God Wrestling

  • submit to reddit

Apparently headed for his final comeuppance, the fugitive Jacob meets God in a dream and ultimately finds himself. Bill Moyers speaks with theologians Walter Brueggemann, John S. Kselman, Burton L. Visotzky and Renita J. Weems, educator Roberta Hestenes, visual artist Hugh O’Donnell and scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg.



BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. The stories of Genesis are about life in the making, and as we’ve seen in our series, the stories tell us that we can indeed change our lives. Even a con artist like Jacob wandering the desert with fear and trembling gets a second chance. His dreams make the difference, the first recorded dreams in the Bible. It’s been said that dreaming men are haunted men. Well, this son of Isaac was haunted right to the gateways of heaven. When he woke up, his name was no longer Jacob. Now he was called Israel.

STORYTELLER MANDY PATINKIN: Jacob was on the run. He had stolen the blessing from his father meant for Esau and Esau had vowed to kill him. Now Jacob was alone at night and he took a stone and made a pillow on which he could sleep. And Jacob dreamed he saw a ladder that reached from earth to heaven and the angels of God were ascending and descending upon it. Suddenly, God stood right in front of Jacob and spoke to him. I am with you, God said, and I will not leave you. You will have land and a nation of people.

When Jacob awoke, he was shaken in awe of God. This was a holy place. He took the stones on which he had slept and made a pillar and he said, if God does all that God says and provides food for me and future generations and if I return to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God.

20 years passed and Jacob was an older man. He decided to return to the land of his father and to face his brother Esau for the first time since Jacob had tricked him out of his blessing. On the way, he heard his brother Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men and Jacob prayed. He prayed to God that Esau wouldn’t destroy him and his children. Jacob sent his wives and servants to the other side of the river. He stayed alone.

It was night and Jacob wrestled with a stranger until the break of day. When his adversary couldn’t prevail, he wrenched Jacob’s hip from its socket. Let me go, the man said. The day is breaking. And Jacob said, I won’t let you go unless you bless me. What is your name, the stranger asked. And he answered, Jacob. Your name shall no longer be Jacob. You shall be called Israel. You have wrestled with God and man and have prevailed.

Jacob named the place of the blessing Peniel, which means I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been saved. But Jacob limped forever after. As the sun rose, Jacob looked up and he saw Esau coming. Esau ran to greet him and he fell on Jacob’s neck and he kissed him, and the brothers wept.

RENITA WEEMS: What makes Jacob’s story so incredibly engaging and kind of inspires the energy that we’re feeling now is that it is the first character in the Genesis story that provides us with so many different dimensions of a particular character. I mean, here we finally have someone we have some adjectives we can use — deceptive, clever, shrewd, subtle, whatever. Before Jacob, we’re finding mostly characters are pretty one dimensional. They pretty much do what God says and may protest a little here and there, but in Genesis, this is, aha, someone who’s human, the first real, human person.

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: I think I identify with his incredible duplicities. I don’t think it’s possible for Jacob not to be duplicitous. So even after this last wonderful vision, the very last thing he does with his brother is lie to him. He says I’ll meet you, and then he goes the other way. And I don’t know whether it’s because it’s a habit of his to live this way, but it’s interesting that the narrative lets us see all that about him.

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: Perhaps he doesn’t believe Esau’s peacemaking.


BURTON L. VISOTZKY: Yeah, but I’m with Walter on this. He’s stolen the blessing, he’s deceived his blind father, stolen this blessing from his brother, and he’s literally fleeing from his life. That’s where he has his first dream and you expect, all right, that’ll be a turning point. He’s going to exile. Now maybe he’ll have learned something from the experience. And he gets to his uncle Laban’s and the deceit starts all over again.

And then he comes back and he has this great wrestling match and you think, oh, now he’s going to change. And indeed, his name changes. And I’m with Walter. He faces Esau and he lies to him again and again, not just about where he’s going. He lies to him, well, the children are a little frail, and if we keep pushing on, all the cattle will die. Nothing about Jacob changes. In a way, that’s what’s so depressing. Despite the fact that he has a dream as a young man, he has a young man’s dream, and as a middle aged man, he has a middle aged man’s dream, his habits remain the same. He does not change.

ROBERTA HESTENES: We are at one level who we are and Jacob is who he is, but at another level, I think the story shows the movement. As I look at it, in the beginning, Jacob’s piety or his spirituality is all external. It’s all verbal. And when you come to the spirituality of vulnerability, which is what I think you have at that in the story and you look at the content of the prayer as we’re given it, there, Jacob is saying, I am afraid. He’s naming something he has never named. He is saying, I don’t know what to do. I need, in a way that he’s never named his need before.

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: But there is duplicity even in their prayer because he says to God, you said to me, you promised me, quote — and if you look back, God never promised that.

BILL MOYERS: Do you find him an admirable fellow?

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: I don’t find him duplicitous, I have to say. I’m going to stick my neck out.

BILL MOYERS: He’s cunning.

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: I think he is — let me find the very best word I can use for this. The word I would use, perhaps, if I wanted to put a good case for him, is subtle.

BILL MOYERS: But when we meet him, Avivah, when we meet him, he is a thief, a coward, and a fugitive. He stole a birthright, he is running from his brother because he’s afraid of his brother, and he’s running for his life. I mean, this is a —

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: Is that cowardly to be afraid when you know someone’s out for your life?

ROBERTA HESTENES: That’s probably a realistic response. He wanted the blessing. Now, what he understands by that I think shifts in the text. In the beginning, it’s power and money and he always cares about those things. He keeps caring about those things. But the shape of his understanding of blessing, I think in the story we see a movement, a change. But the thing we struggle with is our own myth of perfectibility, that somehow because Jacob has had an encounter with God, which does change him, that our expectation is that he is to be all of a sudden a perfect person. And I think the story tells us that the encounter with God changes us but not to perfection. We are still human. We still bear the marks of everything that we are, but he is a different man.

BILL MOYERS: But did you find him — you find them obviously intriguing, but do you find him admirable?

RENITA WEEMS: Admirable. He’s not the one who’s admirable. I don’t think it’s so much what he does. It’s what life does to him and how this array of events that he finds himself in, that’s what makes it so incredibly intriguing. And for me, he is at once someone who seems to take things in his own hands, but at the same time, he’s a person also who is fated. I think that that is the human predicament, that part of our lives where we have control and those parts of our lives where we absolutely do not have control. I think that’s what makes this story to me so familiar.

BURTON L. VISOTZKY: This is a guy, though, he really attempts to assert control at all times, sometimes stunningly naively. He has this incredible vision where God says, I’ll protect you, I’ll take care of you, and his response is a whole series of if clauses. He says, OK, you want to make a deal? Great. It’s like he doesn’t quite understand what’s at stake here, who his partner is in this covenantal relationship. He doesn’t understand that God’s holding all the cards. And he says, OK, well, if you give me food and clothing, and if you protect me, and if you make sure I get home, then maybe you’ll be my God. To which the rabbis comment, I think quite cleverly, and if not, he won’t be God? What could Jacob possibly be thinking?

HUGH O’DONNELL: Jacob is pure genius. He’s human genius, and that’s his right to do that.

BILL MOYERS: What you mean, human genius?

HUGH O’DONNELL: Well, I think Jacob, I think he’s marvelous. I think of Jacob as a real hero in this story because he’s somebody who’s cursed with this incredible invention and intellect, and it keeps him awake. He can’t get any rest, can’t get any peace. And he’s sent running through the world, and God comes down and gives him some help. He gives him more help than just, things are going to be OK, go out and go forth and do this and that. He actually shows him the pathway to heaven. He shows him the structure of how to do it because the man has got the intellect and the equipment to be able to do something with it.

BILL MOYERS: But for all of his imperfections, in this dream, God comes to him and sort of pats him on the back. I would have expected God to be more severe and demanding with a 20-year-old, more or less, who’s on the lam like this and say, wait a minute. But instead, God says, it’s OK, boy. I’m going to look after you.

BURTON L. VISOTZKY: This is, in a way, the disservice God does for Jacob. God essentially says, you can behave however you want. I’m going to bless you, I’m going to protect you. And God does this immediately after all the duplicitness. Had God said at that point, you know, you can’t steal the blessing like that, and you think you have blessing, I’m going to take it away from you, Jacob would have thought twice before he did it again.

BILL MOYERS: Why did God do it? Is God saying the ends justify the means? My covenant, my purpose with Israel, my long range historic aim justifies my using a dolt like this?

BURTON L. VISOTZKY: Well, God certainly doesn’t say anything like that in scripture.


BURTON L. VISOTZKY: It doesn’t mean that that’s not what’s implied here, but still, it’s very disturbing. The moral implications are very disturbing. That chosenness can in some way free you from moral obligation is a terrifying thought. In some way, it just replicates what we saw with Abraham. Abraham does all kinds of things that are not quite on the up and up and God rewards him. Now, two generations later, we go through the same thing. Jacob is duplicitous again and again and God stands by. Now, it’s a nice message, I suppose, that God will always be with you, but you’d like there to be some link between your action and the consequences.

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: You said early on that Jacob did not recognize that God had all the cards. Could it be that the narrator wants to say to us, God doesn’t have all the cards? That what the narrator has discovered is that there’s this other character who has some of the cards?



BILL MOYERS: Who is us.

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: Yeah, or who is this family of blessing and a little bit, God has got to deal, speaking of cards.

ROBERTA HESTENES: I think to say that God does not care about morality of those kinds of things is to misread the whole biblical narrative. It isn’t a moralistic narrative. It doesn’t tell the story and then tack a little moral on the end of it and tell you what to think and feel all the way through it. You understand God is a covenant making God, a God of care, a God of promise making who keeps his promise, which is the fundamental basis of morality, to give your word and to keep your word. And the particular stories are set within this larger narrative of the creative and covenant making God. And to say, because there is not a judgment made explicitly in the text is to misread the way in which the text conveys the truth that is in it.

JOHN KSELMAN: Doesn’t that miss a whole other side of God, the terrifying side of God, the God whom Jacob confronts terrified, as you said before? I would like that to be the picture of the Bible, but I as I read it, that’s half of picture and the other half is the mysterious, terrifying, wounding


JOHN KSELMAN: — adversary who is God against whom we all struggle.

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: But I wonder whether at any point in the text, God really says to Jacob, that’s all right.

ROBERTA HESTENES: I don’t think so.

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: Even in chapter 28 when Jacob delivers this big “if,” I thank God simply doesn’t respond. It’s the kind of experience I’ve had with —

BILL MOYERS: When he says, you will be my God if you let me prosper.

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: You don’t get anything back. It’s kind of like saying these demanding things to your therapist and the therapist just looks at you.

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: I don’t think he’s being very demanding.

HUGH O’DONNELL: I don’t think so either.

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: I think he’s simply saying, if you give me life and air and food, then I will give you everything I have. “V’HAYA HASHEM LEELOHIM”

That’s part of the promise.

HUGH O’DONNELL: It’s an understanding of grace.

BILL MOYERS: You don’t see it as an avaricious claim?

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: Not at all. I think he’s asking for air and food and water, and he says, if you give me enough to live, then Hashem will be my God. I will —

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: Even if you soften it that much, which is what —

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: I don’t think I’m — I think it’s what he’s saying.

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: — which is softer than I read it.

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: He’s quoting God back to himself.

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: Well, that isn’t how I read it.

HUGH O’DONNELL: The thing is if God doesn’t do this, it won’t work.

RENITA WEEMS: Why serve God if God is not going to provide?

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: It’s still conditional.

BILL MOYERS: What was it?

RENITA WEEMS: Why serve God if God will not provide? That’s the reality of why people believe in God. I mean, you want to believe that God will give you something, will provide for you. I mean, God, yes, is God, but I want a God who will provide and give.

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: What Jacob does is go one beyond God’s promise. He quotes God’s promise — all right, not literally — back to him, and he says —

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: Not correctly. Not just not literally, not correctly.

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: He’s asking for much more basic. He doesn’t use large, vague terms. He simply says bread and water and protection. Then I will give, and he goes ahead and vows something, which God never asked for.

JOHN KSELMAN: Jacob reveals himself in the prayer as calculating. If you do this for me, we’ll see what happens and so on. I mean, that’s OK because I can be calculating when I pray.

BILL MOYERS: He says it stronger, John. He says, if you will make me rich, you will be my God.

JOHN KSELMAN: You will be my God, yes.

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: He doesn’t say “rich.” He says, if you give me bread to eat. Bread to eat, that’s not rich.

BILL MOYERS: All right. Well, my translation says “prosper.”

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: You know about bread.

BILL MOYERS: Go ahead, John.

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: I have a lot of bread.

RENITA WEEMS: He doesn’t say “daily bread.”

JOHN KSELMAN: To me, the art of the story is precisely that we are left with Jacob and with God, indeed, to make our own judgments with the information in conversation that the author gives us. So I don’t think the authorial intent is to portray a non-duplicitous Jacob guided by God, but rather a man like me.

ROBERTA HESTENES: With complex —

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean like you?

JOHN KSELMAN: A man like me who struggles with duplicity, with calculating, bargaining prayer —

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: Or at least cleverness.

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: Oh, I agree with you, but the duplicitous word is the word I’m afraid of.

JOHN KSELMAN: What about “calculating?”

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: No. I think it’s a person like me who am both Jacob and Esau. It’s another level to the story.


AVIVAH ZORNBERG: Jacob recognizes the Esau in himself and he acts —

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: If you were a Christian reader, I would say you’re trying to whitewash and clean up this text.


WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: So I would defer to you since you’re not a Christian reader, but what you’re saying —

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: Why? Jews can’t whitewash?

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: Well, they may or may not. I’m not commenting on that.

ROBERTA HESTENES: Christians are duplicitous.

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: But the line you’re taking makes me very nervous in terms of conventional Christian readings of the text because we want to impose kind of a nice morality on this. I’m not saying that you’re doing that or want to do that, but the direction you’re going can so easily be heard in a Christian context of saying, these are all nice little boys and girls.

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: No, absolutely not.

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: And indeed they are not.

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: No. Absolutely not.

HUGH O’DONNELL: This is about survival.

BILL MOYERS: Wait a minute. This is about survival?


BILL MOYERS: Whose survival?

HUGH O’DONNELL: It’s about the survival of the tribe and it’s about the survival of the culture and it’s about survival of vision.

BILL MOYERS: So is God saying survival justifies anything?

HUGH O’DONNELL: Absolutely.

RENITA WEEMS: Why do we have to see this as cause and effect?

BURTON L. VISOTZKY: I find this very disturbing. I don’t think that we can justify this. I don’t think that —

HUGH O’DONNELL: That’s not why they’re trying to justify it.

BURTON L. VISOTZKY: — survival of the tribe justifies immorality. If immorality is what it takes for this tribe to survive, my question is, why bother?

HUGH O’DONNELL: Morality isn’t a condition of life. I mean, life is voracious and you have to make really, really clear decisions on what is going to grow and what is not.

BILL MOYERS: Are you saying that once God chooses this family — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — God is stuck with them no matter what they’re like?

HUGH O’DONNELL: Yes. When God starts the ball rolling and he creates human genius, he is going to be constantly reflecting on that genius.

BILL MOYERS: So God surrenders his free will once God makes this choice of these people?


WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: So God doesn’t have all the cards?

HUGH O’DONNELL: God has his creation.

ROBERTA HESTENES: It’s very important that Jacob not be whitewashed because if the hidden assumption here is that God should only work with people who are perfect, or God is somehow immoral, then I’m doomed. Then all of us are out of it. But God doesn’t work only with perfect people. And the fact that God works with this person with all of the conflicting pushes and drives and struggles to me is a sign of hope they God actually works with human beings.

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: I absolutely agree. It seems to me that the drama is there. Jacob starts off by being called an “ishtam”, a simple, whole — it’s almost a word you could translate as perfect, a perfect person. That’s what he’s called in the text at the beginning of the story, contrasted with Esau. And he grows out of that. That’s what’s so striking. He grows beyond that specious, that simplicity.

ROBERTA HESTENES: Quiet tent dweller.

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: Yes, exactly, the pale student who has nothing to do with the dirty stuff in life, and he comes to recognize the necessity of having some of Esau in him, some of the concept of Esau, the way Esau lives in the world, in himself. And he reconstructs himself in a much more complex mode, in a much more complex and reproachable mode. I think the first movement is a movement downwards.

BURTON L. VISOTZKY: The rabbis very naturally — and I think Christian fathers do this too — make oppositions. Jacob’s over here and Esau’s over here. They are really, really opposite types. And yet in some way, the Bible doesn’t do that. The Bible reminds us they are twins. They come out of the same womb almost at the same moment, literally holding onto one another. And I like very much what you said, that you are both Jacob and Esau, that in fact, whatever opposition there may be, we have to recognize that we’re both. See, God isn’t just the God of Jacob. God is also the God of Esau. God doesn’t just prefer genius. God also prefers the brute. God is God of imperfection as well.

BILL MOYERS: But you remind me that in the text I read when it talks about Jacob and Esau coming out of the womb, it says that Jacob is grasping, and the word here is not a nice word. It’s an odious word. He’s grasping for the heel of Esau.

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: It’s not an odious word in Hebrew.

HUGH O’DONNELL: Yeah, yeah. Well, we’re talking about sodomization, too, you know?

BILL MOYERS: In the text that I was reading. Suggesting that from birth —

ROBERTA HESTENES: Supplanting, trying to take.

BILL MOYERS: —DNA, this is a scheming, conniving, avaricious, ambitious guy. Maybe he’s not.

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: Again, I can’t follow that because the Hebrew doesn’t allow for such a dramatic understanding. It’s simply he’s following, he’s fascinated by Esau. That’s the way I would read it. From the beginning, Esau has gone first. He is behind. His eyes are filled with Esau, with his strength, his vitality, his prominence. His fantasies are full of Esau, and he determines himself, he constructs himself always in reference to Esau. It’s absolutely there in the text. The classic distinction that Esau is a hairy man and Jacob is a smooth man is not supported in the text. The text says that Esau is hairy but doesn’t say anything about Jacob. Jacob says, I am a smooth man, by contrast.

ROBERTA HESTENES: One of the things that that triggers is that perhaps, then, in seeing this story of Jacob, that he begins by taking on an identity that is not his own. He takes on Esau’s identity. That’s the way he thinks he’s going to —

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: Would you call that clever or would you call that duplicitous?

ROBERTA HESTENES: —get the blessing. I wouldn’t use either of those words right now because he’s trying to figure out who he is and how to get what it is he wants, and he wants the blessing. He wants that from his father. There are all kinds of things. But anyway, to get it, he’s something he’s not. Then you move in the story, and you have the wrestling with the angel. And in the wrestling, the question comes, who are you? And in that question, then, he’s no longer to answer it by saying, I am Esau. But now, when he answers truthfully, I am Jacob, and then God gives him a new name as Israel. So that whole movement of self discovery and, how do I make my way in the world? By being somebody else and pretending?

HUGH O’DONNELL: Isn’t this about making civilization? When he says that you are Israel, you’re no longer Jacob. You are now being foretold as a whole people. You’re representative. I mean, he’s a leader.

BILL MOYERS: You’re getting us ahead of when that happens. You make me want to come back to this seminal event of the dream, the dream of the ladder. We’ve talked all around this. I know you’ve done a lot of work in dreams and I’d like to know, what do you think the dream says and means to Jacob? This is an earlier stage than the wrestling, which comes later and he becomes a leader. What does the dream do to him?

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: For me, the dream is a dream about heaven and earth. It’s a dream about the connecting of heaven and earth and about angels who do nothing but rise up from earth and come back down from heaven. They start from earth and they go up and they come down.

BILL MOYERS: Angels being —

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: Angels being somewhere emanations of Jacob himself. They are expressions of Jacob himself and they go up and down. The Midrash has a wonderful fantasy. They have a wonderful image for this.

BILL MOYERS: The rabbinical teaching.

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: What are they doing? They’re going up and looking at a kind of transcendent image of Jacob up above, and then they come down to the bottom of the ladder and they see the real Jacob lying rather disgracefully asleep in a holy place. It’s a holy place. He shouldn’t be sleeping there. And they’re comparing the two images, and somewhere, the ladder is Jacob himself. It’s the connection between who he is as a recumbent body, just lying there on the ground unconscious, and the great Jacob, what you call the genius, the genius of Jacob. And the question that angels are expressing, the Midrash has the angels on one hand rejoicing and on the other hand chiding and disapproving about the split image of Jacob. And they’re going up and down the ladder, and somewhere, Jacob’s consciousness is full of the sense of the two levels of his being. On the one hand, he’s here, and on the other level, he’s there, and how is he ever going to create a real sense of integrity?

BILL MOYERS: What do the rest of you think about the dream?

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: It’s terribly important, I think, that these events happen in the night when Jacob is vulnerable, and I’m interested in the dialectic of daytime living and nighttime living, of how the tensions of the day produce the possibilities of the night.

HUGH O’DONNELL: I’m thinking of Jacob as a fugitive and somebody who spends his life running from himself and is pursued by himself. And I’m thinking about the family as a local event and culture as a bigger event. I mean, this is a very grand problem here, but I’m very aware of it and how his vision is something that goes out to shape the culture rather than just his own local family squabble.

ROBERTA HESTENES: One of the things in the text, when I think of the ladder and the angels, the sense there is messengers. And rather than Jacob real and Jacob idealized, the traffic between heaven and earth, then with the surprising phrase that the Lord God is right in front of Jacob. He’s not at the top of the ladder. God is right with Jacob in that place, I think, which becomes holy. I don’t think that was a holy space before and Jacob was in the wrong place. I think because God was there with Jacob, it becomes a holy place, which then is recognized that way. And so in a sense, heaven has come to earth and God is with Jacob.

BURTON L. VISOTZKY: But you know, Roberta, every place has God in it. In other words, every place is holy. It’s only when you recognize it —

ROBERTA HESTENES: When your eyes are open.

BURTON L. VISOTZKY: Yeah, when you recognize that God is standing right there in front of you.

BILL MOYERS: Walter said earlier that both of these moments of trauma occurred when Jacob was most vulnerable. He was a very vulnerable soul there.

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: When we have our worst nightmares in the night, it is when the daytime is very troubling.

BILL MOYERS: What does the night have to do — the night is very symbolic here, isn’t it?

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: I think our defenses are down and we lose the initiative for our existence that we can maintain all day long.

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: The rabbis say that the night fell unexpectedly. The sun set before proper time, as if really to catch him unawares. And the word as soon as he arrives at the place, it’s very blandly translated. He came upon a place. But “BUT BAYIFGAHî means he just collides with a place. Suddenly, before he knows it, the place has taken him over.

BURTON L. VISOTZKY: And in rabbinic Hebrew, that word “place” is a name for God. God is the omnipresent. God fills that place.

RENITA WEEMS: But also, the thing about this experiencing God is, to take us back just a little bit as we raise the question of, why doesn’t God judge Jacob? Why doesn’t God punish or chastise, or why doesn’t God do something?

BILL MOYERS: At least reform him.

RENITA WEEMS: At least something, at least upbraid him, if nothing else, right after his event with his brother. Sometimes, an experience like that is enough to prostrate you. Sometimes, the worst thing that God can do is show up and do something merciful to you. That in and of itself — I mean, I think for me, there have been times when I know I’ve just been engaged in something depraved. Don’t use our imaginations. Just know that I’ve done something duplicitous or depraved or I knew was wrong, and then the next moment or the next day or within another week or so, something happens that’s so glorious, so miraculous, so I didn’t deserve it. That in and of itself is enough sometimes to prostrate you.

HUGH O’DONNELL: The trouble is whenever you get these wonderful gifts, it also ups the ante on everything, doesn’t it? I mean, God is being merciful, but he’s also giving you a little bit more, and then you’ve got a bit more to do.

BILL MOYERS: The other night, John, you referred to the story of Jacob as the Rumpelstiltskin story of the Bible. What did do you mean by that?

JOHN KSELMAN: Well, there are elements in that story, in the story of the struggle, the wrestling, that are folktale elements. For instance, in the fairy tale or the folktale of Rumpelstiltskin, until the name is learned, the princess will not be released. So the name has power. The name and the knowledge of the name gives power to the person who overhears it and finally is able to reveal the name. The fact that dangerous adversaries lose their power at the break of dawn, forces of the night and so on, is another folktale element. So there are things in that story that are part of world literature in a certain sense. It intrigued me, in a certain sense, in a story in the Bible to find these if not universal, widespread, folkloristic elements.

RENITA WEEMS: Another universal thing that we find is the classic male come of age story, the man who goes away from family, who must leave, who goes alone, leaves family, and especially women, to discover himself. And I think that’s probably always been one of the troubling aspects of this story for me, and perhaps a number of other stories that we might find in the Bible period, this notion of going away, of being alone, of hearing God and finding oneself separate and apart from a family. Especially in Genesis when you find that prior to that story, most of the women when they experienced God experienced God above the din of crying children, but Jacob has the luxury of running away, of leaving women, leaving mother, leaving father, and having this experience. And so there is a classic thing there of the male coming of age and usually men, the classic patriarchal stories of men who find themselves away from women and away from family.

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: But surely, he’s on his way to marry when he-

RENITA WEEMS: He’s on his way to but not yet married. There’s a difference between being on your way there and being married.

BURTON L. VISOTZKY: He has the appropriate dream. He is this young man, albeit that he is fleeing. He knows that he is on his way to marry. He’s being sent to find a wife. But I think that it’s an apposite dream to him at that point in his life. You’re right. It’s a coming of age story. Once he has, as it were, come of age, when he’s returning with a family, with all the burdens of middle age. He’s got all these children, all these wives, a lot of responsibility, and he knows he’s going to inherit the farm, as it were. He’s going back to the promised land. He has a very different kind of experience.

We always refer to Jacob wrestling with the angel. That’s not what the text says. The text says Jacob wrestled with a man. And I think this is something that we have to recognize in Genesis continually. It’s very hard to know when a man is a man, when a man is an angel. And to make it more complicated, it’s hard to know when an angel’s an angel and when an angel is, in fact, God.

BURTON L. VISOTZKY: So Jacob at the ladder dreams of angels going up and down, wakes up, and there’s God standing right there. He wrestles with a man and when the wrestling match is over, whatever it is he wrestles with says, you have wrestled with men and with God. That image of God is very much in the human form. Genesis is so anthropomorphic that way. We imagine God in human form and we imagine very clearly. We are in God’s image, so that when we wrestle even with ourselves, there’s God wrestling going on.

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: It’s also the way dreams and nightmares work that when you have an adversary or an antagonist in the dream, that agent has many identities that merge for many times and places, and when you wake up, you cannot quite sort out who it was that was the agent in your dream.

HUGH O’DONNELL: I challenge this thing about anthropomorphic because my experience of this wrestling, I wasn’t wrestling with an anthropomorphic angel. I was wrestling with a dog. This is my experience that’s closest to —

BILL MOYERS: In a dream?

HUGH O’DONNELL: Yes. The closest experience I’ve had to the one which we’re discussing was when — again, in a state of insomnia and fight and struggle — I was lying in the bed and I heard this noise in the room over by the door, and a black shadow came into the room and walked right around the room slowly. And I was sitting up in bed thinking, oh no. And then within a moment, the dog was on the bed. And I was struggling with this thing, had a terrible, terrible struggle with this thing. I remember thinking, but this is ridiculous. What am I doing fighting with this dog when I could be sleeping? And the dog just vanished and I was asleep. And it was, again, before making an important painting for me. But this thing of being pursued by oneself, and it doesn’t necessarily manifest itself as a golden angel, as an ideal form, but it manifests itself as an embodiment of what you’re actually feeling.

BURTON L. VISOTZKY: Did you limp the next morning?

HUGH O’DONNELL: Everything that’s happened to me in my work has always left a trace which never goes away.

BURTON L. VISOTZKY: I think you’re right. There is a trace. It’s not a golden angel that Jacob wrestles with. Quite the contrary. It’s a pretty nasty fight he has. When the angel can’t prevail or the person can’t prevail, he wounds Jacob. I mean, it’s almost dirty fighting.

BILL MOYERS: What about the possibility that Jacob, who’s returning home to face the brother he hasn’t seen for many years, the brother from whom he stole the birthright, has in mind the story of Cain and Abel, the fratricide that accompanied the predecessors of this family? And he’s imagining reuniting with Esau and he’s troubled by whether or not there can be a reconciliation, and he’s fearful of what will happen. Is it possible that this encounter with this strange thing was his anticipated struggle with Esau as he comes back?

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: I think there’s no doubt of that becomes right before the dream in one verse, the word “face” is used five times with reference to Esau, and after the dream he says to his brother, “seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.” So if you take the context —

BURTON L. VISOTZKY: And the name of the place that he had the struggle, Peniel, to face of God.

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: That’s right. So I think there is no doubt that part of whoever this wrestler is, it’s certainly Esau, and he is working out his forebodings of what he’s got to do the next day.

ROBERTA HESTENES: One of the realities of a broken relationship is that if there’s no move to healing, if what you do is run away from it, then that moment gets frozen in time and perhaps even amplified. And he’s had 20 years to replay that hatred, to replay the fleeing as a fugitive, to do the what if kind of story. So turning around finally to go back, 20 years hasn’t happened.

BILL MOYERS: Haven’t you had an experience of returning to someone who has been an adversary, with whom your relationship is broken, and absolutely being gripped by fear?



ROBERTA HESTENES: And it blows up, and it’s magnified, and the anxiety chews at you in a deeper kind of way, and the longer it is, the worse it can be.

JOHN KSELMAN: But this is really not just an adventure story about an individual but a story about the people of Israel. This is a story about how the people of Israel can struggle with God, be wounded by God, and yet remain blessed and loved by God.

BILL MOYERS: What’s the importance to you of the wound? I mean, Jacob limps away from this wrestling match with a wound that is not just a bruise. It’s a permanent injury. He never apparently forgets it, nor do the people of Israel, are they allowed to forget it.

JOHN KSELMAN: That’s true. I think it’s the text’s way of saying that when you encounter God, when you wrestle with God, you are not going to leave that unchanged, and the change can be a hurtful change. Any change can be painful. Any kind of moment of transition in life means leaving behind and moving forward, and the wound, I think, symbolizes that. This encounter with God has meant pain for Jacob and a pain for the people of Israel as well, the pain, really, of struggling with God, of experiencing God as the adversary. We often talk — and I think quite properly — of God as father, of God as protector and so on, but what about God the adversary who is the adversary in this story? There is a long biblical tradition in the book of Job and other places of God as taking an adversarial relationship. But the mystery is that even the adversary continues to love the one with whom the adversary struggles.

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: Perhaps even more, one could say — the Midrash says — that Jacob demands the blessing, he asks for the blessing, because you have injured me. There is a connection between the pain and the suffering and the moral right to ask for a blessing somewhere. This is the God whom I have entered into such a relationship with, such an intimate and vulnerable relationship, that I can ask for a blessing.

BILL MOYERS: Doesn’t the text also demand that our obsession with our well-being — with our status, with our power, with our position, with our ambition — that our obsession with our well-being not be at the center of our concerns?

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: I think that’s right, but I think the narrative suggests that willy nilly, even when we are obsessed with those things, we are not finally going to avoid the night times of vulnerability when these other things intrude upon us. Even if we do not intend it or choose it for ourselves, it’s going to come to us.

BILL MOYERS: You keep saying this is real night work.

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: Yeah. And I think the reason I say it’s real night work is I am so damn good at daytime work. I’ve got it figured out. I can manage it. I can pay all my foreseeable bills. But it isn’t what my life is about. What my life is about are those troublesome intrusions upon all of this that call all of that into question and place it all in jeopardy. And that may just be the statement of a 62-year-old man who’s had my youthful encounter and now I’m at the other end of the tale.

RENITA WEEMS: What part of the tale is that?

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: The part of the tale of having it all managed during the daytime, but then spending more time wondering and pondering the undercurrents that cannot be tamed. The dream or the nightmare, whatever it was, seems to me that kind of undercurrent. And what preoccupies me, not only personally but in terms of the church in the United States, is that my kind of established church has got the daytime all figured out. And it’s very seductive to belong to a technological culture and be a part of the white upper middle class where you can program it all out. Now what the church in the US is having to ask is, what about those undercurrents that remind us that all of this is really phony and brutal and you can’t live your life in terms of those things? That’s where this story presses me, both personally and in terms of —

HUGH O’DONNELL: But do you have any experience in your waking life where you know that you’ve made a deal with God and that he will show up if you show up.

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: Oh, I think so, but that gets stirred and redone and reshaped in the nighttime.

RENITA WEEMS: I was wondering, what does it mean to encounter God or hear from God or experience God at 62 as opposed to 40, as opposed to 20? Can that experience be different? Are the questions one raises of God that are urgent, the question of, I won’t let you go until you bless me? What is the blessing that a 62-year-old wants that may be different from the blessing that a 40-year-old wants and it may be different from the blessing that a 20-year-old wants — food, clothing, success.

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: I don’t know how much one can generalize because everybody is at a different place, but it is the transition from having to being, and when you’re on the down slope, about all you’ve got left is your life, and the rest of it is less and less important.

ROBERTA HESTENES: A friend of mine in his 50s has just worked it out under the rubric of moving from success, which he’s enjoyed some of, to significance and wanting at a younger age to be as successful as possible, and finding in the place he is now that those aren’t the crucial issues. The issues are more issues of meaning and significance and does my life count for anything?

BILL MOYERS: After reading stories like this and experiencing whatever you experienced, what is faith to you?

ROBERTA HESTENES:At one level, the story of Jacob for me unfolds in the interplay between his prayers and his experiences because the prayers, to me, get at what faith is. When he comes to pray early, faith is kind of a bargain and it’s foxhole faith. It’s, Lord get me out of this mess. Help me out here. But as you move along in his journey, the faith which is expressed by Jacob as he enters into the wrestling experience is a faith when he’s done everything he knows how to do, when he’s been as clever as he knows how to be, he still knows in one sense he’s at the end of himself, and so faith is a kind of looking, a kind of reaching out, a kind of response.

ROBERTA HESTENES: There’s one other image that faith for me has always been helped by, and it’s the image of trapeze artists. And as they are swinging in the air, and what is faith? Faith is not the safe climbing of the ladder up to the trapeze. Faith is when you are on the trapeze and it’s time to take the hand of your partner in the middle of the air, and faith is being willing, able, gutsy, vulnerable, courageous enough. You must let go of the safety and security of that swinging bar in order to take the hand of the one who will meet you. And the Jacob story says that as he does that, as he lets go of his assurances and his securities and his scheming, that God is the one who meets him there and holds him secure and swings him on into the next stage of the future.

BILL MOYERS: Renita, have you ever let go and there’s nothing there?

RENITA WEEMS: Yes. Many times I’ve let go, and I think that to me, I think I see faith on the other end, what you do between the last time you experienced God and the next time you experience God. I think it’s that interval right there, that in the meantime. And it could be a long time. It could be 20 years, Jacob years. It could be 20 —

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: That’s when you’re in free fall.

RENITA WEEMS: Oh yes, you’re just in free fall. And it is the daily things, the ritual things that you attend to to keep you going. I love this very famous quote — it may not be famous, but a quote that I live by as a writer by Flannery O’Connor. And she said once in one of her journals, I believe, or one of her articles about why and how she writes. She says that every day, I get up early in the morning and go downstairs to my typewriter and sit before it every day, just in case if something comes, I’ll be there to receive it. Now, many a time, I have mounted pulpits, or I’ve gone into a classroom, or I’ve even written books, and was enraged with God, hadn’t heard from God, I mean, was not even on speaking terms with God, but still I mount pulpits.


RENITA WEEMS: Because in case God wants to speak, I’ll be there. And it may not be a pulpit. My experience has been in pulpits, but the experience of bathing my daughter now. Every night, this child wants to hear the same story. I have 19 books for this two-year-old, but she wants to hear the same story. And each night, that story is different. I didn’t know that that story was different, but each night when I tell it, the dailiness of it — the nightliness — of telling the very same story, I do hear something. And it’s the ritual of telling that story every night. And so there’s something about living in between and the dailiness, and there God will show up in those smaller ways.

HUGH O’DONNELL: Without expectations.

RENITA WEEMS: Without expectation, yeah.

BILL MOYERS: What does this text, this story, demand of us?

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: I think it demands engagement with God’s holiness that is always troubled and never resolved with ingredients of submissiveness and assertiveness. In Jacob, you get larger doses of assertiveness than you do submissiveness, but they’re both there, and I believe that after the long establishment of Christianity, what the church in the West now is having to relearn is that this engagement with the holiness of God is endlessly troubled and troublesome.

RENITA WEEMS: What I fear in modern Christianity here in the West is this quest for power and triumph and position. For many, Christianity emerged out of this notion of marginality, of suffering, of being on the edges, and of a suffering people, but not out of being the dominant one and being the most powerful one and taking back this and taking back that. I don’t know. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something that I’m frightened of that we lose that. To be a Christian is to be prosperous, to be rich, to be politically established, to be whatever else. That’s the message that we get now to win.

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: The wound in the Christian tradition has been transposed into the cross, and what you’re talking about is a church that is increasingly embarrassed about the cross or postures itself as though you can have the gospel without the cross, as though you can have the blessing without the wound.

BURTON L. VISOTZKY: I think Walter’s point is well taken, that one of the points of the story is that you don’t get the blessing without getting wounded, and that even God’s unconditional love for Jacob actually winds up costing Jacob something physically. I was sitting here earlier kind of getting the creeps, I confess, listening to Christians claiming, we have our wounds, and suddenly dawning on me that what we’re talking about is Christian theology, that we’re talking about the cross. As a Jew, that makes me uncomfortable to see the cross there in the Hebrew Bible.

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: I wasn’t suggesting that.

BURTON L. VISOTZKY: But I think your point was well taken. The fact is that Christians have had their wounds, just as Jews have. In some way, it’s easier to hear Renita talk about it because the African American community is a community that is still fresh with wounds. Judaism, I think, is in that moment as well. Certainly, we can all remember 50 years ago the Holocaust. That was an enormous wound. But since 1967 with the power of the state of Israel and the wealth of the American Jewish community, we’re also in danger of forgetting that we were once an oppressed people and that whatever blessings we have, there are wounds. There’s always cost. And maybe God’s love isn’t quite as free as we’d like to think it is.

BILL MOYERS: A friend of mine who’s Jewish said to me recently after we discussed this story as we were getting ready for this event, and he said, I wish Jacob had lost. I wish he had not emerged the victor in this. It isn’t worth it, this friend of mine said to me, to have been chosen. I wish that Jacob had lost. Do you ever feel that?

AVIVAH ZORNBERG: I think we’ve cried many tears, yes, but I don’t know why there’s always something in me, and I think in many Jews, in spite of everything. In spite of everything, there’s something we wouldn’t have given up on. There’s just a sense of an ability, of grandeur, something being built into our condition which has to do with the suffering. We can’t have one without the other.

This transcript was entered on April 15, 2015.

  • submit to reddit