Inner World Previous - Next


Wrestling and


By Jeff Dietrich  
The roots of violence are in family systems that are so often dysfunctional. Violence begins, for instance, when two brothers grow up in competition with each other.
My brother Joe committed suicide in 1972. It was at least his third or fourth attempt, but this time he was successful. He ran across the Hollywood Freeway and got hit by a semi-truck loaded with cement crypts from Joplin, Missouri. On prior occasions, he had put his wrist into an electric band saw, stuck his head into an oven, and in a particularly spectacular occurrence, while serving time in a minimum security jail, he climbed atop an outdoor gas tank and, spraying gas in a large circle about the tank, lit a great conflagration around himself.

In our modern world we have psychiatrists who can diagnose these unsettling events. My brother was schizophrenic, which could perhaps be traced to a chemical imbalance in his neuro system. But the guilt that I have carried with me for my brother's death is not easily abrogated by a facile medical diagnosis. I know that it is not my fault, but I also realize that in some essential way I am to blame. Families are weird.

It is this very weirdness of families, according to scripture, that is the root cause of violence and death in the world. Intra-familial jealousy, strife, competition, and enmity leading ultimately to fratricide and war IS at the very heart of the scriptural stories, especially in the book of Genesis.

Perhaps the reason that so many Christians find the book of Genesis bizarre and intimidating is because it hits too closely to home subverting pietistic notions of Christian family values. It rather assumes the dysfunctional nature of even the best and most faithful family ever to existthe patriarchal lineage of Abraham, the primal founder of our Judeo-Christian tradition.

So ambiguous and conflicted are these figures one wonders why they are present in sacred scripture at all. Abraham abandoned his wife Sarah to Pharaoh's harem; Sarah was very vindictive and unjust with her maid Hagar; Rebecca plotted against her husband; Rachel lied and stole from her father; and Jacob lied, cheated, and deceived his father, his uncle and his brother. These stories shake our faith. Indeed, it requires almost an act of faith to believe that there is in fact a moral center to the entire narrative.

But that is because all of us were raised not on authentic biblical stories, but on mythological stories that distil both ancient myth and the Bible itself to make a moral point and create heroic figures for children. But the Bible is not myth or moral law, and even less is it children's stories. It is adult literature on a scale that would make even Jackie Collins blush. It is family saga that puts Dallas to shame. It is sexual indiscretion straight out of Melrose Place.

Yes, these stories have a moral center, but like any good writer, the author of Genesis has refused to bash his readers over the head with it. Rather, we are required to struggle with the narrative, in the same way that Jacob struggled with the angel at Jabbok, until it has wounded us.

Popular culture would have us believe that family is the source of love, affection, and nurturing goodness. But from a biblical perspective, family is rather the "genesis" of violence and death born of sibling rivalry and fraternal strife. After the fall, death came into the world in the form of fratricide. Cain was jealous of Abel and his anger caused him to murder his brother. "Am I my brother's keeper?" Cain asked. Obviously not.

But the story of Jacob offers hope for change, re-birth, reconciliation for nations and families alike. Jacob is perhaps the most ambiguous character in all of scripture. He is the "smooth one," shrewd and deceptive. He deceives his father, he cheats his brother twice, but for some reason God desires him over his brother Esau.

While Jacob is the "smooth one," Esau is the "hairy one," an outdoors man familiar with weapons and hunting; while Jacob stays close to the tent and is loved by his mother, Esau roams the wilderness and is by his father.

Esau is the tough guy while Jacob is the "mama's boy". Esau is physically strong, Jacob is intellectually astute. Esau is Arnold Schwarzenegger, a brutish man of few words who uses violence to achieve his goals while Jacob is Cary Grant, a charming, witty, intelligent thief who uses brains rather than brute force to achieve his goals.

Even as twins in Rebekah's womb, the jostling and competition between Jacob and Esau begins as they actually wrestle before their birth. Jacob is the second born, but in spite of this God has promised that he, and not Esau the eldest, would receive the legacy of Abraham and Isaac. Nevertheless, Jacob wanting to be in control, takes matters into his own hands, and thus sets in motion the cycle of sibling violence that dates back to Cain and Abel.

With his mother as his advisor, he embarks upon a deceitful plot that will secure his ascendancy. His mother has overheard the aging and blind Isaac requesting his favorite son Esau to kill and prepare a wild game stew "that I may eat of it and then give you my blessing." Rebekah now urges her favorite son Jacob to disguise himself as Esau and offer Isaac a delicious lamb stew that she has prepared, thus deceptively securing this formal blessing and the inheritance that comes with it. But in doing so, he has also incurred the enmity of his brother Esau and now must flee for his life to the home of his uncle Laban in Haran.

It is in "exile" in Haran that Jacob meets his match. His uncle Laban is even more deceitful and larcenous than Jacob. Laban tricks him into marrying Leah instead of the beautiful Rachel for whom he has labored seven years. Now he must labor seven more years to have the wife of his choice. Though Laban continues to trick him out of his wages, God protects Jacob and he is able to escape his bondage to Laban with the blessings of prosperity and progeny. He then decides to go back to "the land of his Father" so that he might be reconciled with the brother that he has so painfully wronged.

The climax of the Jacob cycle, and perhaps even to the book of Genesis itself, comes as he spends a fearful night alone beside the river Jabbok awaiting the dawn and possible death at the hands of his angry brother who has sworn to kill him. In this atmosphere of anxiety, tension, and darkness, Jacob is confronted by an other-worldly creature with whom he enters into an all night wrestling match.

It is impossible to plumb the depths of this scene, so bizarre and evocative is it. But clearly it is emblematic of who Jacob is, who God is, and what it means to be a faithful people of God. It turns out that the creature is of divine origin and, after an all night struggle, is unable to defeat Jacob fairly. But towards dawn, the creature cripples him with a foul blow to the hip, and thereupon renames him. "You shall no longer be spoken of as Jacob but as Israel," he said, "because you have contended with divine and human beings and prevailed." Jacob has been reborn as Israel, for this wrestling on the Jabbok throughout the night has been the birth pangs of a new man who is the very personification of the Hebrew people.

Jacob's experience of wrestling with and being wounded by the Angel is symbolic of wrestling with and being wounded in exile by his deceptive uncle Laban. Further, his experience parallels and foreshadows the experience of the Hebrew people wounded in their struggle for liberation with the Egyptian Pharaoh.

The experience of woundedness in exile and bondage is paradigmatic for the Hebrew people. Just as it is the experience of woundedness that precipitates and gives birth to reconciliation for Jacob/Israel, so too for the Hebrew people the tender memory of oppression and woundedness in slavery must always give birth to compassion for the poor and reconciliation with enemies.

Jacob is the prime example of what Henri Nouwen calls the Wounded Healer. "Compassion," says Nouwen, "is the possibility of man to forgive his brother, because forgiveness is only real for him who has discovered the weakness of his friends and the sins of his enemies in his own heart and is willing to call every human being his brother.."

Jacob has been wounded now, and rather than go ahead of his brother as he has struggled to do since sharing the same womb, he now must walk behind with the "frail children and the sucklings" while his brother goes on ahead. "Let my lord go ahead of me while I proceed more slowly at the pace of the livestock before me and at the pace of my children." Jacob the striver, Jacob the supplanter, the one who desires to put himself forward must now walk more slowly because he is wounded. His woundedness is his salvation.

When Jacob finally meets with his brother, he says, "Meeting you is like seeing the face of God." Indeed, at the Jabbok which he renamed Peniel, Jacob has seen the face of God and lived; and now the text implies that reconciliation between brothers is like meeting the face of God. For the moment, the cycle of violence that began with Jacob's jealousy of his brother and subsequent deception has ended in an experience of unexpected grace. Also miraculously terminated for the moment is the cycle of fratricidal jealousy and strife that has advanced steadily since Cain and Abel.

In a recent Bill Moyers interview, Bishop Tutu of South Africa spoke of his own painful encounter with the unbearable suffering of his people as it was illuminated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It revealed the unspeakable torture of genitals, mouth, anus, and feet, as well as the programmatic use of violence and terror to control black populations. He spoke of weeping as he listened day after day to stories of unbelievable pain and suffering.

He went on to say that a recent South African poll has indicated that the majority of white South Africans, those who never suffered under apartheid, believed that reconciliation is not possible. On the other hand, the vast majority of black people, whose suffering was unbearable, believed that reconciliation is possible. "Only those who have been wounded have the capacity to forgive," said Bishop Tutu.

While the reconciliation between Jacob and Esau is an intra-family affair between brothers, it is important to remember that on a more macro-cosmic level, according to scripture, Esau was the founder of the Edomites, or Arab tribes, while Jacob was the patriarchal founder of the Hebrew people. The scriptures call for reconciliation between Arabs and Jews who are from the beginning brothers. Thus does the story give us hope that Kosovars and Serbians might be reconciled as well.

My brother Joe was smarter, stronger, and better looking than his older brother, but he did not know it because he was second born and thus in his mind would forever be second best. He could not live up to the example of the first born who in his mind was smarter, faster, bigger, and better loved by the mother. His anger, frustration, and violence turned inward and he took his own life. As I mature, I look to the story of Jacob for a rejection of the arrogance and pretension of first born sons, and, wounded myself in the struggle for liberation and integrity, I look forward to reconciliation and forgiveness even beyond the grave.


Jeff Dietrich is a member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker.

First published in the Catholic Agitator, June 1999. Los Angeles Catholic Worker, 632 North Brittania Street, Los Angeles, CA 90033.

Previous - Next