Um… perhaps that’s too superficial a reading of this wonderful, edgy, mysterious, troubling, breathtaking passage. In quiet moments, over the last few years this passage has insinuated itself into my heart and mind – snaring my imagination and sparking questions. I find it startling, not a little troubling and deeply encouraging…
What I find so deeply encouraging is the way that God weaves himself into the fabric of the story. Jacob the deceiver, the con man, the cheat, the Del-Boy of the Ancient World. Flawed and damaged – and yet … God is with him. He appears in his dreams, speaks to him, promises him descendants. And Jacob is not closed to the voice of God – this man of deeply questionable ethics is responsive to God. Remember the dream of the ladder – and how Jacob set up a pillar to the Lord and made a vow to follow him. This dodgy deceiver is sensitive to God. This story won’t fit into our neat churchy categories of niceness. It burst the bounds of our tidy lines of good people in and bad people out. Thank God.
We encounter Jacob on his way home – back to Cannaan. Um .. can you see the flaw in the plan? Esau lives in Canaan. Why would Jacob head home to his angry, murderous brother? Well ok – 20 years have passed by since Jacob stole his brother’s blessing, but in relation to family feuds anyone who tells you time heals is a sucker. Jacob heads home out of inner longing and out of obedience. He goes because God told him to.
Earlier on in chapter 32 Jacob hears that Esau is heading his way with 400 men, Uh oh – ‘there may be trouble ahead’. The scriptures paint a picture of Jacob afraid and distressed, praying for God’s help, and taking some pretty pragmatic action – he splits his resources up in the hope that if Easu attacks one lot – the others will get away. Canny man. Then he takes further wily action – sending gifts on ahead to Easu in the hope of appeasing him and gaining his acceptance. Finally, he sends his family on ahead of him – and we see him alone. It is night.
See this man. This Jacob. This deceiver. This man of mixed motives. He stands at the ford of the river Jabbok, anxious and afraid. He stands at a crossing place – alone, in the darkness.
The resonance of the symbolism is palpable. The stage is set. Without warning a mysterious assailant springs onto the scene. This assailant matches Jacob, shove for shove, block for block, blow for blow. All night long they fight. Jacob will not give in. Who is the opponent? On the one hand he seems a man like any other – a man who cannot prevail against Jacob’s determination. And then from nowhere – this man puts Jacob’s hip socket out. And still Jacob fights. He’s like the black knight in the Monty Python sketch – he won’t retire from the fight. He clings on. The mysterious assailant wants to be off, it’s nearly daybreak and he wants to be gone. With his hip out of joint still Jacob hangs on. ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’
Jacob has got a thing about blessings. Remember last time he sought a blessing – disguised and deceiving he stole his brother’s blessing. Now we see him stripped down and honest. He openly names his desire, his need – which is fundamentally for God’s blessing. At this point the resonances of this passage seem to leap off the page.
Which one of us does not have that deep desire for God and God alone? We often try and satisfy it with other things – we disguise our naked need for God and seek solace in that which is not God.
Yet at some point we all come to the crossing places – the places of deep truth, honesty, openness, wrestling, struggle. The places where we realise that in truth being top of the class doesn’t satisfy that deeper need for God; being the best at this of that doesn’t cut it; all the treasures we have and hold, none of them satisfy that deep desire for God.
And then, like Jacob, we find ourselves at the crossing place, alone, wrestling in the darkness,finally naming the deepest desire of our restless hearts. God. Always and only God.
At the ford of Jabbok, the mysterious assailant asks our man his name. He answers, ‘Jacob’.
In this he is confessing – ‘I am a deceiver’. That’s what his name means. Do you think the assailant did not already know Jacob’s name? Of course he did, but that’s not the point. Jacob needed to name himself, his truth. This naming is his confession. And how does the strange being respond to this? He re-names him – you are no longer ‘the deceiver’ you are ‘Israel’ you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.
And so in an oblique and subtle way the narrative points us to the assailant’s identity. Jacob names the place ‘Peniel’ meaning the ‘face of God’ and tells himself that he has seen God face to face and survived. No-one else in the OT manages this. Off he limps, marked forever by this blessed and painful encounter.
God meets Jacob. The Shekinah in Skin embraces flawed Jacob, frightened Jacob, foolish Jacob. He takes him seriously. He meets him – shove for shove, block for block, blow for blow. He engages with Jacob. He wrestles with Jacob. He defeats Jacob. He renames Jacob.
Intimate. Present. Renaming. God.
Genesis 32. So much more than two blokes having a scrap.