Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Genesis Notes: Wrestling With Faith and a New Name

GENESIS 31 - 33

These are action-packed chapters. Jacob realizes it isn't safe to have such success when Laban can take it away. He packs up for home, faces down his angry father-in-law, prepares for meeting his presumably angry twin, and ... most famously ... wrestles with an angel, who gives him a new name.

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Léon Bonnat

One thing you've got to say about Jacob. His life was never boring. Or was it? I bet that during those years of exile, working to win Rachel, supporting a growing family, finding a way around unreasonable father-in-law demands, life must have seemed mundane. Frustrating probably. Just like the way we feel when working every day, dealing with family issues, and so forth.

What becomes really clear is that those long, boring, mundane years wrought a change in our trickster.
Several things stand out about God in these chapters: First He keeps His promises. He stayed with Jacob as He promised at Bethel, even though Jacob was gone for a full 20 years. Also as promised, He gave Jacob descendants and is taking him back to Canaan safely, protecting him from Laban's wrath. Secondly, God does not depend on perfect people but uses even human failings to advance His plan. And third, He protects His own, intervening if and when it is necessary. ...

What Jacob does with his fear [of Esau's anger when they meet again] shows how far he's come in 20 years. He takes immediate action to protect his family and herds by dividing them up, and then attempts to pacify his brother and perhaps hold him off a bit by sending ahead a series of herds as presents to him. But most importantly, he prays.  ...

The young Jacob longed for what God promised him and did anything and everything in his power to get there. The mature Jacob continues to want what God has for him and does what is prudent to move ahead, but his prayer shows that he knows he is in God's hands and wants to work with him.
Genesis, Part II: God and His Family
Even though Jacob is a changed man, that doesn't mean he is done wrestling. As he is alone, the night before his meeting with Esau, a man wrestles with him. Later it is revealed that Jacob has been wrestling with God (or at the very least God's messenger). This evokes a lot of images for us, even if our own wrestling is less physical than Jacob's. Doesn't our own wrestling with God and faith leave us changed, even if our name remains the same?

I myself never realized just how imbued Jacob's story is with wrestling. Right down to the moment when Esau's wrestling hold turns into something very different.
the image of wrestling has been implicit throughout the Jacob story: in his grabbing Esau's heel as he emerges from the womb, in his striving with Esau for birthright and blessing, in his rolling away the huge stone from the mouth of the well, and in his multiple contendings with Laban. Now, in this culminating moment of his life story, the characterizing image of wrestling is made explicit and literal. ...

Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell upon his neck. This is, of course, the big surprise in the story of the twins: instead of lethal grappling, Esau embraces Jacob in fraternal affection.
Robert Alter, translation and commentary on Genesis

This series first ran in 2004 and 2005. I'm refreshing it as I go. For links to the whole study, go to the Genesis Index. For more about the resources used, go here.

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