The past few weeks we have walked together through the book of Genesis. It began with
In the silence of the stars, In the quiet of the hills, In the heaving of the sea, Speak, Lord. In the voice of a friend, In the chatter of a child, In the words of a stranger, Speak, Lord. In the stillness of this room, In the calming of our minds, In the longing of our hearts, Speak, Lord. In this our service of word & sacrament, Speak, Lord, for your servants listen. Amen. [adapted from a prayer by David Adam]
· Testing of Abraham – near sacrifice of Isaac – the Lord will provide
· We then walked with his and Sarah’s son Isaac who married Rebekah and their sons Esau & Jacob, how Jacob gained Esau’s birthright, Jacob found two wives (Leah & Rachel)
In today’s story, while Jacob waited for his brother Esau to come (sending the family away), he waited alone; he got Esau’s birthright and now he feared Esau wanted his life. And then something happened near Bethel, Jacob wrestled with a man all night. When the man did not prevail, he put Jacob’s hip out of joint. I can only imagine the pain. But Jacob did not give up the struggle and wanted a blessing. Like his struggles with Esau, Jacob needed a blessing. But he got much more.
“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”The man had given him a new name because of what he had done. Jacob asked for his name; but the man did not give it. And then Jacob now Israel was blessed. Who was that masked man? Jacob might of asked but he already knew.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”Jacob knew that he had wrestled with God. That God had given him both a name and life. Many people looking on this story would see the wrestling as a metaphor between God and all his people Israel, even all the world.
I first thought about this idea of wrestling with God when I read the works of Primo Levi in college. Primo Levi was Italian, a chemist, later he would become an author & poet; but what came to define his life was his Jewish heritage, which led to his being interred in a concentration camp in 1943. In 1944, all the Italian Jews in the camp were sent to Auschwitz, one of Hitler’s death camps. He would survive Auschwitz, barely, when the Soviets liberated what was left of the camp, mostly dying prisoners.
In several books, Primo Levi would recount his time in the death camp and his journey home. The books are not for the faint of heart. But the words that I still think of, is in another of his works when he considers why he and so many others were subject to such terror, cruelty and death. He walked away not believing in God but I think he still wrestled with God. And what he came up with, is that he was the other, the one in whom God did no bless. He would struggle with that and the horror that he witnessed for the rest of his life.
150 years before Primo Levi, Thomas Jefferson wrestled with God too. In the age of enlightenment and deism, he wondered about God and wrestled with the words already written. He was so distressed by what was written, that he considered most of it to be of no use, he created his version of the Gospels of Jesus so to get rid of all the error, so one could truly live the life that Jesus had meant. He wrestled with God and found that we had misread and misunderstood God. The feeding of the five thousand recounted in today’s Gospel does not appear in Thomas’ re-write.
We have always struggled, wrestled with God in our lives. People still try to understand God and our relationship with God. What does Jacob’s story of wrestling with God say to us & our relationship to God? Will God bless us as he did Jacob? These are questions we must wrestle with, if we want our faith to be alive. To wrestle with God is to honor our relationship with God. And that reminds me of a poem by Aaron Zeitlin:
Praise me, says God;This wonderful Yiddish poem is a reminder that we are called to praise and to struggle, like Jacob, with God. To wrestle with the words given to us in Scripture. To wrestle because we believe and there we may find blessings for our lives. But we should also remember Jacob’s injury and know that we may walk away with our own limp. Amen.
I will know that you love me.
Curse me, says God;
I will know that you love me.
Sing out my graces, says God.
Raise your fist against me and revile.
Sing out my praises or revile.
Reviling is also a kind of praise, says God.
But if you sit fenced off in your apathy, says God.
If you sit entrenched in: "I don't give a hang."
If you look at the stars and yawn,
If you see suffering and don't cry out,
If you don't praise and don't revile,
Then I created you in vain, says God.