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Friday, February 21, 2014

"Face" the Pain

I wish I could read Hebrew because the Jewish Bible authors wrote in Hebrew. There is so much we English readers do not see in a text. Genesis 32&33 are the famous story of Jacob and Esau meeting and Jacob wrestling with "a man" (God?). The Hebrew word "face" occurs seven times. The translated as "ahead" are also the Hebrew word for face.

When Jacob deceived his father Isaac, it was because the old man was too 'blind' to recognize his face. Now, after many years of suffering deception and learning to become a better man, Jacob returns to his homeland to face his brother. Esau's last words were "I will kill Jacob" so the meeting is fraught with tension. Jacob divides his family in two camps because he fears that they will be annihilated and he wants to save some. (Parallel to Isaac sacrifice in that God's promise of progeny seems at risk: key learning moment--God is faithful).

Jacob sends all manner of gifts to Esau as an offer of appeasement. The Hebrew word is literally blessing and echoes the stolen blessing from Isaac. Forgiveness is an unearned grace. But in reconciliation restitution/penance is required. One must give back what is taken (and Jewish Law will later declare a 20% surplus should be added to what was taken. Jacob's extreme generosity seems to be an illustration of that principle). Our English translation does not overtly say blessing, but the connection in Hebrew ties together the story.

A man appears to wrestle with Jacob the night before his meeting with Esau. We are left befuddled by it all; although there is an interesting parallel to Exodus 4:24-26 where He (God?) plans to kill the son of Moses but is prevented by the circumcision by Zipporah, the mother. [Frequently the Bible is enigmatic and we do well to be silent before the mystery and worship--rather than engage in the demeaning efforts to conform God's word to our own limited and insufficient theologies and theories.] Whatever else the wrestling match means, it is clear that Jacob hangs on and fights all night, he is crippled by the experience, but he receives the blessing which he demands at the break of day. He leaves, limping, to go meet his brother, carrying a new name: Israel (which means God rules, but is understood as God fights in a passive sense, i.e. one who fights God). The implications for prayer and spirituality are staggering. Like his grandpa Abraham (who argued about Sodom) Jacob stands up to God. In the end, Jacob announces his shock, I have seen God face to face (that word face again) and lived.

If he has prevailed with God, whether he prevails with his brother is yet to be answered. His humility and subservience to Esau are an act of repentance (even if in contemporary expectation he failed to make a detailed confession and admission of guilt). The genuine kindness of Esau stand out as a model of mercy. Ironically, the man who lost his blessing appears to have been blessed none-the-less. He may not be the chosen one, but his life is full of abundance and his spirit appears to have been satisfied. Jacob describes the encounter, "if I have found favor in your eyes, then take this gift from my hand, for I have, after all, seen your face, as one sees the face of God."

Such words seem almost blasphemous, equating a brother to God. Yet, we see here (I think) an echo of the great commandment of Jesus. Love God. Love your neighbor. And the reminder of  1 John (how can you love God Whom you have never seen if you cannot love your brother whom you have seen?) The stunning insight of he Jewish faith (revealed to them by God) is that our human relations are central to our relationship with God. Man is in the image of God (hence no idol is needed). The one who loves God must love those in his/her world. It is, after all, where we see God's face.

The Christian faith is that Jesus IS God. However, if every human face cannot be a window to God, then Jesus' human face could not; He is human after all and shares totally our nature. Jesus is the perfection of what is present within every human. It is alluded to here, I think, in Jacob's testimony. The sacramental nature of the world, God is present IN and THROUGH, is most completely manifest in God present in and through humans. Jesus is perfectly THE HUMAN FACE of God, but all of us are as well. The transformation of Jacob is complete, his restoration is done. Reconciled with the brother he wronged, he has diminished his unworthiness of the grace received by God's blessing (and in his prayer Jacob made clear to God he knew he was unworthy).

In the chapters ahead, Jacob, a much more passive fellow, will continue to suffer at the hand of deceivers. God's purifying love in his life: a mercy which is also a pain and dying (the cross) and a reminder to us that joy and prosperity are not the whole story for the children of God. You and I have our own sins to repent and our own suffering to endure. It is the way things are in the Journey of Faith...

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