The Wrestler, Genesis 32:22-31
First United Methodist Church, August 2, 2020
Pastor Toni Carmer
This week we’re returning to Jacob and his family who have now spent about 20 years with Laban, the father of Jacob’s two wives, Leah and Rachel. In the women’s competition to provide sons for Jacob, both Leah and Rachel have given him their maidservants as wives, and all together the 4 women have bore him 11 sons and one daughter. Sadly, after this encounter with Esau, Rachel will bear Jacob his 12th son, Benjamin, and she will die in childbirth.
Leah and Rachel are not the only people in our story who spend too much of their lives competing with one another. Jacob and Laban continue to scheme and work to “one up” the other, though both are very successful and have an abundance of flocks and possessions.
Jacob has done some scheming in building his flocks, but Laban’s livestock and riches have continued to fare well even under Jacob’s self-serving oversight, so he’s really not in a position to do too much complaining.
Still, Laban’s sons aren’t pleased with Jacob’s maneuverings and an already dubious relationship between the two men is further strained. That’s when God speaks to Jacob, telling him it’s time to go back home.
But there’s this little problem of the circumstances under which Jacob had left home all those years before. Esau was talking about killing him back then for Jacob’s heel-grabbing ways and stealing their father’s blessing. Though 20 years may be a long time to hold a grudge, Jacob isn’t going to take any chances.
Jacob explains to Leah and Rachel that God has instructed him to return to his home, painting the picture of his relationship with their father in a way that assures their support for him over their father. None of the three tell Laban what they’re doing, but they pack up everything they own (as well as at least one thing that doesn’t belong to them—Rachel steals her father’s household gods). They leave when Laban is gone, out shearing his sheep.
Three days later, Laban is told what has happened, and he pursues Jacob, catching up with them 7 days later in the hill country of Gilead. Jacob admits that he hadn’t told Laban of his plan, fearing that he would take his daughters away from him by force. He assures Laban that he hasn’t taken anything that wasn’t his, and if any of his company has taken something, that person would not be allowed to live. (Jacob, of course, doesn’t know that Rachel has taken her father’s household gods). Laban searches but doesn’t find anything (as Rachel is sitting on the camel saddle holding them and excuses herself for not getting up due to “lady-reasons”).
Jacob delivers an impassioned speech of how he has worked tirelessly and has been treated unjustly. Laban responds by suggesting they make a covenant together that neither will go beyond the pillar they build for the purpose of harming the other. The place is called Mizpah, and you may be familiar with that benediction which originally was meant as a curse, though it’s been sanitized through the centuries to carry a more positive note: “May the Lord watch between you and me when we are away from each other.”
They each take the oath in the name of the Fear of Jacob’s father Isaac (interesting, huh?), they make a sacrifice and share a meal. The following morning Laban kisses and blesses his daughters and his grandchildren and returns to his home.
Now Jacob can focus on what to do about Esau.
Once again, we’re told that the angels of God met Jacob, reminding him of God’s presence in this place that he has perceived as hostile territory, as he first traveled it 20 years ago when fleeing his brother, now as he has been fleeing his father-in-law, and now again as he prepares to meet again with his angry brother.
Jacob puts together a plan to begin to soften his brother, sending messengers ahead, to let Esau know that he is coming and seeks his favor. The messengers return to Jacob, informing him that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men.
Jacob perceives this information as a threat, and divides his company into 2 groups: if one is attacked, his hope is that the other will survive.
He then prays for the first time that we read a prayer from him since leaving Bethel. He has responded to this point, relying on his own resources and devices, but now he asks God to save him, and reminds God that God had once promised him that his descendants would be like the sand of the sea. You didn’t forget, God, right? He seems to be reminding God.
Jacob continues to work out a plan for his own salvation, creating 3 waves of his flocks and herds that will be given as gifts to his brother to pave his way. He sends these gifts on their way. We now come to the today’s scripture where he sends his family and possessions to the other side of the stream (called Jabbok), but remains by himself on the other side. We’re told that he wrestles with a man till daybreak.
We read this and presume that the man is God, or at least an angel of God. We’re surprised at Jacob’s strength to wrestle all night with God, though we’re not unaccustomed to Jacob’s wrestling—his desire to prevail at any cost—first, with his brother Esau, then with his father-in-law Laban, and now, and perhaps always, or even primarily/or most significantly with God.
Maybe it’s been with God in whom the heel-grabber has always been in conflict. Perhaps his troubles with his brother, with his father-in-law has less to do with them and who they are, and more to do with Jacob and who he perceives himself to be.
Perhaps this long wrestling match that carries on till morning is the ultimate, physical disentanglement and reorganization of all those years of whatever jealousies, insecurities, frustrations, and other emotions that Jacob carries with him, that weigh so heavy inside that he can’t fully be the man who God has called him to be. But here and now, as a result of Jacob’s persistence, his hanging in there and not letting go, the “man” who he wrestles with gives him a new name. He will no longer be the heel-grabber, but he will be Israel: the man who struggled with God and with humans and overcame. The wrestler also “marks” Jacob giving him a limp that will forever remind him of this night…will forever remind him of the wrestling match that changed his name and his perspective.
The next day Jacob is totally taken off guard by his brother’s response to his return. Surrounded by his 400 men, Esau dismounts from his horse or camel, and runs to meet Jacob—not with a weapon ready to kill him, but with his arms wide open and ready to embrace. He kisses Jacob and they weep. Jacob introduces Esau to his family, and Esau asks—what were all those animals about? Jacob says, they’re for you! Esau declines, saying he doesn’t need them; they go back and forth and finally Esau accepts the gift. And though Jacob isn’t entirely honest with his brother as they separate (I can’t help but think, really, Jacob? Just tell him the truth!), he settles far enough away that they both have room for their flocks and their families, yet close enough that when the time comes they together bury their father Isaac.
It’s a great story, isn’t it? It’s been hard at different times in Jacob’s story to understand why God would choose someone like him to build Israel, to establish God’s people, to define the lineage to Jesus, to redeem us. But perhaps what we learn once again, is that—although we do see a transformation in Jacob’s character—what is even more important than that, perhaps, is the reminder of who God is. The story is more about who God is, than about who Jacob is. It is God who brings redemption, and no matter how clever or wise or how willing we are to manipulate and maneuver, we aren’t redeemed because of who we are or what we do. God gives us the opportunity to struggle, to wrestle, to figure out who we are, and to come to the understanding of who God is (for us), so that we can ultimately, humbly and completely place our lives into God’s hands.
May those long nights in which you find yourself in the midst of a wrestling match, ultimately lead you to a place of peace and understanding. Amen.