…with God and with men, and hast prevailed.”
So says the ”man” for whom Jacob waited alone at the Ford of Jabbok, and with whom he wrestled until daybreak.
You know the story or think you do: the received version is that the adversary was an angel, or maybe God Himself. The being cannot escape Jacob’s determined grasp, and finally it begs him for release: ”Let me go, for the day breaketh”.( Why would God, or an angel, care about that? They appear in daylight all the time!)
And Jacob’s famous reply, in the KJV one of the most beautiful, powerful lines in all of English literature:
”I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.”
What was this being? I think it is one of the Old Deities, a river god, a shape changer, as water has no fixed shape. The legend about Proteus is, if you could hold onto him while he writhed and metamorphosed in your grasp—now a serpent, now a bull, now a dragon—you could at last force him to ransom himself by prophesying. He had to give his captor something, some knowledge. Thats what Jacob was asking for. ”Tell me something i dont know!” And the being tells Jacob his new name:
“Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel, for as a prince thou hast power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.”
And at this point the protean adversary turns almost friendly: Jacob asks it its name, and it says, oh why would you want to know that? Get along with you, and good luck!
This is all in Genesis 32: 22-39. Later, in Genesis 35:10, God does appear to Jacob and ratifies his new name. (Again, why bother doing it a second time, if God had been the adversary that night at Jabbok? )
Today i re-read a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay. She was a ”prince” of poesy, in the sense that Queen Elizabeth I referred to herself as a ”prince”; She used that term to mean ”sovereign”. And Millay, too, was a master of her realm, considered the most adept sonnet writer of the 10th century. She knew her power and she reveled in it.
In this poem, she’s saying she as poet is so sure of her own strength that she will take on Chaos itself, the old, primeval terror, the dark old deity—and she will win! She will imprison him in her verse,she will hold him fast until he ceases assuming horrific shapes and at last becomes benign:
“I will put Chaos into fourteen lines/And keep him there, and let him thence escape/If he be lucky; let him twist and ape/Flood, fire and demon—his adroit designs/Will strain to nothing in the strict confines/Of this sweet order, where, in pious rape/ I hold his essence and amorphous shape,/ Till he with Order mingles and combines./ Past are the hours, the years of our duress/His arrogance, our awful servitude;/ I have him.He is nothing more nor less/Than something simple not yet understood. / I shall not even force him to confess/Or answer. I will only make him good.”
When I read this today, it struck me that Millay is describing exactly Jacob’s experience. Jacob had already made his deal with Yahweh, in Genesis 28, so why does he deliberately lie in wait for this other terrifying power?
Why? i now think, like Millay, it was just because he could.
Please note the phrase ”pious rape”. Neither Jacob nor the poet was planning intercourse with the protean force; ”rape” is used here to mean “abduction”. Millay is going to kidnap Chaos just like Jacob accosted and grabbed the entity at Jabbok. It will twist and turn itself into terrifying forms, ”flood, fire and demon”! but she will hold his ”amorphous shape” until she subdues the dark ancient terror—which has kept us, mankind, in “awful servitude” for so long. And like Jacob who at the last does not press the being to reveal its name, the poet will show clemency: she will not ”force him to confess/or answer”. but she will turn his power to her own (and mankind’s) good, as Jacob does when he wrests the prophecy, and his own name, from his supernatural adversary.
Princely victories, both.
I used to think the Jabbok story was yet another instance of Jacob’s innate duplicity. In spite of his promise to Yahweh, he was auditioning a different deity at the riverside, to see if he could get a better deal!
But now, i think it means Jacob valiantly, maybe even rashly, chose to encounter and subdue the dark old bloodthirsty deities of the primeval past. Oh they were real and they were powerful, but not AS powerful as the One God.
And it turns out, not EVEN as powerful as one strong willed, scrappy, devious man! “A plain man, dwelling in tents” as Jacob is described in Gen 25:27.
Jacob wrested obeisance from the ancient forces of the dark that night. He WILLED himself to do it, just as Millay tells us she ”will” do in her poem. She will show clemency when Chaos is ready to show her its ”good” side, just as Jacob does. But clemency is only in the gift of the sovereign, the prince.
I love the Jabbok story, and i love Millay’s sonnet. I hope maybe this meditation will provide some pleasure to you, dear readers.
Good night, good night.