Genesis 32.22 – 31
There are some parts of the Old Testament which may seem a bit dull, a bit baffling or, dare we say it, pretty irrelevant. Well, this morning’s reading certainly doesn’t present us with those challenges, though it has others. This story from Genesis of one man’s encounter with God is both powerful and dramatic, with a clear line of sight into our own lives. It is also a little mysterious – who is “the man”? It may cause us to ponder in what way we encounter God. Is it, like Jacob’s encounter, a painful struggle, or is it the peace of obedience, daily companionship, or perhaps filled with the anxieties of doubt? In what way are we touched by God?
In our Old Testament readings during the past weeks, we have been following the story of Abraham and his descendants. His grandson, Jacob, has finally been able to leave his time of servitude to his uncle Laban and to resolve the dispute with him about property. Jacob is travelling back to his homeland and is now close to the land of Edom, the home of his twin brother Esau. He hears that his brother, still angry about the trickery over losing his birthright, is advancing on him with a military force. So Jacob sends presents and conciliatory messages to Esau, full of anxiety. Jacob, the heir to God’s promise to Abraham, is in fear of his life. It seems as if, once again, God’s plan for the salvation of the world is in the balance. If Jacob is killed there would be no one to inherit God’s promise, no foundation of the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people, from which the Messiah would be born. But God’s promise has been given. So what happens?
At first it looks as if things go from bad to worse because Jacob’s life is again in danger, this time from an encounter with an unknown man. Jacob, his two wives, his two maids and his eleven children, with all his property, including his flocks, have reached the river Jabbok which can still be seen today. This is the crossing point into the Holy Land. He sends the whole party on ahead and remains behind, alone by the river. It is night and no doubt Jacob’s mind is full of many things: perhaps the day he made the lentil stew and tricked his brother; or maybe the dream he had, years before when fleeing from his angry brother, in which he saw a ladder reaching up to heaven, making a meeting point between God and humankind; or maybe his mind was simply full of fear for the future. Then we are told that “a man wrestled with him until daybreak ” (32:24). We are not told directly who this man was, but guess that it must be God himself. There are previous occasions when God has appeared in human form, for example as one of the three mysterious visitors who came to Abraham’s tent to tell him that his wife Sara would bear him a son. Jacob persists and the struggle continues all night. It proves to be the turning point in Jacob’s life, though he doesn’t come away unscathed. He is left with a permanent limp from his damaged hip. God asks Jacob to let him go. Jacob may well have sensed his opponent was God because he asks for his blessing before he will let him go. He also asks for his name, but God does not give it. Instead he gives Jacob the new name of “Israel”. The giving of a new name is symbolic of a new life, as it is in our baptism. Jacob’s new name is a clear pointer to the identity of the community of Israel, which is the main focus of the whole Old Testament story, and indeed of the New Testament. And this change in Jacob’s name comes with God’s blessing, just as night is passing into the new day. “The sun rose upon him as he passed” (32:31). In many of the Psalms we find that God’s help is often thought of as coming in the morning.
Jacob limps as he walks away from the river bank in the morning sunshine. The encounter with God has made him more frail in the physical sense. But he is now stronger than he was before, his flaws of character wrestled with in his face-to-face encounter with God. No longer the cunning and treacherous Jacob of the early part of the story, his changed character is recognised with the new name of Israel. Above all, he has learnt to recognise God. He speaks of him with awe: “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” (32:30)
Jacob’s encounter with Esau goes well and the brothers embrace. Jacob then moves on to buy land at Shechem, and he sets up an altar there to the God of Israel. Later he moves to Bethel, the place of his original dream of the ladder to heaven and the place of God’s original promise to him. He is now firmly established as the successor to Abraham and Isaac. Jacob’s story, or the story of Israel, then continues with the story of his son Joseph.
So if we can see the purpose of God at work in these stories, through the faithfulness of Abraham and even the time when Jacob’s central concern was himself, maybe we can also see God’s purposes at work in our own lives. He patiently takes us as we are, his faithfulness to us never wavers, he stays with us until we are won over – until we see him face to face – and find ourselves wonderfully in tune with his purpose.