When I was a child, I read and wrote stories by day. By night, as I lay beneath the covers, I simply imagined them. The characters who lulled me to sleep were as real as any I experienced in daylight. My power to conjure them thrilled me like a secret superpower.
When I became a woman, I put childish ways behind me. At both church and my Christian college, systematic theology became paramount. The biblical narrative was the foundation for doctrinal formulation or, put another way, the stories were a vehicle for “truth”—a certain kind of truth. I learned how to read a text closely for its literary qualities. In graduate school, I learned how to analyze written works through a theoretical lens. The story, once a vehicle for pleasure, had become an object of analysis.
Stories remained an academic exercise for years, till as a young mother I rediscovered the pleasure of story. Early morning, in the stillness of a sleeping household, I began to read my Bible eagerly, like a child with a chapter book. That’s when I realized that the Bible’s stories were as good as any novel. But I had to receive them as stories—to linger over details, identify with characters, wonder at motivations and outcomes. I had to suspend the well-honed analytical faculty that kept me always above the text, attacking with scalpel and probe. Through my imagination, I could immerse myself in the narrative.
After a decade of imaginative Bible reading, I learned that what I’ve long thought of as “my kind” of reading existed long before me. In Recapturing the Wonder, Mike Cosper writes that Ignatius of Loyola, the sixteenth-century Spanish monk, “taught his followers to read the Gospels with an active imagination. Hear the story of Jesus healing a paralytic or talking with the woman at the well, and imagine yourself in the story, encountering Jesus, hearing his healing words as if he were saying them to you . . . what might he sound like? Does he touch you as he passes? Does he look you in the eyes?”
For the heart dulled by analysis, this form of scriptural engagement may re-fire the imagination. It did for me. But, it was the patriarchs—Father Abraham and his many sons—that compelled my imagination and my faith.
Entering Jacob’s Story
I opened my Bible to Genesis and found polygamists and deceivers—“cads,” I called them back then. But each deeply loved by God.
Jacob was my favorite. During that season of young motherhood, I didn’t just read of his encounters with God as an outsider, I entered into the story as a witness. I developed images like stills from a play that I still carry in my mind, felt emotions that surface when I recall these encounters with the patriarch. As Jacob met God, I too met God.
We’re told early on in Jacob’s story that “Isaac loved Esau . . . but Rebekah loved Jacob.” I pondered those words, feeling the sting of favoritism. I wondered how much of the rest of the story—the love and lying, sex and violence—hinged in some measure on this injustice. How deeply did Jacob feel the lack of his father’s love? Did it partly motivate his desperate bid for birthright and blessing? Having attained Isaac’s blessing through deception, was a wound healed—or only deepened as he fled north, now filled with regret and self-doubt?
I paused too at Bethel to imagine myself there next to Jacob—alone in the desert after fleeing home to escape the angry Esau, asleep with a rock for a pillow. I imagined the cold of the desert after the sun drops below the horizon, the world cast in silhouette, the sand or rugged rocks where he lay, feeling himself utterly alone. As Jacob stared up at a starry sky, did his thoughts wander to the old stories of Father Abraham? Did Jacob believe the promise?
When God appears to him that night, at the top of that stairway to heaven—or as some translators believe, at the bottom, “beside him”—I saw a face torn betwixt faith and doubt, exposing only a conditional allegiance to Yahweh: “If God will [bless me] . . . then the LORD shall be my God.” He seems hardly fit for the role God has assigned him—patriarch, progenitor of a holy nation.
Jacob meets his beloved at a well in a field where sheep graze. I watched that introduction, when he, a weary traveler, “kissed Rachel and wept aloud.” Aloud. I struggled to recall the last time I heard a grown man weep. So I paused for a moment, eyes shut, until I heard Jacob’s weeping—the suppressed build-up of emotion from the past days or weeks finding expression in his cries. Is it the anguish of loss and fear, perhaps tinged with relief?
“Jacob loved Rachel.” Did he think in their union that his father-wound would finally be healed—the deficit of paternal care canceled, soul filled with surfeit of love? What, then, of the devastation, when after seven years’ labor, a wedding, and consummation, “in the morning, behold, it was Leah”? I imagined Jacob’s expression and body language as disillusionment saps his hope, coloring his vision of the future. His shock and anger—I felt them too. Were they aimed chiefly at Laban, or at Leah too? At Rachel? At himself? Did he search his memory for clues from the recent past that would have alerted him to Laban’s plan? How did his relationship with Leah change after that night? With Rachel? With God?
The questions are unanswerable. But in an imaginative reading, arriving at answers may be less important than exploring possibilities. In pausing to ask, in lingering to wonder, I identified with Jacob as a fellow human, suffering all the grief and longing that mark the human experience. So when he finally meets the man at Peniel, I was prepared for an encounter with the living God.
“A man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. . . . Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day has broken.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’”
For years I pondered the meaning of the divine wrestling match—how it worked in the story, and in Jacob’s life. Why did he ask for a blessing, when he was already abundantly blessed, with progeny, prosperity, and God’s presence besides? Was his wrestling an opposition to God (which sounds a bit like “sin”), or something else altogether?
Perhaps Jacob, a flesh-and-blood, hewn-from-the-dust creature, needed pictures and parables no less than I. Perhaps as the grief accrued with the years, he would find consolation in his memory of an experience with God so real it left an imprint on his body. I’ve come to see the wrestling match as a parable of his life: Jacob the “grasper,” who stole the paternal blessing, now fights for the divine. Yet his fighting is no longer by his own cunning, for his own gain. His grasping is clinging to the Almighty. He demands a blessing—and is given a new name, Israel, “one who contends with God,” and with it a wound, an enduring reminder of his dependence.
How would his new identity change his experience of loss—first of Rachel, then Joseph—that mark the following decades? In his darkest hours of grief, would he recall that limp as proof that he hadn’t just dreamed that night in Peniel, but that God-in-the-flesh had actually come down to him?
What sense did Jacob make of the experience afterward, as he narrated it to his children and grandchildren? I wonder if he gleaned the meaning I find: that ours is a God who comes all the way down to our very lowest places. He takes on flesh. He stays through the night. He bestows new names that reflect not the cads we were but the men and women he is making us. And in the morning, he grants a blessing far greater than we deserve.
The Way of Ignatius
Ignatius taught his followers to place themselves in the Gospels’ stories, imagining their own interactions with Jesus. And here with Jacob, back at the beginning of Israel’s story, with the help of my imagination, I too met the God-Man. In identifying with Jacob I saw and touched him, hand to hand, arm to arm, knee to thigh, on the ground, in the very dust he used to form us both. As Jacob meets God, I too meet God.
In reading Scripture, it’s tempting to hasten past the human emotion to get to the “point” of the passage: God’s action, his judgment or redemption. But minimizing the human element risks underestimating the process of transformation, a process predicated on identification with the characters. When I feel along with Jacob—or David or Bathsheba or Peter or the woman with her alabaster jar—my identification makes room for introspection. I begin to wonder: where am I weak, grasping, shame-filled, duplicitous, doubting? Ultimately my imaginative reading becomes a catalyst for prayer as I seek a life-changing encounter with the living God, who is as real now as he was in the stories on those pages.
Cover image by Luke Stackpoole.