Unyielding-Rev. Boone Clayton
Today, we take a small step backwards in the Genesis narrative. Last week in worship, we heard about the wonderful reunion between Jacob and Esau after 20 years of being apart. We saw how Jacob, expecting violence, prostrated himself before Esau and presented all manner of gifts. We got to witness again the grace and restraint shown by the elder twin when he receives Jacob and his family and their whole entourage back in Canaan – back in the land promised to their father and grandfather by this “Elohim Adonai”, this Lord God.
The time that we have all spent with Genesis lately has been wonderfully refreshing, even when the stories are challenging and unsettling. In reflecting on the message last week and in spending extra time on the entire Genesis narrative in devotionals made me realize that the reunion of Jacob and Esau is firmly linked to the previous chapter; truth be told, they make up a sandwich of sorts with the preparation for the reunion and the reunion itself serving as the bread and Jacob’s wrestling match with God and receiving a new name serving as the meat and cheese (or the peanut butter and jelly, whichever you prefer).
About this middle section with the wrestling match and blessing, I want to share with you a quote from Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister and writer and one of my first academic loves in seminary, when he preached on it. He wrote that:
“when a minister reads out of the Bible, I am sure that at least nine times out of ten the people who happen to be listening at all hear not what is really being read but only what they expect to hear read. And I think that what most people expect to hear read from the Bible is an edifying story, an uplifting though, a moral lesson – something elevating, obvious, and boring. So that is exactly what very often they do hear. Only that is too bad because if you really listen – and maybe you have to forget that it is the Bible being read and a minister who is reading it – there is no telling what you might hear.”
I love that, because if nothing else it is often true for me.
I’m going to read the entirety of Genesis 32, although we will keep most of our focus on the last 12 verses which will appear on the screen when we get to verse 21. In hearing all of it, I hope we can get a better sense of the whole sandwich.
Read Genesis 32:1-32 in Common English Bible
When I went off to college at the tender age of 17, in no way on the cusp of actual adulthood, it was hard to imagine anywhere being far enough away from Northern Virginia. I did my best though, and made it 10 hours away to a school called The University of the South – Sewanee to those who know and love it. Of course, as soon as I got there I realized I hadn’t needed to go quite so far, but it was impossible not to love it there. Sewanee has the second largest campus in the country, with a raw and rugged quality to it that makes it feel like it just grew out of the ground that way, emerging from the foothills of Appalachia. One of the many traditions there is to tap the inside roof of your car as you leave the domain to alert your guardian angel that it’s on duty; then when you reenter, you tap it again to give them a break. It is a funny thing to see, feel, and hear a car-full of people simultaneously tapping the roof. For me, though, the tradition has always hammered home the notion that Sewanee is a special place – the Irish might call it a thin place – and you should recognize the gravity of leaving and entering special places, just as the heavenly host and even God recognize it.
As we consider today’s passage from scripture, I cannot help but think about that old Sewanee tradition in connection to Jacob returning to the promised land. When he left it 20 years earlier, God came to him in a dream, the well known stairway to heaven dream or Jacob’s ladder or whatever you might like to call it. In that dream, God made certain promises to Jacob and assured him of his blessed status. Now, on his return, God comes to him in a different way, reiterates those promises and adds to Jacob’s blessings – including new name of Israel.
Within this “sandwich” we see all sorts of parallels and connections:
- Jacob attempts to send gifts ahead of him and his family to appease Esau and his army of 400 men; then when they meet in person he tries to give the presents again.
- The Hebrew word that gets translated into present is the same as the one that gets translated into blessing. The significance here is that Jacob has already tricked his way into Esau’s first-born blessing, and then throughout the sandwich we see Jacob attempting to placate Esau or to make amends through gifts. Of course, no one would mistake one for the other, but the symbolism is not lost on either of them: the blessing-present Jacob got from Isaac cannot be regifted like some white elephant Christmas party – it stays with Jacob; but the gift-presents that Jacob brings hold a powerful nod in the double entendre.
- Seeing the face: note that Jacob calls the place Peniel, which means “the face of God”, because, he says, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” And then, of course, Jacob asks Esau to accept his gift – his blessing of sorts – because “truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” This further connects the two scenes, one in which Jacob expected to rest and had to wrestle – the other in which Jacob expected to fight and yet he found peace and rest.
- And finally, Jacob limps away from the wrestling match, having had his hip knocked out of joint. He has not won the fight, but he has not exactly lost either. I imagine him rather like Rocky Balboa at the end of the first Rocky movie: technically Rocky has lost the fight, but you wouldn’t know it based on how he carries himself and carries forward. In the meeting with Esau the next day, Jacob walks away having given away a lot of his livestock; but like the blessing from God the night before, he gains something much more valuable: reentry into the promised land for him and his family.
- A quick note about the significance of daybreak in the wrestling match, because the man is clearly concerned about it: while it might be tempting to theorize that literature’s first vampire is found here in Genesis 32, the more likely scenario is that the mysterious man – perhaps God himself in human form – does not want any irreversible harm to come to Jacob. The Old Testament holds that humans cannot see or hear God without some sort of buffer. I think of the late 90’s movie Dogma, an irreverently religious film, in which Alan Rickman plays the voice of God. The “voice of God” is often how God is presented as a character in the Hebrew Bible, and the idea is that there needs to be a buffer or else the human could not survive. Think of Moses and the burning bush; well, here the lack of full daylight is the buffer. So the concern for Jacob is that he not die as the sun rises. Jacob, one would imagine, also does not want this; and yet he does not relent, insisting on a blessing.
- The blessing, I think, is where we can find ourselves in God’s message today. The blessing is a new name – Israel – which means either “The one who strives/struggles with God” or “God strives/struggles.”
The new name is technically for Jacob alone – although unlike Abram becoming Abraham it is not a name he will use exclusively, but rather he goes back and forth between using Jacob and Israel. It is technically just for him in that moment, but it becomes a name for his whole family, and then all 12 of the tribes, and then for a new nation of people that will one day return to this promised land. By extension, since we hold that we are also inheritors of God’s promises to Israel, the name of Israel can be embraced by all of us who follow the Lord God – Elohim Adonai. And so we can be called “The ones who strive and struggle with God.”
Lately, I have been reading and listening to some books I had sitting on the shelf, waiting for their moment. One author that it has been a joy to finally read is Octavia Butler. She wrote science fiction and took that genre in such wonderfully creative and meaningful directions. In the introduction to one of her books, I saw that she described herself as “a pessimist if I’m not careful.” If I’m not careful… I think any of us could replace “pessimist” there with any number of words that we might struggle with. Because the “if I’m not careful” part conveys a sense of ongoing work, of repetitive actions and strivings. A cynic, if I’m not careful; legalistic, if I’m not careful; a fatalist, if I’m not careful; a moral relativist, if I’m not careful.
The concept conveys that the work is never done, just as it does for Jacob. Jacob did not have some of the massive, major flaws that we see in some of the Bible’s larger-than-life figures, but he is by no means perfect. He is a trickster that could verge into malice, if he’s not careful; he seeks humility as he guards against materialism, if he is not careful; and so on.
The full value of the name of Israel, however, is in its ambiguity. “The one who strives/struggles with God” OR “God strives/struggles.” The struggle is mutual! Remember that it is God who engages Jacob in the wrestling match, and it is often God who engages us – not necessarily the other way around. We may knock, but that does not mean the door will be open just because we knock; we may seek, but that does not mean that we will find just because we seek. The door is opened and the finding accomplished because God is there with us, even in the midst of great challenges and struggles.
The power is found in the struggle, in the wrestling matches that life puts before us. God mixes it up and is not static, but we are measured by the mettle shown in our response. Consider that response just as you consider the awesome struggling and striving that God calls us to. In our individual lives and in the life of God’s church, may we meet the invitation with everything we can muster, knowing that daybreak will come and we can walk away – limping but blessed.