Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Summary of my Sperry Presentation, Wrestling Before the Lord

I will be presenting at the Sperry Symposium this year. A summary of my presentation follows:

Enos compared his experience of reconciliation with God to that of Jacob in the Old Testament. Why would Enos make this particular comparison and what lessons did he intend for us to learn from it? By better understanding the context of the Jacob story, particularly its intended lessons, we can better understand what Enos wanted us to learn from the comparison.

Although there are many unanswered questions in the Jacob story, the central theme is one of intense effort rewarded by blessings and reconciliation. Jacob’s entire life was a wrestle, and his story is one of intense effort, hardship, and eventual reward and reconciliation. He wrestled with his brother Esau from the womb. His name means supplanter (literally “heal catcher”). Jacob’s competition with his brother Esau continued into adolescence and involved the mess of pottage and Jacob’s famous deception of and blessing by his father. The competition was so bitter that Esau desired to end Jacob’s life. He had to flee his home and family to preserve his life. Jacob was deceived by Laban in the matter of his marriage. He was forced to serve him for fourteen years for his wives. Jacob returned home and wrestled with a mysterious messenger at the fords of Jabbok. He wrestled with this messenger all night long. Finally the messenger blessed Jacob and changed his name to Israel because he had “prevailed.” Jacob then forded the river Jabbok and named the place Peniel (face of God). There he met Esau, who ran and “embraced” and kissed him and they wept. There they were reconciled and Jacob said, “if now I have found grace in thy sight, then receive my present at my hand: for therefore I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me.”

There are many unanswered questions that remain about Jacob’s story, especially regarding the nature of the messenger and Jacob’s wrestling. For example: who was the messenger, what is the nature of the wrestling, and what is the nature of the blessing given? The text intentionally leaves many of these questions unanswered, and we will not attempt to answer them all here. Nevertheless, the central message of the story is clear. Jacob’s entire life was a wrestle for the blessings of God. Wrestling is one of the most physically demanding activities, and the length of Jacob’s wrestle indicated the intense effort he expended in order to overcome and receive the promised blessings.

The effort of the first part of this story stands in opposition to the reconciliation that followed. In Gen 32 Jacob wrestled with a messenger, in Gen. 33 he embraced Esau, in Gen 32 he called the place Peniel (face of God) in Gen 33 he says that seeing the face of Esau is like seeing the face of God. The Hebrew word for “wrestle” is an intentional word play on the Hebrew word for “embrace” as Peniel forms a word play for seeing the face of God which followed. Thus Jacob’s intense effort (his wrestling) eventually resulted in reconciliation with his brother which is a type of his (and our) reconciliation with the Lord, the greatest of blessings offered in mortality. This teaches us that sometimes the greatest of the Lord’s blessings require intense effort on our part if we are to receive them. Furthermore, God will help us along our journey as he helped Jacob along his journey.

Several comparisons between Jacob's wrestling and temple imagery have been made. Some have suggested that Jacob did not wrestle at all, but actually "embraced" the mysterious messenger. Given the context and intended moral of the story, (effort preceding reconciliation) it seemed that the wrestling must have been more than a simple embrace. On the other hand, temple imagery can still be found in the story, perhaps made even more intense by the idea that this "wrestle" is resolved into an "embrace" which follows, and which represents the concepts of reconciliation, forgiveness, and atonement so beautifully.

In the Book of Mormon, Enos used many images from the Jacob story in his own account. He too “wrestled” “before God” (in Hebrew this would likely have literally read “to the face of God” or l-Peniel, a reference to the place where Jacob wrestled the messenger). His wrestle lasted all day and into the night as Jacob's lasted all night and into the day. Finally, he too was reconciled with God, finding forgiveness for his sins and personal assurance that his course in life was agreeable to God’s will. It was these themes of effort and reconciliation that Enos likely intended to convey through his comparison between his own experiences and the Jacob story.