Rev. Ken Kovacs preaches to the congregation at Catonsville Presbyterian Church


The Magnificent Defeat

August 6, 2023

Novelist William Faulkner (1897-1962) once quipped, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” When we meet Jacob in these texts, the past is certainly not dead. It’s not even past. His past sins are very much alive within him; they’re not dead, even though he’s trying very hard to flee from them. Jacob has been fleeing his entire life, from the truth of his existence, fleeing from a place in his family. His father named him well; Jacob means “to follow, be behind.” He came into the world “gripping his brother’s heel” (Gen. 25:26), striving to be first, to have his brother Esau’s place. Related to the Hebrew word for “heel,” Jacob means “to take by the heel, to supplant, circumvent, or overreach.” In many respects, Jacob spent most of his life overreaching, trying to supplant his brother, striving to compensate for what he felt he lacked, namely his father’s favor. Whether that was the case, we don’t know. But it doesn’t matter because that’s what Jacob believed.

Jacob, in many respects, is a tragic figure. He’s also a thief—stealing what doesn’t belong to him. He’s a trickster. Cunning. Devious. Dishonest. He stole his brother’s birthright; later, he deceived his own father, Isaac, who was going blind and cheated his brother out of the blessing. This blessing was no small thing. The blessing is a word of great power; it conveys something of the energy and vitality of one’s soul to the one being blessed, and the final blessing of his firstborn son is the most powerful of all. Once given, it can never be taken back.

Esau vowed to kill Jacob. Apart from Esau, though, no one else seemed bothered by the steal. Far from suffering for his dishonesty, Jacob seemed to thrive. His mother, Rebecca, favored Jacob and eventually told him to flee to her brother Laban in Haran for his safety until Esau’s fury was cooled. In Haran, Jacob meets Rachel and Leah, marries both, has children, and gathers a family around him, livestock, slaves, and wealth. In time, Jacob prepares to return home to Esau.

In the story, Jacob shows little to no remorse for his thievery. But on the way home, it’s clear that the past is not past. He’s worried about his brother. Jacob sends messengers ahead to Esau, whom he addresses as “my lord,” saying that he was in exile but now returns with all this wealth to curry favor. The messengers return to Jacob and say, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him. Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed” (Gen. 32:6-7). Right there—that is a window into Jacob’s psyche. Jacob assumes the worst; perhaps you would too. But note that the messengers didn’t say Esau’s four hundred were armed. Jacob becomes fearful. Jacob, the twin, is divided within himself over what he has done and then divides up the people with him, the flocks, and the herds and camels. “If Esau comes to one company and destroys it,” Jacob says, “then the company that is left will escape” (Gen. 32:8).

Jacob assumes destruction. He prays to God, the God who told him to return, but he confesses, “I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness” (Gen. 32:10). He asks God for deliverance from his brother, fearing that Esau will come to slaughter them all.  After to face his brother, Jacob decides to offer his possessions as gifts. He divides them up and sends them to Esau in advance of their meeting. Jacob is obviously trying to appease his brother, manipulate his brother. Still, where is there any remorse, any acknowledgment of what he had done? Jacob’s fear, guilt, and paranoia are driving him, and his wives, children, servants, and even the innocent animals are now all part of this drama orchestrated by Jacob, out of fear of his brother, for what he had done to him.

From a psychological perspective, Jacob is interpreting the situation through the filter of a complex, many complexes, such as guilt, fear, greed, inferiority, and not-enoughness. We all have complexes, hundreds of complexes, some good, some not so good. Complexes cluster around feelings associated with different formative experiences in our lives. They have enormous power over us. We assume we are in control of decisions and actions when, in fact, it’s often the complex speaking or choosing. “Everyone knows nowadays that people ‘have complexes,’” Carl Jung (1875-1961) once wrote, “what is not so well-known…is that complexes can have us.” [1]  I suspect Jacob’s complexes were orchestrating the staged, cowardly return, sending everyone else ahead of him across the Jabbok, while he sleeps alone.

And it was there alone, in the deep of the night, a stranger leaps out from the dark and hurls himself toward Jacob with ferocious strength. They fight, their bodies lashing through the darkness all night long. It’s fierce. Intense. Who was this man? This man who was not a man. Was he an angel? Was he a demon? Did it actually happen or was it a dream? Jacob was known for having vivid dreams. With whom was he wrestling? Was it Esau? Was Jacob wrestling with his demons? His guilt? Wrestling with himself for what he had done? Whomever it was, whatever it was, it’s clear that Jacob had come face-to-face with this man before he could face his brother. Even here he tries to do what he has done all his life; he tries to supplant, overreach, overcome, subdue this enemy through brute force and will.

It almost works. Jacob is about to overcome his adversary when the mysterious man magically touches the hollow of Jacob’s thigh and knocks his hip out of its socket. The NRSV says “struck,” but the Hebrew suggests a gentle touch with a devasting blow. [2] Imagine the pain. But Jacob did not stop; he continues to wrestle until first light. The man needs to leave before daybreak and asks to be released. But Jacob says, “I will not let you go until you bless me.’” Why does Jacob want this man’s blessing? Didn’t he already have his father’s (stolen) blessing? Wasn’t that enough? Why, after all this time, does he still need more? There’s no indication that Jacob knew whom or what he wrestled with that night. He came face-to-face in this struggle, though, with a force, a mysterious, elusive presence, a person, known-yet-unknown, the likes of which he had never encountered before, who had something that Jacob had never faced before, who allowed Jacob to face, confront, and experience something he had never experienced before, what could be a humbling defeat—or magnificent defeat. That’s how Frederick Buechner (1926-2022), Presbyterian minister and writer, described it in his classic sermon on this text. It’s the title he gave to his sermon, and I couldn’t come up with anything better. “The magnificent defeat of the human soul,” Buechner explains, “at the hands of God.” [3] All by the grace of God.

Why does Jacob ask, why does Jacob need to be blessed by this stranger? Was it because this stranger possesses an uncanny power that allowed him to face himself, face his struggles, face his past, the wrong done to his brother and father, face a lifetime of endlessly striving for acceptance and blessing and things and possessions to fill the void and emptiness of his life, for never feeling “enough,” being second, unsure about his place in the world, and then shrewdly, violently, aggressively trying to fill that void, endlessly striving, for what? Buechner seems to think that when the man gently touches Jacob and cripples him, there is the sense that maybe Jacob discovered at that moment “that the whole battle was from the beginning fated to end this way, that the stranger had simply held back until, that moment, letting Jacob exert all his strength and almost win so that when he was defeated, he would know that he was truly defeated; so that he would know that not all the shrewdness, will, brute force that he could muster were enough” to win. [4]

Why does Jacob refuse to let him go? Jacob has met his match; he knows he’s defeated. Buechner, though, has an insight here, as only Buechner could (what an eye, what vision he had). “Jacob will not release his grip, only now it’s not of violence but of need, like the grip of a drowning man.” This is how Buechner imagines it, “The darkness has faded just enough so that for the first time [Jacob] can dimly see his opponent’s face. And what he sees is something more terrible than the face of death—the face of love. It is vast and strong, half ruined with suffering and fierce with joy, the face a man flees down all the darkness of his days until at least he cries out, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me!’ Not a blessing that he can have by the strength of his cunning or the force of his will, but a blessing that he can have only as a gift.”

“Power, success, happiness, as the world knows them, are his who will fight for them hard enough; but peace, love, joy, are only from God. And God is the enemy whom Jacob fought there by the river, of course, and whom in one way or another we are all of us fight— God, the beloved enemy.”

Look at Jacob, limping his way into a new day after wrestling with God all night, who brought him to his limits, forced him, allowed him to face his life, face his complexes, and offered a blessing no earthly father could ever grant to a child. Everyone who has faced themselves and the terrifying grace of God, like Jacob, knows what it’s like to be the wonder-wounded heir of grace. We know that place called Peniel, “the face of God.”  “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (Gen. 33:30).

Jacob’s experience along the Jabbok prepared the way for him to discover in the face of his brother not vengeance and hate but grace. Initially, though, Jacob, still limping, hears that Esau is approaching with four hundred, divides up the children. But now Jacob goes out ahead of them all to face his brother. Then, to Jacob’s surprise, “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Esau was not stuck in the past, like Jacob, and so strives to catch up to be in the present. Jacob wants to be accepted. Esau has all that he needs. It is enough. But Jacob insists—listen again to these words from a man with a heart transformed, who seems to have grown up overnight, “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand;”—note, instead of grasping after his hands are now free to give because he knows something now that he didn’t know before that day—“for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with kindness. Please accept my gift, my blessing, that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want” (Gen. 33:11).

Engraving of Jacob wrestling angel


[1] C.G. Jung, “A Review of the Complex Theory,” Collected Works, Volume 8 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), par. 200.

[2] Robert Alter’s annotation of in The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2008).

[3] Frederick Buechner, “The Magnificent Defeat” in The Magnificent Defeat (Harper One, 1985), 10ff. An electronic version of the sermon may be found here:

[4] Buechner.