The gift [to Esau] passed ahead of him, while he spent that night in the camp.
He arose that same night and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven children and crossed the ford of the Jabbok; he took them and sent them, as well as everything he owned, across the ford, and Jacob remained behind, alone.
A man not known to Jacob wrestled with him until the rise of dawn.
When the man saw that he was not prevailing against him, he struck Jacob in the socket of his hip, and it was dislocated.
Then the man said, "release me, for the dawn is rising," but Jacob said, "no, I shall not release you unless you bless me," so the man addressed him, "what is your name?" and he said, "Jacob."
Then the man said, "no more will your name be called ‘Jacob,’ but 'Israel,' because you persevered with God and with men and you prevailed."
Jacob said, "please state your name" and he answered "why do you ask this, my name," and blessed Jacob there.
Then Jacob called the name of the place, "Peniel," "because I saw God face to face and my life was delivered."
And the sun rose upon him as he crossed Penuel, and he was limping on his hip.
On account of this, to this day the sons of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh, which is in the socket of the hip because he struck the socket of Jacob's hip, on the sinew of the thigh. [jaj translation]
Wow; twenty-two years and, of more immediate relevance to me, I only half-apologize for saying, twenty-one years (and for that matter, nine years ago last month for Nancy Blank), sure zoom by, and I do not mean in the “Zoom” meeting sense. It will be twenty-one years on Saturday since Carol, my then wife of almost thirty-six years, breathed her last as I held her hand while reading to her of Mr. Collins, the pompous and supercilious pastor — obviously, no resemblance to current company — the pompous and supercilious pastor in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and twenty-two years in October from when I was ordained as, as it was then called, a “Minister of Word and Sacrament” in the Presbyterian Church ( USA), in my home church in Ogden Dunes, Indiana.
Some friends gave me a book as a gift on the occasion of my ordination, and it was an appropriate one, because its title arises from what was then and is still my favorite story in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. Tom read that story for us using my own translation from the Hebrew a few moments ago. Wrestling with Angels is the book’s title, and it is by one of those rare souls, a woman rabbi, but the story gives us another expression that I prefer to “wrestling with angels.”
Today is not the first time I have spoken of and used this wonderful story, and to repeat some of the background I asked Tom to provide, Jacob and Esau were Isaac’s non-identical twin sons, but Esau was the elder, but by trickery, devised in one instance by their mother, Rebekah, Jacob took Esau’s birthright and his father Isaac’s blessing. Esau had reason to despise Jacob. Ultimately, Esau went his way, settling in Edom, but as he, Jacob, is returning to Caanan with his two brides and his children, he plans on meeting Esau, or so it seems, but afraid that Esau might be intending to kill him. So the night before they are to encounter, Jacob sends a gift ahead to Esau, and he himself camps by the wadi of a river named Jabbok, which happens also to be the Hebrew word for wrestle.
During the night, as this taughtly-told story proceeds, Jacob jabboks — whoops, —Jacob wrestles with someone described only as “A man not known to Jacob,” and at daybreak, they are in a draw, and in breaking off from their mutual clenches, the stranger gives Jacob a new name: Israel, ishra - el, which means, “he struggled with,” or “wrestles with,” God, for as our passage states: because you persevered with God and with men and you prevailed. ‘
And it has long been my favorite story, because of wrestling, not with angels, but wrestling with God. Wrestling with God and with our faith, I regularly declare, is the essence of, and for me, a necessity of, the Christian life. We wrestle with God and with our faith; we struggle to understand and to know God and what God wants of us.
Mind you there are other things to admire in this story and this is not the first time, though it has been three years, that I have noted them. First, please take it on faith from me that this is what is known as a Yahwist story; it was originally written down by the writer we — or at least I and those “cloud of witnesses” scholars with whom I agree — call the Yahwist, because he or she uses the four Hebrew letters we pronounce as Yah-way as the name for God. (For those who are interested, this writer probably lived about 1000 BCE, a good six to seven centuries almost from when this story would have occurred, lived during the time of either David or his son, Solomon. Incidentally, there is another story of the renaming of Jacob in the Book of Genesis that appears to be by the Priestly writer, written a good four centuries after the Yahwist.)
And this Yahwist loved word play. The Hebrew of the Bible, which is not the Hebrew spoken in modern Israel — the Hebrew of modern Israel is a modern, “created” language that does have some things in common, for sure, with the Hebrew of the Bible —the Hebrew of the Bible uses only consonants (including “y”), and most words have exactly three of them. Thus, Jacob in Biblical Hebrew would be J-K-B, though written and read from right to left, the reverse order from the way we write in English. The name of the river — a name which well might have arisen from the story as told orally for centuries, — Jabbok, would be the same three letters, J-B-K, but in a different order, and so in the story, JKB JBK’s through the night alongside the river JBK.
But as I have shared before, a German scholar argues — and with almost no controversial basis for opposition —that since the story was indeed originally passed on orally, we should envision a story’s tellers telling it after dark, at night, by a fire, think of a campfire, and understand that the spellbound listeners might first assume that the “stranger” with whom Jacob wrestled was a demon from the river bed, and then greet with surprise that the stranger had to have been the one whose name they would not say because it was so holy, Yahweh!
What an incredibly rich story this is, rich in more than one way, but carrying the important parallel to our lives today of wrestling with God.
Normally, I would harp on that wrestling with God in terms of our own personal struggles with our personal faith, an enlightening, and, at least for me, affirming struggle from which I hope I never break, because if I do, then, in my own estimation, I am spiritually dead.
But I want to look at that wrestling with God in a different sense today, for we are indeed struggling, most of us, in a number of ways.
The most immediate and obvious is in our relation with COVID-19 and the various ways it is affecting our lives, whether “struggling” as in fearing we might get it; or struggling because a friend or family member has it or even has died from it; or struggling with the limits on our activity or travel imposed by it; and at times, heck, much of the time, wrestling with the emotional and mental toll such struggling has upon us.
Or we might be struggling with what is going on in our nation and the world, such as with the embarrassing hypocrisy of professional basketball players or the self-serving lack of courage on the part of politicians. We might be struggling because, if we are honest with ourselves, we well may not care for either of the major party candidates for President.
And these struggles take a toll on us, and those tolls tire us; we need some relief in our wrestling with them. Why, we need, well, we need a tag team member to help us wrestle!
And we have one! Wrestling with God does not have to be, is never, an adversarial encounter; it is wrestling with one who cares for us, but when we are wrestling with something outside of us! What better tag team member to have then to have God who cares for us in our corner, ready to wrestle with us against all in our lives that is causing us to struggle!
At some point, COVID-19 will be conquered; it will not just “disappear,” but it will be conquered, so that we can live with it. Indeed, a vaccine appears not merely a hope but a likelihood— Patricia and I have both volunteered to be guinea pigs, which is to say, we have both emailed our desire to be part of the test of a vaccine. Someone will win this election, and someone will lose, but I can say with historically justified confidence, “The Republic will survive.” Our candidate will win or lose, but the Republic will survive, yet as certainly as that the sun shall rise, new issues will crop up to cause differences among us and tension within us. We can certainly use and will have need to use that tag team help!
When only a broad concept of this sermon was in my mind, I was sitting with Patricia and trying to recall the name of the famous-from-not-that-many-years-ago professional wrestler with the blond handlebar mustache who became a pop-culture figure, when we both remembered, “Hulk Hogan,” and she then asked, “What about the one who was a mayor or something in Minnesota?” And I had to look up the name of “Jesse Ventura,” because I had forgotten it. I thought his name would have made a good sermon title for the members of our church family in that great state of which he was governor.
But neither Hulk Hogan nor Jesse “the Body” Ventura can do us much good in our personal “wrestling,” in the struggles we face; neither of them can help us wrestle with what life throws at us.
But God can! God through Jesus Christ is whom we need in our corner. And do you know what? He is always in our corner.
So wrestle with God, but understand that God is not there to pin you to the mat, but to help you find the way to victory, to victory, which I define as knowing the peace, the joy, the comfort, the acceptance, the forgiveness and abundance that can be found in Him through Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray now and, I hope, every day.