Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
The Hip is a Reminder: Genesis 32:22-31
In her novel, The Parable of the Sower, the author Octavia Butler once wrote these words, "All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you." Jacob, the central character in today's scripture, has sure been changing alot of things up to this point in his story. The younger son destined to always be in his brother's shadow, he has changed his fate by tricking his brother into giving up his birthright and has tricked his father into giving him the blessing that was to be guaranteed to elder son. Some might call him sneaky. Others might call him wily. Either way, certain that he had a part to play in God's plan, he managed to secure a divine blessing in a world that would have much rather honor his brother.
These acts have changed Jacob, too. They have strained his relationship with his brother Esau so much that Esau is planning to kill him. His mother, brave Rebekah, found a way to save him, at least until Esau calmed down. She and his father would send him away, back to her brother Laban's home, to find a wife. It is in Laban's home that, either due to complacency because he feels as though he has already won his blessing, or due to distractedness after meeting a lovely young woman named Rachel, or just because he finally met someone craftier that himself, Jacob gets outsmarted. Jacob ends up giving up 14 years of free labor and getting tricked into marrying two of Laban's daughter, both Rachel and Leah, even though he only wanted to marry Rachel. I'm sure those weren't awkward family suppers at all.
Living with another trickster changes Jacob. Having already been outmaneuvered, when Jacob is ready to leave with his wives and children, he does not try to outwit his uncle Laban. He simply says to him, "I have worked the 14 years I promised. Let me go. I'm done." Laban initially seems amenable, saying, "I have seen by divination that your God has blessed me through you. Name your wages. I'll give it." Jacob, knowing Laban's flocks, asked to have all of the speckled and spotted sheep and goats. I've learned that these sheep and goats were uncommon. Jacob would have only been taking a minority of Laban's flocks. It would have seemed a fair, maybe even overly, small wage. Laban tries to cheat him anyway. He removes all the speckled sheep and goats and puts them in herds far away from Jacob, so when Jacob goes to the fields to gather his animals, he finds none. Jacob, changed though he may be, is not so different that he doesn't try to get back at Laban.
Remember, everything you change, changes you. Maybe one thing living on the run with Laban changed about Jacob is that it has made him patient. Remember, Jacob was once so impatient to receive God's blessing that he figured out how to take it from his brother. Now, we see him patiently rebuilding Laban's flocks. Through methods that seem both magical and technical, in six years of patient animal husbandry, still working for Laban, Jacob amasses two separate flocks: One sickly but with pure white coats, and one healthy and hearty, and speckled. Guess what he intends to do with that speckled flock... That's right. Keep it. Once again, Jacob has looked at a world stacked against him and changed it. He leaves, well, sneaks away from Laban's home with his wives, children, and gobs of livestock, to head back home to Isaac, hoping that Esau has changed, too. Or, maybe hoping that he can change Esau.
After one last go 'round with Laban, who tries to keep the family in his land but is outwitted by Jacob and Rachel (Rachel might be been changed a bit by living with such scheming men for so long), Jacob realizes that he has come to his brother's land. He wants, needs, to go through this place and return to the Land of his father, the Land that God is calling him to. If Jacob has ever been anything, it is certain that God has a plan for him, even when he feels like he has to enact the plan on his own. At this moment, Jacob is another thing, too. He is terrified. While he has changed... has grown more patient, is shifting away from trickery as first resort to trickery as second or third resort... he has no sense of how the last twenty years has changed his brother. He has never received word from their mother that Esau has tempered his anger. All he knows is that when he was last in touch with his family, his actions had helped change Esau into an angry man. Would Jacob be able to soothe, and survive, that anger?
Remember: All that you touch, you change. Here is how Jacob tried to change his brother's feelings towards him. He takes all those herds and herds of goats and sheep, plus cattle and donkeys, and sends them at the hands of his slaves to his brother as a gift. He hopes hundreds of animals will communicate his apology, or, at the very least, be a sufficient bribe. And, he sits down to wait for word from his slaves that his gifts have been accepted. Soon, though, his fear preempts the patience he learned with Laban. He gets back up and sends the women and children from his family (his wives, his concubines, his eleven sons and one daughter), and sends them across the stream, towards his brother, hoping their domesticity softens Esau. And, that, right there, at that moment when he is alone, hoping that he has done enough to change his brother's mind, is where today's reading began. Jacob, alone, by the side of the stream, waiting.
But, we couldn't get to this point without remembering what came before. Everything Jacob has touched up to this point... everything thing he has changed... it is still changing him. This reading tells us that a figure wrestles with Jacob until daybreak. Scripture is not clear about who this figure is. Some interpret this wrestling as being a dream Jacob had, with the figure being part of his own psyche that he is wrestling with. We should also remember that scripture gives us multiple examples of God appearing to people in dreams. Other interpreters, like a scholar I read this week named Wil Gafney, note that throughout Genesis, mysterious beings are interpreted to be the very presence of God. Perhaps this encounter is best understood as Jacob physically wrestling with God as he waits for word of his brother. Whether a dream or an actual physical test with the Divine, Jacob leaves the encounter changed.
First, his hip is wounded. He will forever walk with a hitch in his step as a reminder of this long night. Second, he is given a new name and a blessing. He didn't need to trick God into blessing him. He just needed to hold on until God did. The being names him "God-wrestler," a name that might be more familiar to us in the original Hebrew: Israel. The being says that this name is a reminder that Jacob, once called heel, grasper, usurper, cheat, has striven with God and humans and has prevailed. Jacob stiffly stood up and gave the place a name (of course he named a place that changed him... that's what Abraham did... that's what Hagar did... it runs in the family).
Jacob, now Israel, then began to limp towards his family, and towards his brother. After holding on tight to God, he was finally ready to face his greatest fear, his brother's response to his return. Isn't it amazing the difference it made in Jacob's life to be called "God-wrestler" instead of "heel/usurper?" In just a few verses, we see him shift from a fearful, conflicted, if persistent, man into a man who bravely steps out to meet his brother, not sure of his response, but certain that he has been changed through God's blessing, and hoping that Esau can feel that change. He is still nervous, still unsteady on his newly injured hip, but he has also become steadfast and resolute, knowing that he is prepared for whatever happens next. In case you're wondering what happens next, Esau forgives him. He embraces him and kisses his face and they weep together. They reunite as family and live as neighbors. Jacob's whole world changes. And, so does Esau's.
So, what are you changing? How are you being changed? What is God changing through you? Are you ready to wrestle with God and with all that you have done? Are you ready to walk away with a sore hip as a reminder of all you've been through? I'm not sure Jacob was ready, but, it happened anyway. Maybe this story is here to remind us that this kind of change can happen with and through us, too.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing:
Beth L. Tanner: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3366
Amy Merrill Willis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2132
Wil Gafney: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=988
Kathryn Schifferdecker: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=116
David Lose: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1597
And, thanks to Dr. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder for the reminder of Octavia Butler's powerful words during a lunch event at the recent United Church of Christ General Synod event.
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.