This is the fifth post of a five-part series on shame. If you want to catch up click the links for the FIRST, SECOND, THIRD and FOURTH blogs. Make sure you subscribe to our mailing list so you don’t miss a thing!
Perhaps the best Biblical example of shame and its consequences comes from the story of Jacob and Esau in the Old Testament. Although Jacob and Esau are twins, Jacob is born last and as a result, is not eligible for the same status as that bestowed upon Esau. Specifically, only Esau and not Jacob is eligible to receive his father’s blessing.
Given the lens we are looking through today, we could argue that Jacob experiences shame as a result of his younger brother status. Jealousy, after all, is a consequence of shame. Jacob is jealous and takes extreme measures to change his birth order fate: First Jacob steals the birthright from his brother not once but twice, the second time by tricking his aging father to give him and not Esau the blessing. But Jacob’s deceit does not end there. A pattern of deceit to cover his wound has been established and Jacob goes on to cheat again… It is as though trickery has become Jacob’s identity. But… it is not. Jacob’s identity is as a beloved child of God and yes, as younger brother to his twin Esau. Deceit and trickery are simply but tragically the behaviours Jacob has learned to cover over his feelings of inadequacy associated with this younger brother status.
We pick up the story of Jacob and Esau upon Jacob’s intended trip home after living with his uncle Laban for many years. Jacob wants to move home again but knows that doing so means that he must see his brother, Esau, again. It would be an understatement to say that Jacob is afraid. Fearing his brother may still wish to hurt him as a result of the stolen birthright, Jacob sends a huge number of gifts ahead to his brother. These are not gifts that say, “I missed you.” Instead these are gifts born out of fear, intended to say, “Please don’t hurt me.”
On the night before he is meant to meet his brother, Jacob sends his family to camp ahead of him. He stays behind, alone.
Contrary to most of the pictures we see in Sunday School regarding Jacob and his night of wrestling, this is not a strong Jacob we see. This is a Jacob who is worn, tired and broken. Because before Jacob wrestles with the stranger in this text Jacob wrestles with himself… In fact, one has the impression that Jacob has been wrestling with himself, his jealousy and his shame for most of his life.
Weak and tired from a full night of wrestling Jacob finally asks for what he wants, a blessing. Do you catch the significance of this request? For the first time in his life, Jacob is looking for an honest blessing. But the man Jacob is wrestling with does not offer it. Instead the man asks Jacob his name. And here we come to the highpoint and central feature of this passage. Jacob must say his name. One can almost feel the tension building in the passage because for Jacob to say his name is to reveal his guilt for all he has done to cover his shame. His name, after all, means “deceiver.” What we are observing here is the ancient ritual of confession. When Jacob says his name, he confesses something very deep and profound about himself. He confesses that he has been jealous, ashamed of his identity as younger brother. He confesses that he has made his life by way of deceit, that he has covered his shame by tricking others to get ahead. In this pivotal moment, Jacob’s confession is simultaneously a request for a healing of all that he has hidden under that cover of deceit – his jealousy, his guilt, his brokenness and yes, behind this, his shame and feelings of inadequacy associated with his younger brother status.
Notice that the man does not shame Jacob for being the younger son. Nor does the man offer a blessing. Instead the man gives Jacob a new name. Jacob will no longer be known as the deceiver. Instead he will be known as “Israel – the father of a great nation.” The man does not take away Jacob’s identity as the younger brother. Identities, after all, are not the problem. What the man does do is release Jacob from his pattern of functioning – his guilt of deceit that has emerged to cover his shame. With the name Israel, you could say that Jacob is stamped with a new pattern and in this moment his guilt is forgiven and his shame is healed. Jacob is transformed. And then, almost as an afterthought, the man blesses Jacob. In this moment Jacob’s eyes are opened. He recognises the man for he is: God.
In the end, it is not Jacob’s identity that defines him. It is simply his status as a beloved child of God. And this is enough. It is enough.
It is enough, even for us. AMEN.