Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Believers, take heart!

The Vision after the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel)
Paul Gauguin, "The Vision after the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel)." Creative Commons image from Wikipedia.

October 20, 2013

First Reading
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Commentary on Genesis 32:22-31

Believers, take heart!

This is the Sunday for those of us who do not exactly match the picture of submissive sainthood on the holy cards. This is “Demanding Believer Sunday!” The readings provide refreshing corrections to the mistaken idea that faith is the same as passive acceptance. Here faith is defined as the stubborn refusal to let God off the hook.

This reading from Genesis makes a clear connection between the figure of Jacob and the nation of Israel. The depictions in Genesis of those people who are founders of later groups provide characterizations of the groups that trace their ancestry from these founders. This is especially obvious in stories about the founders of Israel’s neighbors. The founder of Edom, for example, is Jacob’s older twin brother, Esau, who is depicted as a brutish, short-sighted man, a view that encapsulates Israel’s view of this neighboring country.

As the founder of the nation of Israel, Jacob/Israel was the most important patriarch of the Jewish nation. Outside of the book of Genesis, Old Testament texts mention Jacob far more often than Adam and Abraham combined. He is the Israelites’ most important ancestor.

In Genesis, Jacob is repeatedly depicted as a schemer. He convinces his brother to sell him his right to inherit as eldest son (25:29-34), and with the help of his mother, he tricks his father into giving him his brother’s blessing (27:1-40). He tricks Laban, his father-in-law, in order to receive the wages he had earned (30:37-43).

These manipulations left him estranged from his family. As this story opens, Jacob has brought his large family back to this ancestral land, but he fears that his brother is seeking revenge. Jacob leaves his family to face his brother alone. He does not know that he falls asleep at a sacred site.

The story of what happens that night contains several important elements:

  • It is the story of the founding of a sacred city, in this case “Penuel” which means “Face of God.”
  • It explains why Israelites do not eat a particular part of a sacrificial animal.
  • Most significantly, it is the story of why God changes Jacob’s name to Israel.

Israelite names were meant to connote something about that person, and a change in name indicated a significant change in status. The name “Jacob” meant “he takes by the heel,” referring to the way Esau supplanted Jacob when they were born. At this point in the story, Jacob comes into his own independent destiny. The exact meaning of the name “Israel” is debated, but the text connects it to the verb meaning “to persevere.”

At the center of the story is the mysterious wrestling match between Jacob and an enigmatic figure whom the text refuses to identify. This is one of several places in Genesis and Exodus where an ambiguous heavenly figure functions as a cypher for God. While later Christian tradition depicts these figures as angels, early Bible stories are not so clear. In Exodus 3:2 an angel appears in the burning bush but that angel quickly turns out to be God speaking directly to Moses.

In our passage the figure is not identified as an angel; it simply says that a “man” wrestles with Jacob. Yet at the end of the passage, Jacob declares that he has seen the “face of God.” Although the encounter takes place at night, the text goes out of its way to say this was not a dream. Jacob is not sleeping when the man appears, the mysterious wrestler is a man and not an angel, and Jacob is left with a real physical injury.

Jacob is a superhero. First, his demand for a blessing shows that he recognizes the man as something other than a robber. Second, it is Jacob who declares that this is God. Third, rather than bow down before this figure, he wrestles him to a draw! Up to this point in the story, Jacob has never been depicted as a strong man. That is Esau’s role. The reader is left to conclude that Jacob survives out of pure stubbornness to give in.

The bigger picture that modern readers often miss, though, is that this is really a story about Israel and God. In fact, it is ISRAEL’S story about itself and God. How interesting to note that Israel defines itself as a people who refuses to let go of God. They tell us that they will fight with God to demand that Yahweh bless them. They are a people who are willing to be changed, even damaged in that exchange, because they know that attaining that blessing is worth the sacrifice. They are not a people of passive faith.

For modern Christian readers who claim to be heirs of that faith, this story offers a vivid biblical model of prayer. It suggests that God is not looking for wimpy followers. Yahweh rewards those who fight for the heavenly blessing. Although at the outset of the story, Yahweh is unrecognizable, it is in wrestling with God that Jacob’s heirs see God’s face. The story ends with the sun shining and the reader limping away with a blessing.

This view of prayer is not unique in the Old Testament. It matches the assumptions that lie behind many of the psalms of lament. In the book of Job, Yahweh declares that Job was right to argue with God (42:7-8). In the gospel reading for this Sunday, Jesus’ parable of the woman who nags the judge until he gives her what she wants (Luke 18:1-8) extends this definition of faith into the New Testament.

God rewards those who won’t let go.