What are we to make of this strange story in which Jacob wrestles all night and gets a new name? I think it tells us something important about who our God is and about the identity of God’s people. And I want to reflect on what this story tells us about our own identity and vocation as Christians.
The first thing to notice is that whenever somebody in the Bible is given a new name it is best to pay attention. A new name signifies a turn, a change, a new chapter in the person’s life, and a new calling. A new name means a New Being.
So, for example, Abram becomes Abraham as God calls him to keep the covenant of promise. Saul becomes Paul on the road to Damascus and is changed from being a zealous persecutor of the church into the Apostle to the Gentiles. Fisherman Simon becomes Peter, the rock on which Jesus will build his church.
And in today’s story Jacob’s name is changed to Israel, becoming the namesake of God’s people. He will now be the bearer of the ancient Promise to Abraham, and in time his twelve children will become the twelve tribes. Before this night of wrestling there was no Israel, when day breaks Israel becomes a new reality.
But before we explore Jacob’s new identity as Israel let’s fill in the back-story of his old one. If you start watching Game of Thrones in the fifth episode it is best to learn what happened in the previous ones. Making the necessary changes in the analogy that is what we need to do here.
So who is Jacob? I have already said that Abraham was his grandfather, and Isaac was his father. Rebekah was his mother. He was a twin and his brother was Esau, who is a very important part of this story.
You may recall that Jacob was a pretty competitive guy from the get go. His wrestling days began in the womb, and when he was born he was grabbing on to his twin’s heel trying to be born first. But Esau was born first and as the oldest was the favorite of old Isaac. But that didn’t stop Jacob from trying to take his place.
Why is brith order important to our story? Because according the ancient laws of primogeniture the first-born son was the heir. This convention was to keep brothers from internecine warfare over who would inherit.
So by the natural order of things Esau would be the heir to the promise given to their grandfather Abraham and their father Isaac. But throughout the Bible we see again and again that God doesn’t have to work within the natural order of things.
You may recall the story of how Jacob got Esau to sell his birthright to him for a bowl of lentils (if you grew up with King James it was “a mess of pottage.” Esau came in from hunting and was famished and Jacob was eating this nice red lentil soup, and Esau traded his birthright for it. Every since, to sell something “for a mess of pottage” has become proverbial for giving something valuable away for something not valuable.
A little later in the story Jacob tricked old blind Isaac into giving him the blessing that should have gone to Esau by dressing in Esau’s clothes, which Isaac recognized by their smell. It was this last trick that so enraged Esau Jacob had to run out of town for his life.
You may recall that on his first night on the lam Jacob fell asleep with a rock for a pillow and he saw a ladder up to heaven with angels ascending and descending. Here in the Berkshires we all know about Jacob’s Ladder and Jacob’s pillow. It was probably more like a ramp or a ancient ziggurat, but Jacob’s ladder it will ever be.
Not a very nice picture of Jacob so far, his resume is not a great character reference. We see that Jacob’s old identity included being a striver, a schemer and a scoundrel.
Today’s story is much later in Jacob’s life. He has gone up to Canaan and made good, taken a wife (two in fact) and prospered in business with his uncle/father-in-law, Laban, who Jacob also fleeces to become quite prosperous.
Now he is going home, a rich man with large herds and a big family, to face his brother Esau for the first time since he ran away. What will happen? Will Esau receive him? Or will Esau take revenge. He doesn’t know.
So that night Jacob and his retinue crossed the River Jabbok, and then we have this strange line in the story: “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”
What are we to make of this? Like many stories in Genesis it is spare and raises more questions than it answers.
Who was the man? The author of this story, whom scholars call the Yahwist, no doubt had ancient oral traditions from across the generations to work with. Perhaps in pre-monotheistic days this story was about a river god or demon that Jacob needed to best to get across the stream.
Was it an angel of God, or God himself? Or was it Esau in some form as Jacob’s reckoning with him looms? We can’t be sure. The text implies that in some way or another Jacob was wrestling with God, and it came to a draw. Jacob came out of it with a new name and a new vocation, but also wounded. The man threw his hip out of joint and he would forever walk with a limp.
What we do know that in the hands of the Yahwist this story is profoundly theological. Jacob certainly commands our attention, but the real focus of the story is Jacob’s God, the one who overturns conventions to carry out the divine plans and purposes, who overturns the world’s normal notions of wisdom and strength. If Jacob is a scandal to conventional ideas of ethics and morality it is because his God is a scandal.
Because the people this God chooses to further his intentions for the world are frequently not those that the world either admires or esteems. The Apostle Paul knew this when he wrote to the church in Corinth, “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Cor. 1:27-29)
This is the topsy-turvey world of the Bible where the first are last and the last first. We see it, too, in the ministry of Jesus who holds up the poor, the meek, the mourners and the persecuted for special place in God’s affections.
The Yahwist’s theological insight into Israel’s election and vocation was that they weren’t particularly special or heroic but merely chosen. Just as Jacob was a bit of a hot mess, but still God wanted him, so Israel across the centuries would be a far from perfect people as they tried to live out the covenant and be faithful to the promises of God.
And when we take a cold hard look at the church we must confess we too are not always the best and brightest, the strongest, purest, wisest people God could choose. But this great story we are a part of is not mostly about us, it is about the God who chooses us and calls us by name and says “Follow me” and live as I have lived and love as I have loved.
On this 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation we do well to recall the Reformers’ insight into the ambiguity of the human condition in their axiom, Simul justus et peccator, which means we are, at the same time, made right with God and remain sinners.
When the church remembers that we are redeemed sinners rather than haloed saints we are wise about the power in our weakness and the weakness in our power.
We can contrast this with a pervasive notion that you can divide the world into “good guys” and “bad guys” and the good guys are defined as those who look and think like us and the bad guys are the others.
The demonization of immigrants and Muslims, to take one example, is a failure to recognize their common humanity with ours as children of God. There was another bombing of a mosque yesterday in Minnesota!
This binary labeling of people as either “winners or losers” marginalizes all who don’t fit the litmus test of wealth and status that so many cherish. Wealth and status are a big spiritual problem for us Americans as you will recall from my sermon last years about how we have too much stuff.
When wealth and status elbow out decency, honesty and compassion, then permission is given to hurt and harm those who don’t measure up, and sadly we are seeing this in today’s America.
On July 13, the day after it was revealed that Donald Trump, Jr. and other top Trump campaign advisors had met with representatives of the Russian governmenet to get dirt on Secretary Clinton, Michael Gerson, a young Opinion Writer for the Washington Post, wrote this:
He (the President) did not attend the meeting, but he is fully responsible for creating and marketing an ethos in which victory matters more than character and real men write their own rules. Trumpism is an easygoing belief system that indulges and excuses the stiffing of contractors, the conning of students, the bilking of investors, the exploitation of women and the practices of nepotism and self-dealing. A faith that makes losing a sin will make cheating a sacrament.
But lest we point out the speck in Trumps eye and ignore the plank in our own we must confess that religion has too often been used as a tool to label the winners and losers, the worthy and the unworthy, the somebodies and the nobodies. When we in the church accept this we undermine our own Gospel.
Because our God is a God who lifts up the nobodies of this world, who exalts the humble and meek, who loves the poor, embraces the outcast, and welcomes the stranger.
In Jacob God chose a flawed, imperfect human being to carry the promise. And again and again across the generations it is not the powerful or the famous that are chosen, not the ones the world counts as winners, but the losers.
And in this glorious paradox of power in weakness and weakness in power it seems to me we see a prefiguring of the crucified Christ, our Lord and Savior, the suffering servant by whose “wounds we are healed.” Amen.
(I preached this at South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on August 6, 2017. Print by Leon Joseph Florentine Bonnat, 1876. For an audio of this sermon go here.)