August 3, 2014
The Pink Panther movies were popular when I was a kid. Peter Sellers starred as Inspector Clouseau, who was a bumbling but very funny detective. While I was more attuned to the Saturday morning Pink Panther cartoon, and even though I haven't seen one of the movies in years, I do remember one particular aspect about each film. Clouseau had a manservant named Cato. Cato was a master of martial arts, and it was his job to attack Clouseau at unexpected times. This was meant to keep the inspector vigilant and on his toes when dealing with criminals. What was funny is that Cato would ambush him anyplace, any time, even at home. But if the telephone rang or someone came to the door, he would immediately return to his role as the devoted valet.
When I read this story about Jacob wrestling this mysterious man by the river Jabbok, I see it as a Cato/Clouseau moment. It's not that I find humor in it. It's not a funny story. But reading about the struggle between Jacob and this man, I can't help but get the sense that this was an ambush of sorts. I doubt the man presented himself to Jacob and said, "Wanna wrestle?" It wasn't a sporting match. It was a slugfest.
It is nighttime and Jacob has sent his family, his wives and children, ahead of him. He is left alone, and in the dark a man wrestled with him. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to wrestle back and forth like this for hours. It must have been hours, because it is just before daybreak that this man realizes that Jacob won’t be overcome, so he touches his hip and dislocates that joint between hip and thigh. As the sky around them begins to change from dark to light, the man demands release. Jacob, the grasper, the one who was born clutching his older brother's heel, refuses to let the man go. He wants a blessing. The man asks Jacob his name. When Jacob replies, "Jacob," the man gives him a new name; Israel. The name Israel, according to the text, means one who has striven against God and humans and prevailed.
This is our story today. But I think in order to understand a little better what's happening in this text, we have to know what's come before. A lot has happened between the verses we read last week about the marriage of Jacob to Leah. And Rachel. And Zilpah. And Bilhah. Jacob has worked for his father-in-law, Laban, for 20 years. While Jacob was growing his family, he was also growing Laban's flocks. Jacob's labor for Laban has made Laban wealthy and prosperous. When Rachel, who was barren for so long, gives birth to Joseph, Jacob goes to Laban and asks to be released from his bonds to Laban. He wishes to go back to his homeland, perhaps make things right with his brother Esau. Laban agrees to divide the flocks with Jacob. Jacob will take the goats, the sheep that are striped, spotted or speckled and leave the rest for Laban. Laban agrees but gives orders that any animal with those markings must be separated from the flocks and herds before Jacob can take them. Jacob knows what his father-in-law has done, and in either the first instance of genetic engineering or through some sort of magic, is able to manipulate the animals as they breed. So more lambs and kids are born striped, speckled or spotted than any other kind. Thus they belong to Jacob.
Jacob hears Laban's sons grumbling that he has more of their father’s wealth than he deserves. He also knows that his esteem in Laban's eyes has decreased significantly. Being told by God in a dream that it's time to leave, Jacob talks it over with Leah and Rachel. They pack up, people and animals alike, and leave early in the morning. When Laban hears about it, he chases after them. In the midst of the packing and the leaving, Rachel stole her father's household gods. Laban thinks Jacob stole them, and accuses him of it when he finally catches up to them. Jacob doesn't know what Rachel has done, so he tells Laban to search the place. He won't find anything. Rachel hides the gods by stuffing them into a saddle bag and sitting on them. When her father comes into her tent to search, she apologizes for not standing up in the presence of her father, but she is "in the way of women." When Laban is satisfied that his gods are not with Jacob and company, they make a covenant and mark it with two pillars of stone. I find it almost funny that the beginning words of their covenant – “The Lord watch between you and me, when we are absent one from the other" – are used on matching necklaces to be shared with friends, and embroidered on sentimental little pillows. However when you read them in their actual context, it's not a sweet sentiment between father and son-in-law. It is an uneasy truce at best. The next words that follow are Laban's warning to Jacob that if he does anything to hurt Laban's daughters, God will know. In other words Laban says, "You hurt my girls and God'll get ya for it!"
Laban and his posse leave, and now Jacob must face the prospect of seeing his brother again. He divides his entourage into groups and sends them ahead one after the other, both to offer gifts to Esau, and most likely to show off his wealth and resources. Finally he sends his wives and children ahead, and we come at last to our part of the story. Jacob, alone at night, encountering God.
Up until this moment, Jacob has been sort of the Justin Bieber of the Old Testament. You can't understand why a punk like him has been chosen in the first place, and you want to smack him a good deal of the time. But something about this night is different. Something about this encounter with the divine is different. His dream of staircases and angels was a holy moment to be sure, but it was merely a portent of what was to come. That dream didn't seem to fundamentally change Jacob. As one commentator wrote, for the first time Jacob, the trickster, the deceiver, doesn't try to weasel his way out of a confrontation. He doesn't bargain or try to slip away. He wrestles. He struggles. He stands his ground as surely as the other man stands his. And from those dark hours of struggle and wrestling, as the new day dawns, Jacob is changed. He is transformed. He receives the divine touch. He becomes Israel.
I realize that likening the dislocated hip bone Jacob is left with to a touch from the divine seems counter-intuitive. Shouldn’t a divine touch be something that perfects rather than harms? Shouldn’t the divine touch heal rather than wound? This isn’t just a temporary wound either. Not only does Jacob leave this night of struggle with a blessing and a new name, he leaves with a permanent limp as well. But nothing in our scripture, really nothing in our faith, claims that when we encounter God – in whatever way we encounter God – we leave somehow perfected. No, often we leave those encounters with a scar … or two. I don’t mean to imply that God just arbitrarily hurts or harms us. I don’t think of God as One who wounds us for the heck of it or out of some nastiness on God’s part. But I don’t think that God calls us into being so that we will have perfect, happy, scar free lives. I think God creates us, loves us, and calls us to live faithful lives. Doesn’t being faithful sometimes mean that we are called to do what is difficult, to make choices that are right rather than easy, and to speak and witness to the gospel among people who seem most different from us?
Doesn’t it also seem to be that we are formed more by our struggles than we are by the easy times in our lives? I may not have wrestled with the divine physically, but I have spent nights wrestling with God spiritually. I have spent those proverbial long, dark nights of the soul struggling with God, fearful of the person God is calling me to be. Fearful of the person God created me to be. But perhaps it is in those long nights, those times of struggle and wrestling, that we see God most clearly. Perhaps it is in our struggles that we feel God with us most certainly. I don’t believe for a moment – nor will I ever – that God wants or delights in the suffering of any of his children. But I also know that none of us gets through this life without struggle, without scars, without being wounded in some way or another. Perhaps the divine touch is not so much about protecting us from the wounds, but helping us to live more fully from them. Perhaps the divine touch helps us to be, as Henri Nowen put it, wounded healers. We find our empathy, our compassion, our commitment from our wounds. We are transformed both by them and the struggles that create them.
William Sloane Coffin once preached these words, “It is often said that the Church is a crutch. Of course it’s a crutch. What makes you think you don’t limp?”
We are all wounded. We all bear scars from those wounds. We all limp. But the good news is that God is with us in the struggle. We may walk away limping, but when we receive the divine touch, we walk away blessed. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia.” Amen.