Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

The story in Genesis 32 about the wrestling match between Jacob and God is one of the key texts for understanding the character of Jacob.

August 3, 2008

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on Genesis 32:22-31

The story in Genesis 32 about the wrestling match between Jacob and God is one of the key texts for understanding the character of Jacob.

It is appropriate, then, that the story is included in the series of Jacob stories assigned for this summer. This is the last story in that series (though Jacob also will appear next week in the story about Joseph).

The preacher would do well, of course, to set this story in the context of the whole saga of Jacob. The congregation should understand that this encounter with God takes place the night before Jacob is to meet his brother, Esau, for the first time in twenty years. Back then, Esau wanted to kill Jacob, and for all Jacob knows, he still wants to do so. In fact, Jacob has just heard that Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men (32:3-8)! It does not sound like the makings of a happy reunion, and Jacob is terrified.

Dreading that encounter with Esau, then, Jacob first has another encounter on the banks of the River Jabbok. He wrestles with a “man” until daybreak. Even after the stranger puts Jacob’s hip out of joint, Jacob will not let go of him until he gives him a blessing. The stranger asks him his name, Jacob answers him, and then the man gives him a new name, “Israel,” “for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (32:28). (The name “Israel” is most simply translated, “God contends,” but it is understood here as “one who contends with God.”) Then the stranger blesses him.

Jacob somehow knows that this being is the same God who has kept him throughout his long travels. So he calls the place Peniel (“face of God”)–“for I have seen God face to face and I’m still alive!” (32:30).

Ever after this encounter, Jacob limps, bearing the scar of the encounter, bearing the scar of a death, one might say, the death of Jacob the trickster and the birth of Israel the nation.

My colleague, David Lose, says, “Law and Gospel is all about naming reality. It’s about telling the truth, twice. First we hear the difficult truth of our brokenness, our fears, (and) our sins. And then we hear the good and gracious news about God’s response to our condition, for Christ’s sake, no matter what.”

David uses this story in Genesis 32 as one example of Law and Gospel, of “telling the truth twice.” God asks Jacob’s name, and he says “Jacob.” (The name “Jacob” is derived from the Hebrew word for “heel” and has the connotation of “supplanting” or “cheating.”) And that name encompasses the truth of who and what Jacob has been–a supplanter, a cheater, a liar, one who lied to his blind father and stole his brother’s blessing, one who had to run for his life and go into exile, one who struggled for twenty years with his father-in-law Laban, deceiving and being deceived. That’s the Law, the hard truth of who Jacob was and is.

But then God gives Jacob a new name: Israel. And this is the truth of who Jacob is becoming, a new man, the father of a new nation. Traces of the old Jacob will remain, but he has matured from the callow youth he once was. (Compare, for instance, Jacob’s prayer at Bethel in 28:20-22 with his prayer in 32:9-12.) The once self-centered youth will become the patriarch, the man who, in his old age, leads his family down into Egypt and blesses Pharaoh himself (47:7, 10). This is the second truth, the Gospel of the story. God gives Jacob a new name, and a new identity, and he is changed ever after.

The preacher should take note of what happens after this wrestling match and name change. Jacob/Israel sees Esau coming with his four hundred men, so he arranges his company, and then goes ahead of them to meet Esau. One wonders whether the long-dreaded encounter with his brother has lost some of its power over him, given the encounter he’s just experienced. Nevertheless, there must still be some fear in Jacob’s heart as Esau runs forward. Instead of striking his brother, however, Esau grabs him in a bear hug, kisses him, and then weeps. It seems Esau does not bear grudges.

It is a scene of reconciliation, a scene of gracious welcome, and overwhelming relief. One can imagine both brothers sobbing, holding on to each other to keep from falling down. And somehow, this encounter, this reconciliation, is for Jacob something like the encounter he just had at the Jabbok. In an echo of his earlier statement, he says to Esau: “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God” (33:10).

This scene illustrates a remarkable change in Jacob’s character. We knew Jacob first as the deceiver who took his brother’s blessing. He finds, however, like his father and grandfather before him, that the blessing–the blessing given to the “chosen” one in each generation–is not an easy thing. Abraham waits a lifetime for God’s promise of a son to be fulfilled, and then he is asked to sacrifice that son. Isaac endures that near-sacrifice. Jacob, too, goes into a kind of death as he is exiled from his homeland for twenty years. The blessing brings with it great responsibility and, often, great pain. Ellen Davis writes of Jacob at the end of his life: “It is hard to recognize the egocentric youth in this careworn old man, who is rendered almost transparent by surrender to the demands of the blessing he once stole.”1

Jacob, the shallow youth, becomes Israel, the father of a nation. One of the major turning points in this transformation is the encounter at the River Jabbok. The story of the wrestling match tells us much about Jacob, about the man he was, and about the man he becomes. It is also, of course, a parable of the nation Israel. Israel is the nation that wrestles with God. She holds on to God fiercely, even when God seems absent or uncaring. Israel holds God to God’s promises because she is the nation that bears the great responsibility of being chosen, and blessed, by God. The remaining alternate Old Testament readings assigned for this season after Pentecost will trace that blessing–its joys and its sorrows–in the lives of Jacob’s descendants.

(For another treatment of this story, see the fine article on this Web site by Nathan Aaseng, “Wrestling with God.” )

1Ellen F. Davis, “Job and Jacob: The Integrity of Faith,” in Reading Between Texts, ed. Danna Nolan Fewell (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992) p. 213.