Sunday, July 31, 2011

Pile Driver

Genesis 32:22-32

So, he was worthy, in the end.

Jacob is coming home, but he is very nervous about it. The circumstances of his departure, when he stole the blessing of his father Isaac from his brother Esau, was in the past. Jacob has been to Laban and back, married two wives, Rachel and Leah. At least Seven years have passed, and Jacob has become rich, although he has done so at his father in law and clansman’s expense—all this is in the previous chapters, beginning at Chapter 27.

The night before the meeting or reunion with his brother, whom he has not seen in years and when he did last see him, he had defrauded him from the customary older son’s blessing. He has sent ahead of him a huge gift of some 500 head of livestock, but he has also split his camp into two parts, so that Esau will not destroy everything if that is his intention.

Jacob is coming home, and he is very nervous about it. He has set Rachel and Leah, their two maids, and their 11 children and sent them back across the river. So, the night before he meets his brother, full or fear and probably finally regret for what he has done, he is in his camp alone.

And the scripture says a man comes and wrestles with him until daybreak. No greeting, the scripture doesn’t say who it is, just that “a man wrestled with him.”

It’s apparently an epic wrestling match, one that lasts all night, there next to the river.

In the end, Jacob at least wrestles the man to a draw, or might even, after all those hours, be winning, so that, as the sun comes up, the man, who doesn’t want to be seen in daylight, touches Jacob’s hip, dislocating it. Jacob still has him in his grip, though, so he asks Jacob to release him, and Jacob says that he won’t unless the man blesses him, because Jacob has figured out that this man is no ordinary guy perhaps looking to pilfer the camp. There’s something supernatural about this man. Something divine. Nobody just touches a hip and dislocates it. So Jacob, showing again his quick mind and disregard for proper boundaries, asks for a blessing.

And, boy, what a blessing. Ever since Abraham, God has been promising that the descendants of this family will one day be a great nation. Abraham received the promise, as did Sarah. Isaac received it, as did Rebekah. And now Jacob has received it, but after three generations, the nation has been named. Jacob is no longer Jacob, but Israel. In Everett Fox’s translation of the Torah called The First Five Books Of Moses, it becomes plain; “Not as Yaakov/Heel Sneak shall your name be henceforth uttered, but rather as Yisrael/God Fighter.”

Jacob, as is his character, asks the man his name, but the man refuses, and says goodbye.

And as the sun comes up, Jacob/ Israel is walking by this amazing site in the desert, changed and perhaps a little less nervous. When he sees Esau coming to meet him, he puts his children with each of their mothers, and walks ahead of them. One would think that he might hide behind them before. So there has been a change.

At some point in all our lives, there is a wrestling match with God. Circumstances conspire to take away all of our support systems, and we are alone, and it is then that we have our moment to wrestle. If you can’t think of the moment when it has happened to you, perhaps by a diagnosis of cancer for you or a loved one, or a divorce, or the death of a child or spouse, or the loss of a job, it hasn’t happened yet. It is coming. We all wrestle with the divine. Sometimes, we can name multiple times we have met the man in the desert, alone. And have been changed by the contact.

At least one hopes we are changed, because if you are able to wrestle with God, be in contact with God in that way, full contact-knock-down drag-out-pile-driving-half-nelson, it is the most honest time of your life. We ask why this event has happened, and that is the first grapple. And off we go.

We want to know why. We want to know why us. We want to take God and, not even using the rules of polite wrestling, like Olympic wrestling, we want to throw chairs, stand up on a corner stanchion and fly into God with our elbows in God’s stomach, swing God into the ropes and clothesline him as he bounces off.

And he lets us.

And then, when we are worn out with all our exertions, and we realize we’re really wrestling with someone who has submitted to us willingly, who has had the power to bend us like a pretzel and chosen not to, we begin to realize the grace that has been shown. And if we’re smart, like Jacob, we start asking for blessings. God has let us beat up on him all night long, but we are right back where we started. And we are graced by it. A limping Jacob is a different man the next morning. He is now Israel. It is his children who will make up the twelve tribes. The long time blessing promised to his forefathers is starting to take shape, in him. He puts himself at the head of his family facing his brother, rather than behind the wives and children, as if to say “ don’t kill me, look at all these beautiful children and these wives, these maids, who will all be penniless and bereft if I’m dead.” He stands ahead of them.

So, in the end, he was worthy. He was made worthy by wrestling with the divine, and allowing himself to be changed by that contact.

Opening ourselves to be honest with God is scary, and may even feel improper, somehow. Certainly not respectful. But without it, we cannot grow in relationship with God. We may not no the answers when we’ve finished, but we will be changed, better than we were. If we choose to accept that blessing.

So that in the end, we may be worthy, after all. As God sees us.

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