The Jacob Syndrome

Jacob’s overnight encounter with the angel is one of the most dramatic and interesting episodes in the Old Testament for me. The Genesis trickster throws down in what must have been a memorable effort until the angel merely “touched the socket of Jacob’s hip” and ended the bout in underwhelming fashion. Jacob, impaired, will not be left empty-handed: “I will not let go unless you bless me.” He receives the name Israel, a fitting end to a long night.

Jacob is a new man: Israel. A name can be, in many ways, a prophetic forth-telling of an individual’s future, bestowed upon them by their parents. Israel is an interesting name if only for the fact that Jacob was not what you’d call “a changed man” when he “struggled with God and with people and have overcome.” It does, however, point to the fact that God works in the world in ways that we don’t expect.

The way that God dealt with Jacob–blessing him amidst his tumultuous traversing the desert, not overlooking his faults but dispensing his grace to him in spite of his faults–is the same way he deals with us. In fact, the way he cares for Israel is the same way he cares for us, the way a Father cares for his children whom he knows by (a new!) name. “At just the right time, while we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly” (read: those who were in opposition to God’s will, i.e. in sin); that is, while we were still “Jacob,” Christ comes and declares, “you are no longer Jacob, you are a new creation. Behold! I make all things new.”

We are conditioned in our guilt/consequence society to look first and only for the Jacob in others while flaunting and assuming other (only) see the Israel we think we are.

But there is a caveat: in the Genesis narrative after chapter 32, in different instances, Israel is referred to by his old name, Jacob. This can be read in different ways through different critical apparatuses; I am edified by the reading that Israel retains his old self after his christening. For us, even in light of the work the Father is doing in us through the Spirit, that old Jacob remains an active reality. It disposes us to also only notice the Jacob syndrome in others, too, so that not only do we wrestle with Jacob, but we more often see Jacob in others than not, but wish for others to see Israel in us. We define ourselves by who we are being made into, and others by who they are being freed from.

In chapter 33 when he meets his older brother from whom he stole the birthright, he is apprehensive because he knows that other people don’t forget “Jacob.”

When Israel met Esau, he sent caravan after caravan ahead of him in order to appease whatever animosity remained in Esau’s heart from the past. Esau, however, asks his brother, “What is all this? Why did you do this?” And Jacob replies saying that he did it “to find favor in [his] eyes,” to which Esau says essentially, “I got mine, keep yours.” The past was the past, water under the bridge–Esau treated Israel with grace, not the way Israel expected, which was to pay an eye for an eye.

The Jacob syndrome is not our name, and does not define who we are in the eyes of God, nor should it define who we are in one another’s eyes. May our response to one another be this way: to encounter and bear with who we are being freed from, and speak truth and love to one another, in word and deed. In other words, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.” 

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