Jacob was alone the night before he was to meet his brother, Esau, whom he had cheated out of his inheritance 20 years earlier. He imagined that Esau might want justice or revenge and he could not sleep. In the night, someone or something attacked him. Scholars agree that the identity of Jacob’s adversary is vague, so depending upon your interpretation of the story, Jacob spent the night wrestling with an angel, another man or his own inner demons.
Jacob doesn’t win but he doesn’t quit either. In the morning, his adversary says “enough” and offers Jacob a new name. Jacob will be known as the one who struggles with God and humanity. The nickname is translated to “Israel” and we learn that Jacob will become the father and ancestor of the 12 tribes of Israel.
In Matthew’s miracle story of the loaves and fishes, the 12 baskets of food symbolize those same 12 tribes. The story is Matthew’s way of saying that someday, the 12 tribes will come together in peace and follow Jesus.
It is a lovely vision, but to this day we are nowhere near achieving the miracle of many tribes coming together in peace. Our lives are still the Jacob story: the work of reconciling with one person can keep us up all night, wrestling with God, or ourselves or another person.
I am in week three of working through “Me and White Supremacy.” I find myself wrestling with God: Why let the atrocity of racism and white supremacy happen? I wrestle with others: my distant ancestors and today’s leaders for their complicity in the evil. I wrestle with myself: How could I be so very well educated and still understand so little about this? What can I do to dismantle the oppression? Questions with no easy answers. It is a struggle to continue. It is tempting to quit.
The book’s author, Layla Saad advises readers to anticipate this temptation to quit, and to make our minds up in advance that we will not. She writes that what motivates her to keep going is the desire to become a good ancestor: “to help create change, facilitate healing, and seed new possibilities for those who will come after I am gone.” Me and White Supremacy, (2020), “Dear Reader.”
Whatever motivated Jacob, he did not give up in his struggle. He got through the night, was given a new name and despite a rather checkered past became a good ancestor. If we don’t quit, maybe we can do that too.