6th August 2017 - Hugh Perry
Jacob is approaching Esau who is coming towards him with 400 men. The confrontation with a stranger, who is clearly Yahweh, rings very true of sleepless nights before major confrontations many of us have experienced. We rise the next morning knocked about by our dreams and fears only to find the expected confrontation turns out to be an enriching experience. One commentator sees Yahweh in the present text but wonders about other spirits in earlier telling of the story.
God confronts Jacob not only in human form but as Esau, whom he fears, as a night spirit belonging to a time when his fears are at their sharpest, as a river spirit because he is crossing a perilous boundary into the territory of Israel, and as the embodiment of the deepest hopes and fears of his mind.
The writer boldly incorporates these motives in order to try to convey something of the mysterious depth of the occasion.
This reading begins with Jesus going to a secluded place as people in danger from authority do. But Jesus attracts a crowd and he ministers to them.
Jesus’ act attacks the injustice of the sinful imperial system which ensures that urban elite are well fed at the expense of the poor. Jesus enacts an alternative system marked by compassion, sufficiency and shared resources.
His actions imitate God’s actions in saving the people from slavery and feeding them in the desert.
How many of us have tossed and turned in fear, apprehension or anxiety before what we expect to be a momentous day? Often it is the loss of sleep that sends us through what should be a great day engulfed in a haze of sleep deprivation. Furthermore, the anxiety turns out to be completely unfounded and what we most feared is dismissed as the blessing of the encounter overcomes us.
It is also true that the broken sleep introduces some amazing tangling of the mind as we wake from dreams where fantasy and reality blend. In moments of wakefulness it can be hard to tell what is real and what is imagined. The Desiderata warns us of such fear.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Jacob on the other hand had plenty to be apprehensive about. He had fled from his family after cheating his twin brother. He had married into his uncle’s family and prospered to the point of inspiring jealousy amongst his brothers in law. So, he is forced to leave. But his uncle, Laban, pursues him to try and take his daughters and grandchildren back.
Laban and Jacob reach a truce which excludes Jacob from what was agreed to be Laban’s territory. So as we see family developing into tribes Jacob has no alternative but to return to what was his father’s territory and therefore a confrontation with Esau.
His elaborate sending of gifts ahead of him reminds me of the ritualised tentative approach in a formal pōwhiri where a gift is carefully placed on the ground ahead of the group of guests then cautiously received by a warrior from the hosts. Both the placing and picking up are done with eyes always on the opposite group. In times past the question being acted out was ‘do you come in peace or war’. The ritual continues by identifying people through their stories. What is their mountain and their river, who are their ancestors. All that ritualised history covers times where these groups have interacted in the past and was that meeting friendly. All those questions would be relevant to Jacob and Esau. The night before Jacob crosses the river that marks the territorial boundary those questions would have been swirling in Jacob’s head.
This episode always reminds me of one of the final scenes in the film version of Shakespeare’s Richard the Third that my mother took me to. I am not sure if she thought I needed some real culture or wanted to scare the living daylights out of me.
Richard is sitting in his tent looking out on what will be the battle ground the following day. From a patch of moonlight ghostly figures form and float into Richard’s tent to accuse him of the crimes most foul by which he murdered them in pursuit of his ruthless ambition. Unlike our reading from Genesis there is no reconciliation only the famous Shakespearian line which Richard probably never said. ‘A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!’ What is historically correct is that Richard the Third’s body was eventually found under a car park where someone usually parked their Morris Minor.
I suspect there is a kingdom parable in that about not going searching for the answers of the mighty when the mighty are buried under a Morris Minor.
Richard’s late-night wrestling was with his own demons and did not have a positive outcome for him. Similarly, one of the commentators on our Genesis reading wondered about the previous mythology this Genesis story is built on. There is the possibility of a river spirit or a night demon that guards the crossing of perilous boundaries as Jacob ventures into the territory that will be the embodiment of the deepest hopes and fears of his mind. We could easily slip such ideas into the context of Maori Mythology and involve a few giant eels and a taniwha for good measure.
When Raewyn and I went on a canoe trip down the Whanganui River there was a special rock we had to leave a branch on as an offering to taniwha that was in charge of the river. Rivers are indeed natural boundaries and inspire late night restless wrestling.
However, it is undoubtedly Yahweh that Jacob wrestles with in this text.
Like the three men who visit Abraham and Sara the theophany begins with an encounter with an unnamed man. It is moments like that that move the story from mythology to reality and make an all important theological point about the way we meet with God. We meet God through other people.
The contrast between Shakespeare’s Richard and his late night agonising and Jacob’s wrestling is that Richard was fighting his inner fear and guilt and he proposed to confront that guilt by more bloodshed. His strategy was that military strength made his misdeeds irrelevant. The reality was that his support and his horse fell away.
Jacob on the other hand was repentant to the point that he offered all that he had to his brother and made himself vulnerable to the point where Esau offered reconciliation. Like so many late-night imaginings realty is often much better than our worst fears.
However, wrestling with God left Jacob with a displaced hip and dwelling on our anxiety can so often do us more harm than what we most fear.
Jesus’ disciples were concerned for the crowds who had followed Jesus to a deserted place. We can assume they were concerned about the crowds being left in the wilderness without food. But they might also see themselves as astute political minders worrying about a hungry mob running riot, perhaps blaming Jesus for their situation.
Jesus was offering them a new way of living but that was no use if they were going to starve in the wilderness. Jesus’ disciples would remember that all the people had cried out to Moses in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, if only we had died by the hand of Yahweh in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into the wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger. (Exodus 16 3)
That is a statement about the dark imaginings and fears that are born of fatigue and loneliness. For the people that Moses led out of slavery it was about loneliness of being separated from a culture that, despite being repressive, still offered some form of security compared to fending for themselves in the wilderness. For the disciples and the multitude that had followed them into a deserted place, it was both the fear of missing an evening meal and quite possibly anxiety about what Jesus had been telling them. The concept of a countercultural movement that Jesus called ‘the kingdom of God’ within an empire that did not appreciate any form of descent.
To suggest that there was any form of kingdom other than that sanctioned by Rome was treason.
So while Jesus was suggesting a new way of living by mutual sharing his disciples were suggesting the people be sent to buy food. A silly suggestion when the local WINZ office had already exceeded its key performance indicator for special food grants.
Jesus’ reply would have created equal apprehension. Jesus said to them, ‘they need not go away; you give them something to eat.’(Matthew 14:16)
Naturally they panicked. We have nothing here but five loves and two fish. (Matthew 14: 17)
To put that another way they had brought tea for themselves but there certainly wasn’t enough for everybody. One of the speculations is that when Jesus took the disciple’s meal, blessed and shared it everyone else shared what they brought. A parish pot luck meal certainly suggests that possibility, especially when we consider the food left over.
However, we don’t know what really happened or even if this event ever happened.
We do know our four gospel writers included the story so they thought it had something important to say. We also know that the actions of Jesus mirror the communion liturgy.
Jesus took the five loves and two fish, blessed them and distributed them. We also know by the evidence of ancient mosaics that communion was celebrated in the early church with fish and bread, as well as wine and bread.
Therefore, we can conclude that the gospel writers may also be writing in experiences of early meetings together of the followers of Jesus who experienced the Risen Christ when they shared a meal, or even a symbolic meal together. In other words, the gospel writers wrote the experience of early followers of Jesus back into stories of the life of Jesus.
If that is true they didn’t do it to tell lies about real events but, like Jesus, to teach new followers about what it meant to be part of the kingdom of God. Like Jesus, his early followers used stories to teach about this new way of living. The kingdom of God, which runs counter to the imperial system which guaranteed food for the urban elite, the ruling class, who lived in the cities and were fed at the expense of the poor, who lived in the countryside and grew the food. When Jesus says, ‘You give them something to eat’ Jesus localises both production and consumption in an alternative system that involves compassion, sufficiency and shared resources. We might recognise that process in farmer’s markets or volunteer organisations that collect rejected food from supermarkets and distributes it through food banks.
However, to pull both these readings more fully into meaning for our lives as followers of Jesus we should go back to my example of a pōwhiri. A tentative re-meeting of family members separated by time and distance like Jacob and Esau. After the giving and accepting of gifts, the sharing of stories of places and ancestors the opposing groups share a big feed together.
The model of the feeding of the five thousand focusses on the big feed and offers both teaching and open hospitality without wrestling with God.
Rather than struggle with the dark imaginings of fears born of fatigue and loneliness the followers of Christ are called to welcome both friends and strangers in open hospitality.
 R.W.L. Moberly, Genesis 12-50(Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992), p.31
Warren Carter Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading, (London/New York: T&T Clark International 2004) p.305.
 Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, 1927