Wednesday, December 29, 2010

He who wrestles with God

Genesis 25-36

After Abraham comes Isaac, the miracle child, and after Isaac comes Jacob. Jacob is quite different from Abraham. If Abraham has been characterized by his unfaltering faith and humble obedience, Jacob is now characterized by his doubt, his deceit, his lack of courage, and, quite literally, his wrestling with God. The very name "Jacob" indicates that "he supplants;" that is, he supplants his brother, Esau. Genesis is strangely and wonderfully open about the fact that Jacob, later to become Israel, is hardly deserving of the inheritance promised to Abraham. Born as the younger twin with his brother Esau, Jacob is the favorite of his mother, Rebekah. Right from the beginning Rebekah is told that her two sons are actually warring nations, and she takes the side of Jacob. The war starts early with Jacob tricking his brother out of his birthright. It comes to a head when Rebekah helps Jacob to steal his father's blessing from Esau. This leads Jacob to flee from Esau's anger, while Esau goes off marrying Canaanite women just to make his parents angry.

If there's one thing Genesis does well, it's drama.

Jacob works for seven years for his uncle Laban so that he can marry his daughter (kissin' cousins, anyone?) and then gets the wrong girl. So Laban gives her both of his daughters in exchange for seven more years of work. But this only teaches Jacob the true value of monogamy: the two wives fight with one another from the beginning over who will give Jacob children. They both end up having children, along with their maidservants. All told, the father of all God's people Israel has children with four different women, unlike his father Isaac, who as far as I can see was only ever with Rebekah.

Love and romance can be a sordid affair in the Bible.

Jacob's relationship to God is not like Abraham's. Abraham believed God, and God reckoned this to him as righteousness. Jacob, by contrast, hears from God and decides to make a deal with God:
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house, and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you."
When Jacob decides to leave Laban because Laban has treated him unjustly, he reunites with his brother Esau, but not without caution. It appears that the entire time Jacob is convinced Esau is ready to kill him. He sends out gift after gift ahead of his party to appease Esau before he finally sees him. In the midst of these preparations, Jacob has a remarkable encounter with God.
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." The the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." Then Jacob asked him," Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved."
For you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed. Oh dear, how does that fit into our theology? Not very neatly, it would seem. But this gets to the heart of Jacob's (now Israel's) character. God has called Abraham to be a light to all the world, and Jacob is to carry on that light; yet the one God chooses is by no means a man of simple faith. This is the one who wrestles with God, and the only thing God can do to restrain him is to knock his hip out of joint!

So it will be with the nation of Israel for the rest of the story of scripture, will it not? Yet Israel, whose very name (given by God) signifies his striving with God, is still the one who represents God caring for his creation, bringing new life to a broken world tainted by death and decay.

There is one passage in the Jacob cycle (Genesis 25-36) that I find especially intriguing: the rape of Dinah (Genesis 34). The story goes like this: Jacob's daughter Dinah is raped by Shechem, a prince of the region where Jacob's family is staying. Shechem's father goes to Jacob's family to ask for Dinah as a wife for Shechem. Jacob's sons are furious. In a cunning plot for revenge, they demand that Shechem and all the men of that region be circumcised in exchange for their sister being taken as Shechem's wife. So all the men of that region are circumcised. Then comes my favorite part: it says,
On the third day, when they were still in pain, two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah's borther's, took their swords and came against the city unawares, and killed all the males. They killed Hamor and his son Shechem with the sword, and took Dinah out of Shechem's house, and went away.
You don't even get action like that in the movies these days.

What's really interesting is the aftermath of this incident:
And the other sons of Jacob came upon the slain, and plundered the city, because their sister had been defiled. They took their flocks and their herds, their donkeys, and whatever was in the city and in the field. All their wealth, all their little ones and their wives, all that was in the houses, they captured and made their prey. Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, "You have brought trouble on me by making me odious to the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my numbers are few, and if they gather themselves against me and attack me, I shall be destroyed, both I an my household." But they said, "Should our sister be treated like a whore?"
Another story, another unanswerable question. The proper conclusion seems to be that both Jacob and his sons deserve to be chastised, because both sides bring up good points. Surely Jacob couldn't just let his daughter be defiled without any sort of retribution. And then again, perhaps his sons didn't need to wipe out and plunder an entire region in order to defend the honor of their sister. That might have been overdoing it. I have to say Jacob comes off as a bit of a slime ball by bringing up the pragmatic issue of his safety in the region rather than the moral issue of his family's honor.

This slime ball is the one chosen by God to carry on the inheritance of Abraham. Maybe there's some hope in that.

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