When I read Augustine’s Confessions, I was intrigued to learn that one of the keys to helping him move toward Christianity was hearing allegorical interpretations of the Old Testament. He wrote that he had found much of the Old Testament too hard to swallow on a literal reading, but the allegorical preaching of Ambrose knocked down his objections.
Here is an example of Augustine’s own allegorical preaching about the story of Jacob and Esau.
The mother, you see, gave birth to both sons; she bore one hairy, the other smooth. Hairiness stands for sins, smoothness for mildness, that is for cleanness from sins. Two sons are blessed, because the Church blesses two kinds of people. Just as Rebecca bore two sons, so two are begotten in the Church’s womb, one hairy, the other smooth — I have already explained the difference between them. There are people, after all, who even after baptism are unwilling to give up their sins, and want to do the same things as they used to do before. For instance, if they used to perpetrate frauds, they want to defraud again; if they used to swear to lies, they want to perjure themselves still; if they used to cheat the simple, they want to go on cheating still; if they used to fornicate, to get drunk, they are doing the same things as much as ever. There is Esau for you, born hairy. What does Jacob do? He is told by his mother: “Go and let your father bless you.” And he says, “I’m afraid, I won’t go.” There are people in the Church, you see, who are afraid to mix with sinners, in case they are so to say contaminated by consorting with sinners within the Church’s communion — and so they perish through heresies and schisms.
The dangers of allegorical preaching are well known, and even demonstrated some in this piece. Allegory simply cannot be forced to remain faithful to the text itself. Indeed, by definition is cannot remain so. But I do find it a historical curiosity that the church father who exerted so much influence on the Reformation was an advocate for allegorical reading.
This year as I read through my Bible, I have been watching for texts that may help me reflect on theologically on disability. One of the first texts that I marked a few days ago was Jacob wrestling with the man at night.
So Jacob was alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. (Genesis 32: 24-25, NIV)
The most frequent interpretation I’ve seen of this text has to do with spiritual humility. Jacob was humbled. He was forced to lean on God. And so on. Most often, they speak of permanent change in Jacob that night. I’ve also seen people use this text to reflect on physical disability.
But I do not see clear evidence in this story of permanent change in either a physical or spiritual sense. Jacob was injured. We do not know how long he was wounded. His hip was wrenched and it left him limping that day under the sunrise, but we do not read about that limp again. Jacob’s eyesight falters in old age, we are told, but I do not notice in the rest of the story any mention again of that limp.
So, we are not reading here about disability, perhaps.
It is a text about striving with God, certainly. It is about being wounded by God and not letting go. It is about those wounds becoming holy signs to the people of Israel (v. 32). But I cannot find any actual indication that Jacob’s limp persisted.
Of course, we do not need knock down evidence in order to discern in scripture a leading or guiding of the Holy Spirit. Some people who wrestle with God about disability clearly find that here. I do not.
It is one of the iconic stories of the Old Testament. It is a puzzle that continues to fascinate us. I am not persuaded, though, that it has a special word to use about disability.
I’ve begun again my trek through the Bible — four chapters per day as a goal.
This bit from Genesis 33 caught my attention this week.
But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. (Gen. 33:4, NIV)
When I read that, I thought instantly of the prodigal son and his father.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. (Luke 15:20b, NIV)
One was written in Greek and the other in Hebrew. I can’t read either of those languages, so there may be no real parallel here. Or it may not be an intentional allusion by Luke to Genesis, but it got me thinking about Esau and the parable.
Maybe there is nothing there.
But I love these little reminders about how rich the scriptures are.