and what it means for us humans to encounter God—the voice of compassion and the urge for reconciliation with us.
Remember: Jacob is the third patriarch, the son of Isaac, who was the son of Abraham. The story says that Abraham’s father, Terach, whom Jacob never knew, but presumably ‘knew about,’ was a maker of idols. He had a business, manufacturing and selling idols.
One day, when Abram was minding his father’s store, he took a hammer and smashed all the idols. When his father returned and saw that all the idols had been shattered, he demanded to know what happened.
Abram said, “The idols got into a fight, and the big one smashed all the others.” His father said, “Don’t be ridiculous. These idols have no life or power. They can’t do anything.” Abram replied, “Then why do you worship them? You want people to believe they have power; otherwise they wouldn’t buy them from you.” (Later, Abram’s name was changed to Abraham, just as Jacob’s name was changed to Israel.)
Here’s my take on this story: the father of Abraham represents our primeval ancestors—the earlier generations that moved through stages: the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age—the long evolutionary past, and, the emergence of modern man. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob represent the generations within memory—the people we know we ‘came from,’ and actually knew; people who had a direct influence on our own development.
In the Jewish-Christian-Muslim story, Abraham was the first monotheist to whom God spoke directly, promising that He would make Abraham the father of a great nation.
God called to Abraham to leave the home of his father: “Now the Lord said to Abraham, ‘Go.’ … So Abraham went.” He left his family, his clan. He left their influence; it’s a symbol of the beginning of liberation from a kind of bondage. He moved from place to place before settling down in the land God promised.
I’m reminded of what Dag Hammarskjold wrote in Markings:
“The longest journey
Is the journey inwards
0f him who has chosen his destiny.”
Myths, like dreams, are stories that symbolize the inward journey–the journey from bondage toward liberation, perhaps never actually arriving, since we’re never completely free from all the accumulated experience; never completely free of earlier prejudices, or old resentments…but always moving toward some inner spiritual liberation. Like Jacob, we are wounded.
In the Biblical story Abraham, was told by God to sacrifice his son, to bind Isaac (Muslims claim he bound Ishmael, his first born son, and their direct ancestor) and put him on the altar and kill him. Abraham obeyed; but at the last possible second, when Abraham raised the knife to slay his son, God intervened and stopped the killing, putting a sacrificial lamb in the bushes to replace the Abraham’s son.
This is the voice inside each of us that says that it’s time to stop sacrificing our sons and daughters on the altar of war; it’s suggests a step in the long evolutionary process of humankind; it’s a moment of change—the kind of change that happens to each of us as we grow, mature and gain insight into what’s happening.
Even as we evolve, however, we carry vestiges of our long evolutionary past—the old brain; the fight or flight response; and we carry vestiges of the old idea of God, or the gods who rule over the universe.
Returning to Jacob, the story says that Jacob was in the womb with his twin brother Esau, and when his mother, Rebekah, was carrying her twins they were fighting with one another inside the womb. “She went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples, born of you, shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.’” Genesis 25:22
While she was giving birth to the twins, Jacob held on to the heal of his brother; Jacob wanted to be born first, so he would get the inheritance.
Jacob, you’ll recall, tricked his brother and his father out of Esau’s inheritance. He did this with his mother’s help, since Jacob was her favorite. Esau wasn’t happy. He swore to kill his brother, so his mother sent Jacob to live with her brother Laban, where he would be safe from Esau.
Jacob lived with Laban for 21 years. He married two of Laban’s daughters—Laban tricked him into marrying Leah, first, since she was the older of the two daughters, and for whom Jacob agreed to work for seven years; then he worked another seven years to pay for Rachel, his cousin, the woman he loved; then he worked another seven years and was rewarded with ‘all the speckled and spotted sheep and every black lamb, and the spotted and speckled among the goats.’
Jacob became a genetic engineer, designing a way to breed speckled and spotted ship and goats, and black lambs; and he became a very wealthy man. Genesis 30:37
With his two wives, and their maidservants, Jacob became the father of twelve sons (eleven when he left the house of his uncle Laban) and a daughter. Jacob was ready to start a new chapter in his life. But first he must get the ‘wanted, dead of alive’ sign off his head—he must reconcile with the brother who took an oath to search him out and kill him.
That’s when we’re told the story of Jacob ‘alone and wrestling with a man all night long,’ when he meets God face-to-face. The story touches the very heart of what it means to be human; to be alone, yet to sense within one’s self the presence of ‘another,’ and perhaps to have a glimpse of the Divine that lives ‘within.’
It’s the story of transformation, the story of profound change with the individual, and, by implication, the story of the changes that have transpired as our species has evolved for millions of years. It’s the story of each person’s confrontation with one’s inner demons, if you will; the confrontation between the two parts of a person, and I assume that we all have these two parts; call it good and evil, if you will, but I don’t see it as simple as the inner forces of good and evil; it’s about the base nature in all living things to survive, and the higher nature that allows us to respond to the needs of others; to have compassion for the suffering of others; to want to be of help: survival mechanisms and altruism.
There is something in us which feels compassion; it’s the part of us that is vulnerable; so it needs to protect itself—it sometimes hides or covers up the compassion. The other part thinks we need to compete to survive—that’s the source of greed, lust, envy, gluttony, sloth, anger and pride. Jacob has been wrestling with those things all his life—as we all do—things that kill the spirit, which is why they’re called ‘the seven deadly sins.’
In the passage we cited, Jacob is ready to confront and to attempt to remove those obstacles to his spiritual growth, if we think of the story as Dag Hammarskjold’s ‘…longest journey, the journey inwards, o him who has chosen his destiny.’
Biblical myths are stories about the inner life, where spiritual development happens. The seven deadly sins impede spiritual growth.
In the above passage from Genesis, Jacob is preparing himself to meet his brother, to be reconciled, so he can be free to get on with his life. He sent several significant gifts as a kind of bribe, or peace offering; he’s preparing the way; is it about generosity or a bribe?
So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I WILL NOT LET YOU GO UNTIL YOU BLESS ME.” The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob” he answered. Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” Genesis 32: 24-28
He blessed Jacob and gave him the name “Israel” (Yisrael), meaning “the one who wrestled with G-d” or “the Champion of G-d.” The Jewish people are generally referred to as the Children of Israel, signifying their descent from Jacob.
Later that day, Jacob met Esau and was welcomed by him; something must have happened to Esau during those 21 years!
There’s a special genius in the Genesis stories; the story of Jacob’s grappling with God is one of my favorites. It’s a powerful piece of mythology that we quickly recognize as a portrayal of the individual—everyone one of us—who must struggle through all the stages of life. Like any good myth, we understand it only when we see ourselves in it; when we identify with one or more of the characters.
The story of Jacob ‘alone, wrestling with a man all night long, and looking at God face to face’ is central to the Bible’s portrayal of Humankind, and need to grapple with God; to give up the old idols and to locate the Divine within.
Jacob is wounded in the encounter. For the rest of his life he limps. What’s the limp about? His limp is a sign of his wound, a wound he suffered gladly! It occurred when he was liberated!
Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, broke his father’s idols; he liberated himself from the religion of his father; his father’s limitations. Each of us must do the same: it’s not about what our biological fathers and grandfathers believed, however; it’s the story of our own, personal and individual growth toward a deeper understanding of what it means to be human, and what it means to be ‘myself’ and to take the risk involved in becoming that self.
Abram’s name was changed to Abraham after he smashed the idols. What is an idol? At the risk of oversimplifying, I would say that idols are nouns; they are the gods who are nouns—things you can see; things that occupy a particular place, historically and geographically. Like a person.
We move beyond idol worship when we acknowledge that the idols really can’t ‘do anything,’ as Abraham’s destruction of his father’s idols symbolizes.
But it doesn’t mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
The internal struggle—grappling with God—must go on. That struggle is symbolized in the myth of Jacob grappling with God by trying to gain control over the man who lives within himself; the primitive aspect of himself who he must ‘pin to the mat,’ so as to break loose from his control.
This internal God is not a noun, not a thing separate from him, but a verb! The God with whom Jacob grapples is internal. “Jacob was alone and he wrestled with a man all night long.”
His life-changing, name-changing encounter took place at night. What do we usually do at night? We sleep. We dream. We are confronted by, or have access to, our unconscious thoughts; unresolved conflicts; our past; our fears, etc.
During our waking hours we grapple with one another; we form relationships, and struggle through the difficulties that attend all of our most meaningful relationships: family, spouse, children, friends, co-workers.
If we pay attention to the things we say, and why we say them, how we were feeling at the time we said them, we realize that we are revealing things that are going on inside of ourselves—things that may have little or nothing to do with what’s happening in the relationships with which we’re having problems.
That’s why it’s important to remember dreams; to think about them, maybe to talk about them, or to write about them. Dreams reveal the unconscious mind, which is sending messages to the conscious mind as a means of liberation.
To summarize: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the patriarchs, are not historical, they are mythological characters. “A myth is a public dream; a dream is a private myth,” is the way Joseph Campbell put it.
Abraham descended from idol worshippers; he smashed the idols of his ancestors and set out ‘on his own.’ He was called ‘out,’ to be himself; to leave his clan. (Abraham was a prototypical Unitarian, he said with a wink and a grin.)
The patriarchs represent our evolutionary lineage—our historical ancestors. Jacob holds up a mirror where we can see ourselves.
Edward Estlin Cummings provides a poem that summarizes all of the above:
rain or hail
the best he kin
till they digged his hole
:sam was a man
stout as a bridge
rugged as a bear
slickern a weazel
how be you
(sun or snow)
gone into whaat
like all them kings
you read about
and on him sings
heart was big
as the world aint square
with room for the devil
and his angels too
what may be better
or what may be worse
and what may be clover
sam was a man
grinned his grin
done his chores
laid him down.