22The same night [Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
- Walter Brueggeman says that "the Jacob narrative is most lifelike. It presents Jacob in his crude mixture of motives." (Interpretation: Genesis. (c) John Knox Press, 1982, p. 204) That's putting it mildly. Jacob's very name implies he's going to be trouble: "the one who supplants/usurps, the one who grasps." He is born clutching the heel of his older brother, Esau, and is continually struggling to rise above his place in a culture that valued primogeniture (first-born) in terms of succession and blessing.
- It's extremely difficult to encapsulate the Jacob story in one sermon. Last week the Narrative Lectionary had us with Abraham and Sarah at the birth of Isaac; next week we'll be 400-some years in the future in the wilderness with Moses at the burning bush. So there's a ton to cover here. The question is, what do you need to get in there, and what do you leave unexplained?
- It feels like there are two main questions needing answered:
- Who is Jacob?
- More directly, what sort of person is he, ultimately? He's a rascal (Brueggeman's description, and I like it), shrewd to the point of being a cheater (some say his name means "Cheater"), wily. After stealing his brother's birthright and blessing from their father, he flees to his uncle Laban, spends 14 years struggling with him for the right to marry Laban's daughter, Rachel (7 to be tricked into marrying Leah, the firstborn daughter, 7 to earn Rachel's hand). In those years, he increases Laban's flocks and his own, somehow manipulating the birth processes in ways that benefit himself first, then Laban. Finally, he steals away to return home out of fear that Laban will destroy him (and Rachel connives to steal the household gods from Laban's house, which certainly says something about the company she's keeping and how it has affected her). Upon arriving at the border of Canaan, Jacob sends all his flocks and possessions and family to meet Esau first before crossing the river Jabbok himself. Jacob presses every advantage he can find or manufacture, and Brueggeman notes that scripture never seems to condemn this behavior. So: who is Jacob? What does his struggle signify? What does God's continual presence with him and, ultimately, God's blessing Jacob, mean?
- Who is God?
- Brueggeman and Terry Fretheim (The New Interpreter's Bible (c) 1996, Abingdon Press) both note that God is fully committed to the struggle with Jacob. Opportunities to forsake this "rascal" are plentiful, while Esau appears to offer no reason that God should choose the younger brother over the older. Brueggeman ties this directly to scripture's overwhelming example of God choosing the lowly over the powerful (see Luke 1, 1st Corinthians 1). Fretheim offers no rationale but notes that God, in wrestling with Jacob, self-limits in order to let Jacob find his way and even grasp and control God in the night wrestling at the Jabbok. To misuse a phrase, God chooses not to employ "God mode" in relation to Jacob.
- Brueggeman also notes that the issues have changed over two generations. The main theme for Abraham and Sarah was promise - the main theme for Jacob appears to be blessing. Where Abraham was faithful, Isaac successful (if boring), Jacob is fretful/deceitful. But God doesn't abandon this line. Why is that?
Lots to chew on this week. I think I at least have a title and a direction, but it's going to take some definite work to get to something coherent by Sunday.