YEAR A: SEASON AFTER PENTECOST
(Sunday between July 31 and August 6)
Our lectionary readings have skipped over most of Jacob’s stay with his uncle Laban, and in today’s reading we find him arriving back at the border of the promised land.
Jacob’s life has not changed much. He is still the same old deceiver and the various relationships he has or which surround him are marked by deceit and cheating: Jacob and Laban (30:25-43); Rachel and Laban (31:19-21); his wives Leah and Rachel (29:31-30:24). Laban’s sons complain that Jacob has taken ‘all that was our father’s’ (31:1). Jacob’s earlier deception of Isaac springs to mind.
As Jacob arrives back at the border of the promised land, his home, struggle is again the order of the day. He has to deal with Esau whom he cheated long ago and he is fearful (32:7-8). He prays to Yahweh, recalling his dream and Yahweh’s promise (vv. 9-12). The promise of progeny and of Yahweh being with Jacob, which has proved true, is now in jeopardy. There is no little irony here: Jacob has relied on his own wits and cunning, but now falls back on the one whose guiding presence has been there (almost forgotten) all this time. The irony increases as Jacob seeks to appease his brother with gifts, at the same time as he plans a back door escape for himself (vv. 13-21) in case things do not go well.
That brings us to our text: Jacob is alone at night, on the bank of the river Jabbok, a tributary of the Jordan River (32:22-24a). He wrestles with an unnamed assailant, in Hebrew an ’ish, a ‘man’. The opponent cannot prevail against Jacob so he injures Jacob’s hip (v. 25). In spite of this he cannot get away from Jacob and is afraid of the approaching dawn. Jacob demands a blessing before he lets him go (v. 26). Now Jacob is good at weaselling blessings out of others, but they are usually important characters. Who is this opponent? Everything in the narrative from here on (vv. 28-31) indicates that he has been wrestling with Yahweh himself.
This is a strange story. Who wins this nocturnal wrestle, Jacob or the opponent? Some English translations clarify it for us because the Hebrew is ambiguous. NRSV has ‘the man saw’ in v. 25 and ‘Jacob said’ in v. 26. The Hebrew has ‘he saw’ and ‘he said’ respectively. So there is a question of who is victor. But it is also strange that if Yahweh is the opponent why does he not win easily? How can Jacob prevail against Yahweh and even ‘steal’ a blessing from the latter? The story does not make sense theologically.
Nor does it make sense as a story about a hero in combat. In such stories, the one who gives the ‘low blow’ or makes the trick move, should win the day – not here! The opponent delivers what ought to be the decisive stroke, but Jacob hangs on and ‘wins’ his blessing. There is both a theological and a narrative paradox operating in this story. To understand it, the preacher has to deal with this paradox.
A few points can be made. First, at the surface level, as Jacob both leaves the land of promise and returns he is confronted by Yahweh, once as the one who promises to protect, and once as opponent. Yahweh will not be sidelined in any of Jacob’s affairs, even when Jacob’s schemes seem to call the shots. In the end the promise of presence may involve opposition. Yahweh and his word are what determine the future, even when they are forgotten or dismissed. That is our eschatological hope.
Secondly, this story suggests that to return home to the land of promise, Jacob must confront and be reconciled with not only Esau (32:3; 33:1-11) but with Yahweh. Esau and Yahweh are linked in Jacob’s statement to Esau: ‘to see your face is like seeing the face of God’ (33:10). Note also the final appearance of Yahweh in the story reiterating his promise (35:9-15). In today’s reading, Yahweh stands in the place of Esau. Jacob has struggled with them both and gained blessing. Our journey and struggle in this human life is also a journey and struggle with God, and vice-versa.
Finally, we have noted the theological and narrative paradox in this story. There is an illogical aspect to it. What we expect to happen is turned upside down. But has that not been the theme of Jacob’s story as a whole (see 25:23) and was it not the case also with Abraham, and will it not be so again with Joseph? This story shows that, counter to what we might expect, God is thoroughly engaged with and in this paradoxical world, as is evident in Jesus. There is in this both comfort and concern: comfort, in the sense that God is with us (so chapter 28) and concern in that God will not always be the one we might hope or want God to be as we ‘plot and scheme’ our ways – even in a good sense – through life. Israel’s construal of God in Jacob’s story, is both as benefactor and as adversary – its ‘crippler’, judge and opponent. We may not like to think of God in this way, but we, like Jacob are who we are – ‘deceivers’ even in our best and most noble efforts – and in life and faith, we seek God’s comforting presence as well as struggle against the demands of that very presence on our lives, and the mystery that is God. The one sure hope is, as this story also says, God and God’s life giving promise will never be sidelined in this adventure. God’s blessing will be the last word for us, as it was for Jacob (35:9-13). All we can do is worship (33:14-15).
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