Today, many will preach about our reading from Jewish Scripture. Some will wax eloquent while speaking about Jacob wrestling with an angel. Others will instead say Jacob was really wrestling with God. If so, what does this sacred story say to us in 21st century San Francisco? What earthly good is a story of wrestling with angels – or God – to us here at the corner of Turk and Lyon?
If this is just a tale of a scheming, dishonest Patriarch gaining further glory for himself by almost wrestling an angel into submission than it is of no use for use here today. If it is a story of an omnipotent God bested by a devious and dishonorable man than it is not worth our time.
We have seen too much damage done by would be patriarchs of our own day: too many self-important men have hurt transgender servicemen and women; too many old white men have tried to take healthcare away from those who need it most to survive; and too many evangelical men have – in a vain attempt to impose their religious beliefs on all of us – have flock to support political leaders who are the antithesis of what Christ would do here and now.
So let us not see today’s story from Genesis as a one of Jacob wrestling with either an angel or God. Let’s seek a better way to wrestle with this ancient tale. Some scholars say this part of the Bible – the stories of the Patriarchs in Genesis – to between 500 and 600 years before the birth of Christ. Genesis presents the Judeo-Christian creation myth along with a series of patriarchs whose story includes a series of covenants God makes with the people of Israel.
The story of the patriarchs is the story of how the Jews become Gods chosen people and establishes their link to the Promised Land.
Christians took the Book of Genesis and reinterpreted it in Christian terms. The creation myth, for example, was reinterpreted as a basis for St. Augustine’s concept of “original sin.” Likewise, the personal failings of the Patriarchs could – in the Christian interpretation of Genesis – be recast as a sign of the need for salvation and a reason for the redeeming sacrifice of Christ. By reinteresting Jewish scripture in this way, Christian theologians almost created a Genesis 2.0, one full of meanings which those who first fold these stories would never have expected or accepted.
So let’s start our search for meaning by focusing on the ways this story of Jacob might be seen by his supposed descendants, the people of Israel.
Our schedule of readings – our “Lectionary” – splits long Scripture stories into small segments that can be spread over several weeks. This makes it difficult for us to see the full story or recognize continuing themes. Our story begins with Abraham, father of Ishmael and Isaac. Isaac’s sons are the fraternal twins, Esau and Jacob. Esau is a man’s man, his father’s favorite, and a great hunter. Jacob preferred to stay at home and was his mother’s favorite. Jacob tricks Esau into giving up his inheritance and then steal’s his brother’s blessing – a move that binds Esau to serve his brother once Isaac has died.
Ever the man of action, Esau decides to even the score by killing Jacob. Jacob flees far way to find safety with his Uncle Laban. Laban cheats Jacob into marrying his eldest daughter instead of the one Jacob loved. So Jacob marries both of the daughters – clearly a “traditional family marriage” – and then Laban is said to have cheated Jacob out of his wages.
Jacob is forced to flee a second time. He heads home to reconcile with Esau only to find himself caught between Laban (who wants his daughters and herd animals back) and Esau who is approaching with 400 armed men. Jacob is caught between two men who are very angry with him and have the power to end his life.
Remember that names are important in ancient Israel. Some scholars say Jacob’s name is a shortened version of Yaaqob-el, or “God may protect.” That name would certainly seem more apt for the man we see before us. After God’s intervention, he reconciles with Laban. Then he sends his family away and waits to meet his brother and his 400 armed men.
This is the context for today’s snippet of Jacob’s story. We hear Jacob, alone and vulnerable, wrestled “with a man” for much of the night. Some say the man was an angel. Others that he was God.
After the might of inner conflict, Jacob arises as a changed man. He claims a new name: Israel. Some say this name is based on the Hebrew words לִשְׂרות (lisrot, “wrestle”) and אֵל (El, “God”).
In English, we might understand this name as one who “wrestles with God.” But others claim the name is derived from the verb śārar: “to rule, be strong, have authority over.” We could see Israel meaning “God rules” or “God judges” or from the King James Version “the prince of God.”[i]
Why all this attention to his name? Remember that names are important in ancient Israel. In the rest of this story, this man is still called Jacob. But his claiming of the name Israel suggests to some Jacob is the first of the Israelites. And scripture also tells us that Jacob’s twelve sons each found one of the “Twelve Tribes of Israel.”
Jacob clearly plays an important part in the story of the great patriarchs of Israel. But what about that wrestling story?
I don’t see Jacob wrestling with an angel – what kind of a weakling angel would struggle with overpowering a human being? For the same reason, I can’t see Jacob as wrestling with God – what kind of omnipotent God could not overcome a puny man?
Instead, I say that Jacob was wrestling with a real live man – one much like you and me. I say Jacob was wrestling with someone who was flawed and broken and alone and vulnerable man – one much like you and me. I say Jacob was, in fact, wrestling with himself, struggling to reconcile the evil he had done with his hope for the future as he awaited his next day of reckoning– a he was a man one much like you and me.
And that’s why I love this story so much: like so many heroes of Jewish scripture, Jacob is very much like you and me. He is imperfect, he makes mistakes, he hurts the people he loves, he isn’t there when people need him, and he keeps on making mistakes. And yet, as he lies on the cold hard ground wrestling with himself, God reaches out to Jacob. In the darkest valley, in the shadow of death, God is there and God comforts Jacob. And through Jacob’s internal conflict, God transforms Jacob into a new man. Not a perfect human being. Not a Messiah. Just a new and better person.
Bidden or unbidden, God is there with us as well. As we walk with a loved one through a final illness or painful setback, God is there for us. As we wrestle with our darkest failings, God is there for us. As we strive to reconcile our past with hope for a better future, God is there for us. All we need do is open ourselves to God’s presence by taking the time to wrestle with ourselves.
Like Jacob, we can fill our livfe with commitments and events; we can be clever and finagle our way to a good deal only to find that success bittersweet at best; we can trust and find we have been deceived; we can amass material wealth only to find ourselves tossing and turning in our sleep as we await a cold, hard dawn. But if we wrestle with ourselves, if we struggle to be a better person, if we fight to become the person God intends us to be, then God will be there with us. And with God’s help, we will survive and emerge a new person: one whose new life reflects the enduring truth that God rules.
Let us pray:
God beyond all seeing and knowing,
we meet you in the night of change and crisis,
and wrestle with you in the darkness of doubt.
Give us the will and spirit
to live faithfully and love as we are loved.
May God’s people say: Amen.