“Your name shall no more be called Jacob but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed”
It is one of the most outstanding statements in the whole of the Jewish or Hebrew Scriptures, in what Christians know as the Old Testament. It marks and establishes the real meaning of Judaism and its further fulfillment, dare I say, in Christianity, or at least, in Jesus Christ in the Christian understanding. Nowhere does the striving with God and man appear more completely and more concentrated fashion than on the way of the Cross, the way of our Lenten pilgrimage.
The tragedy of our age lies in our ignorance, wilful and otherwise, of this understanding and perspective. We have become so accustomed and cynically inured to the endless posturing and manipulations of power politics, on the one hand, and the defeatist mentality of victim and entitlement politics, on the other hand, that we have little or no capacity to grasp the transcendent truths that the Scriptures constantly open out to us. We are, I fear, as dead to metaphor as we are to metaphysics (read God). And yet, these stories, by virtue of their being proclaimed, speak to our need and our situation.
Jacob is the deceiver, the trickster, the supplanter, a clever fellow, we might say, perhaps too clever by half and, no doubt, that view of things has influenced the whole tradition of anti-Jewish sentiment and bias which, in turn, issues in the hideous realities of anti-Semitism and racism signalled so graphically and so disturbingly in the unforgettable horrors of the Holocaust. The Jews of Europe, after all, were betrayed by the culture which betrayed itself. Such things are the very spectacle of deceit and betrayal. But that is not, ultimately, who he is.
This is, I think, what makes the story of Jacob so compelling. It is the picture of a soul who in his struggle persists in the quest to understand and be faithful to what is understood such that there is a remarkable transformation. Indeed the transformation of Jacob into Israel complements the Eucharistic gospel for this day, where the Canaanite woman shows herself to be a true Israelite, indeed, precisely because of her tenacity of intellectual spirit in holding on to what she has rightly perceived as the truth of God in Jesus Christ. She will not be put off and her struggle, akin to Jacob’s, is the great struggle, the great struggle of faith that reveals the true nature of Israel. It is accomplished in its fullness and truth on the Cross.