Wrestling with God, Self AND Others
Scripture: Genesis 32:22-31
Several weeks ago, Gail Arnall shared her spiritual autobiography, her back story, so to speak. For some years, one of my favorite radio programs was Back Story (now backstoryradio.org). Its introduction states, “Ever think there is more to history than meets the eye? Or, wondered how your ancestors experienced their own current events? There is history you had to learn or want to learn. That’s where Back Story comes in.” (backstoryradio.org) This program was a deep dive into our national past and attempted to answer the question, “How has the past shaped who we are today?” That is the question we respond to when we share our spiritual autobiographies though our focus has a specific concern—individual spiritual development. After we hear one’s spiritual autobiography, fortunately, we can engage with the real-life individual teller of the story, a real gift.
Human spiritual development was a concern of the early biblical shapers of the oral tradition and then the writers who later tried to explain how “a family of Ur, a city in the lower Mespotamia region on the banks of the Euphrates River in what is now Iraq, found wanting the static worldview of heavenly, [divine] absolutes (multiple gods) and earthly corruption.” (Cahill, 56). Those early writers of the Hebrew scriptures chose to begin the story by featuring one family, that of a Semitic nomad named Abram. Our Hebrew Scripture lectionary today focuses on Abraham’s grandson, Jacob. He’s a complex and troubling and troublesome character, and he is at a critical turning point in his life, wrestling with God, with himself, and others.
The Back Story
We have been journeying for the past 9 weeks through the primal and foundational story, Genesis, in the Hebrew Scriptures. Starting in chapter 11 of Genesis, Abram’s father, Terah appears. And, at age 70, Terah becomes a father; Abram is born. Eventually, Terah moves his large, extended family from Ur (on the banks of the Euphrates River in modern day Iraq). They are destined for Canaan, but they don’t make it. Instead, they settle down in Haran, far to the northeast of Canaan. Terah’s family was a “family of Semites, business people, herders, merchants, traders, who had long settled in Ur (one of the oldest cities of southern Mesopotamia. His ancestors, hundreds of years earlier had been part of the movement of wandering Semitic tribes. . . (Cahill, p. 58). They were a culture with many gods, and each person had a particular guardian spirit.
Unlike the previous stories in Genesis, the Creation to the Flood, this story of Terah’s family and soon to be Abram’s family seems like an attempt at real historical narrative. In its written form, it is probably a story from the oral tradition that was cobbled together through multiple sources over hundreds of years. Three main literary traditions anchor the story: Yahwist, Elohist, and Priestly traditions. Each of these traditions was/is rooted in a different geographical location but in a common commitment to one God in a culture of multiple gods. This commitment gets lived out initially as a family story, a people on an ethical journey. Stories in the Hebrew Scriptures and NT can distance us, anger us, bewilder us, disturb us and cause us to shelve them as meaningless in our lives or times. This story is a very long process of growing human consciousness and spiritual development. So, here we encounter the meaning of story and its purpose, not as fact but as truth. And, we are invited to engage life in an ancient culture with its irritating and complex characters and behaviors that can repel us. Several weeks ago, Carol Martin shared how deeply disturbing and unsettling was Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac. Both Carol and Bill Mefford reminded us to consider the Bible as a mirror for identity, for ourselves, not a manual of morality. The challenge is to wrestle with God, with ourselves, with others, individually and as communities as we read and ponder the biblical narrative, especially its meaning for our times.
The biblical story of Abram and his family starts with a call to go from Haran, in modern day northern Syria to Canaan. That call had an insistent immediacy. Abram left Haran, on a journey of no return, carrying with him a seemingly “brand new idea. . . a dream of something new, something better, something yet to happen, sometime in the future.” (Cahill, 62-63)
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)
This sounds like a really crazy call with no guarantee of a good result or material prosperity, essential in an ancient trading economy. The initial call seems a promise with as yet no specific travel directions and no sure answer to the question, “How is this all going to play out? Perhaps, some of you have experienced this at the beginning of a life-changing call. What is clear in the call passage is the giving and receiving of blessing.
The family finally does settle in Canaan. God provides; the aged and childless couple have a son, Isaac. Likely, Isaac is forever traumatized by almost being sacrificed, but he cannot die in the story if God makes good on God’s promise to Abraham that the covenant and the blessing will continue through Isaac (Genesis 17:19: “I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.”) Isaac at age 40 eventually marries Rebekah, a woman from Abraham’s home country. She with God’s help conceives. The two children struggle in her womb and God tells her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger. (Genesis 25:22-23). The twin boys are born, first Esau and then the younger twin who emerges gripping Esau’s heel. He is named Jacob, meaning heel grabber. Rebekah remembers God’s promise. And, we should remember that these two twins come from the same womb, separate, and eventually reconcile. God is the God of Jacob and Esau.
“When the boys grow up, Esau becomes a skillful hunter while Jacob is quiet, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.” (Genesis 25:27-28) So, with Rebekah’s strong urging and connivance, Jacob steals Esau’s birthright, his position in the family, and Isaac’s blessing. Esau is enraged, promising to kill Jacob so Jacob with Rebekah’s support flees to his Uncle Laban’s home near Haran.
At the end of his 14-year employment with Uncle Laban, Jacob heads back to Canaan and prepares to reconcile with Esau on the way. Jacob is afraid and distressed, but ever devious. He develops a strategy to appease his brother. He sends out messengers to Esau’s camp. They return with a positive response, and Jacob divides his flocks and wealth, half for Esau. He then sends his two wives Leah and Rachel, his children, his servants and his flocks ahead over the Jabbok River, a tributary of the Jordan to assure Esau’s favor. Jacob then stays alone to spend the night before crossing the river to meet Esau.
Jacob’s Wrestling a Blessing (Genesis 32:22-31)
Jacob’s encounter with God twenty years earlier (the ladder climbing dream) indicated that the God who is speaking to Jacob in young adulthood is the God of Jacob’s father and grandfather. God then assures Jacob that he will inherit land, that those who live on the land will be blessed through Jacob, that God will watch over him, not leave him until all of this has happened. But Jacob who is running from Esau responds with bargaining language. He says, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this way that I go and will give me food to eat and a garment to wear, and if I come back in peace to my father’s house, Yahweh shall be God for me . . .” (Gen 28:20-21) Jacob gets no blessing from God.
Now, Jacob is 40 or so and God shows up again though the story does not make it clear at the beginning that the man who wrestles him is God. I love that vagueness because although Jacob is struggling with God in the form of a man, that figure could also be Jacob who is struggling with himself, with his shadow. And soon Jacob will be wrestling with others, his brother Esau and a community that Jacob must learn to lead.
Genesis 32:22-31 The Message
19-20 [Jacob] gave the same instructions to the second servant and to the third—to each in turn as they set out with their herds: “Say, ‘Your servant Jacob is on his way behind us.” He thought, “I will soften him up with the succession of gifts. Then when he sees me face-to-face, maybe he’ll be glad to welcome me.”
21 So his gifts went before him while he settled down for the night in the camp.
22-23 But, during the night he got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He got them safely across the brook along with all his possessions.
24-25 But Jacob stayed behind by himself, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he couldn’t get the best of Jacob as they wrestled, he deliberately threw Jacob’s hip out of joint.
26 The man said, “Let me go; it’s daybreak.”
Jacob said, “I’m not letting you go ’til you bless me.”
27 The man said, “What’s your name?” He answered, “Jabob”.
28 The man said: “But no longer. Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it’s Israel (God Wrestler); you’ve wrestled with God and you’ve come through.”
29 Jacob asked, “And what’s your name?”
The man said, “Why do you want to know my name? And then, right then and there, he blessed him.
30 Jacob named the place Peniel (God’s Face) because, he said, “I saw God face-to-face and lived to tell the story.”
31-32 The sun came up as he left Peniel, limping because of his hip. (This is why Israelites to this day don’t eat the hip muscle; because Jacob’s hip was thrown out of joint.)
So, how do we understand this passage? What questions does it raise? What is its purpose?
Many words can be used to describe Jacob: duplicitous, cunning, thieving, manipulative, lying, deceptive, conniving, subtle, shrewd. What makes Jacob’s story so engaging is that he’s the first character in Genesis who is so multi-dimensional and complex. His story and behavior raise questions about the human condition, about emotional, spiritual, and intellectual intelligence, about who and what forms us and how and why.
Interesting is that there is no overt criticism in the whole story of what Jacob did. Why doesn’t God demand more of Jacob? What God uses is blessing and grace and promise and covenant in order to encourage this person to grow and become more whole, more authentic. And, the consequences of his deceit will work themselves out in history. God is most concerned about the covenant, assuring its future and about the importance of blessing. But, that gift must move. What God has to work with is humans with all their faults and gifts, but also with a consciousness that is capable of self-reflection and changing. In this story, God has to work with Jacob.
Years ago, at a biblical retreat with Mennonites, one of the participants emphatically challenged us when reading scripture to find grace--the gift, the surprise, the learning instead of only defaulting to critique or lack of understanding. So, I share a few reflections about where I find grace in this story.
Jacob is filled with fear and distress at this critical point in this story and decides to be alone, in solitude.
To his credit, he seems to sense or know his need. He has internal work to do; he shows up; he is vulnerable in his sleep, and it is God who takes the initiative and engages him in that state.
This incident happens at night.
Walter Bruggeman, a noted HS theologian has said, “We have our worst nightmares when the daytime is very troubling to us. At night, our defenses are down, and we lose the initiative for our existence that we can maintain all day long, when our guard is up. . . It’s terribly important that these experiences happen at night when Jacob is vulnerable.” (Walter Bruggeman, Genesis, 290, 270) Is vulnerability a spiritual virtue? Is vulnerability one of God’s characteristics?
Jacob hangs on in this wrestling match for the long hours of the night.
Staying engaged, staying in the struggle and in relationship with God, matters.
Years ago, after five years of teaching public school I was deeply discouraged and unhappy. I could hardly wait for the school year to end. That spring in April, I went on retreat at Dayspring and brought my discontent and heaviness to my reflections and prayers about my situation. Late Saturday afternoon I heard a voice saying. “You know Marcia, there is a way forward. You can just quit. Oh, No,”I said, but that voice would not stop talking over the next four months. Please, God, I prayed, give me a sign, a real specific direction. I grew more and more depressed. I really feared quitting, having no other job to move into; my savings were low. My mission group certainly listened to and prayed for me. The summer passed. About a week before I had to report back, my mother asked to talk with me. She said, “I think you must decide if you can return to your job and if you can anticipate or find any joy in it. If you cannot, then you must trust that staying in the public schools is not the path that God wants you on. God does not want us to be miserable; you will have God’s blessing.” I knew for sure, whatever choice I made that I would have my mother’s blessing. Her words freed me, and I handed in my resignation. My depression stopped. I still had fears about the future, but I knew that I had a blessing and that the Spirit would lead me to the next step. It was a rocky road, but four months later, Literacy Action, a non-profit mission of the CofS, invited me onto its staff and my professional life in the field of adult literacy began. That blessing, that gift of a vocation has persisted.
Jacob persists in the match so that it can end before daybreak; he will not let go without a “blessing”, without God’s blessing. Why?
Jacob has yearned for the authentic blessing he never got from his father Isaac. And, now Jacob must find the courage to finally ask for God’s blessing to move forward. He does.
Jacob is wounded in his hip; the assailant, God, is not winning the match; it’s coming to a draw. However, Jacob, with the disjointed hip, actually continues wrestling with God for some time.
When God comes to wrestle with us, we must be open to grappling with the unexpected truth that may be revealed to us. Maybe, it is easier to accept revelation when we are more vulnerable [and open], when it is dark. “Jacob comes away wounded, limping, reminding us that encounters with God are very serious experiences, and we will come away wounded . . . ”
(John S. Kselman, Genesis, 280)
As the sun rises, Jacob leaves the place limping; I think he is forever crippled.
Wounds matter even when healed. They mark us and remind us of what we have wrestled
with, of how we have been tested.
And Bruggeman adds an intriguing reflection about human wrestling with God:
“Could it be that the narrator wants to say to us, ‘God doesn’t have all the cards? . . . Has the
narrator discovered that some other character holds some of the cards, a character who is
Jacob, who is us, who is this family of blessing? —and that, speaking of cards, God has got to
deal a little bit’. ” (Walter Bruggeman, Genesis, 283)
The Name change from Jacob to Israel, meaning God-fighter
Affirmation of Jacob’s need to step up to leading his people, to know that God is with him.
The Blessing: God will not tell Jacob his name but gives him the blessing he desired and fought for.
Regarding the name, perhaps, this is just an irrelevant question from Jacob because Jacob should already know the answer.
What is this blessing? What does it mean when a blessing is pronounced and given?
In this story, it seems:
A promise of God’s presence with Jacob, but ironically that had always been available. Jacob had never asked. God’s giving the blessing assures Jacob that God wants a relationship of mutuality.
Right of the eldest to have the land and to parent the people who will inhabit the land; but, this is a responsibility.
Blessing determines who will continue to carry on as the head of an emergent religion—Abraham’s monotheism. This, also is a responsibility.
“To be whole which is what Abraham is [was] asked to do [to be]. That wholeness is the blessing that gets carried on – not to worship idols, especially the idol of one’s own being . . . to accept and to deal realistically with one’s own human features and the human features of those around us. What blessing really means is human love . . . Real love is not possible without having acquired human features. That seems to be what the blessing is.” (Robin Darling Young, Genesis, 265) To become whole, to love.
For all of us, what is blessing? Here is my start of a list.
First, the gift of creation, the gift of life
The gift of love
The gifts of each of us when shared
The gift of community
The ability to evolve and change
The gift of a God who works with human beings, a sign of hope
A God of grace, whose grace was to take particular form in Jesus
What about Jacob’s Future
Elements of the essential personhood of Jacob remain--He is who he is. But this story shows movement. Earlier in his life, Jacob’s spirituality is all external, all talk and show and scheming. By the end of the wrestling, Jacob has a new name, a communal name, and his needed blessing, and a wound. “. . . he has come to a spirituality that’s vulnerable” (Roberta Hestenes, Genesis, p. 279), and a relationship with God. So, Jacob limps into the daylight with a wound, the place where the 13th century poet Rumi said, “the light enters you.” Jacob will move forward but not without trials and ongoing family dysfunction. And Joseph, Jacob’s 11th son, his first by Rachel, will after a brush with death, mature in a foreign country, save the family from famine, and become the bridge to Israel’s defining story, the Exodus from Egypt.
This story is part of what we know as Genesis, a beginning. It is the beginning of a major movement, a huge shift in human spiritual development. It may have never happened in real life, but the writers were crafting a story to form, to sustain and to ultimately challenge a people to live into a covenant with one Creator God who honored the freedom of humans; who invited relationship and engagement, including conflict and failure.
We are left with Jacob and God to make our own judgments given the story that the authors have provided. I think the purpose and the learning from this narrative/episode is bigger than one individual. In this story, we have a God who is calling a people and starting at home with a particular individual, a family, and ultimately a people, a nation. There is both peril and grace in this journey.
Recently in an email Sito sent out to folks registered for the Steeping in the Saints of Color class, he cited this passage from Elizabeth O’Connor, one of 8th Day’s founders. “If we can live with the men and women of the Old and New Covenant deeply enough to hear the word that God addresses to them we may come to believe that there is God’s word for the journey each of us is to take.” (Journey Inward, Journey Outward, p. 19). God’s word for the journey is also for us as a community to take and to wrestle with.
So, how are we wrestling with God in this very perilous & fear-filled time in our world, in our country, and in our communities? In Fred Taylor’s words, how are we moving toward God as God moves toward us?
How are we wrestling with ourselves and others?
How are we living to embody the blessing that God has given us as individuals and as a community?
8th Day Faith Community
August 2, 2020
Genesis: A Living Conversation, Bill Moyers
The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels
by Thomas Cahill
A Journey Through the Hebrew Scriptures, Frank S. Frick
The Message (Bible), Eugene Peterson
New Interpreter’s Bible
NRSV of the Bible, Genesis
To Bless the Space Between Us , John O’Dohohue
Wrestling With Angels: What the First Family of Genesisi Tehces Us About Our Spiritual Identity, Sexuality, and Personal Relationships , Naomi Rosenblatt & Joshua Horwitz