The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
E. Bevan Stanley
August 2, 2020
Proper 13, Year A
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. In the Name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.
It is pretty ironic that in the last few days, my left hip has suddenly started to hurt. I have not wrestled with anyone recently, so I am taking it as a sign that I should preach on Jacob this morning.
Let us review Jacob’s story up to this point. He was born the younger of a pair of twins. He was named Jacob, which means “Supplanter.” His brother was named Esau, which means “hairy.” Their father, Isaac, loved Esau more of the two, while their mother Rebecca loved Jacob more. When they were young men, Esau came back from a hunting trip very hungry. Jacob had some lentil stew on the fire and Esau asked he brother for some. Jacob took advantage of his brother’s need and refused to give him any food unless he turned over his inheritance rights as the first born to Jacob, the Supplanter. Then when Isaac lay dying, Jacob pretended to be Esau. Isaac was blind, and Jacob took advantage of that disability to cheat Esau out of their father’s final blessing. Esau was furious. He waited until Isaac died and then planned to murder Jacob. Rebecca got wind of the plot, and told Jacob to flee. He went to his uncle Laban’s place back in Haran. There he met Laban’s two daughters, Leah and Rachel. He fell in love with Rachel and agreed to work for Laban seven years for Rachel to be given to him as his wife. When the time came, Laban substituted Leah, and Jacob had to work a second seven years for Rachel. Then he continued to manage Laban’s flocks and herds. He engaged in genetic management of the flocks so that his flocks grew much faster than Laban’s. Laban’s son noticed the inequality, and became increasingly hostile to Jacob. The day came when the situation had moved from uncomfortable to dangerous, and Jacob fled taking his wives, and all their flocks and cattle. Laban pursued them and caught up with them. They made and agreement to part ways. As Jacob is approaching the Jabbok river, which marks the boundary of the land of Abraham and Isaac, he hears that his brother, Esau, is coming to meet him with a group of four hundred men. This is very ominous. Jacob does everything he can think of to improve his odds of surviving this encounter. It has been twenty years since he left; maybe Esau has cooled down a bit. Jacob sends lavish gifts to his brother ahead of the caravan. Then he divides the caravan into two parts, figuring that if Esau got one the other might still escape. Then he sends his wives and household across the Jabbok, remaining alone the other side. He is still the supplanter, the plotter, the wily wheeler-dealer, the one always looking to save his own neck. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
At this point the text takes on a mysterious, dreamlike quality. We are not told who this “man” is. The fact that this partner in the wrestling match needs to leave before the sun rises suggest he might be some other kind of being, perhaps a desert djinn or a river spirit. Later on Jacob will perceive him as a messenger of God. This struggle involves grappling and much contact. Jacob has to hold onto the man until daybreak in order to force a blessing out of him. It is a reversal of his forcing a blessing out of his father. Then his father was blind and blessed him by mistake. Now in the dark it is Jacob who cannot see and must wait until dawn to receive the blessing. The scene reminds me of the verse from Psalm 63: “My soul clings to you; your right hand holds me fast.”
The text says, “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.” I don’t know what the rules were, but this sounds like the opponent resorted to dirty fighting when he realized he was losing.
Then there is the whole business about names. The man 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 Supplanter is now the God-striver. Jacob leaves the place in the morning with new name and a limp. He has been marked forever by this encounter with God. When he does meet his brother, he is very conciliatory, they make up and agree to peaceful co-existence. After this there is little more said about Jacob until we get to the stories about his twelve sons and Joseph’s adventures in Egypt. It seems that, having striven with God, Jacob has stopped striving with other humans.
What we take away from a story like this is a series of questions rather than answers. When have we wrestled with God? Was it a matter of winning, or more just holding on? Did we learn anything new about God? Did we learn something about ourselves? Did we get a new name? A new way of seeing the world? Did it change any of our human relationships? Is wrestling with God something that only happens once in a lifetime, or more. Maybe daily? Jacob doesn’t seem to have been seeking guidance from God, but the encounter seems to have changed his way of relating to people.
The journalist, Bruce Feiler, in his book, Walking the Bible, tells of his pilgrimage to many of the sites of the stories in the Five books of Moses. Towards the end of the book he visits the river Jabbok. This is what he says about this story of Jacob’s nighttime encounter:
“The scar, significantly, does not end up on Jacob’s hand, nor on his head, his heart, or his eyes. Humans experience God, the text seems to be saying, not by touching him, imagining him, feeling him, or seeing him. Jacob is scarred on his leg, for the essential way humans experience God, the text suggests, is by walking with him.”
So today, we hear a story. We make of it what we can. And if it continues to haunt us with its implied questions, it has done its work well. Let us walk with God.
 Bruce Feiler, Walking the Bible: a journey by land through the five books of Moses. 2001. New York: HarperCollins. P. 420.