Wrestling with God Genesis 32:22-32
Given by Meghan Link on Sunday, September 27, 2015
Our scripture reading today is from the book of Genesis 32:22-32. This is the story of Jacob, who has been on the run ever since he wronged his brother, on the night before he will face his brother again for the first time in 20 years.
Genesis 32:22 The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 24 And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.”But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”27 And he said to him, “What is your name?”And he said, “Jacob.”28 Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.”But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?”And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.”31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob's hip on the sinew of the thigh.
We’re continuing this week in a series of re-reading the Old Testament as the story of God’s love for all people, and though the story we read about Jacob wrestling with God may not seem very loving, I hope that by the time I’m done, you’ll love this story as much as I do. To understand this scene that we read from Jacobs story, we have to go back to the beginning. And since we don’t have time to read most of the book of Genesis, I’ll give you the short version.
Jacob had a twin brother, and the two of them struggled from the time they were in the womb together. In fact, Jacob was born grabbing onto the heel of his older brother, which is why they named him Jacob which means heel-grabber, but was also a word that meant deceiver or trickster. His brother Esau was a hunter, a hairy strong man who made his Father Isaac really proud. Jacob was not so hairy, and preferred to stay at home with his mother, and usually found a way to get what he wanted through manipulation. The two grow up into men and it comes time for their father Isaac to pass on his blessing which would go to the oldest son. This blessing includes a special role in the covenant which Isaac’s father Abraham, who we talked about last week, had made with God, where God said he would make out of Abraham a great nation that is a blessing to the entire world.
So Isaac tells Esau, the older brother and the rightful heir, to go hunting, so that when he comes back and a meal is prepared, Isaac can bless him and pass everything on to him. But after Esau leaves, Jacob and his mother create a plan to trick Isaac who is blind into blessing Jacob instead of Esau. And their plan works, Jacob receives Esau’s blessing, and when Esau returns, he and his father discover what has been done and they weep for how they have been tricked, and Esau decides that he will kill Jacob once their father has passed away.
His parents, not wanting Jacob to die, send him away and on the night after he leaves he has a dream. Yahweh comes to him to speak to him, not only confirming actually that the promise given to Abraham is now given to Jacob and all that entails, but also saying “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”We have to stop and appreciate this part of Jacob’s story, because this shows us that before Jacob has really had the time or the space to repent for his actions, and really to communicate with God in any way, Jacob already has God’s promise that someday he will be able to return and be reconciled to his family again. God is already at work within him, and within his situation. Even while the wounds are still fresh, Jacob is not alone. And when Jacob wakes up, he is amazed at what he saw and heard in the dream and he makes a vow that I think is the real beginning of his faith journey and his desire for reconciliation to his family, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then Yahweh shall be my God…”
After this brief moment of calm and reassurance, Jacob continues to go through cycles of struggle to deceit, back to some relative peace before struggle begins again. He is always struggling with something. ] He falls in love with his Uncle’s daughter Rachel and finds work with him, but gets tricked into marrying her sister Leah as well which begins another terrible family conflict. Tensions rise because of how successful Jacob is at working for his Uncle, so that his Uncle tries to prevent him from leaving, and when Jacob does leave, he manages to take off with most of his Uncle’s wealth and herds, which now basically makes him a successful man, but has the internal cost of how he manipulated his way there.
Jacob, goes through a lot, being deceived as well as being the deceiver, and in this cycle of constantly struggling against something, he probably often felt like he was fending for himself in a world that was totally against him. He probably did not feel much like God’s promise was with him in his experiences. He had worked up the skills to be able to take care of himself, twist things around in his favor and come out on top no matter what.
And so though we might think that at this point where he is leaving his Uncle’s with enough stuff to start a household of his own, that he could potentially finally have his life together, we can tell that instead there was a deep internal struggle happening in him because of all that he has done, and all that he has been through, and this nagging question of where God was in everything. So, while he could have gone off to yet another new place and simply settled down with his wealth and started over again, instead Jacob remembers God’s promise, and he decides that what he really wants to do next, is to head for home, and to find out whether or not reconciliation can actually happen there.
This is the Jacob who is traveling home to face Esau. A weird mixture of a proud, successful, and self-reliant man, and a repentant man hoping in God’s promises. Along the way, he decides to send out a few messengers, to test the waters of how his brother will take this return, and the response he gets is that his brother is coming to meet him…with 400 men. His worst fears become a very possible reality. If his brother still wants to kill him, he will easily destroy everything Jacob has gained, and the promise that God made to him will have failed completely. Jacob doesn’t have the ability to defend himself against an attack, but he still makes a few efforts, going back to depending on himself as he has always done in the midst of a conflict. He sends ahead his flocks as gifts for his brother, literally giving up all the wealth he has earned in exchange for a chance at making peace, and he divides his people into different camps so that if Esau does attack, some of his group might get away and survive. Probably feeling as if everything has been lost once again, finally, Jacob decides that he is going to spend the night alone.
This was a dark night for Jacob, the kind of sleepless night where he might have been pacing, or lying awake in the silence, or speaking to God, asking questions like, “Why, God did I come so far, just to fall? If this was the right thing for me to do, why am I going to be attacked? Why, God did you promise me peace, and yet leave my life nothing but turmoil? Why am I always getting myself through these things just to come up against more and more obstacles on the other side?” Jacob honestly didn’t know if God was going to protect him or not, or if God was even paying attention to him after all he had been through. I think its possible he hoped for the best because he had the promise, but deep down he was probably just tired of all the running away and the manipulating and the struggling he had been through, and was preparing himself for another fight in the morning.
I wonder, because I like to let these stories play out in my head like a movie, how the wrestling we read about today would have began. Did Jacob see the man coming? Did he know that it was no ordinary man in the beginning? Did he think it was Esau? We don’t know, because the story doesn't tell us.
What I imagine is Jacob being completely blindsided. Sitting alone under the stars, in the midst of what was already a night of grief, out of no where, something hits him like a wall, and he is pinned down, wrestling, locked in yet another battle he didn't see coming. And to his credit, the self-reliant Jacob fights back hard. Despite at some point having his hip knocked out of it’s socket, Jacob puts up a fight that lasts all night until daybreak.
That means there were hours of wrestling in the darkness until the man finally asks to be let go, and at this point or perhaps before, Jacob understands that he is not wrestling some random stranger on the road and he is not wrestling his brother either, but he is actually wrestling with God. The struggle and the grief that was happening in his heart and mind had become a real, tangible, sweat and bruises battle with God-self in Jacob’s hands. And in a surge of what I imagine was him releasing all of his frustration with the illegitimacy of the promise he stole from his brother, and the fact that God’s promises to him did not seem to be working out, and probably some anger that this God also had the nerve to come and physically kick him when he was already down, Jacob demands that God really and truly bless him, once and for all, right there, in person, or he would not let go.
I imagine in that moment, a kind of softened expression must have come across God’s face looking at Jacob. Already knowing the answer, the Creator simply asks him, “What is your name?”And exhausted and hurting, his reply is, “Jacob”, deceiver, liar, manipulator, heel grabber, thief. My name is Jacob. And God says, “Now your name is Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”I think there was a long silence. This does not immediately feel like the blessing Jacob asked for. This is not another promise of peace or anything like the promise of a nation which was given to Abraham. But slowly, slowly it sinks in. Jacob, with all his shortcomings and wrong doings, now has a new name. And his identity will no longer be this reminder of how he has been a manipulator and deceiver, but how he has come through his struggle, met God, grown, and been transformed.
You see, Jacob was never holding God there with him in this fight, God was simply waiting for Jacob to come to a realization. Like a mother who quietly holds her child while they pound her with their fists and scream at her in anger, I imagine that God held Jacob while he came to understand that Yahweh had always known about his struggles and had been with him, just as was promised. When Jacob finally does respond, he asks for God’s name, but he already knew who was blessing him. The God that had come to him in the dream, who had promised him peace, was now and always had been present with him. Because of his struggles, Jacob had grown.
When we look to the Old Testament, I think we often look for good examples to look up to, but Jacob’s story does not give us that. He’s human, he’s got a rocky past and a broken heart, he’s not perfect, but God doesn’t expect him to be. It’s because of these imperfections and struggles that Jacob experiences and grapples with God and comes to find his faith. Not only that, but while all this was happening to Jacob, God had been at work in Esau’s heart as well. In the next chapter of the story, the one now called Israel limps to meet his brother Esau. And instead of the slaughter he had imagined, there is actually a tearful reunion of forgiveness between the brothers.
In a turn of the story Jacob never would have expected, the battle he needed to brace himself to work through was not with Esau, but with himself and with God. God had been working through everything that happened to him to prepare a way to bring him home again in peace. In spite of the fact that Jacob didn’t have it together at any point, God was at work. Jacob had not come through this wrestling unscathed or unchanged, or as the hero, but because of the Creator working in and around him, he and his family did find peace, and that is the story of his new name. This name of wrestling which would become not just his name, but the name of the people of Israel who would come after him, and who would strive with Yahweh for years to come, and the people through whom Jesus would come to once again blur the line between God and man. This broken person, and the messiness of his life, and his struggle to believe in God’s promises, is what God chose, and still chooses, to work in and through.
We like to say often that we know we are broken. That “nobody’s perfect.”And yet, I think by and large we still have trouble really coming to terms with what that means for us in relationship to one another. We still often simply expect people to live up to different ideas of perfection and the standards that we have for what people should be, and we can see the harmful effects of that at work in our world.
We can see it in the rainbow flags of the LGBT community who have to proudly proclaim that they too are humans who deserve equal rights and opportunities whether or not others understand or approve of their sexuality and identity.
We can see it in the experience of women and girls who struggle with the enormous societal pressure to be virginal, and the judgement against them when they are not that restricts their access to birth control and programs that prepare and enable them to make their own choices about their bodies and future.
We can see it in the tears of African American mothers who worry about their sons, and wonder whether the way they act or dress or simply look is going to get them hurt, or killed, or prevent them from having a job in the future, because they don’t meet the criteria to be respected by many.
We can see it in the tens of thousands of suicides each year that are the result people’s feeling the enormous stigma around mental health, and the embarrassment around needing help because you just can’t deal with depression and anxiety on your own.
We can see it on the boats of refugees, who just for trying to leave a broken country behind and find a safe place for their children, are being treated like invaders and prisoners, because their religion and ethnicity is foreign and threatening, not enough like ours,.
We can see it in the face of the poor, as people look down on them and decide that they are lazy, drug-addicts, expecting handouts, when really it is all too easy to fall behind in this world and there is so much work that still must be done by those who have the power to lift them up out of poverty.
We see it in prisons cells, filled with people who rather than being healed, rehabilitated, and encouraged, end up living endless days of the same brokenness, because they are not treated as if they could be and are better that what brought them there, and so they leave worse than when they came in.
We see it in the way that our country and our religion is divided into left and right, and how both sides demonize each other, not seeking to reunite through love and reconciliation, but pushing one another further and further away, shutting down and silencing those we don’t agree with, rather than approaching them with love in the face of how impossible our universe is to understand and how easily we all fail to see the whole picture.
These are only a few examples of how our lack of compassion for the real brokenness that is in all of us can be dangerous in the world, and of how when we see other humans truly wrestling and struggling with the worst, and the most messy moments of life, we can be quick to judge each other for not being perfect and forget that God’s response is grace and growth, in and through the struggles, not abandonment, and not condemnation
I don’t know how many of you know this, but a couple months ago I got my first tattoo. People get tattoos for all kinds of reasons: from taking a dare to artwork and beauty, but for some, and for me, sometimes they are an outward mark that represents a struggle we have been through. After being told I wasn’t a Christian because of my beliefs and feeling alone and confused for a long time, and through having to ask God “Why am I going through this when it doesn’t seem like any of it is going to work out?”I have come to find peace with the things that have happened to me and to be thankful for how they shaped me even though they put me through many dark nights and hopeless wrestling.
So I chose to have words from a hymn, “Bind my wandering heart to thee,”tattooed on my ankle. And sure, it hurt, but not as much as my heart had hurt when I was in the thick of that situation. It felt right to make visible that healing of internal scars and the wholeness I had found, by marking on my skin what was already a part of my soul.
Jacob’s mark, the broken hip, is a symbol of how his imperfection had transformed him in coming to know God. We are all marked by what we’ve been through in all kinds of ways. Sometimes by physical scars like Jacob, sometimes by our name and what we are called. Others of us have marked ourselves by chopping our hair off or dying it pink, by wearing a t-shirt, or a piece of jewelry, by embodying a commitment to help others, by the dirt on our knees and callouses on our hands, by every part of our identity, we carry with us the marks of our transformation by and through the struggles of our lives. In God’s eyes, what defines us is not our imperfections, but the wrestling that has brought us through hopeless times into peace and reconciliation.
We all have our experiences of struggle, but God did not leave us through any of it. Yahweh is the God of Jacob and Israel, before and after and during this wrestling and blessing process, God was always with Jacob, responding through presence, and grace, not abandoning him but making promises to him, not rejecting him for falling short but telling him that he was still never alone. If God does not abandon and reject us, then we cannot abandon and reject each other. We as humans are all together broken and our best shot at reconciliation with each other comes from our faith in God’s promise to each person that they can be seen through their struggle to the other side.
God has been showing us as Yahweh showed Israel that God is with us and for us. In the midst of our shortcomings the Breath of Life has breathed into our struggle a desire for peace and the things we need to eventually heal. Israel’s life continued to have highs and lows, struggles and sadness, but his faith was forever changed by this night he spent wrestling with God.
My hope for you is that as you look back at your life and at your marks, you may know how you have grown, and that during every step of the journey God was right beside you, making a way for you, and working in the midst of your darkest night. And that if you can vulnerable enough to see that work happening within you, that your eyes might be opened to how the same thing is happening in the lives of each and every person around you, because of God’s deep love for all people, so that rather than judgement and division, we might be able to become a part of God’s transformative work in the world and the lives around us. Amen.