Running with a Limp

This story is taken from "Crazy Stories, Sane God" by Alan Turner

Jacob was a troublemaker before he was even born, wrestling with his twin brother Esau for the right to leave the womb first. Growing up, it was obvious that they were as different as night and day: Esau was an outdoorsman, a real man’s man; Jacob, meanwhile, was the indoorsy type. Esau liked to hunt; Jacob liked to cook. Even their physical appearances were different: Esau was hairy; Jacob was not. Perhaps the most important difference for us to note is that Esau was impulsive and rash while Jacob was calculating and devious. And their father Isaac loved Esau, his firstborn.

One day Esau went out to hunt. He returned exhausted and famished to find his brother fussing over a pot of lentils. What a coincidence! The smell drove Esau mad with desire, and in his reckless state he promised Jacob his birthright in exchange for a bowl of soup. 

Fast-forward just a bit. Now Jacob never could find the approval from his father his brother enjoyed, and his father was nearing the end of his life. Isaac was blind and on his deathbed. Concocting a plan with his mother, Jacob pretended to be Esau. His act fooled Isaac, and for a few moments Jacob knew what it was like to hear his father say how proud he was of him and how blessed he would be. But affirming words brought on by deception never linger for long. 

Esau responded like a wounded animal, and their mother sent Jacob to her uncle’s place, where he could lay low until the heat was off. Oh, but more trouble awaited him there! As soon as Jacob arrived, he saw her. Rachel was beautiful. Jacob burst into tears at the sight of her— not the most macho thing to do— but he vowed then and there that he would do whatever it took to marry her. As it turned out, Rachel was Laban’s daughter, and Laban’s price for one of his daughters was seven years of work. Cue camera close-up of Laban’s smirky smile while he stroked his beard greedily. Jacob’s love for Laban’s daughter is so intense that the seven years seem to fly by. With the wedding ceremony over, Jacob is overjoyed until his wedding night. His wife enters the tent, wrapped in a veil, silent in the darkness. Turns out Jacob did not marry Rachel; he married her older sister, Leah, whose eyes were weak and whose face was not quite beautiful.

This is not right! Jacob was cheated out of what was rightfully his. He’d worked hard and honored his role in the agreement, and now he had been deceived . . . um, just like Esau . . . er uh, just like Isaac.

Now Laban’s response is interesting. It basically boils down to something along these lines: “Maybe it’s different where you come from, but around here we don’t usually allow the grabby second-born child to jump in line ahead of the firstborn.” So another agreement was reached; Jacob worked another seven years for the right to marry the daughter he wanted from the beginning. Fourteen years and two wives later, he leaves Laban’s place having learned a difficult lesson about being on the receiving end of deception.

Jacob is ready to face his own music and either be reconciled to his brother or at least to die trying. Fourteen years in God’s school of hard knocks has

formed his character. He must pass one last final exam, however; as strange as this sounds, God wants to wrestle with Jacob.

All night long Jacob wrestles with . . . a man? An angel? I think it was God Himself. Jacob wrestles with God and gets a new name out of the bargain: Israel— the man who wrestled with God and lived to tell about it.

Too Familiar

I hate Jacob, and I hate his story.

I’m not supposed to say that, am I? It’s true, though. Jacob was a schemer, a swindler, a manipulator, and a cheat. Frankly, it’s surprising to me that people still name their sons after him. But the real reason I hate him is because of all the characters in the entire Bible, I identify with Jacob more than anyone else.

I digress . . . when I was a teenager, a friend of my

father’s was visiting. We all went out to a local high school track to run. This was southern California in the 1980s— everyone was a runner. My father’s friend was accustomed to being the most in-shape guy around, but after about an hour of running with me, he looked at my father and said, “That boy is nothing but run.” A pretty apt metaphor for my life for many years. I ran. A lot. From everyone and everything, from love, from consequences. Just like Jacob.

I wish I could say I resembled someone better than Jacob. David, maybe. Peter. Heck, I’d settle for the rich, young ruler or the kid who runs out of the garden of Gethsemane naked. But if I’m really honest, I am Jacob. I lie all the time— usually to get myself out of trouble or to make myself look better. Sometimes, though, I lie for no apparent reason. And I cheat. I manipulate. I hold grudges. I love the idea of people more than I actually

love people (Jacob doesn’t fall in love with Rachel at first sight; he falls in love with the idea of Rachel. Like Shakespeare’s Romeo, he’s in love with being in love.) And I run. Well, I used to run; now I limp. I am guilty of the same things as Jacob. I’ve learned not to lead with this information; it’s not conducive to the hiring process, especially if your career is being a professional Christian. Churches don’t hire a lot of Jacobs— at least, not on purpose.

Jacobs like me learn to hide our Jacobness. We wear masks and pretend. And we will outhustle anyone; we’ve learned to spot all the Labans and give them a wide berth until we can figure out how to get what we want from them and then get out of town. One thing we Jacobs know how to do, though: we know how to wrestle, especially with God.

Wrestling is different from fighting. A good wrestler

can take down a man twice his size and pin him into submission because there is more at work than just brute strength or conditioning. Those things can be assets for a fighter, but a wrestler can survive on finesse and wits. Wrestlers have balance, quickness, and agility; and there are holds involved. If you can learn how to exploit your opponent’s pressure points, you can take advantage of him. A wrestler is a thinker; he calculates things out. If fighting was checkers, then wrestling would be chess. Esau was a fighter; Jacob was a wrestler.

And, for reasons only He knows, it seems like God prefers wrestlers to fighters. Most of the time, when God comes across a fighter, He just puts the fighter down immediately. God doesn’t like to fight so He ends it quickly. But God loves to wrestle, and He’ll let you wrestle with Him for hours, days, weeks, years,

decades. I have theories as to why this is, but they are only theories. What I know from both personal experience and from years of observation is this: ask God to fight, and you’ll end up flat on your back before the last syllable exits your mouth; ask God to wrestle, and you better pack a lunch— you’re going to be there all day.

One other thing I can tell you: we Jacobs don’t wrestle with God because we lack faith. On the contrary, we wrestle with God precisely because we have faith. You don’t wrestle with someone you don’t believe exists, and you don’t wrestle with God unless He disappoints you— which means you’ve got some expectations. If that’s not faith, then what is?
My final thought about this story (and after this, I pray it mercifully leaves me alone for a while so I can move on and continue writing the rest of this book) is

this: we Jacobs know we stole the birthright and the blessing, and things we gain through deception must be maintained by deception. Never mind the fact that God chose to bless Jacob before he was born. Never mind the fact that God could squash us if He chose to do so. We believe we got what we got through hustle, determination, and savvy, generally staying one step ahead of everyone else. So we live that way forever— trying to outmaneuver everyone. We survive by our wits and by being clever. We drive ourselves and everyone around us crazy because we feel the constant need to work for what we’ve been given. Secretly we know we don’t deserve the blessings of heaven, and we think the only way we’ll get in is either through some sort of clerical error or perhaps by tricking God— maybe find a loophole somewhere— taking Him in a game of three-card monte.

Somewhere in the dark recesses of our minds, we realize how futile and foolish this sounds and is. But we can’t help ourselves. We are tricksters by nature. The only thing that will ever snap us out of it is when God, tired of wrestling with us, wounds us without killing us. Young Jacobs are “nothing but run,” and old Jacobs all walk with a limp.