The biblical readings for this coming Sunday are an interesting collection of texts. First, there is Jacob the trickster who finally meets up with the One he cannot outwit; you have a Psalm that acknowledges one’s radical dependence upon God; the epistle reading urges faithful ministry in season and out; and, the Gospel reading offers one of the funniest stories of Jesus—the persistent widow and the unrighteous judge.
It is the Jacob story that claims my attention in this brief reflection. He is plotting an encounter with his brother Esau, whom he had betrayed so many years before, and he is fearful. That is why he sets up an elaborate procession of presents to soften his brother’s heart, a prelude to the desired forgiveness (Genesis 32:22-31).
Prior to that encounter, he wrestles a mysterious figure throughout the night and will not let him go without receiving a blessing. Finally subduing Jacob at dawn by striking him in the hollow of his thigh, the divine presence demonstrates superior strength, or at least wrestling strategy. Jacob had demanded to know the name of his adversary; rather than revealing his name, this one grants a new name: Israel, “the one who strives with God.”
Jacob, who had feared to see Esau’s face, beholds God’s face in the form of his wrestling opponent. From that time on he limps, a mark of his prevailing with God. He is willing to risk death for the sake of the divine blessing. By re-naming Jacob—the one formerly known as the “heel grabber”—God is calling him to a new identity. God affirms his strength and tenacity even as his life will be marked by his struggle with God.
Jacob recognizes the holy encounter and moves toward reconciliation with his estranged brother. God has preserved his life, and he will behold Esau as “the face of God” (33:10).
Difficult to interpret, this text suggests that God takes seriously the unique circumstances of human lives. God meets Jacob in the place of his vulnerability and greatest fear and engages him with discipline and love. God binds the divine self to Jacob’s future and accompanies him throughout his days. I would imagine that this encounter with God is never far from Jacob’s mind as he journeys on.
It is helpful for us to remember where we have wrestled with God. They are holy places, and our lives are marked by such encounters. We can only prevail with God because God is willing to engage us in all of our humanity. Thankfully, God continues to grant us new identity by grace.
Molly T. Marshall
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