Wrestling with God

Here’s a thesis: the Bible’s endurance comes from its mystery. These Genesis stories were told for hundreds of years before every being written down. The stories are probably close to three thousand years old. They were campfire tales, told and refined by storytellers long before the scribes got hold of them. Genesis is a book of primordial stories. Genesis tells us where God’s people came from, and part of the endurance of these stories is that they’re often not easy. They don’t resolve themselves simply. What about life with God is simple?

Jacob’s story is one of the more complex in Genesis. This morning we find him on the riverbank. He’s been up all night. He’s limping. He’s been wrestling. With whom? That’s part of the mystery. The scripture simply says he encountered a stranger. Centuries later the prophet Hosea tells us it was an angel. In the moment, Jacob believes he has wrestled God. 

Jacob’s Backstory

Context is everything in the Bible, so we have to know, this isn’t the first time Jacob has wrestled. In fact, we hear that he and Esau tussled in Rebecca’s womb. The twins were born, Esau first, but Jacob didn’t let go of his heel. 

Jacob is the trickster, he name can be translated just that way: trickster. He tricks Esau into giving him the birthright for some food. The with his mother’s help, he seals the deal. In the famous story, old Isaac has gone blind. Worried for his future, he wants to bless his firstborn son Esau, to continue the promised family line. But while Esau is hunting, Jacob puts on goatskins. He appears like his hairier brother to his father’s touch. Isaac blesses Jacob instead of Esau, and through cunning Jacob becomes the inheritor of God’s promise.

Now the trickster also gets his comeuppance. Last week we heard the story of Jacob’s marriages. Out of fear of his bigger stronger brother, Jacob flees and ends up in the household of Laban. Your assistant rector, the Rev. Laurie Anzilotti was complaining about this text last week. In the story, Laban’s daughters are introduced only based on their physical beauty. Laurie is right to be frustrated. This is not one of the Bible’s better moments on gender. Laban treats the young women as commodities to be traded. But it’s also refreshing, surprising, what the story does not say. Leah is not ugly. Leah is not repugnant. The story is more interesting because it’s not as usual, not what we’d expect.

In the marriage Laban manages to trick the trickster. You see, whether for her beauty, or for some wonderful intellect or spirit the Bible fails to mention, Jacob falls in love with Rachel, the younger daughter. Jacob asks for her hand. Laban demands he work for seven years to earn his bride. On the wedding night, Laban instead puts his older daughter Leah in the bridal veil. Now, why Jacob fails to recognize the woman he loves until AFTER the deed is done, is left to mystery. But the trickster has been tricked. And in a reversal of Jacob’s trickery over Esau, Laban substitutes the older child for the younger.

Marriage as we know is not a static institution. 3000 years ago, marrying Leah did not prevent Jacob from also marrying Rachel. But Laban made him work seven more years for the privilege. There’s even more to the story, but it’s hard to describe because it’s all about livestock transfers and inheritance, and I’ve been going on long enough. Know that trickery is at the heart of Jacob’s story. It’s the unifying theme. And I in the end, Jacob has to flee his father-in-law’s land and head back to Canaan. 

It’s on this journey home that we find Jacob, on the night before he has to encounter his brother Esau. He’s scared. He should be. His messengers have told him that Esau is coming with an army of 400 men. The trickster will have to face up to the brother whose blessing, whose birthright he stole. I wonder if this night isn’t full on doubt and angst for Jacob. He revisits all the tricks, all the deceit, all the ways he has connived to reach this riverbank. And it is here, in this pregnant night, that the mysteries reach their peak.

I suspect if the story gave an easy resolution, it wouldn’t have endured. Easy stories are easily forgotten. The story of Jacob is full of questions. Did God destine the brothers to fight? They were wrestling in the womb. Why did Isaac and Rebecca encourage their rivalry with parental favoritism? Did God really need Jacob to use trickery? Or did God prosper Jacob despite his tricks? 

You can wrestle these questions, and the solutions will elude you. I think the story works because it invites us to enter into the questions, and it doesn’t give easy answers.

Life with God isn’t simple. It’s not always cut and dry. There are ups and downs. And it is frustrating. And the meaning doesn’t come easily. Often questions of discernment, questions of big decisions don’t resolve easily.

A new set of questions for Jacob:

But let me offer one set of questions I have been leaning into lately around Jacob. For me, it helps to remember that the people who will take his new name, the people of Israel, were from the moment Jacob flees his brother, a minority community. Interpreters of Jacob’s story haven’t always had to struggle so much. In the first and second century the rabbis always interpreted Esau and his people Edom as a stand in for Rome. In earlier centuries Esau was probably seen as an analogue of Persia, Babylon, whoever the great power was in the region. This was read as a story of God using Jacob’s cunning to overcome oppressors. 

Jacob is a trickster, and whether any given trick was just or right is a hard question to ask. But could trickery be a blessing? Could a willingness to bend the rules save lives? Could God use even a politician like Jacob? Is this story a witness to what the late scholar Katie Cannon called “God’s Fierce Whimsy?”

Approaching the answer might be easier a few generations down the line. In a few weeks, we will read the story of two of Jacob’s descendants, the midwives Shiprah and Puah. These wily women trick Pharaoh. The Egyptian king tells them to kill the Hebrew boys. Instead they lie and tell him “Hebrew women are not like your women…they are vigorous.” Were Shiprah and Puah wrong to deceive pharaoh? I’d say not. 

As Augustine wrote and Dr. King quoted:

lex iniusta non est lex

“an unjust law is no law at all.” Could God favor the tricksters, the ones who push the status quo away from injustice and inequity? Faced with oppressive or incompetent rulers, God’s people do what they can to save lives. Is there a sense of humor in these texts? Can God be a bit of a trickster, when it comes to working for those whose lives are not valued by their neighbors?

The Mystery of the Story speaks to the mystery of our days

In the days ahead many of us are facing difficult decisions. Some of us are setting policies for classrooms, for workplaces, for our household about how to stay safe in the midst of a pandemic. Others of us are interpreting those policies, trying to figure out how to work with the system we are handed to keep our co-workers, our students, even our parents safe. Might the Bible give us a bit of license to bend the rules for the sake of preserving life? 

Those who look to the Bible as a set of divine answers, as a static set of responses, are having a hard time right now. The word “coronavirus” doesn’t appear in Greek or Hebrew. Maybe you’ve heard it is better to think of the Bible as a book of direction (singular) rather than a book of directions (plural). I might say the Bible is better at giving us questions than answers.

If that’s right, then the mystery of this story might just speak to the mystery of our days. Might there be an invitation to keep going, to keep struggling, to keep at it until you can wrestle a blessing out of this nightmare? These days it is tempting to throw up your hands, to say, “there’s no way to know the right thing to do.” It could be easy to give into anxiety. But could we dare to believe, like Jacob, God be meets us at the riverside, and invites to stay in the struggle?

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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