Thursday, January 19, 2012

Wrestling with God

Genesis 32 starts out with another meeting between Jacob and the “angels of God” but we don’t get much of a hint as to what transpired or what the visit was all about other than that Jacob uses it as an excuse to name another sacred place - Mahanaim or ‘two camps’. As a reader, I would think one would want to know what the angels had to say, but all we get is what Jacob said and that wasn’t much. Next we start into a dense section about Jacob’s elaborate preparations for his reunion with his brother Esau, who he clearly fears at this point. Once again, Jacob seems to be doubting God’s promise of protection and instead takes great pains to send bribes of livestock to hopefully appease his wronged sibling. What strikes me most about the passage is just how large Jacob’s retinue is. He’s got cattle and donkeys and sheep and goats and camels and slaves and women and children and on and on. So many, in fact, that he can give a gift of “200 female goats and 20 male goats, 200 ewes and 20 rams, 30 female camels with their young, 40 cows and 10 bulls, and 20 female donkeys and 10 male donkeys” to appease his brother and still have an entourage large enough to split into two large camps. Recall that Jacob had supposedly slipped out of his uncle’s place in great haste, but in retrospect his exit must have looked like a circus parade. Jacob sends his servants ahead with his bribes and then splits the rest of his company into two groups in the hopes that if Esau attacks one, the other can escape. But before we get to the finale of the reunion story, we detour into a strange tale of Jacob wrestling with either God or an angel, depending on your interpretation. Now, it’s really only strange if you are trying to read everything literally. Metaphorically, it seems fine. The story is strange because at first we are told that Jacob wrestled with a ‘man’ until daybreak. But after Jacob apparently wrestles the man into submission (even though the man uses some special power to wrench Jacob’s hip socket) he demands that the man bless him. So that is pretty strange, but stranger still is that the man obliges and announces that Jacob’s name will now be Israel “because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” But rather than referring to Jacob as Israel from this point on as when Abram was renamed Abraham, the text just reverts back to calling him Jacob as usual. Jacob gives the place where they wrestled a special name saying it is where he “saw God face to face” and then proceeds to walk with a limp from then on. The text then goes on to outline a new dietary law for the Israelites stating that they cannot eat the tendon attached to the hip because that is where God touched Jacob. Like most dietary laws, it doesn’t make much sense. So what is the point of the wrestling metaphor? Because I really can’t take it seriously as a literal story. It would seem to me more apt for Abraham to be the one who “wrestled with God” when he was trying to convince God to spare the lives of the people in Sodom and Gomorrah. Or when he was tested with the command to sacrifice his son Isaac. What has Jacob done other than wrestle some promises of safe passage out of God, which he subsequently does not seem to have taken too seriously?