While Israel lived in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard of it.
— Genesis 35.22
Then Jacob called his sons, and said: “Gather around, that I may tell you what will happen to you in days to come.
Assemble and hear, O sons of Jacob;
listen to Israel your father.
Reuben, you are my firstborn,
my might and the first fruits of my vigour,
excelling in rank and excelling in power.
Unstable as water, you shall no longer excel
because you went up onto your father’s bed;
then you defiled it—you went up onto my couch!
— Genesis 49.1-4
Apparently the deathbed blessings of Jacob on his sons is one of the oldest parts of the Hebrew bible. It was the set reading at evening prayer today. These are strong words. On the one hand they speak of an age when the words of fathers had real power, a power we don’t recognise today. It is strange and mildly amusing that some of Jacobs judgements come from his own sense of being hurt or offended by his sons. The way that Jacob saves it until his deathbed to call out Reuben for sleeping with his father’s concubine.
In an only slightly related way I was thinking of the way in which on the one hand Lent leads us into a constant recollection of our sins and failings, so much so that one can easily fall into a consciousness of old faults and failings which seem present in our work and our home life. This recollection of sin is in stark contrast to a culture which is forever telling us that we need to be positive, to see the good in our lives and not to be so judgemental about ourselves. How do we reconcile the Christian need to recollect and ask forgiveness for sin with the culture of affirmation and positivity?
Musing over this I remembered this quote stuck on the back of our loo door:
He (Jung) did not think in terms of how somebody should be, but who he was. Through him I learnt to look at myself without comparing what I was with something or someone else, without condemning myself, but as far as possibly taking responsibility for myself.
— Vera von der Heydt ‘Prospects of the soul’ 1976
The business of Christian confession is not an attempt to recognise how bad we really are so much as an attempt to draw close to the fullness of who we are that we may better come to know our Salvation in Jesus alone. Confession is not a way of thinking about how we should be, but of recognising who we are, not in comparison with others but before God. This is a challenging process but it is also a liberating one. The call is not to judge ourselves, for that is for God alone, but to be honest about our choices, our decisions, our speaking. For a Christian this honesty before God is the beginning of taking responsibility for oneself.
To be able to engage in this process also liberates us from the need to be constantly judging others for not acting according to our moral compass. Of course, we don’t stop judging but we can begin to think not in terms of ‘how someone should be, but who he is.’
I am not sure if this is a good thing, but I feel Jacob’s blessing of his sons in its unquestioned simplicity is, in itself, liberating. It is a recognition that ultimately judgement is not ours, it is God’s.