Sunday, March 20, 2016

Struggling Under the Blessing (Part 2)

Jacob has resolved to go meet his brother after many years. First he sent his wives and children and servant and wealth ahead of him and he stayed behind. In keeping with his normal mode of relating to others he is suspicious of his brother and still fears for his life. Thus his plan is to “butter up” his brother with gifts so as to soften any hostility he may have still toward him (Genesis 32:13-21). But before he has that encounter with his brother he meets God in a way that he never expected and never forgot! This unwelcomed visit from God’s Messenger (God himself Jacob finds out) becomes the turning point of his whole life. (Genesis 32:22-32)

Notice that he is attacked while he is alone—he is ambushed and has to engage in a strenuous wrestling match against this man he does not know. Jacob is used to fighting to survive. And he fights for his life against him. And in this case this “man” cannot master him in the wrestling contest (v.25). But he knew how to force him to surrender—touching his hip and put it out of joint.   

Here he tries to out wrestle God! Jacob is nothing if not persistent! Though he cannot win he still persists in trying to control this strange visitor: Demanding that he be “blessed” before the man departs (v.26). Jacob is always striving to get the blessing of God—even to the point of threatening to use every bit of strength he has left to simply prevent this man from leaving.

The mysterious stranger asks him a simply question: “What is your name?” (v.27) A name in ancient times had profound meaning. The name one was given spoke of one’s character and/or destiny. In response to Jacob’s demand for a blessing the Man asks him his name. And then speaks over him a declaration of his character and future. He declares that his name will be changed from “Jacob” (one who supplants or a deceiver) to “Israel” (one who struggles but prevails). This change was again confirmed later in a direct word to Jacob (Genesis 35:10).

Yet having been defeated Jacob is still not done trying to get some advantage over this man. For he returns the question back to him: “What is your name?” You see now he knows that this is not merely a man he has been wrestling with. And thus he wants to know just who this is! “Please tell me your name.” (v.29) He cannot control or manipulate this Person. He merely deflects the question back at him: “Why is it that you ask my name?” (Or perhaps, Why must you ask? Do you really not know who I am?) For this non-response was a “no” answer but also a challenge to Jacob to believe God and stop trying to manipulate God! Then and only then did he got the blessing he wanted—by an act of grace. 

Jacob knew that this encounter was with God Almighty himself. How he realized this is not spelled out in the text but we know he concluded this because of the saying preserved which explains why he named that place as he did: “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” (v.30, NRSV; c.f., 49:15-16) He left there a marked man—literally marked by a limp (v.31). He had met God and had been spared and been given God’s blessing.

What did Jacob learn? He had heard God speak to him before and affirm the covenant promises given to Abraham and to Isaac. What made this encounter different was that he was brought to the end of himself; he could not manipulate or control his own circumstances. This Man pinned him down and forced him to surrender. Before he had always thought that he could figure out a way to control his own life and direct it as he willed—and this included “managing” God. Before he had believed in the God of his fathers but now he had been directly confronted with God and God’s demands upon him personally. He had now stepped closer to the radical faith of his grandfather Abraham. He knew that being under God’s covenant was serious business; that he must trust God and obey him.

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