Recently I've been thinking about how the biblical patriarch Jacob's wrestling with God in Genesis 32, the aspect of his story with which I most identify as a gay Christian minister, exemplifies what Huffington Post blogger Zach Stafford has called "top privilege" (9/16/2013). "Top privilege" is something I have struggled against in myself since first reading Stafford's newly-coined phrase for it. In spite of having specialized in postcolonial and liberationist challenges to other forms of privilege for two decades as a university professor, I had never before thought of my behavior and assumptions in these particular terms. However, I quickly saw that all of my assumptions and behavior have presumed this privilege, even my spiritual practice: Thwarted from sexual expression by the biological limitations of being transgender and the concurrent social limitations of partnering straight men (especially due to Christian social pressures), I expressed myself as a top in every other way: combative, bossy, dominating, always "right" in my own mind. Like Jacob, I always had to come out "on top" in every situation and relationship even if I wasn't quite sure I was right or had no particular opinion, particularly if I found myself in conflict with another adult man. I had even been trying, like Jacob wrestling all night long with God in Genesis 32, to "top" God all my life--forcing my own way, will and timing in every area.
Since identifying the dynamic of "top privilege" in my life, I have been trying to practice versatility, surrender, and receptivity with intention in all my ways of being -- ironically even as the physical and social limitations that once thwarted its most common expression have been removed. To remain spiritually open-hearted and live with others receptively is not what comes naturally tom me: It is something that will always require attention and intention on my part. I went back to Jacob's story to try to understand this alternative practice better. Jacob always remains a patriarch, a leader, a person of privilege in the biblical story and life of Israel as an ongoing spiritual community. Yet he is entirely changed by having wrestled with God, wounded but surviving. God even changes Jacob's name from Jacob (the usurper who has stolen his older brother's birthright and blessing) to Israel, one who has prevailed with God and people. Though Jacob didn't top God, neither did God top him. Israel's spirituality becomes one of the versatility and mutuality of "blessing," expressed in the outcome of this wrestling match in which Jacob refused to let go until blessed - after the exhausted divine being grants him his new name at daybreak.
The Hebrew root word for blessing, "b.r.ch," is related to the word for "knee" and so expresses the idea and practice of kneeling, praising, or saluting - acknowledging with gratitude for example one who strengthens and empowers us (like God). When used concretely, as in Genesis 24:11, the word simply means to kneel down. However it first appears in the Bible in a metaphorical sense, when God blesses the first living creatures, specifically as God makes them "fruitful," able to partner and bring forth their own families (Genesis 1:22). Frequently in Hebrew scriptures, God "blesses" the bringing forth of children with one's partner (Deuteronomy 28:4-5, 1 Samuel 25:33, Proverbs 5:18). The biblical idea of "blessing" strengthens us beyond our own natural limitations and allows us to do or give something of value to one another in humility: The "blessing" of a partner and of God together allow us to multiply--to be more than just ourselves as one isolated individual alone. In ancient Hebrew worship, a priestly "blessing" closed each service, strengthening worshippers to re-enter everyday life in the world (Numbers 6:24-26).
In Jacob's story, "blessing" is central to his whole adult life and identity. Jacob's elderly father Isaac (the son famously offered as a sacrifice by his own father Abraham) asks from his deathbed to bless his older son Esau, Jacob's twin. Rebekah, Isaac's wife and the twins' mother, crafts a plan to have her favorite younger son Jacob receive that blessing in Esau's place, and Jacob presents himself in disguise to Isaac for Esau's blessing. While kissing him first, now-blind Isaac smells Esau's clothes and blesses Jacob: "Let the peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. May your mother's sons bow down to you. Blessed be everyone who blesses you" (Genesis 27:29). Though the word "shachah" is used twice here (to fall down on one's face reverently), the repeated "bowing down" invokes the root image of blessing (kneeling), especially in this context where Jacob is actively being blessed, reminding us again of the connection between blessing, respect, humility, and service. Eventually Esau too receives Isaac's blessing, but limited by the blessing he'd given Jacob earlier: "You shall serve your brother; but when you break loose, you shall break his yoke from your neck" (Genesis 27:40). Blessing thus always entails kneeling and humility, but it also strengthens and empowers the one blessed.
Jacob is again blessed by Isaac, this time openly as himself, when his parents send him away to his mother's relatives in order to flee Esau's murderous anger at the stolen paternal blessing. Jacob charges him to take a wife there - fulfilled when he marries Rachel after many years of waiting and serving her. "God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you....May he give the blessing of Abraham to you and your descendants," which included not only exceeding fruitfulness and everlasting faithfulness in relation with God but also dwelling in the land of promise (Genesis 28:3, 17:1-8). These promises are repeated to him in a dream on the way to his maternal relatives and fulfilled in Jacob's relationship with his beloved partner Rachel especially, as well as through the children with the unloved spouse he was tricked into marrying first, her older sister Leah.
When Jacob finally leaves his father-in-law's home to settle with his family on his own, he faces his wrathful older brother Esau again and is so scared that he sends mediators ahead with many gifts. He sends his family ahead to safety elsewhere and stays alone overnight, camping in the wilderness. This is the part of the story that I have most identified with so far in my life, since it is at this point at the end of a day Jacob has spent in prayer and negotiations that a divine messenger wrestles with Jacob all night long,. In ancient near eastern traditions, divine beings could not appear in daylight and could never be seen face-to-face. However, Jacob refuses to let go of this being (whose name is never revealed) until he "blesses" Jacob. The divine being first gives Jacob a new name, which in ancient tradition signifies an entirely new identity. Instead of being the "usurper" Jacob (the one who stole his older brother's birthright and blessing), he is now named "Israel," the one who has prevailed with God - not having been defeated but only wounded after a long night of wrestling with the divine. When Israel/Jacob in turn asks the name of this one who has been wrestling him, the divine being finally "blesses" him instead (Genesis 32:29). Afterward, Jacob realizes he has been with God face-to-face yet his life has been preserved.
What does it mean then to prevail with God and be "blessed" by God? Though the root word of "bless" is "kneel," surely the human Jacob has not actually dominated or overpowered the Almighty Creator to become his conquest. Instead, if it is God Who has kneeled, praised, and "blessed" here in some way, it is as the One with all creative power, the One of Whom Christians say, "God IS love" (1 John 4:8). God chooses to be versatile. God chooses to "bless," praise and salute Jacob and to recognize Jacob now as "Israel." Jacob has not prevailed over and against God to bind and dominate God but has prevailed together with God to become "Israel," to endure a long night of wrestling in companionship - not allowing himself to be overpowered or conquered either but ending with mutual respect and "blessing" that celebrates an enduring covenant. "Blessing," so frequently connected in Genesis with fruitfulness, is about relationship that bears, endures, gives life abundantly for the good of not only those blessed directly but for all the families of the earth (Genesis 28:14). For me, this is the spiritual remedy for an internal drive to top privilege: To surrender, to embrace, to endure WITH rather than to overpower others, seeking to bring forth life abundant that blesses not only me, not only a partner in private covenant, but all people with God's willing help.