Repetition – an Explanation

I’ve posted two “Repetitions” here, and it occurs to me that some of you may be wondering just what I’m doing.

Well, it all began back in college, when Dr. Meadors had us read Soren Kierkegaard, including Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing and Fear and Trembling/Repetition.

I have to admit, some of Kierkegaard’s writing went right over my head.  Other parts of it challenged me (the knight of faith, the teleological suspension of the ethical as seen in the story of Abraham and Isaac).  But one part slipped, almost unnoticed, into a little empty space in my mind, and hid, almost unnoticed, for many years.

Repetition.

In the beginning of Repetition/Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard re-tells the story of Abraham and Isaac several times.  And each time it’s different.  One time, it focuses on Isaac’s broken trust in his father.  Anther time, it focuses more on Abraham’s pain and dread of what he has to do.

But what struck me was this: the Bible gives us an outline, a story in a form much shorter than what we are currently used to.  It tells us what happened, but we must infer or imagine the feelings, the reasons, the details.

And so we do.

There’s a huge sub-genre of Christian fiction retelling Bible stories in novel form, but even those of us without literary agents rewrite the stories into modern-style narratives within our minds.  And that’s good, because it makes it more than just a brief passage, an efficient chronicle of something that happened long ago.  It helps us make the story real to ourselves.

But it’s important to remember that we don’t know how Jacob or Ruth or Abraham felt (at least I don’t).  It’ s important to know that those details (the ones that didn’t make the canon) could go any number of ways.

And so, when I retell stories from the Bible, as I will sometimes do here, I never just tell them once.  That would be an “answer,” and an answer I am surely not qualified to give.  But by writing the story again and again, using different possibilities, different approaches, I can keep myself engaged with the questions, with the Bible itself.

How did Jacob feel when he wrestled the angel?  Why did he stay behind at the Jabbok ford?  Who started the fight?  If Jacob hoped to live, what did he base that hope on: his gifts and plans, God’s protection, or Esau’s mercy?  Did he ever fear the angel would kill him?  Did he even know what he was wrestling?

I don’t know.  But it helps me, sometimes, to imagine.

Repetition: Jacob Wrestles the Angel, Part 1

Jacob wrestling the angel by Alexander Lelior

Jacob Wrestling the Angel by Alexander Lelior

Jacob stood at the edge of the water, watching Rachel and Leah and all their children recede into the gathering dark.  Rachel glanced over her shoulder, a nervous I love you, a battlefield farewell.  He’d told her not to worry, told her he’d find a way out, just like he’d found a way out of Laban’s household and even out from under his anger.  But in her beautiful eyes, he saw doubt.

Esau was coming.

Whatever happened, Jacob knew he deserved it.  But the cunning mind that had stolen his brother’s birthright, his father’s blessing, had little time to spare for guilt.  The word of the day is survival, if not for him, at least for his children.  He’d sent gifts ahead.  He’d split his servants and herds in two, hoping to protect at least half his wealth.  And now he’d sent his wives and sons away.

Jacob stood alone, listening to the last sounds of his family vanishing in the distance, until all that remained was the lapping of the Jabbok river.  He shivered in the chilly desert night, as much from dread as cold.  In his mind he saw Esau as he’d left him; young, wild and strong from a life spent in the fields, the wide-eyed hunter towering above him.  He saw the rage, loss, and hurt twisting Esau’s ruddy features, heard him bellowing threats of revenge.  At the thought of his brother, Jacob spat on the ground, but his dry mouth sent only flecks of foam floating slowly to the ground in the still night.

He felt the stranger before he saw him – an inhuman presence, a roll of thunder like a god.  Jacob turned, barely bracing himself.  Without a word, the stranger was upon him, soundlessly bearing him to the ground.

Jacob snarled, future fears tossed aside by the here and now, his attention sharpened to the point of a spear.  He sunk his fingers into the stranger’s arms, struggling for a stronger grip.  Surprise rippled across the stranger’s body.  His satisfied smirk said it all.  So you will fight.  Good.  Jacob shot his right arm up, sliding past the stranger’s grip, under his arm, and wrapping around his shoulder.  With a sharp shove of his hips, he rolled his divine opponent over, slamming him to the ground, landing on top.  It occurred to him, mid-throw, that he’d learned to wrestle from his brother.  Even if he kills me tomorrow, he’s saved my life tonight.  Jacob almost laughed.

But the angel wasn’t beaten.  He arched his body and slung Jacob to the side, breaking his hold and tossing him roughly to the ground.  Both men recovered, their breath coiling and rising in the cold night air.  Jacob felt his muscles tearing, but fought on out of sheer desperate will.  Esau may kill me tomorrow, but tonight I will win.  The two men struggled, strained, and rolled until the sun’s pale rays lit the eastern sky.

The angel wrested one hand free and slammed it into Jacob’s hip, and pain shot through the man.  He cried out, but his grip only tightened.  He knew that wound would never fully heal, even if he somehow survived his reunion with Esau.  But it didn’t matter.  Pain didn’t matter.  Fatigue didn’t matter.  Despair and fear and guilt didn’t matter.  Right now, by the banks of the Jabbok, deep in the shadow of death, only victory mattered.

“Let me go!”  The stranger cried out, “The day is coming!”

“No,” Jacob said, his face red, his eyes leaking tears, “Not until you bless me!”

“What is your name?”

“Jacob.”

The man smiled.  “No longer.  You shall be called Israel, for you have wrestled with God and with man, and have prevailed.”  The shadow of death lifted, bringing with it the new light of dawn.

“What – what is your name?”  Jacob asked, leaning back, kneeling near his adversary.  He knew what he had wrestled was not a mere god, no Canaanite idol, but someone far greater.  He had battled a messenger of his father’s God, the God of Abraham.  Perhaps he’d wrestled that God Himself.  His throat tightened at the thought, and he dropped his eyes to the ground.

“Why do you want to know?” The man said, rising to his feet.  He reached down to touch Jacob’s forehead, bestowing a blessing far greater than the one he’d stolen.  And then, in a moment, he was gone.

Jacob rose slowly, peace and healing rushing over him like the warm morning sun.  “I will call this place Peniel,” he said, “for I have seen God face to face, and yet I live.”  He turned his face toward the west and, for the first time in many days, smiled.