I was having coffee recently with a parishioner, and we were discussing, among other things, the writer John Updike. Updike has a reputation for writing very flawed and very human characters, and when asked why he wrote his characters this way, he said he couldn’t write otherwise because “people are incorrigibly themselves.”
I love that phrase because it so succinctly captures something about our humanity, and something, I think, about the humanity of the Bible’s characters. Contrary to some of the ways that we think and talk about Biblical characters, they were not two-dimensional, stained-glass saints. They were living, breathing people who learned faith in the midst of life with all its ups and downs. Think of Gideon cowering in fear. Think of David’s passionate heart that lead him both to God and into trouble. Think of Peter’s denials. When we read about their lives, we learn something about what it is to believe in God, what it is to enter into rhythms and spaces of discipleship, not apart from the mess of the everyday, but very much in the midst of it. We, like those characters, are flawed amalgams of vice and virtue. We are so often mysteries to ourselves and others. We are ever and always incorrigibly ourselves.
Jacob, whom we will spend the next two Sundays looking at, is an especially vivid example of this. He is oh so human, and yet he is a patriarch, one of the fathers of the people of God, whose God-given, God-wrestled name, becomes Israel, the name of the people of God themselves. And yet he is a born a grasper, a striver, emerging from his mother’s womb clenching his brother’s heel. From the moment he was born, he was trying to get ahead, and he spends his early years hunting for blessing, for meaning, in the same way his brother Esau hunts for game. He barters for a birthright. He disguises himself as his brother so that his father will utter the words of blessing over him. He wrestles with God himself and refuses to let go until God blesses him. And he walks away limping and renamed.
Jacob is like us and this is very good news. Jacob’s story is a great reminder that the life of faith takes a lifetime to unfold. And God knows this. He plans for this. He meets us in the midst of this. What Jacob learns in his striving with God is that as hard as he was striving for a name, as passionately as he pursued blessing, the one who blesses was pursing him too.