He had actually broken out in a cold sweat when he heard the news. His twin brother was coming for him, with army of mountain bandits, desperate men who made a living raiding the caravans from the east that wandered across the Negev. The blades of their swords had been tinted blood red enough times to scare anyone who heard their approaching hoofbeats—and those who didn’t, well, their bodies soon bloated in the hot Arabian sun.
It had been more than twenty years since they had seen each other, but Jacob remembered Esau’s anger when he found out that his twin had stolen his birthright. The servants had warned Jacob of Esau’s parting promise that one day, the Thief of the Negev would return and kill the Thief of Blessings.
Jacob, ever the manipulating, conniving, and pathological liar, figured that while he didn’t have his own personal army, he had something that Esau might want: his wealth. So he divided up his flocks into three groups and sent them ahead: two hundred female goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty female camels with their calves, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty donkeys. He sent them in waves, as gifts to his brother, hoping that each successive wave of animals would soften Esau’s heart.
Then in a final act of cowardice, he sent his wives, children and servants to be a human shield between him and the Thief of the Negev. Perhaps after raping and slaughtering his way through his sisters-in-law, nephews and nieces, Esau’s blood lust would be satisfied and he would spare the Thief of Blessings. Jacob watched as the women and children disappeared into the gathering dusk. His youngest turned around to look at him with pleading eyes.
It would be a long night. The first star twinkled knowingly above and Jacob paced by the campfire. He played over and over again that scene in his blind and aging father’s tent, when he pretended that he was his brother. He could hear his father’s voice as if it all had happened yesterday. He could hear Esau’s cries and see his tortured face in every flickering shadow. His heart pounded as if it would burst through his chest.
He jumped at every crack of the dry wood and heard a thousand phantom footfalls in the brush. He was staring off into the darkness when he felt the hands around his throat. He’d been found.
From behind the man pulled him to the ground and Jacob tried to catch sight of his face in the firelight. It wasn’t Esau, but Yahweh help him, his assailant was strong. They rolled over and over, the gravel biting into his face, the dust filling his nostrils and coating his teeth.
Jacob used to wrestle with his brother when they were little, and he knew a move or two. Every time he would gain what seemed to be the upper hand the dark man would flip him, silently, effortlessly, and pound his head into a rock. Then Jacob would use the man’s weight against him, remembering how he used to outmaneuver his brother when they were kids.
When he lay on his back, Jacob could see the night sky behind the dark man’s head and wonder where God was. What good would all the things he had do him if he died out here in the desert? Even though he had stolen the blessings, didn’t Yahweh at least owe him some protection? His silent pleading bounced off the silent night sky and the dark man would pin him and smash his bleeding head again and again.
So the night wore on, their breathing labored, the hot stink of their mouths rising up like a tiny plume of smoke as the fire died and the night air grew cold.
There came a moment, right before dawn, that the dark man sat atop his chest, and Jacob expected the end. The man would choke him and leave his body for the vultures. Esau would get the blessing after all. The dark man hesitated, and Jacob jerked himself upward. As the dark man’s body rose, Jacob tried to roll away. The dark man touched his hip.
Jacob felt a searing in the deepest part of his soul. He screamed as his entire body caught fire from the inside out. The pain focused him for a minute and he grabbed the dark man by the throat. Behind him he could see the sky lightening into a golden glow.
“Let me go” begged the dark man, “it’s been a long night. You proved yourself.”
Jacob’s head cleared through the pain. He tightened his grip on the dark man’s throat. “Are you crazy? You beat up on me all night, and now you want me to let you go?” It was time to steal one more blessing. “You bless me and I will let you go.”
The man knocked his hands away like he was swatting at a camel fly. He stood up, and shook out his robes. “You sure can fight. What’s your name anyway?”
Jacob sat up, gulping the fresh morning air. He stared at the dark man. “Jacob,” he said in a hoarse whisper.
The dark man chuckled. “Well, from now on, I’m going to call you Israel, because you’ve spent your whole life wrestling with God and humans and every time you win.”
Jacob barely got the words out, “What’s your name, dark man?”
The dark man smiled. “Do you have to ask?” And like a gentle breeze he vanished into the dawn.
Jacob struggled to his feet, and looked at the dust where the dark man had stood. Suddenly, through the pain, he knew who the dark man was. “I’ve just seen God face to face.”
The Thief of Blessings limped along Jabbok creek towards the Thief of the Negev, one last blessing resounding in his battered ears.
St. Paul tells us that every part of Scripture is inspired of God and chock full of the kind of treasure that can make us wise, even the parts like this one, so overlayed with mystery, pain and promise that our own hips ache when we tell it.
The story of how Israel got his name is a story for the ages, and not just because it’s in the ancient Hebrew canon. This God-breathed tale is a tale of wrestling and conniving to be sure, but it’s also a tale of perseverance and faith. It’s a tale too, of healing and blessing, as surely as it is a story of the wages of deceit.
Jacob limped for the rest of his life, but he learned something that night in the desert—healing only comes after pain, life only comes when you look death square in the eye, and suffering only gives way to healing, when you learn how to live with a limp.
The Benedictine writer Joan Chittister put it like this: “Jacob does what all of us must do, if, in the end, we too are to become true. He confronts in himself the things that are wounding him, admits his limitations, accepts his situation, rejoins the world, and moves on.”
It’s so easy in this age of instant gratification to assume that we can create a Genie God, whose bottle can be rubbed to grant our every wish. Jesus tells us in our Gospel today that prayer is not some kind of magical incantation to release a wish-granting Genie, but the only way to help us see the world through God’s eyes. To see the injustice, the pain, the poverty and the wars, and strengthen us to do justice, though we have our own pains and infirmities. Prayer is the key to the healing of our souls and the soul of the world.
We can get angry about the rape of the women in Darfur or the Republic of Congo. We can curse the foolish waste of lives in the Middle East. We can cry at the sight of Burmese streets soaked with the blood of brave and holy monks. We can bemoan how the health care of children becomes entangled in a partisan struggle for political power. But only prayer can give us the strength to be healed for justice and the wisdom to do something about it. Only prayer can insure that, when the Son of Man returns, he will find faith on the earth.
As long as we lie in the dust, wrestling with the dark man, focusing on our pain, we will never taste the blessing. The story of the two Thieves and the Dark Man who wrestled with one of them, fills us with hope that, by never letting go of God, though the pain in our bodies sets our teeth on edge, we will find true healing and the faith to do justice when we finally limp across the creek.