Jacob is a man with demons. He has lied and cheated his way through life, and he is about to face his burly brother Esau (and 400 of his brother’s burly friends) who is certain to want revenge for the wrongs done him. Jacob sends wave after wave of gifts to lay at his brother’s feet hoping to appease him. Finally he sends his wife, his maids, and his eleven children. In the moment of danger, back against a wall, Jacob hides behind everything.
When Jacob is left alone to spend a final night in his camp before facing the inevitable meeting he comes into conflict with a mysterious ‘man’ who wrestles with Jacob until day break. The man cannot prevail against Jacob, so he touches Jacob’s hip socket and dislocates it. Jacob is wounded, he will leave the encounter limping. As daybreak approaches the man asks Jacob to release him. Jacob refuses, telling the man that he must bless Jacob first. The man blesses Jacob by changing his name to Israel (meaning the one who strives with God). There is mystery here in that we are left to ponder the identity of this man who nowhere claims to be God. Jacob will interpret the encounter as a conflict with the divine and will name the place Peniel (meaning the face of God). He will say, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
As he leaves camp he limps onward toward his brother Esau.
A few observations:
1. If God is a character in this story, then God does not come with sweet words of reconciliation and grace, rather God comes under the cloak of darkness as a mysterious adversary.
2. The man (God?) cannot prevail against Jacob. What does this mean? And when the man (God?) cannot prevail he instead inflicts a wound. Why? Is it that we are so calloused to the divine in our lives that God cannot break through our spiritual apathy without putting our hip out of socket?
3. The man (God) asks for his release. Jacob holds on demanding a blessing. When we strive with God there is a temptation to let go. We grow tired of wrestling. What happens if Jacob lets go? He remains Jacob, and there is no Israel.
4. Jacob asks the man for a name. He does not receive one. Instead the man says to Jacob, “Why is it that you ask my name?” There a lots of reasons why. We are wrestling because we know too little, and we demand a kind of certainty that life does not afford.
Psalm 17:1-7, 15
Psalm 17 is an interesting response to the Hebrew Bible lection. It was obviously chosen because of verse 15’s statement, “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness.” This provides a nice liturgical parallel to Jacob’s, “I have seen God face to face.” However, the rest of the psalm seems to have little in common with the Jacob story. The psalmist declares, “Give ear to my prayer from lips free from deceit…If you test me you will find no wickedness in me.” Apt words of description for the psalmist? Maybe. Jacob? Not so much. Perhaps we learn in juxtaposing these two disparate texts that “seeing” God is not reserved entirely for the saint, or entirely for the sinner. God weaves his way through all of life, and as apprentices of God we would do good to do the same.
As we ponder the beginning of the Israelite nation in the Jacob story we receive Paul’s affirmation of God working particularly through the Israelite people. Paul writes, “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who over all, God blessed forever. Amen.” This is part of Paul’s discussion on what is referred to as God’s “scandal of particularity.” The scandal is that God ‘chose’ a particular path (or a people) as a vehicle for God’s redemptive activity, thereby not choosing other paths (or peoples). Paul is very matter of fact about this, God chooses who God chooses.
Our gospel lection is the familiar story of Jesus feeding the five-thousand, or perhaps co-feeding (after all it was the little boy’s lunch that provided the first course). The festive meal comes on the heels of the mournful announcement of John the Baptist’s death. Jesus retreats to a deserted place, but the crowds (likely reeling from the news of John’s death) seek Jesus out. The journey was likely taxing, the day had grown long, and their was a murmur of hunger in the multitude. That Jesus fed the hungry crowd was a sign of mercy and compassion. It points to the provision of God to fill the needs of those that seek God. The provision is so great there is too much, and twelve baskets of left overs are collected. The number twelve’s symbolic world (the twelve tribes, the twelve apostles, etc) refers to the people of God in their entirety. There is an abundance that extends toward all of God’s people.
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider how as saints and sinners we see the face of God. Is it possible to wrestle with God in worship? Is it possible to receive a wound? What does God say when in worship we seek to know God’s name? How does the provision of God shown in the person of Jesus reveal God to us?