Wrestling and Parting Ways

November 18, 2011

When one writes a daily blog, one participates in an aerobic rhythm of listening and speaking, pondering and reflecting, thinking and writing. This essay takes me at least an hour, sometimes two a day. That time is spent struggling with a Scripture, understanding its original context, and then bringing it to life for today. My main question is, Does this Word have anything to say to me as a Presbyterian clergywoman or to the Presbyterian elder somewhere struggling with the way things are in our denomination?  Sometimes a blog is sparked by an event that begs for a biblical response. Today, it is discovering a mysterious event in the life of Jacob. I’ve been wrestling with it all day, unsure of the outcome. I’d better figure it out soon, as I am preaching on it this Sunday!

Jacob’s relationship with his father-in-law has deteriorated to a point that he must exit Laban’s estate and head out with his family (Genesis 31). This entails a journey from Haran (on the present-day border between Turkey and Syria) southwest to Canaan. Jacob flees, Laban pursues, Jacob is frightened, Laban surprises them all with a conciliatory attitude and a blessing as his daughters and grandchildren make their way back to the land of Jacob’s father without him. They part ways.

Before he can find safe haven there, however, Jacob must also “face the music” with his twin brother Esau. Given Jacob’s wresting away Esau’s birthright, the two are not on good terms. In Genesis 32, the reader feels Jacob’s anxiety rising. He is accompanied by angels, which affords him some reassurance of God’s protection. But when he hears from messengers that Esau is coming to meet him accompanied by 400 men, he experiences “great fear and distress.” He activates a strategy to mitigate his risk: dividing his people and flocks into two groups, and then praying to God, “Save me from the hand of my brother” (Gen 32:11). He sends servants ahead of him to meet Esau with extravagant gifts of livestock—Jacob is very wealthy—and ushers his wives, servants, and eleven sons to safety across the Jabbok River.

So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

The man asked him, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob [Cunning], but Israel [Wrestler with God], because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”

Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”

But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip.

What follows in Chapter 33 is a peaceful reunion of twin brothers, a Jacob willing to share the blessing he finally realizes can only come from God, making amends. This coming together is a formality, however, as Esau has his own land south of Canaan to which he returns, and Jacob is heading to Shechem in the northern half of the territory. They part ways, friends, but apart.

The reconciliations Jacob experiences are opened to him only as he understands his primary relative is God. God is the giver of blessing, Jacob the recipient. God is the one who brings about justice, Jacob only God’s spokesperson (31:42). Jacob can forsake scheming, and embrace the life God wants to give him on God’s terms alone. But God must wrestle with Jacob, show superior strength, overpower his impulses, wrest his cunning out of him, and render him weak and dependent upon God. No one encounters God face to face and comes away unscathed.

In our struggle against sin, scheming, and inflated self-image, we Presbyterians may well come to better terms with one another if we each have our wrestling match with God. And then, known to him by name and marked for life by our encounter, we may be able to reconcile enough with each other to live alongside if not under the same tent. We may part ways, but if we are each reconciled to God, we depart as friends.

I pray that such an encounter might transform the way the Jacobs and Esaus of the Presbyterian Church find each other in order to part ways so that both may prosper. Make it so, Lord, for the sake of your Kingdom. Amen.


4 Responses to “Wrestling and Parting Ways”

  1. Whit Says:

    Mary, I think you’re ready for Sunday. Let each Presbyterian draw his or her own lesson for that Presbyterian’s own actions and words.

  2. Tom Paine Says:

    Mary, let’s also remember that Jacob feared Esau when, in the end, Esau didn’t want to do any harm to him. I pray love, not fear, dictate our actions.

    • revmary Says:

      I agree, Tom!

      Mary Holder Naegeli From my iPhone

      • Whit Says:

        While I agree with Tom’s comment, and its implication, sometimes, as with the Covenant Network attempt to exclude from office those who could not, as a matter of conscience, participate in the ordination of gays, sometimes people do want to hurt you.

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