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Sun, Aug 06, 2023

Jacob Wrestling with God

Genesis 32:22-31

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck Jacob on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then the man said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So the man said to Jacob, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Please pray with me:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be pleasing and acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen

Jacob is... a character. Quite honestly, I don’t like him. As Professor Amy Merrill Willis from Lynchburg College describes Jacob, “in Genesis 25-31 Jacob cons, cheats, deceives, and manipulates virtually every member of his family and then runs off when the tension was about to explode into full conflict. The fact that Jacob seems to get away with this bad behavior and also garner promises, wives, children and household goods in the process only increases the reader’s ambivalence about this ancestor of Israel.” (Working Preacher)

I mean. THIS GUY! Jacob was far from perfect, but he was faithful. “In this text, he does become a role model, not of moral perfection, but as the one who wrestled in the night and did not surrender,” as Old Testament scholar Beth L. Tanner reminds us (Working Preacher). Darn it. Even the ones we don’t like have things to teach us.

Even though... it is Jacob and he does have something to teach us. There are a bunch of mysteries and questions in this story. First, it is super weird that Jacob went off by himself. Jacob, what are you doing? Dude is alone at night in the wilderness. But, we have to remember that “Jacob’s story is one of division and separation” as Rector Callie Plunkett-Brewton writes, “Thus, we can see that this strange departure from his family is consistent with the narratives about Jacob up to this point” (Working Preacher). Oh Jacob.

Second, this annoying ambiguity about WHO Jacob fights. It’s really distracting - WHO is this “man”? I need to know. “The man” is unacceptable. I need to know exactly who Jacob fights! Tanner writes, “maybe his identity is not the point of the story, and we need to search elsewhere. (Working Preacher)” She’s right. That’s not the point of the story. So mildly annoyed I turned to Rector Plunket-Brewton’s discussion, she writes, “There is much that is ancient and foreign to us in this story, and yet Jacob’s experience with an unknowable assailant in the middle of the night is still a story that transcends time. Dark nights of the soul are part of the human experience, and few escape them. Whether we battle adversaries psychological or physical, the dawn does still come. The narrative of Genesis 32 promises that even a terrible, unsettling night can become a source of blessing. There is no promise that these dark nights of the soul will leave us unscathed—they test us, and we may struggle to meet the challenge.”

Dark nights of the soul are part of the human experience. Great... Suffering isn’t redemptive. God does not want you or me or anyone to suffer. AND God never abandons us, Even when we isolate ourselves like Jacob did.

But as Tanner writes, “Life is sometimes like that. Things happen that cannot be rationalized or easily understood. We survive by nothing more elegant than not giving up.... Most of us have had seasons in our lives where we too fight with the mysteries of life. We do not know if Jacob’s injury was permanent, but the text notes he was still limping when he left (Genesis 32:31)... Like the text, the identity of the mystery is not needed, we understand the struggle is with life and God. Jacob struggles alone that night. Struggles are often like that also. We can share our burdens and fears with each other, but ultimately each of us must come to terms with the mystery of God and life. We are to grab the mystery of God and hang on, even when we are tired, or in pain, or have doubts... Sometimes that means a confrontation with God. Yes, we can be angry at God, and we can tell God we do not understand how the world works. By being honest, we are struggling to hang on in the mysterious times when the world or God’s methods or God’s kingdom does not make sense. Remaining faithful throughout our lives sometimes takes work and perseverance...”

I wonder about your dark nights of the soul? I’ve experienced several throughout my life. I honor yours with love and compassion. We don’t want to think about them - they’re ugly and horrible, and leave scars. We just want to focus on what’s happy, what’s easy. But we have to name the unpleasant. And most importantly, God can handle it. Professor Joy Moore shared in conversation on this passage, “God can handle all of our questions, doubts, stalls, our setbacks, our confusion” all of it.

Tanner also writes, “God does not give up on us, and it is our job not to give up on God.”

Beloved,
even when things are tough,
even when we’re in a dark night of the soul,
May we manage to keep wrestling,
Keep holding on to God,
Even when we feel like we can’t keep fighting
Because God doesn’t give up on us.

Amen.

Sources:
Carvalho, Corrine “Genesis 32:29-31” https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-29-3/commentary-on-genesis-3222-31-6

Merrill Willis, Amy. “Genesis 32:29-31” https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-18/commentary-on-genesis-3222-31-8


Tanner, Beth L. “Genesis 32:29-31” https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-18/commentary-on-genesis-3222-31-7


Working Preacher “Sermon Brainwave 916: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost.” https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/working-preachers-sermon-brainwave/id1538186845?i=1000623503915

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