Jacob isn’t a great guy. He makes his arrival in Genesis chapter 25, clinging to his brother Esau’s heel as they are born. They are twins, but as different as night and day. Esau is described as “red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment” (vs. 25). He was a hunter, “a man of the open country” (vs. 27). Jacob on the other hand, was smaller, leaner, and “was content to stay at home among the tents” (vs. 27). Esau is pretty simple, but Jacob is cool and calculating. And their parents, Isaac and Rebekah, while they surely loved both their children, did have favorites: Isaac loving Esau because of his fondness for wild game, and Rebekah loving Jacob.
Throughout his story, “Jacob is repeatedly depicted as a schemer. He convinces his brother to sell him his right to inherit as eldest son (25:29-34), and with the help of his mother, he tricks his father into giving him his brother’s blessing (27:1-40). He tricks Laban, his father-in-law, in order to receive the wages he had earned (30:37-43)” (Carvalho). Family is a place for forgiveness and acceptance, but even Jacob can sense that maybe his trickery has gone too far; at least he sees that it has put him in the crosshairs of his larger, stronger older brother.
So Jacob is estranged from his family, fleeing away to Canaan and Syria, and ultimately bringing us to this morning’s text, where he is returning, with his two wives, two maids, eleven children, and numerous livestock and servants. He has done well for himself while away, yet God has told him it’s time to go home, time to make amends, time to heal those broken relationships.
And Jacob is afraid. Which is reasonable. He did cheat his brother, and he is about to meet Esau and four hundred of his men with him. Jacob may have a lot, but he doesn’t have an army to protect his wives, children, and property. Perhaps this is why he divides everything up into two camps and sends them across the Jabbok in separate directions. If Esau and his men overtake him before he is ready, maybe the sight of his defenseless wives and children will soften the older brother’s heart and he will take pity on Jacob.
We can see in his calculation “his trickster mind engaged,” (Willis) trying to think three and four steps ahead as always. He is a con-man, a cheat, expert at deception and manipulating “virtually every member of his family” (Willis).
Throughout his life, Jacob’s story has been enmeshed with others. When Jacob is finally alone, after sending his family across the Jabbok, it “is a rare event. Like most twins, Jacob has virtually never had a solitary moment. Since his conception, he has been tied up and entangled with at least one other human being at any given moment” (Willis).
Which makes this instance very important. “The last time that Jacob spent the night alone, he was in Bethel, having barely escaped Esau. With the threat behind him, God visited the sleeping Jacob and promised even more blessings to come- land, progeny, protection (Genesis 28). On Jacob’s return trip home, God again takes advantage of the brief moment of solitude, a moment when Jacob is most exposed and vulnerable, to reveal God’s self. But this time, God comes posing as a dark and disguised threat, not as a protector” (Willis).
The text is rather vague at this point. It only says, “and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” Well, okay, but who is this guy? We never get a clear answer, though “commentators have suggested various solutions over the centuries; some say the man is Jacob’s greatest fear and rival- his brother come to him, disguised in the dark, for vengeance. Others have suggested that it is Jacob’s own inner demons that have come calling. In verse 31, however, Jacob identifies this stranger to be none other than YHWH. But why is God now playing the part of the antagonist? Is God tired of being little more to Jacob than the dispenser of goodies? Is God trying to teach the patriarch-to-be a lesson about not taking divine gifts for granted? Is this a test of character or a test of faith?” (Willis).
I think that these are all very interesting questions, and there is a lot that we could discuss about the identity of this man and his relationship with Jacob, but I want to focus on something else this morning: the outcome of this wrestling match. As Jacob finds himself on the banks of the Jabbok, alone in a desolate landscape, under a pitch black sky filled with stars, he is attacked. “All night long the two wrestle, until, as daylight approaches and Jacob seems on the verge of prevailing, his opponent dislocates his hip and demands release” (Lose).
It seems like a dirty move, to intentionally injure your opponent in such a fashion. Yet two things occur to me:
First, Jacob’s tenacity will not allow him to let go. He believes this is God, or an angel of God, and he is determined to receive a blessing. Second, this could be God’s way of teaching Jacob the lesson he so sorely needs to learn.
E pointed out to me something she learned once: “that the ligaments attached to the hip are some of the strongest and toughest in the human body.” It is not insignificant “that it was there where Jacob was touched. Sometimes, God has to put His finger on our strongholds so that we might be changed” (elenateresaann.com). It is change that Jacob so desperately needs, and the change he receives is in his name.
At this point, we should stop and consider the significance of names in this time, place, and culture. David Lose points out that “far from merely identifying a person, names in Jacob’s culture reveal one’s essential character and sometimes their destiny. And so to know a person’s name is to have a certain power over that person, for no matter what he or she says or does, you can reply, ‘Hey!- You can’t get away that; I know you’” (Lose).
There is power in names, and the meaning behind Jacob’s name is very apparent to him: “usurper, the supplanter, or, more loosely, the cheat, for he is the one who came from his mother’s womb already grabbing his brother’s heel” (Lose). Quite appropriate that this is the name of the man who “has devoted his energy and wit to usurping what rightfully belongs to others. That is, Jacob at heart is nothing more than a fraud, a common trickster, charlatan, and scoundrel. And deep down, you see, Jacob knows this. And so when the Lord pins Jacob down and demands to know his name, he is demanding no less than that Jacob confess- confess his ill-gotten gains and shoddy character, confess his misused talents and wasted life. And to do this, to come clean, is for one such as Jacob nothing less than death, for when the con man and phony is revealed for what he is, what has he left?” (Lose).
At this point, we would expect Jacob to finally be facing the music; in this confession he will finally be receiving his just desserts. Punishment is coming. “Except… except that in the face of Jacob’s confession of his name, the Lord- far from doling out the punishment Jacob both certainly merits and probably expects- the Lord gives Jacob a new name” (Lose). He is renamed Israel, one who has wrestled with God and prevailed.
This isn’t a baptism story, but it evokes a baptism story. In baptism the old self is put to death, and a new self arises from the water, filled with the breath, the Spirit, of God. In baptism, we are given a new name, “called by the name of Christ and made to be like him” (Lose). And it is with this new name that we are reborn into newness of life; we are fundamentally changed so that there is no turning back. “In Baptism God has promised to regard each and all of us always as God’s own beloved child and to account Christ’s righteousness as our own” (Lose). In baptism, the toughest, thickest part of us is broken down so that something new can grow and flourish.
Think about the power names have over us. “Truth be told, we are each called by so many names day in and day out- some of them good and affirming, many more not” (Lose). We sometimes claim our name to be something that we know it is not. We ascribe names to others, without really taking the time to consider the affect they will have- individually and in groups.
All of this can make it hard for us to believe that God really “chooses to call us Christ. And yet there it is, in the eighth chapter of Romans which simply brims over with baptismal imagery, Paul’s promise that the Holy ‘Spirit and our spirit bear united witness that we are children of God; and if we are children, then we are heirs as well, heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ’” (Lose).
So I want to invite all of us this morning to think about how we would answer the question put to Jacob: “What is your name?” Who are you really? What is your name?
There are pencils in the pews if you feel so inclined to write it down; this is not for publication in the Spire, don’t worry! This is simply for you.
“What is your name? What is it that others call you? More importantly, what is it that you call yourself? What is the name you can scarce speak for fear or shame? Scoundrel, cheat, or phony like Jacob? Unworthy, irresponsible, unfaithful? Discouraged or burnt-out? Divorced, deserted, or widowed? Coward or bully? Unloved or unloving? Disappointed or disappointing? Abused or abuser? Ugly or abnormal?” (Lose). This isn’t an easy thing to do. It can be shameful, embarrassing, and downright painful to confess these parts of ourselves.
“But I think that only as we confess the names we wear and bear can we also hear God’s unrelenting response: ‘No! No! You are Christ! To me you are Christ! You are my beloved, the one I chose and redeemed at great cost, the one to whom I am committed and to whom I promise to protect and care for all the days of your life. For you are my child. You are Christ!’” (Lose).
Remember that you are in a place where we bring all of these names every week. And every week, we confess them, and every week we leave them behind, “departing the assembly simply as Christians, those who bear the name of Christ and armed with the love, commitment, and courage of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God os Israel, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. “Names as we know, can limit us, hurt us, even kill. But so also can they heal and make alive” (Lose).
This morning, I want to remind you of your true identity; who you really are. You may stagger forth from here limping along, but know that you have been remade, renamed, and always loved. Amen.
Carvalho, Corrine. “Commentary on Genesis 32:22-31.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 20 Oct. 2013. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.
Elena, By. “The Limp.” Elena Teresa Ann. N.p., 16 Jan. 2013. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.
Lose, David. “The Power of Names.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 14 Oct. 2013. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.
Willis, Amy Merrill. “Commentary on Genesis 32:22-31.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 3 Aug. 2014. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.