Note: Josh will be on vacation for the first 2 Sundays in August, so the GPS will resume publication the week of 15 August.
I’d also encourage you to read this week about what happens while Jacob, Rachel, and Leah are living with Laban in Haran. That’s in Genesis 29:29-32:21. I’ll wait.
Okay, are you ready now?
Jacob is on the road again; having left Haran, his ancestral home in what’s now Southeastern Turkey, he is returning to Canaan with his flocks, family, and servants. Remember that the last time through this territory, Jacob received a vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder or staircase between heaven and earth, and God stood beside him at the bottom to renew the covenant made with Abraham and Isaac.
Perhaps just as fearful as he was the last time, Jacob discovers his estranged brother Esau is coming to meet him, and that he’s brought along 400 of his closest friends to “greet” Jacob’s return. Jacob’s afraid and worried, he takes his little travelling group and splits it into 2 parts so that if worst comes to worst some might escape. He goes so far as to pray to God for acceptance by Esau & deliverance from his anger. He sends gifts of animals ahead, so that maybe he could appease Esau with some of his own quite abundant material blessings. And finally, he moves his family in the middle of the night across the river with all of his remaining possessions. Jacob is alone, out of options, and afraid. (To top it all off, the creek he’s not sleeping next to is called “empty.”) And this is where things really start to become interesting.
Jacob is as alone in the middle of the night as he was when he first came into this territory, when a stranger arrives on the scene. We don’t exactly know who this “man” is; a human being? An heavenly angel? God in physical form?
There are no shortage of questions about this passage; Jacob himself asks several as the fight winds down in the pre-dawn hours. Jacob wins the physical match, but God wins the spiritual one: Jacob is ready to ask for the very thing he’s taken by force of will in the past: a blessing. But before God gives him that blessing, God gives him a new name: no longer will he be called Jacob “the Heel,” but Israel: “God-wrestler.” What a change!
Jacob receives several other parting gifts than the name. He does receive the asked-for blessing, which brings the promises to Abraham & Isaac to Jacob fully. Jacob also sees God face-to-face in the moments just before dawn, which was a remarkable and in some ways un-repeated moment in Israel’s history. And Jacob also has received the gift of an injury to his hip: he will be limping for the rest of his life. His woundedness is not defeat, but victory at a cost. Jacob has wrestled with God and lived to tell the tale: it is a symbol both of God’s graciousness and of Jacob’s persistence. And so Jacob limps forward into his ultimately successful meeting with Esau, and into a future marked by struggling with God.
1| Our word for angel comes from the Greek angelos, which simply means “message” — it has the same root as the euangelion or “good news” of Jesus Christ. Is the man who wrestles with Jacob in the middle of the night a heavenly messenger, or a human one? Jacob walks away thinking that he’s encountered God: have you ever encountered someone in whom you hear or see God? How might you be a messenger for God this week?
2| St John Chrysostom (c 344-407) was a gifted preacher in the church of antiquity, and we have a number of his sermons still today. He writes an encouraging word about this passage, saying
Now the sun rose on [Jacob] as he passed the sight of God. Do you see how the Lord shows considerateness for our human limitations in all he does and in arranging everything in a way that gives evidence of his characteristic love? (Homilies on Genesis 58.11-12)
For Jacob, God met him face-to-face. How has God met you with “characteristic love” in your life or in the world?
3| Abraham is often called the Father of faith, and for good reason. But it’s Jacob’s new name by which the community of faith will be known from now on: Israel. The people who struggle with God. Isn’t that the best name for a people called to faithfulness and holiness? Do you struggle with God? How might those struggles and difficulties become a source of blessing that strengthens our faith, even if they leave us limping?
Bonus Question | This is the stop at which we’re getting off the train that’s carried us through the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel. What have you learned during these weeks? What’s changed in your life as a result of hearing these stories? Where do you see yourself in the Story of God?
Lord Jesus, think on me,
nor let me go astray
through darkness and perplexity
you point the heavenly way.
Lord Jesus, think on me,
that when the flood is past,
I may the eternal brightness see,
and share your joy at last. Amen.
All the lectionary texts for this Sunday’s worship can be found at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Revised Common Lectionary site.
Resources used in compiling this week’s GPS: Terence E Fretheim’s “Genesis” commentary in The New Interpreter’s Bible; A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament by Bruce C Birch, Walter Brueggemann, Terence E Fretheim, and David L Petersen; the Ancient Christian Devotional edited by Thomas C Oden; the Ministry Matters commentary by Shane Raynor; and the WorkingPreacher.org commentary by Wil Gafney.
Image by Chagall, Marc, 1887-1985. Chagall Jacob wrestles, 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 25, 2011]. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike 3.0 License.
Prayer by Synesius of Cyrene (c 370-414).