I recently got into a bit of a debate on a Christian blog thread over the issue of whether grace required humbling yourself to receive, that God wouldn’t bestow grace on you unless you wanted it. I’m Lutheran; we see grace as unconditional, and even the sense of wanting, of faith, is an act of grace, and it comes without you groveling to the Lord first. This is connected to my own universalism, but I figure that will come up later…Anyway, it got pretty heated and I decided to drop out because I was getting too stressed.

I wish I’d read these chapters already, because I would have had a good basis for arguing that the idea that grace is only given to those humbled doesn’t have good biblical support. Jacob isn’t humble when he gets God’s grace. God offers his blessing to him back in chapter 28, as Jacob’s on the run. Has he thrown himself on God’s mercy? Set aside his pride? Of course not – he immediately makes demands of God, saying he’ll only worship him if God blesses him first. Which God does, in spite of Jacob being an arrogant prick.

Jacob doesn’t ever get humble until this chapter, as he’s faced with the prospect of returning to Canaan to face his brother, who appears to have amassed a small army to meet him. Jacob is terrified, and it puts him into a position of soul-searching: “I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies.” (v 10) He begs God to rescue not so much himself as his whole family- “he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children.” (v 11)

And while Jacob says he trusts God to stay true to his promise of countless offspring, he still decides to play it safe by sending massive amounts of livestock ahead as gifts to his brother. Is Jacob trying to return some of the birthright he stole by gifting his wealth? Is he trying to make amends, or is he just bribing him?

After the bribes, he sends his family, his servants, everyone across the river, leaving himself alone.

Which brings us to The Big Country.

If you’ve never seen William Wyler’s 1958 Western masterpiece, do yourself a favor and go watch it. I’m going to give some spoilers here for one of its great scenes, though the visual aspect is important, so hopefully it won’t ruin seeing it for yourself.

There’s a great scene where Gregory Peck’s character, McKay, having refused to fight to prove his honor, confronts the ranch hand Leech, played by Charleton Heston in the middle of the night. They go out on the praire, just the two of them, and they have a drawn-out fist fight.

What makes the scene so memorable is how it’s filmed – from a distance. Against the great stretch of the plains, their fight, their grievances seem so small and insignificant, just two men letting out steam against each other. And to drive home the point, as they’re both bruised and exhaustive, McKay asks, “Tell me, Leech, what did we prove?”

The point is that, ultimately, violence proves nothing. Might is not right. Moral character has no connection to physical strength. “Real men” should not be so insecure as to need to prove themselves constantly.

This was all partly metaphorical for the Cold War, I might add, and was one of Eisenhower’s favorite films.

I wonder whether, at the end of his wrestling match with whoever it was Jacob faced that night, alone, in the emptiness of the wilderness, one of them turned to the other and asked “What did we prove?”

It’s hard to untangle the meaning of this passage. It’s not even clear who exactly Jacob is fighting. Is it an angel (Hosea 12:4)? The medieval rabbi Rashi believed that it Esau’s guardian spirit, intent to kill Jacob. Jacob believed it was God himself (v 30), and in Genesis God does seem to like to sometimes manifest physically for a while, for example when Abraham treats him to a feast back in chapter 18. Why not for a wrestling match?

But what does the match accomplish? Jacob gets a new name, Israel (“one who strives with God”), and a blessing – but he already had a blessing. He also gets a permanent limp. But what was the point? Why did God send an angel – or even show up himself – to do this little act?

If there’s something that was proven, I think, it was to Jacob. He’d hit his low point, terrified for his life and for that of his loved ones, realizing how far he’d come in 20 years, yet was still possibly going to be murdered by his brother. But he gets to face a divine being and defeat it, to do the impossible, to face death and walk away with his life.

As McKay puts it, “There’s some things a man has to prove to himself alone… not to anyone else.”

Before I introduce the Japanese, I should note that the NCT follows the Jewish verse numbering at this point, so 31:55 in the NRSV is 32:1 in the NCT. All verse numbers are thus off by one from their equivalent in the English: jin’ei “camp, part. a group of similar belief” (v 3), arakajime “beforehand, in advance” (v 4), nojuku “sleep outdoors” (v 14), sentou “vanguard” (v 18), kokoroyoku “cheerfully, willingly” (v 21), yaei “campground” (v 22), kakutou “hand-to-hand fighting, grappling” (v 25), kansetsu “joint” (v 26), ashi wo hikizutteiru “to have a limp” (v 32).