Genesis: Folklore of Faith, lesson 34 – Jacob

Gen. 32 – Wrestling with God

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast June 18, 2006

Craig D. Atwood


Introduction:               Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church coming to you live from the chapel of Home Church in beautiful Old Salem. Happy Father’s Day! On Friday I took my father to eat at Shatley Springs and go canoeing on the New River like we used to do 20 years ago. You wouldn’t have known he is turning 75 this summer by the way he handled his boat or the sweet corn. It was a good day to remember good memories and enjoy the river.


The Journey Home:               This morning’s lesson has almost nothing to do with Father’s Day, but it does continue the story of the sons of Isaac: Jacob and Esau. We are looking at chapter 32 of Genesis, focusing our attention on Jacob’s wrestling with God. Last week we ended with Jacob and Laban sealing a covenant at Mizpah. That phase of Jacob’s life was over, and now we see him entering the third period of life. All his life, he has been a wrestler, a heel-grabber, a scrapper who has made his own way in the world. Now he is about forty years old, and he is returning home after a lengthy exile. He doesn’t know what awaits him, but he knows that his destiny lies in Canaan.


            On the journey he meets two angels of God. The word angel means messenger, and it can apply to human messengers. In this chapter, the same word is used for the messengers that Jacob sends to his brother Esau. It appears that only Jacob saw the angels, just as he saw the stairway to heaven. With all of his other traits, good and bad, Jacob was also a mystic. It is interesting that the two messengers of God did not bring any messages to Jacob. Many commentators assume that the angels were there to strengthen Jacob and assure him that God was with him. But the story itself is quite vague about these messengers from heaven.


            It appears that Jacob had stumbled upon a holy place without knowing it. We should not assume that this was a pleasant thing for Jacob, especially in light of what happens later in the chapter. Holy ground can be dangerous. Since this event follows the story of Mizpah, it could be that the angels are there to remind Jacob that God is indeed watching him. That might be just the message for people who are entering into mid-life crisis and are tempted to reclaim their youth with reckless behavior. You never know who you are going to meet. Jacob names the place Mahanaim, which means “Two Camps,” because it is God’s camp as well as his. I’m surprised church camping grounds aren’t named Mahanaim.


Sending Word to Esau           After meeting the angels, Jacob sent his own angels to find his brother Esau in Edom. According to an ancient rhyme, they saw Esau sitting on the seesaw, but that is not in the Bible. In sending the messengers, Jacob displays his cunning. He does not know if his brother still wants to kill him. It would not be wise to just drop in on him after all these years. So he sends servants to let Esau know that he was still alive after all those years and that he has prospered. This was more than the typical bragging people do at their 20th high school reunion. It was important that Esau know that Jacob had grown into a man to reckon with.


            The servants brought back a message that frightened Jacob terribly. His brother had obviously prospered, too, since he was riding to meet Jacob with 400 men. It had not hurt him to lose his father’s blessing. This was an army, not a bodyguard. This was a force as large as the one Abraham had taken into battle to save Lot and the people of Sodom. And Jacob was coming to meet him with everything he owned. He was protected by 12 children, 4 wives, and some black sheep. He should have brought the two angels with him.


Preparations               So, Jacob had to think fast. He divided his company in two so that if Esau destroyed one group, the other might live. This is a stark reminder of the brutal realities of life in the ancient world. When we divide our assets between two companies in case one of them goes bankrupt, we aren’t really thinking about a marauding horde swooping down and killing all the employees and our children, too. That’s what Jacob was facing, but at least he could save some of them with good planning.


            Jacob’s preparation for meeting his brother included prayer. Some of you may know what this is like. You haven’t spoken to a family member for years. Before the silence is broken, you first talk to God. Some have doubted Jacob’s sincerity in this prayer, and they even raise the question of whether he isn’t still bargaining with God. We can never know for sure, but when he tells God that he is afraid of Esau, it is the most honest thing he ever said. He is terrified of his brother, whom he wronged so many years ago. He does not know if Esau has been nursing his grudge into a murderous rage that will not be assuaged by anything but blood or if he has mellowed in his prosperity. Jacob is afraid of the unknown fate that is riding to meet him.


            So he prayed to the God of Abraham and Isaac. He prayed to the God who had reassured him at Bethel. He prayed to the God who made a covenant with Abraham and rescued Isaac. There is a playful bit of foreshadowing in this prayer that is easy to overlook, by the way. Jacob mentioned that he crossed the Jordan with his staff in his hand and parted his company in two. Clearly the author was looking ahead to the day when Moses would part the waters with his staff and lead the children of Israel out of bondage. The God to whom Jacob prayed is the God who liberates the oppressed and leads exiles home.


            But Jacob was not one to rely on prayer alone. We’ve seen this throughout Genesis and it is worth noting again. The patriarchs did not sit around waiting for miracles to happen. Sometimes the answer to a prayer is that we get a good idea and the courage to act on it. Jacob’s idea was to send over 400 animals to Esau as a gift. This was a huge present meant to please his brother and to convince him that Jacob was a man of wealth and power. This was not the kid brother he used to know. Jacob had become a sheik like their father, like Esau. Plus, by giving Esau so many animals to watch over, it would slow his advance and reduce the size of his force. In short, Jacob was a man of prayer, but he was also a brilliant strategist.


Alone in the wilderness          He had done all that he could to pacify his brother, but he was still afraid. He sent his family across the stream called Jabbok, which is a pun on Jacob. The Jabbok is a stream that runs into the Jordan River, north of the Dead Sea, and it was one of the traditional borders of ancient Israel. This was the boundary that Jacob had to cross to return home, to assume his place in the covenant. But he sent his wives and children across the stream without him. Why?

            Some think that he was putting them in the line of fire so that they would be killed or captured before him, but that doesn’t fit all of his other preparations. He probably hoped to soften his brother’s heart as he looked on his family. It was also a display his own trust in Esau, but it was risky. It was possible that Esau would simply take Jacob’s family as slaves in his clan. That would not be pleasant, but they would at least be alive. Jacob knew that if Esau the hunter came upon Jacob with his family, then the bloodlust could kill them all. I think Jacob was trying to protect those he loved. We see in these preparations that Jacob’s original cunning has grown into wisdom. He is no longer concerned just about himself.


            Jacob stayed on the far side of the stream completely alone and vulnerable. This was true aloneness, alienation, isolation. I suspect that you know some of what Jacob felt as the sun set and he was left entirely alone by the Jabbok: trapped by his past, afraid of his future, at war with his brother, and now without family or friends. I have no doubt that it was tempting simply to run away again. He could abandon all that he had earned, all that he loved, and save his life. There are people who do this at 40. They are so frightened by the future or the past that they sacrifice their families, careers, home, and self-respect to run away. Like or hate him, Jacob is one of us.


Attacked by God        . Jacob had prayed that God would save him from his brother’s wrath, but he did not know that the answer to that prayer would be a different struggle; a struggle with his guilt and fear. Jacob would not have to fight Esau, he would have to fight himself and God. It was at this moment of complete helplessness and vulnerability that Jacob was attacked by an unidentified man, a stranger in the dark. I think of Monch’s great painting The Scream when I read this passage. Despite our electric lighting and noisy gadgets, we cannot escape this type of anxiety. A stranger in the dark who attacks us for no reason.




Picturing the Scene:               This story is told briefly in Scripture, but we can picture the scene in our minds. Jacob camped by the river as darkness descended and the earth slowly cooled, living with the ghosts of his past. Then, as if one of the ghosts of his soul had materialized, a man leaped from the darkness and attacked him. The middle-aged shepherd defended himself throughout the night, straining every muscle and nerve until they ached and his heart felt like it would explode in his chest. The momma’s boy and cheater fought and tumbled through the sand and briars and rocks while the stars kept a cold vigil, but the stranger did not prevail against Jacob. Finally, the skies began to lighten as dawn announced a new day. The stranger tried to escape the growing light. Was he a demon who feared light, or an angel who could not allow himself to be seen? Jacob did not know why the stranger tried to flee, but he held him tight – even as the mysterious attacker touched his hip. With one touch, he wrenched it out of the socket. Despite the blinding pain, Jacob held on and demanded a blessing.


Spiritual Struggle:      This story of Jacob’s struggle with the mysterious stranger has fascinated readers for well over 2000 years, in part because it is ambiguous and subject to many interpretations. The text itself is vague about the identity of the man Jacob fought with. It simply says that it was a man, and we might assume it was Esau himself, but Jacob says that he has seen God face to face. Was it a man or God? Jewish and Christian theologians have been disturbed by this story, and centuries ago they turned Jacob’s assailant into an angel. Artwork generally shows that he has wings, but the text itself never calls the assailant an angel. Jacob calls him God, and he names the place for God.


            This story from Genesis 32 is probably from the J source even though it does not use the name of God, YHWH, and by now we should be familiar enough with stories from the J source not to be surprised that God would appear in human form to the patriarchs. In fact, it would be surprising if the LORD did not make an appearance to Jacob face to face. What we are not prepared for in this story is the idea that the LORD would attack Jacob rather than make a covenant to him or give him a commandment like he did Abraham.


            There is another story of divine assault in the OT, Exodus 4:24, when the LORD assaults Moses because he is not circumcised. Religion scholars tend to view these stories as representative of very ancient religious beliefs. If you have ever read the Greek myths or stories from other religions, you probably came upon stories of divine assault on humans. A wanderer stumbles upon ground sacred to one of the gods and he is suddenly struck down. Ancient gods were powerful, and like all powerful forces, they could be dangerous. Naturally, the Israelites had similar ideas about the God of Abraham. He was powerful and demanding.


            So far in the story of Jacob, the patriarch has had a fairly distant relationship to the God of his fathers and mothers. He has had dreams and attributed his success to God, but he has always tried to bargain with God, to negotiate a better deal. But in returning to the Promised Land, returning to the land chosen by the LORD, Jacob had to pray for protection. He looked for God’s involvement in his life, but he didn’t expect God to so intimately involved!


            For many people God is no more than an idea or a distant being. Many of us prefer Laban’s household deities to the living God. We like gods we can carry with us and hide when necessary. We hide ourselves from the living God when he approaches. We close our ears to his voice when he challenges us. We hide our hearts from God’s piercing gaze because we know that God is dangerous. In sleepless nights when we struggle with our past and future, our destiny and dreams, we flee from God. Not Jacob. He looked God in the face and struggled with him. In his despair and doubt, he struggled instead of sitting in a corner whining about how bad things are. Jacob strove with God and in the end the trickster was blessed.


Naming and Blessing:            There is an old debate over whether God was in Jacob’s power or not. Was this play-acting? Certainly the sudden dislocation of the hip implies that God had power, but still the text says that the stranger did not overcome Jacob. As the sun rose, he had to ask the shepherd to release him, but Jacob demanded a blessing. Rather than a blessing, he got a new name, a new identity. What is the identity you have lived under all your life, he asks? Trickster, supplanter, usurper, heel grabber? That will change. He will be Israel. The name actually means something like “God is powerful” or “God struggles for us,” but it is given a different connotation in Genesis. It means, “strives with God.” Jacob had striven with God and humans and prevailed. He would have nothing to fear from Esau. It is hard to be intimidated by mere mortals once you’ve faced God and death. There is one odd fact about the change of name. Jacob is still called Jacob in the later stories.


            Historians speculate that this name change also reflects the political history of Israel. Israel was a confederation of tribes before it became a kingdom. Each tribe had its own history and stories. By joining them together in the story of the patriarch Jacob, some sense of national identity could be established. The change in name reflects this effort to unify Israel in the same way that every year we depict Americans of many nationalities and religions sitting down with the Pilgrims at Thanksgiving.


            But there is more to the name change than that. The author of Genesis has taken a very ancient story and invested it with new theological meaning. Jacob struggled with God and was named Israel. The descendents of Jacob, the people of God, should not expect their blessings to come without struggle. They are also Israel. Genesis was written in the days of the exile and return. Just as Jacob struggled with God as he returned to Canaan after 20 years of exile, the Jewish exiles would have to struggle in their return to the Promised Land. This story was told to give them hope in the midst of struggle.


Conclusion:     For the rest of his life Jacob had a limp. That does not sound like much of a blessing, but it is very believable. The great moments of our lives bless us and wound us, including our moments of spiritual maturity. God seeks to change us and redeem us as we mature, but it is a wrestling match, and in the process we may get wounded. Jacob limped after his encounter with God. We also show the scars of our spiritual struggle. As a closing thought, let me ask you, what is a scar? Simply a reminder, a memory of wounding and healing. The scar over my right eye reminds me to look out for glass doors. The scar on my right index finger reminds of how not to use a pocket knife. The scar in my soul reminds me that I am a poor, weak human. What has been your struggle, your wounding, and your blessing? What causes you to limp? Next week we will conclude the story of Jacob and Esau.

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