Monday, August 1, 2011

Wrestling with Scripture

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.
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.” Then 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.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
Genesis 32:22-31

Sunday’s sermon was about wrestling with God.

Leading up to the passage above, Jacob is fearful of what will happen when he reunites with his brother Esau (whom he cheated out of his inheritance, and who consequently threatened to kill him). After sending servants and his family to bring gifts to his brother, Jacob spent the night in solitude. And he wrestled with God. In that struggle there was both pain and blessing.

After the sermon, I received a friendly email asking a question:

“I wondered if you would mind briefly explaining the difference between the "traditional" view of Jacob's all-night struggle with God or an angel... and your not unreasonable proposition that his struggle was, perhaps, a dream (This may require some consideration of Jacob's hip-injury and resultant limp).”

The question assumes that the “traditional” view would be that Jacob encountered a supernatural being. Actually, the traditional view is that it is a mystery. Maybe it was a dream and maybe it was something else. Certainly, the idea that Jacob was literally wrestling with God would be impossible in any traditional Christian or Jewish theology.

Jacob could have wrestled with a pagan god. He could not have wrestled with the mysterious “I Am” who encounters Moses, or the One whom Jesus describes as a Spirit. You can’t literally wrestle with the Infinite and the Eternal.

But still, it could be a literal description of a supernatural encounter, couldn’t it?

Again, apart from the theological problems, the answer is: it could be, if you believe it could be.

But the supernatural interpretation presents an unnecessary barrier to understanding the truth of the story.

The struggle is real.
The pain is real.
The blessing is real.
And the transformation of Jacob is real. In the struggle, Jacob the deceiver becomes Israel, the one who wrestles with God.

The truth of the story does not in any way depend on a supernatural explanation of the encounter. And if we interpret it supernaturally, then we imply that believing the supernatural explanation is necessary in order for the story to be “true.”

So what about Jacob “limping because of his hip”?

One narrowly rational explanation would be sciatica. (As one who has suffered with sciatica, I can sympathize.)

But the problem with a narrow rationalism is that it denies the mystery of what Jacob experienced. In the narrative, the limp is important because it reminds us that something really happened. When we speak of it as a dream, that cannot mean that it was only imaginary. The limp reminds us that what happened was real. The struggle, the pain, the blessing, and the transformation of Jacob, were all real.

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