In my Sunday night group we’ve been studying Jacob’s life. Most of that, as presented in Genesis, tells of a trip to nowhere. After engaging in a bare-knuckles struggle for the family primacy, Jacob has to run to Paddan Aram, where his uncle Laban lives. He makes a full life there, accumulating two wives, two concubines, twelve children and lots of property (mostly the four-legged kind). Despite these signs of permanence, he drags it all back to Palestine on the long journey to reconcile with his brother (who after all these years is extraordinarily gracious) and his father. The struggle for primacy seems long gone and irrelevant.
Jacob’s drive for property, for primacy, and for children is very powerful. That drive pushes him forward on his journey. But his acquisitions gradually lose their grand significance. His stolen “birthright” has not set him apart or above his brother in the least. When drought comes, he has to send to Egypt for help, just like his grandfather, the first wanderer. His children are a jealous and quarrelsome lot, not unlike him and his brother. (His brother wanted to murder him; his children want to murder his favorite.) He ends up just where he began. After all, he is living in the same place his forefathers lived, in a tent, and he will die just as they did.
What rises above this human futility are strange, numinous encounters with God. Once, running away, he has a dream of a ladder to heaven. Years later, terrified of meeting his brother, he wrestles with God. These stick. He gets a new name, “Israel,” or “God-struggler.”
Jacob is not a particularly good man. He has a powerful will, but in the scale of a vast desert, a continent, a planet, a cosmos, he does not amount to much. What sets him apart, in the end, are these encounters with a holy God, who has a particular and enigmatic interest in him and all his kind.
It’s a parable. Some of us have more drive than others; some have more wit and skill. Our lives are filled with adventure and achievement, largely based on that drive and skill. But we all are on a round trip. How different am I from my brother, my father, my grandfather? How far from home do I ever really get? “Dust to dust” remains the best summary of our lives, except for those few breakings-in of another reality.