Grappling with God – August 2
A sermon based on Genesis 32:22-31
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on August 2, 2020
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A couple of weeks ago we considered a Bible story about Jacob. The one where he flees Canaan after deceiving his brother and father. We learned that on the first night of that flight Jacob awoke to God’s presence in his life after a dream with angels going up and down a ladder and God standing by his side promising to be with him always, and promising him The Promised Land. Jacob discovered that God was there in his time of trouble and he hadn’t even known it.
Today’s Lectionary text picks up Jacob’s story many years later. He is actually fleeing back home, and encounters God again– who seems to be a gatekeeper to the homeland, the Promised Land . . . at least for Jacob. In the time between Jacob’s first encounter with God in a dream, and the encounter in the lesson that Laura just read, twenty years and a lot of events have transpired. After Jacob’s dream he continued running away to Haran, a home of his ancestors where his mother Rebecca’s brother, Laban, still lived. Uncle Laban had two daughters, Rachel and her elder sister Leah. Jacob marries them both.
As I mentioned a few sermons ago, the Ancient Near East was a very different and strange place, that first cousins could marry is a small part of that. A bigger and much more troubling part is that women, like Rachel and Leah, had very little say in who they married. They were considered property and were basically sold by their father after bargaining with Jacob, who then owned them. And to make matters worse a man could own multiple wives and concubines simultaneously which Jacob did. The disturbance we feel at this mistreatment of women is God calling out to us in the story that mistreatment of people is wrong. It is not seeking justice, or loving kindness. It is decidedly not loving your neighbor or doing unto others and you would have done to yourself.
Uncle Laban, although related to Jacob was not a Hebrew, but an Aramean and he did not just mistreat women, he mistreated Jacob. Laban is unjust and unkind to him. He deceived Jacob into working seven years for Rachel, only to trick him into marrying Leah instead. Then Laban forced Jacob to agree to stay and provide another seven years of labor for Rachel. Continuing his misbehavior Laban connived and deceived Jacob over livestock ownership. Jacob, no stranger to trickery himself responded in kind, deceiving Laban in return.
All of his trickery in the family, and the presence of two wives Leah and Rachel, and two concubines, Zilpah and Bilhah, in the household being treated as property made things messy and unfair for the entire family well into the future. Jacob had children with all four women, for a total of twelve sons and a daughter. All of the mothers and all of the children competed for preferential treatment by Jacob, which Rachel and her sons unfairly received to the dismay of the others.
Jacob’s sons eventually become the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel, and later all the messiness and the sexism play a role in the mistreatment of Dinah, the daughter. The messiness of the disfunctions in the family also permeates the famous narrative where Rachel’s son Joseph is given a robe of many colors and other preferential treatment. I am not going to further address THE Joseph or Dinah narratives today, but I wanted to note the ripple effects of misdeeds– and oppression– traveled in time then, as they do now. God’s voice can still be heard calling to us to avoid such injustice and unkindness.
Before the stories of Dinah and Joseph, while Jacob and the family are in Haran and under the oppression of Laban, God instructs Jacob to return to the homeland he fled twenty years ago. Obeying God in this regard, Jacob sneaks away with his family and flocks in tow, and Rachel also nabs her dad’s idols before they go. When Laban learns they’ve runaway he chases them down and catches up to them. After a bit of a confrontation Laban and Jacob make peace. And Jacob and his family are allowed to continue their trek to his homeland.
Our Lectionary text for today picks up the story as Jacob is getting close to home and begins to worry about encountering his brother Esau, who’s murderous threats after Jacob stole his inheritance caused Jacob to flee in the first place. Jacob just learned Esau was approaching with an army, and in an effort to try and appease his brother, Jacob sent gifts. Then to protect his belongings Jacob divided the family into two and as we heard led them across a river to encamp and wait for him.
With his family settled in, Jacob crossed back over the river to spend the night alone preparing to meet Esau in the morning. While we might expect Jacob to have tossed and turned or have another dream, what happened next is neither. Something so strange is reported to have occurred that theologians and clergy and laity have been discussing it for at least three thousand years, maybe even more!
We are going to take a detailed look at the strange report and briefly join in the age-old discussion about this text. First we are told rather pithily that “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” While that might seem simple, the brief details are already strange. We are told Jacob is left alone, yet we are also told that someone else, a man, is there. And they wrestle, but for a great many hours. This is an all-through-the-night dusk-to-dawn grapple.
That is some battle. And at daybreak the wrestlers appear to be even in the match until in a final effort to win the man managed to wound Jacob popping his hip out of joint. Then, in what sounds like a hope that Jacob would “cry uncle” to end the fight, the man said “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But wounded and exhausted Jacob holds on and won’t cry “uncle.” He didn’t give up, but replied “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” We still think Jacob’s opponent is a man at this point and “he said to [Jacob], “What is your name?” And [Jacob] said, “Jacob.”
What happens next is most extraordinary. We learn “the man” is God when he tells Jacob “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” At this news, Jacob wants the name of God. “Jacob asked . . . “Please tell me your name.” We know that later Moses asks that question of God in a burning bush and gets the strange non-answer answer “I am who I am.” But with Jacob God answers the question with a non-answer question “Why is it that you ask my name?” God says. Then God blesses Jacob.
So, here’s what we know from the story so far. Jacob was alone in the desert on the boarder of the Promised Land for a second time. But God does not gently appear in a dream. This time God shows up for real and Jacob wrestles with God all through darkness, and at the end of the darkness and the wrestling, Jacob’s hip breaks. But his spirit does not break. He does not let go of God. Then as daylight breaks Jacob is renamed Israel and is blessed by God.
The name Jacob is thought to mean heel, trickster, overreacher, supplanter.1 The name Israel is thought to mean something like “God rules,” God preserves,” “God protects.” 2 Our lesson wraps up with “Jacob calling the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’” And then Jacob literally limps off into the sunrise, “The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.”
That’s a pretty dramatic story all on its own. It is strange and compelling. But can we find meaning in it? One meaning often found is that the story represents something along the line of, the nation Israel and its people’s struggle with both man and God in the dark times of life, and as a result Israel has been wounded and blessed but is protected by God through the darkness and brought into the day light. I like that. I can see that. It’s a solid metaphoric truth. That is a fair summary of the story of all God’s people.
While Jacob, the man, would have lived thirty-five hundred to a four thousand years ago, the story is thought to have been recorded much later, when the Kingdom of Israel had formed and the Hebrew tribes had left behind the darker times of loosely knitted nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes with clan leaders and judges. By the time the story was first written down Israel had struggled through all of that and come into its own, wounded and limping from entanglements with man and God, but blessed all the same and protected under the united kingdom and kings. All of that can be found echoing in our reading today. And there is hope and promise in that movement into the light and the lesson of God and goodness resulting in the people of God, named Israel.
I like that meta-narrative approach and its influence on the corporate cohesiveness, and growth, and goodness, moving into the promise of dawn and a new day of light. But I think we can also find in the story a voice and narrative that speaks to us today as individuals and a people. Jacob as a symbol of change who emerges out of the darkness much of it caused by his own dark deeds of deceit and oppression that created messiness. When Jacob finally meets and wrestles with God face-to-face, outside of dreams and wistful thinking, the wounds of his misdeeds become visible and painful. His sins have hurt him as well as others. And when he identifies himself as Jacob, he names his sins as “heel . . . trickster . . .overreacher . . .supplanter” and he is made aware of his dark deeds and then lives with the consequences of them– even as that awareness becomes the blessing of a new identity, a new way being.
He moves forward even if limping with his past. He moves into the dawning light as Israel through whom– AND whom– “God rules,” God preserves,” “God protects.” And, sure enough, the new man Israel is at least a trickster no more. He moves beyond Laban’s oppression of him and his tricks on Laban and Esau. Those wounds heal. But tragically and sadly the patriarchal injustices to women do not end, and in many respects still continue to this day. Wounding generation after generation.
We are all wounded by that culturally. Like Jacob we limp with the injuries. And it is our call to listen to God and end them even if that is not the focus of the patriarchy’s telling of this story. The story though does provide a blueprint for how to deal with sins. The very first thing Israel did under his new identity was make recompense and change his sinful ways– and he meets with his victim, Esau, and asks for forgiveness for his sins and the two make peace. In those successful peace efforts, the newly named Israel sees the face of God.
Israel is not perfect after he faced God and faced off with God, but he is a much better person. He realizes the injury he caused Esau and himself, and moved into the light, even if limping with the wounds he discovered wrestling with God. If Jacob the trickster can be reinvented as no less than Israel, whom God rules, God preserves, and God protects. We can too.
And one thing Israel fails to do in the patriarchal telling of the story is something that wounds us still and we can and we should work to remedy it. It is to answer the call of God to not mistreat women, to instead treat them as the full and equal image of God they have been created as since the start. That lesson applies of course, to anyone being oppressed, women, LGBTQ+, people of color, those of other faiths, those other abled, and the poor. We need to change our ways and stop the woundings. We need to seek justice and love kindness and humbly walk with God.
That’s the wrestling we need to do to continue the job of moving into the light that Jacob began. The promised land of peace on earth good will to all is on the other side of wrestling with that God is the gate keeper still to the promised land and we need to struggle with God’s call to seek justice and love kindness to move toward it still.
- Interpretation Commentary on Psalms p 268
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