In a Nutshell…
I thought it might be useful to do a very brief review of where we’ve come – specifically in the book of Genesis.
Again, in a very brief way, we are thinking about all of this using the framework of story. Another way to say this is simply that we are thinking about the interconnectedness of the Bible. We are thinking about how Genesis relates with and/or connects with Exodus, which connects with Judges and Ruth, which connects with Leviticus and the Psalms and Proverbs and the Prophets, which connect with Matthew, Mark, and John, and Paul and Peter. All of this is the story of God bringing about redemption in and of the world, a story of which we are a part.
So we begin with Genesis and in the beginning of Genesis we see the story of a good creation into which humanity was created and placed for God’s good purposes. However, humanity sinned (and is still sinful), breaking our connection with God, with this world, and with each other.
We saw the effects of sin as humanity grew further and further away from God’s purposes. And we saw (or were rather reminded of – as He spoke to Adam and Eve) the consequences of sin – that sin leads to (and in fact, is) death.
We were then introduced to Abraham, the father of our faith. We saw that God called Abraham into covenant, revealing to Abraham that God’s intention is to restore a broken humanity and to restore right relationship with Him. Abraham was called into a new land, which would be given to him by God, as he was called to be the father of a new people. That people would be realized, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in us – the Church.
But the beginning of that new people, the sign of that new people, a sign because it could only be realized through the power and grace of God, was Abraham’s son, Isaac. From Isaac is born Esau and Jacob. This is where we are in our story so far.
Now the main themes we’ve been seeing so far have revolved largely around:
- Sin – this was prominent in first eleven chapters of Genesis, as we just touched on. But it’s also been prevalent in the stories of Abraham and Isaac. Remember, for example, the story of Abraham twice lying about his relationship with Sarah, claiming that she was his sister instead of his wife. And remember how we see this exact same sin repeated by Isaac.
- Promise – in the midst of this sinfulness, we see that God is committed to the redemption of His creation, which He will accomplish (in some way) through His people (to Abraham – I will make you into a great nation; I will bless you so that you will be a blessing).
Related to both of these themes, we see that God’s chosen people repeatedly have difficulty trusting in the promises of God, seeking to achieve blessing by their own strength and human wisdom.
Now Jacob’s story is pretty detailed in Genesis. We’ve only, so far, touched on a couple of parts of that story. We learned about Jacob’s birth, which sets up his character. We learn how he deceives his older brother Esau out of, first, his birthright, and then his father’s blessing. And we know that Jacob, despite being the younger brother, has been chosen by God. As an aside, this is one of the motifs we see throughout the Bible – God consistently (it seems) chooses the younger over the elder; the weak over the strong; the poor and rejected(?) over the rich and powerful. Nevertheless, despite the prophecy about Jacob, we are struck with the feeling that this can’t be right. God can’t have chosen (or maybe “shouldn’t” have chosen) Jacob – because he seems like a pretty big jerk.
So this brings us back to our story as we continue on with Jacob today. As a quick note, we are going to move through the story much more quickly. We spent a good deal of time on the Primordial History, and a lot of time on Abraham (Isaac’s story is just short), but we will be moving much more quickly now.
The first passage we will look at is Genesis 28:10-22. Now after the incident where Jacob steals Esau’s blessings, he is sent away to escape his brother Esau’s anger.
This passage is important because it leaves no doubt (if there was any) that Jacob, despite all his deficiencies, is indeed chosen by God. The words spoken to Jacob are remarkably similar to those spoken to his grandfather, Abaham:
13 There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. p 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Now we may expect that, despite his natural character, following this encounter with God, Jacob might change – become a “better person.” But what we see over the next few chapters is that Jacob is very much Jacob.
Jacob, having left his home country, meets his uncle Laban. And we get this series of stories where Jacob’s deceitfulness (cunning?) clashes with Laban’s deceitfulness (cunning). In the first of these encounters (Jacob vs. Laban), Jacob ends up marrying Rachel and Leah (sisters!). Then we find out about the birth of Jacob’s sons who are the beginnings of the 12 tribes of Israel. Then, we get this weird story of Jacob tricking his uncle out of a lot of sheep. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this story except that it reminds us again of Jacob’s character and that, perhaps, this deceitful character led to a lot or worldly wealth.
As a result of his deceitfulness, Jacob again flees, this time from his uncle. Laban pursues him and they have an argument of words (my interpretation) but ultimately Laban lets Jacob leave with everything he has. Jacob, as directed by God, decides to return to his homeland, knowing that he will have to now face his brother, Esau, whose anger he originally left to escape.
This brings us to our second passage today, Genesis 32:22-32. It’s a bit of a weird passage and people have approached it a lot of different ways. However, this is what John Goldingay has to say about it:
Goldingay notes that most translations (ex. NIV) title this section, “Jacob wrestles with God”. However, Goldingay notes that in the passage, it seems that it’s actually God who wrestles with Jacob. It may seem like syntactical niggling, but the point is a good one. When we say (or read) “Jacob wrestles with God,” we tend to think of it as Jacob trying to get something from God. We can think of our own experiences where perhaps we’re struggling with something, we are wanting something, basically as we are trying to convince God of something or other. Perhaps we want peace, perhaps we want more faith, perhaps we want victory over something.
But Goldingay points out that this is not what seems to be happening in the story. The story tells us that a man (identified as God) wrestled with Jacob. This point is important because it helps us understand the nature of the struggle and, therefore, the overarching theme of Jacob’s story. In Goldingay’s words:
So why is God wrestling with Jacob? God has been doing that all Jacob’s life, trying to turn Jacob into the man God wants him to be but failing. Here is God trying again but succeeding only by cheating, which means the victory is hollow. Perhaps one reason God appears as just a man is that this makes it a fair fight. If God overwhelms us simply through having superior fire power, it’s not much use as a victory. God has to “win us,” as we say. We have to want to yield to God’s purpose and God’s vision for us if the change in us is to be authentic. But Jacob does not want to yield, and never does.
Yet God does bless him and gives him a new name that epitomizes his nature. As is often the case, the comment about the names has some subtleties about it. It links Jacob’s new name with the fact that he is the great fighter. And yes indeed, Jacob is a person who keeps fighting with God in order to stay the man he is. In the end God lets him do that because even God cannot force people to change. God can only make them limp. Yet a neophyte Hebraist would know that “Isra-el” does not actually mean “he fights/persists/exerts himself with God.” It is a statement of which God is the subject—as God was the initiator of the fight in the story. If anything, “Isra-el” would mean “God fights/persists/exerts himself.” God strives to get a person like Jacob to become the kind of person he could be and should be and that God wants him to be, and keeps at it in this struggle with Jacob.
In other words, how hard is it for any of us – indeed, for each of us – to submit to God’s will for our lives. How hard do we resist God’s way, choosing instead to follow our own way? Wouldn’t we all rather trust in our own strength, our own wisdom, our own understanding of the best way, the “best practices”?
In this light, the whole “touching of Jacob’s hip” makes a lot of sense. Because so often, we resist God’s leading in our lives. We work and work from our own strength and ability. So we need to be made weak in order to allow God to do His work to make us the kind of person we are meant to be.
So What Now…?
So what do we do with Jacob’s story. How do we understand it in the light of God’s story of redemption and how we fit into that story? A few thoughts emerge for me regarding Jacob’s arc in this story.
Firstly, I want to remind us that we have to be careful whenever we try to derive a “should” from an “is.” Or to put it another way, we don’t want to confuse that which is descriptive with something that is prescriptive. So we don’t want to confuse what scripture tells us about Jacob’s story with what it might necessarily say about our story. Nevertheless, one of the things we see in scripture, and that we know about human beings, is that people tend to be people.
It seems that Jacob was intent on going his own way, doing his own thing, trusting in his own strengths. And it was only through his weakness that God is able to speak into his life.
How much do we do the same thing? How much do we rely on our own abilities to achieve what we think we want? Even in terms of spiritual maturity, we often find ourselves doing things according to what we think are our strengths instead of relying on God. And yet how well do we know that God speaks and moves most often in our weakness?
The second thing that I want to note about Jacob’s story is a familiar theme – that God pursues us. In spite of Jacob’s character, which we’ve thoroughly discussed, God still , pursues him. And in pursuing him, or through pursuing him, God is pursuing redemption.
We often feel like redemption/salvation/the kingdom life is something that we have to pursue, something we have to chase, something that we have to work so hard for. Now obviously there is an element of truth to that. If we want to be the people of God, then we need to live as the people of God.
But sometimes we feel like we’re chasing something that is constantly moving away from us. We feel as if we’re chasing something that’s always moving further away. It all just feels so hard. Or we feel like it’s some mysterious thing that God has hidden from us – we need to find the key, the right set of words or actions, that will unlock the treasure. And the truth of the matter is – excepting the fact that we’re all broken by our sinfulness and that we therefore tend to get in our own way – God has made it so simple because God has in fact done all the work. The truth of the matter is that God wants it so much more than we do. That God desires us so much more than we desire Him.
I don’t know if you ever feel like it’s so hard. Like following Jesus, doing this Christian life thing, is so hard. And I’m not saying that it’s not – at least I agree that it can certainly feel like that. But what’s really real is that the heavy lifting has been done; the hard work is accomplished for us; and God pursues us relentlessly. Sometimes, maybe, we just need to get out of our own way, get out of God’s way, and let God be God.