A Divine Wrestling Match - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 9A (Genesis 32)
Genesis 32:22-31 Common English Bible (CEB)
22 Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River’s shallow water. 23 He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river. 24 But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. 25 When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. 26 The man said, “Let me go because the dawn is breaking.”But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”
27 He said to Jacob, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won.”
29 Jacob also asked and said, “Tell me your name.”
But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. 30 Jacob named the place Peniel, “because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.” 31 The sun rose as Jacob passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh.
It was the night before Jacob was to face his brother Esau, from whom he had fled years before, after taking the blessing that should have gone to the oldest brother. Jacob had dwelt in the land of his uncle, Laban, had amassed a great family and fortune. Truly, he was blessed. Still, there was that matter of his relationship with his brother, and the promise that he would dwell in the land of Canaan. He had sent presents to appease his brother (and as a show of wealth), and he prayed that God would deliver him from his brother’s anger (Gen. 32:3-21). After sending the presents to his brother, he also sent his family across the river Jabbok. Only Jacob remained behind, on the near side of the river, seeking to gather up strength of courage to face his brother and claim what had been promised him. That is where the story gets interesting. It is the place we shall dwell for a moment in time.
I have titled the reflection “a divine wrestling match,” because it does appear from the story that Jacob is engaged in a wrestling match with someone other than just another human being. Ancient stories tend to anthropomorphize God. Remember that in Genesis 2 God walks in the Garden, looking for the first couple. So, we have one of these theophanies, a divine appearance. It would be helpful if we could, for a moment, shed our empiricist side, and let our imaginations go free. Have you not wrestled with God? Have you not sought to pin God down? Now it is interesting that once again the trickster gets tricked, or at least Jacob gets a bit of his own medicine. One would not, I suppose, want to view God as trickster or cheater, but we get the point, don’t we? Wrestling matches are a match of wits. Jacob is facing a major decision. Does he cross the river or stay behind? It’s safer, or so he thinks, on the near side of the river.
As he sat there on the near side of the river, contemplating his future, which could lead to war with his twin brother, a man appears out of nowhere and begins to wrestle with Jacob, and they wrestle through the night, until dawn is ready break. Neither Jacob nor the stranger can get the upper hand, until the stranger grabs Jacob’s thigh, and tears a muscle, allowing the stranger to break free of Jacob’s hold. But even then, writhing in pain, Jacob refuses to let go, until the stranger gives him a blessing. Does Jacob know that this is a divine being of some sort? In any case, Jacob gets what he wants and more.
The stranger asks Jacob his name and then proceeds to change it. Once he was known as Jacob (the Grabber), but now he shall be known as Israel. In the biblical story, names often carry important meanings. Jacob’s new name is Israel. He receives this name because he “struggled with God and with men and won.” We don’t give quite as much attention to the meaning of names when we name our children. It might be a family name, or a name of a movie character. My son’s name derives from a baseball player who played for the San Francisco Giants on their 1989 World Series team. Perhaps I hoped he would grow up to be a baseball fan, like me and like his mother. He has adopted the family team, but I’m not sure that baseball defines his identity. It is simply a name among names. Churches, have names. Sometimes they do carry meanings, even though time may erase the meaning of the name. The congregation I serve retains a name that defined its identity when it was first planted in Detroit, but does the name carry meaning for the church now? Does it need to change so that it can gain a new sense of identity? A colleague’s congregation changed its name, prior to her arrival. I’m not sure that they completely understood what the name would signify for them, but perhaps it shall as they look to the future (or so I pray).
Jacob received his blessing, and his new name. It was as if he was, to use Johannine terms, “born again.” As he did on his journey to Haran, after he had his vison of the stairway to heaven, he gave the place of his encounter with the divine a fitting name. In Genesis 28, Jacob had a dream, in which God appeared to him, and promised him the land upon which he slept. Jacob set up a stone marker, and named the place Bethel, or house of God. Jacob will return to Bethel. He will dwell there and set up an altar there to the God who appeared to him as he fled the wrath of his brother Esau (Gen. 35:1-4). But that return to Bethel cannot take place until Jacob, now Israel, reconciles with his brother Esau. Having received his blessing, recognizing that he has wrestled with God, Jacob gives this place a name. He named it Peniel, “because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.”
As we wrestle with God, facing the important decisions of our lives, how is it that we see God face to face, and discover that our lives are saved? Grace Ji-Sun Kim offers a poignant reflection on this story, which takes note of the situation that Jacob has not only placed himself in, but his wives, maids, and children as well. His family is, a collection of pawns, whose safety Jacob is willing to sacrifice in the hope of achieving détente with his brother (who apparently was approaching with several-hundred-armed men). Grace writes:
This passage challenges us to reflect on what we must wrestle with, our lack of concern for the well-being of others, and even our willingness to make others pay for our wrongdoing and selfishness. Without a thought, we exploit others who are weaker than ourselves, purchasing clothes made by child laborers or others who do not receive a living wage, exploiting and devaluing others for the sake of our own desires. Can there be redemption for our disgrace as the rich and powerful dominate and oppress those who are weak, poor, and marginalized? This story provides good news; Jacob the oppressor is redeemed God keeps the promise made at Bethel. If God can use Jacob to build a nation, then we also have reason to hope that God will redeem and use us in spite of our greedy, exploitative, and self-centered behavior. This will not happen without struggle, but genuine change is possible. [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 340]
Jacob, like his father and his grandfather, was a complex person. He emerged from a dysfunctional family, and a descendant of dysfunctional families. Despite his tendency to use deceit and trickery to get his way, God redeemed and used him. Might the same be true of us? For this to occur, we will struggle with God and with our neighbors. But in the end, there will be a new name, so that we might continue to bear in this world signs of God’s blessing.
Picture Attibution: Chagall, Marc, 1887-1985. Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54651 [retrieved July 31, 2017]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/abeppu/3815911603/.