Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The right question, at the right time, from the right person, can change a person’s life. One day, a little girl asked her mother, “How did the human race appear?’ Her mother answered, “God made Adam and Eve and they had children, and that’s how all mankind was made.” Two days later the girl asked her father the same question. He answered, “Many years ago there were monkeys from which the human race evolved.” The confused girl returned to her mother and said, “Mom, how is it possible that you told me humans were created by God, and Dad said they developed from monkeys?” The mother answered, “Well, dear, it’s very simple. I told you about my side of the family and your father told you about his.”
The right question, at the right time, from the right person, can change a person’s life. Yes, the right question can enable you to see and understand yourself and the world in an entirely new light. That is what Jacob experienced on that dark night of the soul as he wrestled until the break of day.
The story of Jacob’s wrestling with an unnamed adversary is surely one of the most engrossing stories in the Book of Genesis. It is filled unanswered questions. For some Jewish scholars it simply offers an easy explanation as to why Jews do not eat the meat tendon attached to the hip socket. Others might begin with the question with whom was Jacob actually wrestling? The story itself says it was “a man.” According to the prophet Hosea, however, it was an angel. For the sages of ancient Israel, it was the guardian angel of Jacob’s brother Esau, while others argued it was the spirit of the River Jabbok that Jacob was preparing to cross. In some early Christian traditions, it is suggested that he Jesus. After all, anytime God appears in human form, it must be Jesus. Jacob himself had no doubt about the stranger’s identity. It was God, and so he called the place of the encounter Peniel, “because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared. “
While most Biblical scholars focus on the scene of the messenger changing Jacob’s name, they tend to gloss over the passages that takes place before and after it. And for that reason, I think they are overlooking the all- important question that Jacob is being asked. You see, when God asks a question, it’s not for the sake of an answer, but rather, when God asks a question, it’s for the sake of an inner response, or a change in the person. Jacob’s wrestling with a man, an angel, or God, is not simply the story of the change of a name from Jacob to Israel. It is about the change of a person, from one who cheats and deceives to one who wrestles with God.
The question, “What is your name?” might seem for us to be a social pleasantry or a bit of an ice breaker, but not for Jacob. He never liked his name. From the day he was born, he longed to be Esau – more specifically, he desired to take Esau’s place. Jacob struggled with him in his mother’s womb, and he was born clinging to Esau’s heel. Jacob bought Esau’s birthright, and dressed in Esau’s clothes. He took Esau’s blessing. The last time he was asked in scripture his name by his blind father Isaac, Jacob answered, deceitfully, “I am Esau, your firstborn.”
In Jacob’s eyes, Esau was everything that he was not. Esau emerged from the womb red and covered in hair. He was strong, full of energy, a skilled hunter, “a man of the fields.” Esau was the archetypal hero of myths and legends. But he was not without human feelings. Esau’s love for his father Isaac was genuine. It was not surprising that Jacob’s desire was to be like Esau. He was not unlike many young boys who look up to their older brothers. Esau’s was the face that Jacob first saw in the mirror of his imagination.
The night stranger who wrestled with Jacob, was the right person, with the right question at the right time to challenge Jacob. For Jacob, the events which were unfolding before him were troubling. Where would he be welcomed the following day? There was no place that he could call home?. He was fleeing with his entire family from the wrath of his father –in-law Laban from Paddan-Aram. He didn’t know whether his aging father Isaac, whom he had tricked would receive him. Certainly he could not seek hospitality and refuge from his estranged brother Esau. And hearing that Esau was coming to meet him with a force of four hundred men, only caused Jacob to become more afraid and distressed. He made elaborate preparations for his first meeting, but what if it wasn’t enough? He adopted a three-fold strategy to meet his brother. First, diplomacy, he sent lavish gifts ahead of himself of herds and flocks. Second, prayer. He prayed, “Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau.” And third, he readied his family for war. He divided his household into two camps so that at least one could survive. When the entire caravan carrying his family crossed over the Jabbok River, Jacob stood alone wondering whether his attempt to reconcile with his brother was whimsical folly or simply plain foolishness. That is when the stranger came to meet him.
The stranger may have asked Jacob for his name, but he already knew it and his history as well. He was asking Jacob if had wrestled sufficiently with his own identity. “What is your name?” Are you still Jacob, the deceiver, or are you ready to receive a new name?” Names in the Bible, you see, especially new name given by God , are not mere labels, but they are signals of character or calling. The moment at which Jacob became Israel was a sign of change.
So what was it that changed about Jacob that night? Surely he had won a victory over his adversary. At the very least he had refused to let him go until he blessed him. The new name Israel, a man who “wrestled with God” was not the name of one who needed to bow down in fear. But that is what we see happened the next day on the field of Jabbok.
When Esau finally appeared before Jacob all his fears turned out to be unfounded. Esau ran to meet his brother; he threw his arms around his neck, kissed him and wept. There was no anger, animosity or threat of revenge in Esau’s behavior. Far more telling was Jacob’s behavior. As a changed man, he “bowed down to the ground seven times,” before Esau, calling him, “my Lord.” Jacob acknowledged Esau’s presence in a wondrous new way. He said, “Truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” Finally, Jacob insisted on giving Esau a gift. His brother refused it, but Jacob insisted. “No, please, if I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift. Please accept my blessing that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have everything I need.”
Now you may be wondering, so how did Jacob’s “gift” become such a “blessing”? The plain sense of these words is clear. Now that Jacob was his own changed man, he was returning the birthright and blessing which he had stolen from Esau, along with his good name to the rightful owner. Only in this way could Jacob truly prepare himself to receive and honor the name he had been given, Israel, “the one who wrestles with God.”
In the Book of Genesis, the patriarchs are more than just the founders of a new faith. They are intended to be models as well. No, they were not perfect, but they struggled to become the examples of the faith God intended them to be. Abraham had the strength of conviction to walk away from the culture of his time and to be different, to refuse to worship the idols of the age, to listen instead to the inner voice of the one God, even when it meant setting out on a long and risk-laden journey. Isaac, more than any other man, knew the reality of sacrifice. He lived and survived, but not without seeing the knife lifted against him. Isaac knew to the core of his being that to be a child of the covenant was neither easy nor safe. Courage carried him through life.
And now it was time for Jacob to take on his new role in God’s covenant, but he had to change. It was as if the stranger who was wrestling said to him, “You must now choose. In the past, you struggled to be Esau. In the future you will struggle to be yourself. In the past you held on to Esau’s heel. In the future you will hold on to God. You will not let go of Him; and he will not let go of you. What is your name? Who do you choose to be?” The messenger asked the right question, at right time. Jacob finally let go of being Esau; he then chose to return to his brother the blessing he had taken. And even though Jacob had now renounced both wealth and power, he was marked by the change. He limped from that time onward from the encounter the night with the stranger who had put his hip out of its socket. Change and faith, you see, leaves its mark upon us, and we become different travelers on life’s journey because of that mark.
My friends, the right question, at the right time, from the right person, can change a person’s life. So what question do you need to hear? In the midst of this pandemic, you may be wrestling with God and with yourself. You may be wondering what God has in store for you. You may be wondering what God has planned for you and your old body. Then again, you may be content with the name you have made for yourself. But perhaps, you are being asked to consider what is the name that you are capable of achieving? By God’s grace and strength. Even just to ask the question may move you towards a better answer. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.