Scripture: Genesis 32:9–13 & 22–30
It’s hard to know who first wrote about the concept of “thin places.” It is a phrase associated with Celtic Christianity, and refers to an idea that there are spaces in time and place where it feels as though the boundary between heaven and earth has become thin, almost non-existent. It is often a place where someone who finds themselves lost and at the end of their rope…discovers powerfully that they are not alone. Look at the thin places in these first few weeks of our journey through the narrative lectionary.
- Next week, our guest speaker Meg Biddle will be talking about Moses and the burning bush at Mount Horeb—a thin place that God named as “holy ground.”
- Last week, we found Abraham and Sarah at the Oaks of Mamre, a thin place where they felt the presence of God in a particular and powerful way in Chapter 13. When they circled back to that place in Chapter 18, they found themselves face to face with three individuals whom they understood to somehow represent God. And with the voice of God, the three promised the birth of a son, and their son Isaac was that promise, come to fruition.
- A thin place that we aren’t reading about this year, but relevant to our story, is Moriah, the sacred mountain where God stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, and so they built an altar to remember God’s presence there.
- From there, the story takes a bit of a detour from thin places. Isaac grows up and gets married, and he and Rebecca have two twin sons, Jacob and Esau. Even in the womb, these two brothers fought, Jacob grasping the heel of his brother as they were born. In fact, the name Jacob means “heel,” but also “supplanter” or “deceiver.” Theirs was a long history of contention and conflict. Jacob outright stole his brother’s birthright and blessing from his father. In so doing, the supplanter had supplanted the older Esau into becoming his inferior, in the family and in society. In a murderous rage, Esau hunted down Jacob, who was barely able to escape with the help of his mother.
- And exhausted and alone and afraid, Jacob fled to another thin place, called Bethel. Here, that boundary between heaven and earth became thin once more, as Jacob had a vision of God’s angels climbing up and down from heaven, touching the earth and returning to the heavenly realms. It became a symbol for Jacob that he was not as alone as he thought, and so he also set up an altar of worship to God in that thin place.
- Again, another detour from thin places, Jacob fled to his mother’s family and built up his own household. Two wives, two maidservants, eleven children, and a lot of deceit and supplanting later, he was ready to come home. But what would Esau say? What would he do? Jacob packed up the household and set off for home.
- Today’s chapter has two thin places. Right before our reading, it says he and his household came to a place called Mahanaim, where angels visited him. Mahanaim means “two camps,” and perhaps he was inspired to divide his household and send them toward Esau in waves, demonstrating his fear over what Esau might do.
- Finally, Jacob arrives at a ford over the river called Jabbok, and well, let’s find out what happens there.
Esau wasn’t sure he had ever seen so many camels! And goats. And rams. And sheep. And people. Wave after wave showed up before a bewildered Esau. He had four hundred fighting men at his disposal. Home field advantage, as they approached him on his own turf. The moral high ground, twenty years after Jacob fled the family in disgrace. And his kid brother was still figuring out a way to upstage him!
So. Many. Camels.
Esau stood with his captain of the guard, trying to make sense of it all. “Remind me again why you don’t just kill all of these annoying people, and take the camels? Didn’t your older brother pretty much ruin your whole life?” Esau sighed. “It’s more complicated than that. We were both young. And our mother didn’t really help the situation. And our father was more than a little clueless. For a long, long time, I was ready to kill him myself, 400 soldiers or not. He stole my birthright. He stole my blessing. I found myself playing second fiddle to a snot-nosed kid who didn’t even know how to hunt for his own dinner. And then he left, and I just got angrier. I spent a lot of years in resentment and rage. I laid awake at night, thinking about all the violent ways that I would chase him down and tear him limb from limb.
“But over time, that anger subsided. And then I grieved the loss of both parents…alone. Every time I wanted a family member to share an experience with, I was…alone. As angry as I was at that snot-nosed brat, I realized that he was the only snot-nosed brat that I had. Did you know that we were not just brothers, but twins? There is something special about those of us who share a birth date…a birth minute, as mom always told the story. He made sure that he was as close on my heels as he could be! So, yeah, I still have some feelings of resentment and anger. We’ll see what I feel when I actually see him. But I also just miss my brother.”
His captain of the guard shrugged: “you’re the boss.” And he nodded toward the Jabbok. “I don’t see any brothers yet, but good news…more camels!”
And so it went throughout the day. Esau received wave after wave of gifts from his absent brother. Each wave came with words of platitude and gratitude. Esau tried to be polite with each speech, delivered by another set of his household. But then his heart turned, because in the next wave were Jacob’s wives. A stately woman, named Leah. The most gorgeous woman he had ever seen, named Rachel. Two maidservants who accompanied each of them. And almost as many children as there were camels! Here is where Esau began to lose it. With each introduction of a new wife and child, he grieved what was lost. A wedding that he didn’t attend. A child’s blessing ceremony that he couldn’t see. He found himself blubbering over each of these, his family members. Strangers all.
Esau felt himself start to experience something that he never would have expected. He felt…blessed. Not just buttered up by his snot-nosed brother. But blessed by the God who had promised their family blessing. Their grandfather. Their father. And now they had experienced the incredible blessing of being God’s chosen family. With every new family member that Esau met, he felt like God was reaching his hand and laying it upon his head. Pouring oil of blessing, dripping down his beard. Esau couldn’t contain his joy, and his grief, and his pride in these, his new-found sisters and nephews. Here, overlooking the steep cliffs over the River Jabbok, he found himself given a new life. A new identity. A new family.
But even this joy did not compare to what was to come. The wives, and the sons, and the camels had all moved along beyond Esau and his company of soldiers. A shout came up from the men, as they pointed toward the cliffs. There, in the distance, was a lone figure. He struggled to make it up the steep cliffs, walking with a fresh limp. Esau assumed it was an old man, perhaps a servant who could not make it up the cliffs with the rest of the party. Later, he would learn how this lone figure earned that limp. An all-night wrestling session with an unknown assailant. Esau would later laugh at the irony, that the brother who had spent all of his life contending and supplanting others, had been forced to spend all night with one who might supplant him. A holy contender, he would call him. Maybe even God himself. One who had taught so many others a lesson in deceit and battle found himself embattled and bruised. Esau could see that this contest had not left this lone figure unblemished. Slowly, painfully, he limped alone up the road.
The men pointed and Esau looked. Slowly it dawned on him who he was looking at. He began with a curious walk, turning brisker and brisker. And then a jog, peering as he went. And finally, in full recognition, he ran. He ran, like his grandfather had run to meet the three strangers who shared a promise. He ran, like his father had run to meet his mother. He ran to meet his brother, with as much energy as he once ran after him in rage. And as he ran, the lone figure fell to the ground in obeisance. Bowing again and again in fear. But Esau pulled him up from the ground, into a long and deep embrace. Both men wept. Unspoken grief, calling to unspoken grief. In that space, the threshold between heaven and earth became thin, almost non-existent. And both of these men understood that something was happening there.
Esau finally pulled back to take a long look at his brother. This was not the snot-nosed kid that he knew from two decades earlier. A grown man, where a boy once stood. A deceiver who knew what it mean to be deceived. Again, Esau would learn later that the wrestling match on the other side of the Jabbok had not only left him with a limp, but also a blessing. A new identity. A new name. “I left you as Jacob, but I return to you as Israel: ‘He who has contended with God and men.’” Sounds about right, laughed Esau.
Maybe it was God’s sense of humor that he came to him in this form. Maybe God knew that those who lived a life of contention needed to be engaged by contention. Maybe it said something about a God who was willing to get into the mud with those he created…willing to build a relationship with us regardless of what it takes. The God who would show up in the darkness, unarmed and on equal footing, was ready to be God-with-us in ways that no one quite understood. This was the God who came to their grandparents. Their parents. And now to them.
And maybe there was something about this place. Here on the banks of the Jabbok, two brothers received a blessing. God joined those who were once at odds. God filled those who knew only loneliness and emptiness. God gave a new identity to those who had once felt adrift and nameless. Here, in this thin place, God came near. Just like God had appeared to their grandmother and grandfather. Their mother and father. Now God came near to them, together.
Jacob…Israel…would call this place Peniel. “Face of God.” Two brothers walked home, arm in arm. Full and hopeful, for they had seen God face to face. And were forever changed.