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Patriarchy and scarcity vs. connection and trust: A meditation on Jacob and Esau

We realize that one incident of reconciliation may not solve the entire conflict or fix the whole system, but it’s a glimpse into what might be possible.

Are any other parents out there excited for school to start? I can say that my family has had a great summer, but it has also been a lot of together time, if you know what I mean. We have two sons. Both my husband and I only had sisters. When we realized we would be parents of two boys, my husband was concerned that they would fight a lot. I told him, “Well, my sisters and I used to fight. That’s normal.”

It wasn’t until the past week or so that I realized that he specifically meant wrestling, and he meant that they would do it a LOT.

So, I’ve been looking into information about why brothers wrestle. You know, for my own family’s sake. I found an article called:

“’When children wrestle, they’re displaying their inner power, not power over others,’ [a child psychologist] says.

“’Reciprocity, the act of giving and getting in equal amounts, fosters connection,’ Carlson says. ‘When you’re wrestling, piggyback riding or bouncing a baby on your leg, that give-and-take builds trust.’

Huh, wrestling fosters connection and trust. OK, we’ll try….

Now, to our text from Genesis. Here’s the interesting thing. Throughout his life, Jacob has several dreams. These occur at key moments in his life. The Lord appears to him in the famous ladder dream. When it’s time to leave Laban’s house, it’s the Lord that tells Jacob to go. In each case, it is clear in the text that the Lord has spoken to Jacob. Even when Jacob is approaching home, on his way to meet Esau, angels appear to him to guide him.

However, with this text, it’s different. Jacob is getting ready to meat Esau, who has come with 400 men. We hear that Jacob is feeling “fear and distress.” He sends everyone else, and all of his possessions across the river, and he stays by himself that night. I’m assuming he was too anxious to sleep, and probably considering the very real possibility that he would never see his family again.

But this time we don’t hear that the Lord appeared to him, or that angels guided the way. Rather, a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

As I was reading it seemed so obvious. Again, maybe because of the place where I am in life. You see, I think that Jacob wrestled Esau that night. It turns out I’m not the only one. Some Hebrew Bible scholars think this is the case, too. I’ll save you all of the literary criticism. But let’s just go with this idea.

I like to imagine they were both sitting there that night, near the river, anticipating the next day’s meeting. I think Esau saw Jacob, but not vice versa. Esau decided to go across and get a closer look his brother. His curiosity, or his love for Jacob (I mean, they had grown up together) got the best of him and he went to engage Jacob the way brothers do best – by wrestling. He didn’t say anything, and Jacob didn’t recognize him in his own fog of fear.

In this wrestling incident, something happens. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what. But Jacob’s hip gets put out of joint. We don’t see the same scheming Jacob of previous chapters. He asks the person’s name. Like he actually cares who he’s struggling with. Like usual, he asks for a blessing, but he also somehow changes his attitude. It’s like he’s finally facing his fear, instead of running away from it, and it turns out Esau is ready to give Jacob the blessing he so badly seems to need. They seem to connect, and a trust is established before they meet the next day, even if it seems to be subconscious.

So, if children need to wrestle to build connection and trust, why did these grown men need to wrestle? Why didn’t they have connection and trust, already?

We can look back in Genesis and read about the whole system that pitted these brothers against each other. It’s a system of patriarchy and scarcity. The father passes a blessing along to one male son, and everyone must compete for those good graces. No wonder these brothers were approaching each other with fear and distress.

Isn’t that still how our world works? We compete with each other for what we think are finite resources. Those of us with more power and influence, whether that be in our own families, communities, or as members of a powerful nation-state, expect access to resources, convenience, and efficiency, and we’re not really keen on sharing with others.

When our Costa Rica Vision Team was traveling back in June, we saw examples of this system at work. We saw the environmental destruction of monoculture crops like pineapple and African oil palm, where rainforests were taken down in order to provide cheap and convenient (though not really necessary) food to people like us. We learned about refugees who are passing through Central America, who have braved the dangers of the Darian Gap jungle in Colombia and Panama in order to escape political violence and extreme inequities of resources.

We also saw examples in Costa Rica of redemption of that system, of grace confronting patriarchy, violence and the scarcity mindset. We witnessed communities coming together to receive and support refugees at Casa Adobe and Longo Mai. We saw how both of those communities have a vision for responding to environmental degradation by protecting rivers and forests, and caring for local watersheds.

In the biblical texts, we see individuals and communities struggling against the systems that bring fear and distress. Esau sees his brother and how he has lived in pain, desiring a blessing he’s not sure he can get, and Esau freely blesses him. Esau even names the struggle he has seen in Jacob, and recognizes his strength, giving him the new name of Israel. And when the brothers meet at dawn, they break down in tears and embrace each other.

We can name the struggles we face in our personal relationships and in our society, and celebrate that this struggle hasn’t defeated us. We can reach across the proverbial aisle (I mean, river) and embrace our brother. We realize that one incident of reconciliation may not solve the entire conflict or fix the whole system, but it’s a glimpse into what might be possible.

Of course, Jesus’s miracle in the Gospel reading brings this lesson home. We can imagine the 5,000 plus women and children, and how they must have looked around at each other as the disciples worried about the scarcity that was threatening to break the crowd apart. As soon as a few starting sharing their loaves and fishes at Jesus’ invitation, everyone realized that the scarcity narrative was a myth. When everyone shared what they had, there was more than enough.

We learned a song at Casa Abode, one that kind of represents their mission statement. It was written by a brother and sister duo from Nicaragua. The lyrics talk about being at peace with our brothers (and sisters), and sharing good feelings, food, shade, and love. I’d like to share that song with you now. You can find the lyrics in the small page you were given with your bulletin. It’s called Casa Abierta.

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Thank you for a very thoughtful and meaningful reflection on siblings, Scripture and application for today. We all need to let go of our preconceived ideas and be open to the Lord creating new ideas and ways with us.

(I had missed this when you sent it earlier. I am now going through "old mail." :) Jean

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