Yr A ~ Pentecost 9 ~ Genesis 32:22-31
(out of lectionary order)
The scripture reading today is one of those famous scenes where most church people seem to know the reference but I suspect that’s usually as far as it goes. Jacob wrestles with God and comes away with a limp. It’s an iconic, archetypal story – instantly identified – but seldom examined. I mean, I’ve never preached on this passage before, but I’m sure I’ve probably referenced it. It’s a fascinating story – worth digging into. To do so we have to ask the question: What brought Jacob to that night of wrestling? Let’s find out!
The last time we talked about Jacob was when I referred to him a few weeks ago as cheating his brother Esau and deceiving his father Isaac, and him fleeing for his life into the wilderness.
There he had his famous ‘Jacob’s ladder’ dream which is the basis for the affirmation of God’s Presence that we use constantly here at Faith United.
Jacob said, Genesis 28:16 “Surely, the Lord is in this place! And I did not know it!”
We say: Surely God is in this place. Help me notice!
From there Jacob ended up in a far off land where his story gets super-complicated. He sees a beautiful girl named Rachel and will do anything to have her. He pledges himself to her father Laban for 7 years labour in exchange for her. At the end of 7 years Laban tricks Jacob (who, you will recall, was a deceitful trickster himself!) and sends the older sister Leah to Jacob’s bed instead. Jacob apparently didn’t realize it and wakes up in the morning married to the wrong girl! Jacob then works another 7 years and is given his beloved Rachel as a wife. 6 more years pass until we get to today’s story – and in the span of that 20 years 1 daughter and 11 sons are born through Jacob – 6 sons from Leah (plus the daughter), 1 son from Rachel, and 2 each from their maidservants.
(Just in case you were wondering what ‘biblical marriage’ looks like! But I digress!)
There will be a 12th son born later.
Anyway, our story today picks up with Jacob taking his two wives, two servant wives, 12 children, and all his flocks and servants away from that far country and he’s heading home to his father Isaac and his brother Esau.
He’s going home to face the music! It’s been 20 years. Remember, he left on the worst of terms.
What kind of reception will he receive?
What kind of reception does he deserve?
Will he have the courage of his convictions to stand before his dad and brother?
This is what Jacob is wrestling with.
The wrestling in our scripture reading becomes a physical manifestation of his inner struggle. But who is he actually wrestling with?
In Hebrew it reads straightforwardly as Jacob wrestling with a man until morning.
Genesis 32:24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
It doesn’t initially say where this man came from, why he was there, or who he was. In the end we interpret the man as an angel of God, but it’s ambiguous.
But it’s weird, right?
I mean, where’d this dude come from?
Did they talk first, or just start wrestling?
Was there an effort to come to a non-violent resolution?
What was at issue?
What caused the ‘fight’?
And it says they are wrestling – literally. We may be tempted to interpret this as Jacob wrestling with his conscience. And maybe that’s exactly the right interpretation; but that’s not how it reads. Although, to read it literally suggests that the two men physically wrestled for hours through the night and unto daybreak. That seems unlikely.
If it’s an angel, well, I guess it must be a junior angel because Jacob appears to be the better wrestler. In verse 25 the man/angel sees that he’s losing and strikes Jacob on the hip and knocks it out of joint. I read that as Jacob’s hip is dislocated. Ouch!
Still Jacob won’t let his opponent go. read on