I’ve started a project of reading the Bible in one year, using an app that divides it into three daily readings from the Psalms and Proverbs, New Testament, and Old Testament, with commentary. I don’t always agree with the evangelical bent of the commentator, but mostly the themes and resonances that he points out are fascinating. And I find it very rewarding to take the time to closely read this text, with all its mysterious and baffling elements. It has shaped our culture and our Western world, and yet we still are very far from understanding it — whether we dismiss it as something false and outdated, or consider it sacred and worthy of reverence.
I particularly love the Old Testament stories from Genesis. They are so elemental and strange, challenging us to go beneath the encrusted surface of our civilization. The commentary to my daily readings often gives up on comprehension, with some remark like “Oh well, aren’t we lucky that God can work even through imperfect people.” It’s not quite satisfying, when faced with the truly bizarre and puzzling behavior one encounters in this picture of primal humanity. What does it all mean?
Through anthroposophy I gain the invaluable insight that these are stories about the evolution of consciousness. If we look back at the past and imagine that people perceived and experienced things just like we do, with our flat, intellectually-driven, egoistically separate, spiritually desolate awareness, we fall into serious misunderstandings. What Genesis tells us is that in the past people were part of God, then walked with God, then heard and talked with God … leading to a future development in which God will incarnate into the Law, the Temple, and finally a human being. From there, a return to the Spirit is up to us.
This means that the way in which we encounter and work with the material-spiritual world is always changing, constantly transforming and evolving. Our relationship with God — or with the nature of reality if you prefer to avoid religiously-charged language — is in a state of constant flux. And that gives rise to fear and anxiety, one of the Bible’s most frequently played themes.
Today’s reading is about Jacob, who is returning from a prolonged stay with relatives, during which he has acquired wives, children, and great wealth, to the land of Canaan that God promised to his grandfather Abraham. Before Jacob left home, he tricked his brother Esau into giving up his birthright and his father’s blessing, and he is now understandably anxious that Esau is going to be angry with him. When he hears that Esau is coming to meet him with a great company of men, he is filled with fear, assuming that his brother means to attack him.
Jacob does what he can to prepare. He divides his camp so that one part at least might be saved. He sends presents and conciliatory messages to his brother. And then, at night, he is left alone. And he wrestles.
I too have often wrestled with my fears at night, alone, tossing wakefully in bed, or roaming around a darkened house, or dreaming uneasy dreams that bring no solace. I have been tempted to escape from my fears, to ignore and pretend them away, or to violently attack and destroy them.
But these very fears are messengers for me from the ground of reality. They push me to the brink of a new phase of evolution, to the transformation which is always trying to break through the stuckness that I call security. If I have the strength to engage with them, to experience them fully, they may change their appearance. They may bring me unexpected, unlooked-for gifts, along with pain.
Jacob doesn’t try to stab or explode or run away from his fears. He wrestles with them, he feels them with the full force of his embodied being. He will not let them go, until they turn to blessing. And they do, leaving him wounded and transformed, knowing that he has looked on the face of God. A new sense has opened for him, in this darkness.
When Jacob meets Esau in the daylight, his fears dissolve in joy. The brothers embrace and celebrate their reunion. And Jacob tells his brother, his enemy, “To see your face is like seeing the face of God.”
What would it take to see in this way? What training must we undergo, what trials, what struggles? When will we work through our fears, so we can meet one another without that shadow between us?
The evolution is long, but it helps to see we’ve come a long way already. Now is not the time to give up and allow our illusions to devour us. It’s time to wrestle — knowing that love (which is the only reality) will always win.
That is the blessing we can hope for. Do we have the courage to receive it?