Yesterday, a colleague and I spent most of the day in a meeting of Christians and Jews at the headquarters of the American Jewish Committee here in New York. That may explain why one of our readings today (Genesis 32:22-32) jumped out at me today. Surely “good news” is to be found throughout the pages of Scripture and not only in the four Gospels!
In the midst of the Genesis account of the reconciliation process between Jacob and Esau (Isaac’s sons with all their complicated history) Jacob meets a man and engages in a wrestling match with him. As the story unfolds it is clear that this is no ordinary man but – at the very least – an angel of God and, more probably, God himself: appearing in human form.
The first hint of that is the plea to break off the match because “the day is breaking.” Hebrew thought was clear that no one could look upon the face of God and live, so Jacob’s merciful adversary wanted to leave before the sun rose to reveal him in full light. But Jacob will have none of that, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
And the form that the blessing takes is the awarding of a new name. How many times in Scripture the taking of a new name marks the beginning of a new stage in life or a new ministry of some kind! “Your name shall no more be called Jacob (the “Supplanter”… of Esau) but “Israel” which is alternatively translated “God rules” or “He who strives with God!” (And with men!)
How rich it is for the Jewish people to be identified as those who “strive with God…and with other people!” In their long history of being called, being faithful, being disobedient, being exiled, returning home, being persecuted yet always mindful of their “chosen-ness” the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (now Israel!) have developed a certain intimacy and a certain ease with God!
Rabbis have no difficulty arguing with each other, arguing with the biblical text itself, and even arguing with God! Remember Tevya in “Fiddler on the Roof” and his wonderful, honest relationship and conversations with God! Not unlike Jacob who says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me!”
Yet this “striving with God” is not without its price. Jacob is wounded in the struggle and limps away from the encounter claiming to have seen God face to face and lived. Yet, the sun rises as he passes Penuel, making it clear that he has seen God only in the pre-dawn light.
What are the lessons for us in this fascinating and ancient story? Two things at least. The first is that it’s OK to wrestle with God. The spiritual life is not always rosy or a straight path to God. Like the people of Israel, we are called, sometimes faithful, sometimes disobedient, sometimes experience persecution and exile, but are always invited to return home.
Secondly, God can sometimes be found in our adversaries! People we find most difficult to understand or to like or to agree with may actually be where we meet God. But that requires staying in the struggle. That means we cannot “walk away from the table.” If we are to receive the blessing of God, it may mean that we need to look for that blessing in the midst of the struggle, be willing to wounded in the struggle, but always be prepared to meet God face to face in that struggle.
If only in the pre-dawn light!