The gist of today’s message is this: One of Israel’s founding fathers, the man Jacob, defeats a divine being in an all-night wrestling match. Go to Genesis 32:22-31 and read it for yourself. Jacob struggles with a “man,” also referred to as “God,” and as Jacob prevails God knocks Jacob’s hip out of joint. Jacob holds onto God and won’t let him go until Jacob receives a blessing. Honest, I didn’t make this up.
Before we referee the wrestling, we must raise the issue of Jacob’s peculiarities. Jacob is known as the father of the nation of Israel, and he supposedly had twelve sons by four different wives (Rachel, Leah, Rachel’s handmaiden Bilhah and Leah’s handmaiden Zilpah). Gee, what a man! Not only does Jacob eventually wrestle God and force a blessing but he proves both his fertility and manhood. When someone sputter’s “family values” and tries to use it as a weapon, just say this: “I’m not doing anything that the patriarch and father of Israel wouldn’t do.” I’m not sure if that will get you out of or into trouble, but the point is that there was unlikely a golden era.
Now hear the theology police: “Things were different back in the dispensation of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” The term “dispensation” refers to a “special” era which has different rules for various times throughout history). Such arguments are rightly suspect. We know that few patriarchs/prophets set a good example. Then someone says, “Jacob can sort of get away with it because the rules are different for the ‘one-percenters,’ the privileged persons who ride above the law.” That’s probably a timeless truth. In any case, Jacob lived before Moses revealed the religious Law (e.g., the Ten Commandments and the priestly rules). Some conclude that this lets Jacob and others off the hook. Or, perhaps timeless family values are not so timeless. 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 all the mess.
But I digress. We’re here to also deal with the wrestling match, not simply Jacob’s bad behavior. So, if we take the story of Jacob’s fight seriously, then we have a persistent problem: a man overcoming divinity. What’s up with that? Was it a pre-incarnate Jesus that Jacob bested (in this case, Jesus wasn’t quite as strong as God the Father)? Other theologians unsuccessfully try to squirm out of the problem by saying “No, it was just an angel Jacob defeated—God can never lose.”
Some suggest that Jacob was a Marvel superhero, or a semi-divine Hercules. Alas, if Jacob were just a commoner like one of us then for him to hold God captive seems all the more implausible, unless we change our idea of who and what God is. And it’s not just the defeat that’s troublesome, but the terms of surrender that Jacob forced God to agree to. Jacob’s forcing God to give a blessing to be let free makes some folks queasy, like the feeling you get when you know you’ve eaten spoiled chicken salad. One of the basic ways in which many interpreters escape this mess is to claim that God let Jacob defeat him, similar to the manner in which an earthly father plays with his daughter in a way that makes the child think that she has bested dad. Okay, I guess I sort-of buy that one (but only tenuously). Whatever the case, the implications and ramifications are potentially far-reaching.
Just when you felt comfortable with the God concept, BANG! Out of nowhere this wrestling match hits you like a flying body slam from Rey Mysterio or John Cena, WWE superstars known to many of your kids and grand-kids. Ignoring Jacob’s wrestling story—which seems to be the easy way out—doesn’t solve the mess. And if we take the story as legit, perhaps we can reshape our view of God into something incompatible with traditional Judeo-Christian theology (not that there’s anything wrong with that). What is a faithful reader to do? We could say that the story is not literally true, that it represents the fantasy of the writer and serves a literary or sociological purpose 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 scribble it out. The plot thickens as does the trouble we’re likely getting into.
Well, 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 or ministers can grasp God in a neat, predictable way. Could it be that God just doesn’t know how to wrestle? Whatever. For sure, God’s smackdown changes things—or does it? I’ll leave you to wrestle with that one. Kapow! –Reverend Larry Hoxey