The face of God

 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

Genesis 32:30; excerpt from Genesis 32:22-31, lectionary text for Aug. 2, 2020

photograph by Katherine Brown

The alarm rings at 6:30.  I shut it off, realize I am awake, get up, and slip out of the sleeping house to walk.  Sunlight light gilds the tops of the trees to the west; the rest of the world drowses in its own shadow.  I set off down the hill, counting on its slope to pull me into some sort of pace.  I have trouble walking at first. My stride is shortened by my hip joint catching.  I stop to try to shake or stretch out the click then continue on, attentive to my step until it lengthens slightly.  Maybe this is my entry into the text:  my hip joint sticky and my stride slightly askew.  Me and Jacob limping into the day

Jacob wrestling.  God wrestling.  This text is familiar as these neighborhood streets, grown more familiar these months mostly at home.  I try to pay heed to the slant of the light, shifts in the greens.  I move through air that breezes warm and moist as breath.  As if the world around me is alive, and clinging to my skin as I pass.  Clinging as close as that stranger did to Jacob?  As close as Jacob to he?  Close enough to touch and disjoint.  Close enough to hold for blessing.

I teach this text every semester of Intro.  I point out to students how Genesis 32 connects back to 28, how wrestling and demanding are affirmed as part of relationship.  Look at the names, I say.  Beth-el.  Isra-el.  Peni-el.  House of GodWrestles GodFace of GodJacob encounters God.  Jacob demands, and Jacob wrestles, and for all these pains, Jacob is renamed and blessed

These connections can feel as rote as my route through the neighborhood.  First the downhill, then a longer loop.  Usually I turn right, to the east and have to squinch my eyes against the dazzle of the sun.  Today I turn left, away from the sun.  My shadow stretches long and slender before me.  Not having to half-close my eyes against sun too bright for human sight, I can look and see all that it is lighting.  Pavement.  Parked cars.  Brick houses and grassy yards and leafy trees, crepe myrtles blooming pink and cream and purple and red.  Bright zinnias and giant sunflowers and crinkle-blossom hibiscus. Other early walkers.

Turn differently in this text.  The same streets, verses, words, but a different route.  The relationship between Jacob and God is not itself all that is at stake. Jacob’s reunion with his brother brackets this pivot of God-wrestling.  Twenty years before, Esau had howled in anguish that his trickster brother was truly named — the twin who had grabbed Esau’s heel having grabbed as well Esau’s birthright and blessingJacob has reason to fear Esau.  Heel-grabbing Jacob now grabs at a stranger, grapples and holds, refuses to let go.  Blessing and a new name (blessing as a new name?) are bestowed:  ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ The explanation of the name discloses that more is implicated than relationship with God alone.  Jacob has contended with God.  Now Jacob-Israel must go forward and contend with his twin.  

Limping into the day, Jacob sees his brother coming.  Esau falls on him and hugs him (an embrace as close as wrestling?) and weeps and kisses his twin.  The brothers fence in speech yet amid the glint of their words parrying comes this glowing gem:  ‘Truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor.’

Jacob has seen God’s face.  Now he is able to claim the same in the face of his long-distant twin.  It reads as if this glimpse is the reason, the aim, of the other:  encounter with God for the sake of encounter with brother.

Jacob wrestling tells as well why I return to this book so persistently, every day walking words that feel familiar underfoot.  Wrestling with the text, I experience encounter.  The blessing that comes, when it does, is the twist of stride and sight that is less the face to face glimpse of a brightness so bright as to dazzle my seeing and more the realization that when looking on the face of another — brother, neighbor, stranger-among-you — I am seeing what that brightness lights.

‘Truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.’

I round back up the hill towards home.

Stitching Stones

photo by Katherine Brown

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.  And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  And the LORD stood beside him and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.  Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”   Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it.  He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first. 

Genesis 28:10-19; lectionary text for Sunday July 19, 2020

I’m struggling to tally time now that we’re in the long green season.  Recurring commitments are fewer.  Variable days sum to patternless weeks with no rhythm of effort and ease that I can identify, lean into, find myself carried upon.  Plans for fall teaching remain preliminary; each institution anticipates a different mix of online and in-person instruction.  I should plan my own courses, however tentative they must needs be, but trying to make firm a small ground in a sea of indeterminacy itself overwhelms.  It is exhausting to be in an in-between space.  I have company worldwide, I know, all of us floundering together in the demands of our own dailiness amid pandemics viral and political.  The waves of our efforts alternately criss-cross and pile up.  Notwithstanding such good and broad company, I am tired.  Where do I rest?

‘A certain place.’  The precise imprecision of the phrase tugs.  It sounds as in-between as I feel now.  It is somewhere.  It might be anywhere.  It is the place to which Jacob has come at that point in time, and because the time is after sunset, it is the place where Jacob lies down.  He sets a stone — a small firm ground in a sea of indeterminacy — and he sets himself to sleep in that ‘certain place.’  Jacob is leaving his country, his kindred, his father’s house not because he has been summoned thence by the LORD but because he has been sent away by that very father, from that very kindred, lest his angry elder twin slay him and his mother who loves him lose both her sons in one day.  Jacob grabbed his brother’s share; his letting go of home is the reaping he’s sown.  Embattled brothers — Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau —  the lectionary texts of these weeks chime too closely with the news, which itself overwhelms.  But there’s no rest in just noticing the pattern of disputed inheritance, grappled-for blessing.  There must be something more.  We’ve a long journey to go, all the way to Haran.  There’s justice to bring; a pandemic to navigate; courses to plan; dinner to get; laundry to do.  I haul the basket downstairs to sort the clothes.  I spy a loose thread, tug to follow it back to its source, and realize that the hem on my dress is unraveling, along with so much else.  I pause sorting, find scissors and the sewing box, cut the machine-stitched thread and thread each end in turn through a needle, so that I can restitch the hem, knot it securely off. 

‘A certain place.’  It is a particular place, location undefined.  Then it turns into ‘this place’ — the place where the LORD is, therefore ‘awesome,’ ‘the house of God … and the gate of heaven.’   In the place, in the night, Jacob lay down with a stone at his head, and Jacob saw the ladder, angel-traversed, and saw and heard the LORD.  To Jacob, God reiterates the promise given Abraham, given Isaac:  land and seed and blessing for all the earth.  To Jacob, the LORD adds a word:  ‘Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’  

Usually I skim God’s speech as repetition of what God had told Jacob’s father and grandfather.  The dream-vision of the stair to heaven is so fantastic as to cast what follows in its shadow.  But Jacob, waking, doesn’t talk of a ladder or of angels.  Jacob, waking, talks of the LORD ‘in this place.’  Jacob, waking, is afraid.  The ladder and the anointed stone are striking brackets, but God’s speech is the center on which the whole turns.  God promises Jacob presence-with and does so distinctly:  ‘I will not leave you until I have done what I promised.’ Read it again:  ‘I will not leave you until ….’  Somehow the ‘until,’ to me, intensifies the promise.  Its implicit contingency — that the abiding will end — adds urgency.   God cleaves to Jacob, a commitment as sharp and clinging as that of marriage, and does so not first for Jacob’s sake but for God’s own fidelity to God’s own purpose.  

Maybe Jacob hefted God’s promise in his hand as a round weight around which his fingers could curl and be comforted.  Maybe Jacob felt God’s promise as a rock in his shoe, a sharp-edged pebble that never settled enough to be ignored but repeatedly shifted in mute insistence on its irritating presence.  Maybe Jacob felt both:  God’s purpose as demand on Jacob; and also God’s purpose as demand for Jacob.  

Jacob wakes and sets up his stone as witness.  Jacob will not stay, but the stone will.  A wordless statement of the encounter.  A small firm ground in the vast and moving sea.  And, having set up the stone, Jacob moves on from there.  That ‘certain place’ was not a large space, after all.  An overnight only.  There are miles to go, flocks to keep, wives to marry, sons to beget.  There will be a day to return, another night — this one spent sleepless.  There will be return and reunion.  Meanwhile, there is this stone of Beth-el, house-of-God.  Meanwhile, there is God’s presence-with.  Persistent for the accomplishment of God’s purpose; insistent on Jacob’s participation in it.  God holding Jacob up; God hauling Jacob on.

The anointed stone does not punctuate the start of Jacob’s story, nor its end.  It is a knot in the thread that keeps the seam from unraveling.  God had a will for the world’s blessing before Jacob was born to be part of it; a will for Jacob’s part before Jacob was grown to carry it; a will to carry Jacob when Jacob will not carry himself.

Is there rest in that for me?  A bit of firmness to hold, be held by?  An overnight, even if vivid dreams inhibit restful sleep?

The machine chimes the end of the load.  I shake the wet wash straight, pull the wrinkles out of cotton dresses, stretch the line from house to tree, and hang the clothes outside to dry in the heat.  I pause and check the restitched hem.  It’s held.  That’s one bit of firmness to add to the text’s reminder that God’s purpose is for blessing and that God’s will is persistent — abiding with me, even in spite of me, insistent for me when I cannot insist for myself.  It’s not rest, exactly, but a knot to my thread as the stone was to Jacob’s, that holds against unravelling.  One cannot go back, but a new seam can be sewn, a new pattern shaped to God’s purpose.  One stone — stitch — at a time.