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Vol. II. Nov. 1996

 

A Humble Soul Is Never Alone (Gen 31-32)

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

To finish this year with the meditations on the Holy Angels in the book of Genesis, we are lead to consider the next texts in the unity of their larger context.

1. The narration about Jacob embraces 25 chapters in this book (ch. 25 — 50)! Nevertheless, leaving aside the prelude and the epilogue (the former tells of Jacob’s struggle with his twin-brother Esau in their mother’s womb and the short story, and of how Esau sells Jacob his birthright (25:19-34), and the latter about the end of Jacob’s life (48-50) only two major moments are recounted. The first main narration describes the building up of his family (ch. 27-35); ch. 26 and 36, like a border around it, deal with Esau!); the second speaks about the drama of his beloved son Joseph (ch. 37-47).

From the first narration we already considered Jacob’s vision of the Angels of God ascending and descending above him, on the occasion of his flight before his brother who repented having sold him his birthright and so hated Jacob. The "official" reason for Jacob’s departure was to "take as wife from one of the daughters of Laban your mother’s brother" (28:2). Right at the beginning of his journey, the Lord, at the top of the ladder fo the Angels, assured him: "Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go" (28:15). And Jacob answered with the "vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God and this stone… shall be God’s house’" (28:20-22). Then, Jacob continued his way with the blessing of God from the very beginning.

2. Here let us ponder anew the first narration of his journey to his uncle Laban and back home to his brother; we shall try to understand Jacob from within.

Commenting Gen 28:12, we already noted Jacob’s virtuous attitudes towrds his parents and his persecuting brother which made him perceptive and receptive for the grace of God and the presence of the Angels. It is the young Jacob who is afraid in this awesome place of God and the open gate of heaven (28:17). The vision of the Angels and of the ladder with God at the top can be understood in the light of the next events as a call from Heaven to ascend the ladder of perfection. What did God ask from him in the ensuing years, while he was away from home?

a) While Rebecca, Jacob’s mother, could start off from the home of her father in ten days (cf. Gen 24) and while Sara was given to Tobias on the same day she was asked for in marriage (cf. Tob 7), Jacob offered freely to serve seven years for Rachel, whom he loved from the very first day (29:15-21). Then, he did not show himself angry when his father-in-law deceived him, giving him in the nuptial night his elder daughter Lea, whose "eyes are weak" instead of the "beautiful and lovely" Rachel for whom he had served so long; he proposes again at his own initiative to serve another seven years for Rachel. The Angels, companions to Jacob, did not act and kept silence. And Jacob showed respect, humility, patience and especially, as St. Augustine noted, control of the "concupiscence of flesh."

b) After these years, the day came when Jacob wanted to return home. Again he asked his father-in-law: "Give me my wives and my children for whom I served you and let me go" (30:25). He feels the responsibility of a father: "When shall I provide for my own household also?" (30:31). With prudence and intelligence, we may say and yet sincerely honest he establishes with Laban a criteria for the separation of the animals, not mathematically, but in such a way that God and the effort and merits of man also have an influence (31:7-9, 12). Through this Jacob became "exceedingly rich" (30:43), Laban hostilely indisposed towards him. As again later on Jacob will prove well enough, he has control over the "concupiscence of the eyes" and over avarice as well ("I will appease Esau with the present" 32:14-22). Over the years Jacob had cared first of all for peace; he suffered through the situations, he feared for his family (31:31). Only when "the Angel of God said" to him in a dream: "Now arise, go forth from this land and return to the land of your birth" (31:11-13) and his wives agreed, he "did not tell Laban that he intended to fell" and simply fled. Laban "pursued him for seven days." The innocent frankness of Jacob (vs. 32) together with the divine intervention (vs. 29) lead to a peaceful separation of both parties. — "The Angel of God met him" on his way, "God’s army," as he says (32:1-2); it is like a breather on his ascent up the ladder to perfection.

c) Hereafter followed the encounter with his brother (ch. 32). Jacob approaches him with childlike openness and the humble request: "may [I] find favor in your sight." (vs. 5); he prepared to meet him through prayer (10-13) and a night-vigil (25-33). We may not understand the deepest meaning of Jacob’s Combat, when "a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day" (24), yet, both the blessing and the suffering he received (limping from then on) and his brother’s subsequent surprising readiness for reconciliation indicate somehow a final maturation of Jacob: he had fought with God or with His Angel (as the Fathers of the Church like Augustine understand) and acquired the last conformation with his will. He came forth from this transforming encounter as an instrument in the hand of God, a docile and willing servant of God who was able to take His place before man. For here on Jacob is shown as a true father and even consecrated as the Patriarch of God’s people (cf. Ch. 35, esp. 10-12).

3. Honesty marks the way of Jacob: towards his brother he follows his vocation given by God already in their mother’s womb (25:23), towards his parents and father-in-law he shows respect and obedience and towards his own family irresponsibility and selfless sacrifice. At the beginning, being enlightened about God’s favor towards him, he had to pass through the test. He could trust in the presence of God and yet God examined his faith through the fear before his brother and through all the sufferings while he was with Laban; he had to prove his firmness. By confident entrustment to the providence of God (28:20-22), by recourse to Him in prayer (32:10-13) and by righteousness in all circumstances Jacob passed the test and found himself again in the presence of God who confirmed His first appearance or call (32:3;33:17.20;35:1-15).

Jacob represents the beginner, the proficient and the perfect man (cf. St. Thomas, Summa Theologica II-II, 24:9;183:4) or, as other describe the spiritual growth, he passes through the illuminative, purgative and unitive way: he receives encouragement, he has to persevere and ends as a good father with the new God-like form.

As priests we may here remember how we left home with the security about our vocation and with the awareness of the presence of God with us. Then we may recall how we passed through a long formation period in the seminary with the study and the other exercises, how we struggled and probably failed often when our won will was not done or when we were asked to serve and to do what we did not think to have talents of vocation for; we may remember the hours when we, finally, could only take our refuge in Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Till the time our ordination came, we were approved, ordained priest and then sent to the people as their father!

The life of the Patriarch Jacob reveals the presence of the holy Angels in all these steps and developments of our life; they are like a living assurance: "I will be with you and will keep you!" They enlighten our intellect with the orientations in the conscience and comfort of our will, and this they do, though not in the normal scenario when occasion demands, even in a perceivable way, like the awareness of their presence. They mark us as consecrated people of God, albeit what we may experience is a limp, a special weakness so that we never fail to recognize our nothingness and our dependence of God!

4. The future of Jacob’s life was not free from suffering. But formed in this solid way and continuously strengthened through the presence of God’s blessing and his servants, the holy Angels, he bore the crosses of life as a good prefiguration of Christ. So we too may witness: Through ordination the crosses did not disappear from our life, but through the grace of the union with God established through this sacrament, the burden of our mission has been supportable and here the firm belief in the presence of the holy Angels helps greatly: They are with us in our prayers, they know when we suffer and will act and help; if it comes to a real danger they will inspire us and even talk to our enemies! We may renew our union with them at morning prayer, during the battle throughout the day and with gratitude in the evening. And let us recall the graces received so that we find strength in moments of solitude. Let us follow this father of the people of God!

Fr. Titus Kieninger, ORC