The gist of today’s message is this: One of Israel’s founding fathers, the man Jacob, defeats God in an all-night wrestling match. Go to Genesis 32:22-31 and read it for yourself. As Jacob prevails, God knocks Jacob’s hip out of joint to get loose. Jacob holds fast and won’t let God loose until he receives God’s blessing. Honest, I am not making this up.
Before we referee the wrestling, we must raise the issue of Jacob’s peculiarities. Jacob is known as the originator of the nation of Israel, and he supposedly had twelve sons by no less than four different wives (Rachel, Leah, Rachel’s handmaiden Bilhah and Leah’s handmaiden Zilpah). What a man’s man some people have said admiringly. With his virtual haram of successive or even simultaneous lovers, Jacob is quite the ethnic role model for a biblical celebrity.
Jacob’s sexual exploits are not limited to family folly and fertility. The most significant aspect in all this are modern people who sputter the term family values when trying to use the Bible as a weapon, usually against anyone whose idea of family doesn’t match their own. If you face such hostility then you can simply say that “I’m not doing anything that the patriarch and father of Israel wouldn’t do.” I’m not sure if responding that will get you much love, but the point is that there is no consistent view of what we in modern times anachronistically refer to as biblical family values. There was no golden era wherein husbands, wives, children and extramarital affairs created ideal families.
The religious police often respond by saying, “Things were different back in the dispensation of the Jewish patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” The term dispensation refers to a special era which supposedly operates by different rules for various times throughout history. Such arguments are attempts to fill a thousand expanding cracks of the theological dam, which continues to collapse into ruinous rubble (and rightly so). We know that a patriarch such as Jacob didn’t set a good example given his sexual exploits. Then someone says, “Jacob can get away with what he did because the rules are different for the ‘one-percenters,’ the privileged persons who ride above the law.” Such a disturbingly probable statement underscores how the favored few can get away with almost anything.
Jacob lived before Moses revealed the religious Law (e.g., the Ten Commandments and the nauseating list of priestly rules). Some conclude that this lets Jacob off the hook. Or, perhaps timeless family values are not so timeless because they change along with everything else in culture and civilization. In reading the Old Testament psychodramas we can rationally conclude that there were shady characters in high places. No wonder Jesus had to come to clear-up the mess by substituting love for ethnic privilege and rampant favoritism.
We’re here to also deal with the wrestling match, not simply Jacob’s lusty legacy. So, if we take the story of Jacob’s fight seriously, then we have a persistent problem: a man overpowering God. Self-appointed Bible word defenders, known formally as biblical apologists, may suggest it was a pre-incarnate Jesus that Jacob bested. In this case, Jesus wasn’t quite as strong as God the Father. Other defenders of the party line try to squirm out of the problem by saying “No, it was just an angel that Jacob defeated—God can never lose because God is omnipotent—all powerful.” Do you smell something rotten with these attempts to wrestle with the Bible’s text?
Was Jacob some sort of demigod, akin to a Marvel superhero or semi-divine Hercules? Alas, if Jacob were just a commoner like one of us then for him to hold God captive seems implausible, unless we change our idea of who and what God is (and perhaps the text is inviting people to do just this). And it’s not just the defeat of God that’s troublesome, but the terms of surrender that Jacob forced God to accept. Jacob’s forcing of God to give a blessing makes some folks queasy, like the feeling people report after eating spoiled pork salad. One of the ways in which some Bible word defenders escape this rancid mess is to claim that God let Jacob defeat him, similar to how an earthly father gives-in his son in a way that makes the child think that he has bested dad. Whatever the case, the implications are potentially more far-reaching than is possible through a polite Sunday lesson.
Just when you felt comfortable with the nature and power of God . . . BANG! Out of nowhere the wrestling match hits you like a flying body slam from Rey Mysterio or John Cena, WWE superstars. Ignoring Jacob’s wrestling story—which seems to be the easy way out—doesn’t solve the matter. And if we take the story as literally legit, then we can reshape our view of God into something splendidly incompatible with traditional Judeo-Christian theology. How ironic if Jacob’s story is a clue about God’s nature that isn’t revealed elsewhere.
What is a true follower of God to do? We could realize that the story is not literally true, that it represents the intention of the writer as a literary device and should not be stretched or squeezed (pardon those incessant wrestling metaphors). If the story were not important, then given its embarrassing aspects it begs the question of why some ancient editor didn’t erase it. The plot thickens, as does the trouble we’re inviting by questioning the human enforcers of tradition.
The most unusual wrestling match of all time is a sign that we never really have God figured out, and that no one, not generations of celebrity theologians, ministers or their legions of obedient devotees can grasp God in a consistently predictable way. Could it be that God just doesn’t know how to wrestle? God’s smackdown changes things—or does it? I’ll leave you to wrestle with that one. Kapow!
–Rev. Larry Hoxey