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“Faith That Limps”                                         August 20, 2017                                        Genesis 32:22-32

 

I used to listen to Car Talk on public radio every Saturday morning, so I was pleased to learn you can still listen to the program online at cartalk.com. I also recently found out they still have Tom and Ray’s “lame jokes” posted on the Car Talk website. Like this one: When this guy (let’s call him Jacob) found out he would inherit a fortune when his sick father died, he decided he should find a wife with whom to share his fortune. At an investment club meeting, he spotted the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her beauty took his breath away. “I may look like just an ordinary guy,” he said to her, “but in just a few years my father will die and I will inherit $200 million.” Impressed, the woman asked for his business card and, three days later, she became his stepmother.

 

Jacob’s life was a constant struggle. To be a human creation of God is to be a God-struggler. In Genesis 32 Jacob is just beginning to learn this. The Apostle Paul will later write that our battle is not against flesh and blood. We battle demons and we battle angels. We battle God himself whenever we struggle with people, with ideas, and with decisions.

 

Of course, Jacob doesn’t know with whom he is struggling. He only knows that this is no ordinary man. But at the moment he is wounded Jacob learns something about his mysterious opponent—and something about himself.

 

Direct encounters with God tend to do that. They reveal life-changing truth. And the truth is that there is a terrifying side to God. If Jacob’s mysterious opponent is God, we are shown something other than the warm-fuzzy, promise-filled side of God that we know in the daylight. In the darkness, Jacob must deal with the terrifying face of the Almighty, who is hidden in sovereignty and not to be appeased.

 

Jacob, now named “Israel,” calls the place where all this happened “Face of God,” because, he said, “I saw God face-to-face and yet my life was spared.”

 

He lived…yes. But he lived with a limp. Meeting God, he found out, was cause for dread as well as exultation. Walter Brueggemann says that limping keeps us from speaking flippantly about becoming the new creation, which the Apostle Paul describes it in 2 Corinthians. The new creatures that we become may well be marked with a limp as a sign of this newness.

 

The Hebrew word “toledot” means Generations or Descendants. The toledot of Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah, begins in Genesis 25:19, and true to form it starts with the account of the birth of his two sons, Jacob and Esau. “The chaos surrounding the birth of Jacob foreshadows the nature of his life story,” notes Tremper Longman in his book, How to Read Genesis.*

 

Similar to Sarah before her, Rebekah is barren. This signals that the promised descendant is a gift from the Lord, though the narrative does not explicitly expand on it as in the case of the Abraham and Sarah narrative. It duly notes that Rebekah’s pregnancy is the result of prayer, and then it tells the story of the birth of the twins.

 

Right from the start sibling rivalry characterizes the relationship between the twins; they fight even in their mother’s womb. In answer to their mother’s inquiry God announces the reason for the struggle: “the sons in your womb will become two nations. From the very beginning, the two nations will be rivals. One nation will be stronger than the other, and your older son will serve your younger son” (Gen 25:23). Sure enough, when they emerge from the womb, Jacob has a firm hold on the heel of firstborn Esau, as if to pull him back. Their names and descriptions, at birth, as often happens in Hebrew narrative, also forewarn of future events.

 

The oldest is Esau, meaning “hairy,” whose hair was so thick that he might as well be wearing clothes. It was also a vivid red color. As for Jacob, his name means “to grab the heel,” with connotations of “he deceives,” or “stinker.”

 

The central issue of the story quickly becomes the birthright. Through which of the two children will the promise flow to future generations? The scripture tells us that Esau has a disregard for the future. He is a person of the present, but Jacob is always thinking about how to get the best of the future—scheming about the future. Rebekah and Jacob deceive Isaac in order for Jacob to actually receive the blessing of the firstborn. In Genesis 27 we come to the moment of truth, when Isaac confers his blessing on the one whom he thinks is his firstborn, Esau.

 

Then, after fourteen years of trading deceit and trickery with his father in law Laban over which wife he is permitted to marry, in chapter 31 Jacob is commanded to: “Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you” (Gen 31:3). Laban goes after Jacob and in the end the two men respect the boundary between them with a treaty. An even more fearful conflict is about to follow, namely, the old rivalry between Jacob and Esau.

 

Jacob gets a report of an oncoming army of four hundred men heading his way—Esau’s cohort. Jacob takes action, beginning with prayer. He divides his holdings and household into two parts, with the thought that one might escape if the other comes under attack. He then sends ahead of both groups a series of gifts, hoping to pacify Esau’s presumed anger. After setting this up, Jacob spends a very uneasy night during which one of the most memorable as well as enigmatic encounters of the entire Bible takes place.

 

While alone, an unnamed “man” engages the patriarch in a wrestling match. This struggle lasts the entire night. It appears to be a draw. Though the man has knocked Jacob’s hip joint out of its socket (which in Gen 32:32 is given as an explanation for why Israelites do not eat the tendon near the hip socket), Jacob appears to have a tight grip on him. The man appeals to Jacob to let him go before dawn arrives. We aren’t told the significance of the appearance of dawn, increasing both our perplexity and our curiosity. Who is this “man,” anyway?

 

Jacob refuses to let him go until the man blesses him. Why does Jacob care? We don’t know yet, because we still aren’t sure who the man is. Jacob, however, must know the significance of his wrestling partner, though he doesn’t know his name.

 

The man appears to bless Jacob by a name change. The “one who grasps the heel,” the “deceiver,” the “stinker” becomes “Israel.” Of course, the importance of this name change becomes apparent in the nation that will flow from Jacob’s lineage. What the name means is not perfectly obvious, but the best proposal understands the name to mean “God fights.” This interpretation is appropriate both to the situation in Genesis 32 as well as to the future of the nation Israel, for which God often fights and occasionally fights against. It’s also appropriate to the immediate context because, though the man doesn’t give his name to Jacob, Jacob knows that it is God himself. In other words, the man doesn’t give his name, but Jacob knows it is his God, the God of his father Abraham.

 

Many questions echo in our minds after reading this passage. Why does God fight Jacob? Why do they apparently fight to a standstill? Isn’t God mush more powerful? Why doesn’t God give his name? Why does God have to leave before morning light? We will have to live with many of these questions unresolved. The text however is significant in characterizing future Israel as a place for whom and against whom God will come as a warrior. It also teaches other readers that God is someone who calls for our active engagement. Someone who honors us when we wrestle and struggle with God as long as we don’t let go.

 

For Jacob the divine struggle sets the scene for the human struggle that follows. Esau’s army heading from the south finally encounters Jacob’s entourage coming from the north. Jacob has divided his family by relational priorities; those in back are closest to Jacob’s heart. Rachel and her prized son, Joseph, are at the back of the line. As we might expect, Jacob precedes them all and meets Esau at the front. Unexpectedly, and quite admirably, Esau runs and embraces his brother Jacob.

 

The most frustrating aspect of this story, for me, is the lack of explanation concerning motives. Though typical of Hebrew prose, it makes the narrative particularly opaque to the modern reader. Why has Esau softened toward Jacob? Is it because of the gifts Jacob sent or because of Jacob’s apparent humility? Esau at first refuses the gift, but this may simply be ancient Middle Eastern protocol, which Jacob understands as he forces his gift on his brother.

 

How does it all end? Professor Longman says, “The only time we know that Jacob sees Esau again is when they are together to bury their father Isaac, as recorded in Genesis 35:29. This meeting is matter-of-factly stated in the scripture, and no animosity appears to exist between the two men.”

 

Jacob would appear to be the winner of Survivor/Genesis, as I call it, after running for his life from Laban, after wrestling with God at the ford of the Jabbok, and then after meeting his estranged brother (who brought an army with him) at Peniel, a place that means “face of God.” And remember, Jacob’s new name—Israel—means “he struggles with God.”

 

It didn’t surprise me to learn that the Hebrew word for “struggle” is also the word for “embrace.” To wrestle is to embrace. Like Jacob, we may not realize that until the wrestling is over. But then, at the end, we can see that once we surrender, once we begin to accept our woundedness, once we acknowledge our weakness, only then will we realize the truth about God and about our struggle with him. Only then will we see, clear as day, that to wrestle with God is to be embraced by God, like a screaming, tantrum-throwing toddler held tight in the arms of a loving parent.

 

And safe in that embrace, we find ourselves able to live a truly happy life with our woundedness and just maybe change our habit of wounding others.

 

Wrapped in the loving arms of God, we can genuinely heal, grow in our understanding of this thing called faith, and simply move on…

 

With a limp, of course. Amen.

 

*How to Read Genesis (How to Read Series), © 2005 by Tremper Longman, III, InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition, pp. 136-144.