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To Understand Jacob’s Fight

Means to See Peace Coming


GOTTFRIED HUTTER, theologian, psychotherapist, founder and chairperson of “The Temple Project Association”


The biblical narration of Jacob’s fight (Genesis 32,23-33,4) is quite mysterious. An intercultural and interreligious comparison may help us to understand it.

In many cultures, from the Bushman culture to Shinto religion, from Hinduism to the Quakers accounts are to be found which sound very similar to what the Bible narrates about Jacob’s last night by the River Jabbok. In many of these other cultures and cults, such an experience is not an extraordinary or unique event, but either a frequent and unsurprising manifestation or even an exercise or practice, one which is acknowledged to be mind-clearing. In the latter case, such practices are recommended as a means of enhancing physical and mental health.

In all cases, such “exercises” involve spontaneous movement: typically shaking or spontaneous convulsions, sometimes imperceptible, but sometimes even traumatic contortions of the whole body. In these cultures, established experience has shown that by such movements the body frees itself of old burdens: gridlocked attitudes, compulsive mindsets, oppressive ideologies and all kinds of mental deformations.

Such an exercise may last minutes or even hours, depending on the extent to which a person has somaticized anxieties and other mental distortions. It may feel like a struggle, because the constraints result from conditioning by outside influences, specific human beings or groups of people, whose influence will somehow be involved in this exercise –without the protagonist necessarily becoming aware of this.

In this light, Jacob‘s “fight” becomes more readily understandable – and we can better understand both how Jacob could in this struggle shake off all his distress, and how he could suffer such serious injury. Because of the danger of injury, Shinto healers recommend their disciples not to go into this exercise alone. But for Jacob this was no mere exercise. His existence was at stake. And thus he was not alone but connected to the whole of his world. And the injury which resulted from this process was harmless by comparison with what he would have suffered, had he not been able to attain the final outcome of his ordeal.

In his fight Jacob was finally able to let go of his pride and to empathize completely with his brother, to feel with his entire being Esau’s inner affliction, the immense rage that had taken hold of him since the day his father’s blessing passed him by and was given to Jacob.

In his tremendous inner struggle Jacob realized that he was in no position to claim he was in the right or obtain acknowledgment of that claim, he must quell his brother’s wrath or die by his hand. He must enter into his brother’s soul to fully understand his predicament.

Under normal circumstances it should have been for Esau to calm his rage, but Jacob realized that these were no normal circumstances. Esau felt deeply hurt, he was, as today’s therapists would say, deeply traumatized – and Jacob was in no position to judge his brother; rather, he needed to judge himself and mend his own attitude of blaming all their problems on his brother.

He was in no position to insist on ethical principles; he could not just go on imputing the fault to his brother, who had never attached great importance to his right of primogeniture. Now, Jacob had to take account of the broader underlying reality, and especially of the injury which had produced the wrath that would kill him within the next few hours – for it was already too late to turn back.

Jacob had to accept hard realities and, setting aside all ethical notions, to present himself to his brother in such way as to heal his trauma in a single instant; more time would not be available, for four hundred soldiers were encamped on the far side of the river, awaiting Esau’s orders.

His brother’s wrath had to be soothed in one single instant, and that instant must completely offset the injury Esau had suffered when he knew he had missed his father’s blessing, while his brother Jacob had received it in his place.

At that moment Esau had suffered a complete breakdown. His highest dreams had been destroyed; he felt as if he had died. This was unbearable. This murder must be avenged. An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. His brother must not get away with this. It called for blood vengeance – but then Jacob escaped to his uncle in Haran.

For decades Esau had been unable to take action; for decades his anger had been simmering, but now Jacob had returned, now at last, Esau could and would strike him down.

All this, Jacob could see clearly that night.

He had expected a very different homecoming. He had imagined he could soothe his brother’s feelings with a rich gift, but he had clearly reckoned without his host. Esau was in no mood to be soothed. He wanted to see blood. He wanted satisfaction for the humiliation he had suffered.

That humiliation Jacob could feel now in his bones. That was why his whole body underwent wild spasms and convulsions. That humiliation was the demon that took hold on Jacob and foretold his death. That at least was how Jacob saw it at the beginning of his inner and outer fight. To him, the entity that shook his whole body uncontrollably was an evil spirit, one he fought for many hours with all his might.

He was caught between thoughts, sentiments and attitudes, those of his brother who wanted to kill him and his own, his firm conviction that he was in the right.

And so, his sense of entitlement battled against the wrath of his brother until, in the morning, it became clear that the issue was not one of entitlement but blessing.

At this point Jacob understood that he had been fighting, not against some evil demon but against God, who had at last led him to this deep insight. Acknowledging this, Jacob realized that he must give in to reality. He could no longer rely on his theoretical privilege but must soothe his brother’s wrath, and to accomplish that, he had only one option.

He must come down from his high horse of being justified; he must face up to his brother’s infuriation and acknowledge his power. He must capitulate before his brother. He must prostrate himself before him in such a way as to leave no doubt of his surrender.

Behavioral scientists today might speak of an inhibition against killing, which occurs in fights between members of the same species, when one of the two clearly signifies his defeat. But far more was involved here than a mere inhibition against killing. This was the dissolution of a whole complex of wrath, the sudden restoration of the natural brotherly love.

Jacob’s surrender dissolved the knot in Esau’s soul. The evil spirit that had dominated him for decades evaporated.

Esau bent down to the brother who lay before him, and raised him to his feet – and only then did he see the injury Jacob had suffered in his all-night struggle. Instead of rage, Esau was now filled with brotherly love. The past had subsided – in an instant. There was nothing he could hold against him, there was only love.

In this love, “mine” and “thine” remained unmixed, but now everything could be settled, and Esau could accept the gift which Jacob had brought for him.

Now Esau could accept the blessing bestowed by their father as belonging to his brother. Now things were good just as they were.

Esau did not need all the land he possessed. He could share it with his brother. Both could live side by side in peace.

Such was the outcome of Jacob’s wrestling, and from that day on Jacob bore a new name, “Israel”, “he who fought with God, and prevailed”.

Would it not be beautiful if modern Israel, too, could prevail in like manner?

(Update: 2014_01_11)



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