The Patriarchs – Always Interesting Family Dynamics
The story of the Patriarchs in Genesis is fascinating. They are challenging, ancient stories told many times over and adjusted to differing situations. In some cases, the repetition of a story reveals an alternative purpose. Other times, we have one story that blends of several stories.
The Jacob stories conclude today. It is important that Jacob leave Canaan and visit his mother’s brother, Laban. Two reasons are woven together in the story. Jacob has stirred up the anger of Esau, and best leave town to let things quiet down. But we hear also that Esau has taken wives from among the Canaanites who do not follow the God of Abraham and Isaac. Rebekah is not happy with her daughter in laws. Her brother Laban will be a good place to send Jacob, and sure enough Jacob falls in love.
On his way Jacob stops at Bethel, a place made holy by Abraham who built and altar there. Using one of the stones for a pillow Jacob sleeps. God is revealed to him in his dream,‘…the land on which you are lying I will give to you and your descendants…. Know I am with you; I will protect you wherever you go and bring you back to this land. I will never leave you until I have done what I promised you.’ Jacob is awakened to God’s mystery, ‘The Lord is in this place and I did not know it!’. He makes a vow. Not a vow of one who stands in wonder before the majesty of God, rather the type of vow that would seem to invite God to stand Jacob on his head and lift him up by his feet and bang his head on the ground – several times. ‘If you remain with me, protect me, feed and clothe me, and I come back safe to my father’s house, you shall me my God.’ Thank you, Jacob. But at least it is an awakening for Jacob.
He has two obstacles to deal with after living in the house of Laban and marrying Leah and Rachel. First is Laban who tries to outwit him. Jacob wins. He leaves quickly without saying good bye only to be pursued by his father in law. God helps Jacob by making it know to Laban that he is not to harm him. The story ends happily with the bonds of family preserved for future generations. One obstacle removed; now onto Esau. Jacob is really afraid. That night preparing for his dreaded encounter with Esau, alone in the camp, a man wrestles with him until dawn. Jacob receives a new name, Israel. His descendants will be Israelites. The place of this wrestling match is named by Jacob as Phanuel, ‘the face of God’. It was there that Jacob saw God face to face, and his life was spared.’ He was dropped the final time on his head! He does what his grandfather Abraham had done before him, he comes into the promised land that he had left many years before.
These patriarchs are unique. The adaptable Abraham; Isaac whom God always helped when things didn’t look promising; and Jacob, who in trying to do it on his own (with his mother’s help) encountered unsurmountable obstacles. But most importantly he had to meet God face to face. Jacob did not have a table conversation as Abraham but a wrestling match. There God’s love convincingly embraced Jacob. Now, with conviction Jacob could say, ‘The God of Israel’. And we pray, ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob’.
Fr. William Murphy, CP is the pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Jamaica, New York.