Summary: This sermon embraces the uncomfortable ideas of wrestling with God, God self-limitation in the struggle, and change that occurs.
Our Bible story needs a little prefacing this evening. Its kind of like the original Star Wars Triliogy - we’re coming in to the story at Episode VI.
In recent days we’ve been taking a look at some Old Testament characters, and tonight we turn our attention towards Jacob - the grandson of Abraham who we’ve discussed the last couple of weeks.
Unlike his grandfather who has this reputation for doing the right thing, there are a different set of words used to describe the character of Jacob.
As I researched Jacob this week I found words such as cunning trickster, liar, cheat, scoundral, manipulator, swindler, con artist, schemer, and double-talker used to refer to Jacob.
Some would say the character of Jacob was revealed at his birth. Jacob was a twin and the second born. He was born clutching his brother’s heal, and was grabbing at things ever after.
My favorite description of Jacob is he’s the kind of guy that could enter a revolving door behind you, and come out ahead of you.
Jacob cheated his brother, conned his father, and swindled his father-in-law. For the most part, the things Jacob engaged in techincally could be considered legal or legitimate - they just weren’t moral or right. In all that he did, Jacob was his primary focus.
You’ve heard the saying, what goes around comes around? Well its coming around back to Jacob.
Jacob is fleeing from his father-in-law and his family right into the hands of his brother. It wasn’t that long ago that he was fleeing from his brother. Now its time to face the music, and he’s worried about the outcome of this homecoming.
He’s done all that he can think of to do, done some more scheming to insure that things will work out right.
Finally, Jacob is left alone with nothing else to do, but worry about his problem. This is where our Bible story begins.
Now what’s going on here? Jacob finds himself alone in the dark of the night burdened with a problem as big as all outdoors, when someone appears to jump on him from out of nowhere. They wrestle together throughout the night with neither one beating the other until dawn approaches.
Because they are still deadlocked, the assailant somehow wrenches Jacob’s hip from his socket to bring an end to the struggle, but Jacob will not give up.
Still locked in a fighter’s embrace, the assailant tell Jacob to let him go because it will soon be daylight.
Jacob, who by now has figured out that his assailant is God, will not let go until God gives Jacob a blessing.
Jacob receives a new name - Israel - because he has wrestled with God and with humanity and has prevailed. Jacob, however, fails to discover the name he is looking for to identify God.
Jacob renames and dedicates the spot of his struggle, and proceeds to his meeting with his brother, affected by his encounter and walking with a limp.
This story has in fact been a very controversial story when trying to understand and identify what is going on here. This idea of hand to hand combat with a God, the idea that the all powerful God is unable to sway the battle and calls for release before the coming of day makes us uncomfortable.
What’s going on here?
Dr. Terence E. Fretheim in the Interpreter’s Bible suggests there are more questions than answers concerning this story. Questions such as:
Why does God wrestle with Jacob?
Why does God seem so concerned not be fully revealed? Why must the struggle end before day? Why won’t he give Jacob his name?
In what sense does God not prevail in the struggle and Jacob prevail?How is Jacob able to stay in the ring with God?
Who is changed by the struggle? Is it Jacob? Is it God? Is it both?
What is the context of the blessing Jacob receives? What does it mean?
What is the significance of the mark left upon Jacob?
Others have askes questions such as:
Since he is only identified as a man, is it God who wrestles with Jacob, or an angel - a messenger of God, or is it Christ before the incarnation?
Are we to interpret this as an actual physical encounter, or is it more a metaphor for us signifying an emotional and intellectual struggle with our faith and obedience to God?
These are all very good and interesting questions. We could become very bogged down in seeking the absolute answers to these questions and miss the overall story entirely.
The Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture suggests the questions are the most important part of the story, and in fact is the contemporary struggle with the holy today.