What Will Our New Names Be?

Oct 16, 2022

Sermon 10-16-22
19th Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Genesis 32:22-31
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
     With whom is Jacob wrestling? That’s the question to be answered when we read today’s text from Genesis. But the fact is that the account will make little sense unless we put it in context. So, for some of you the information about Jacob that I am about to share is familiar, and for others it will be new.
     Jacob and his twin brother Esau are the sons of Isaac and Rebecca and the grandsons of Abraham and Sarah, the parents/founders of the Jewish people and Hebrew nation. From his birth, Jacob is identified in scripture as a schemer and trickster, seeking to benefit himself and to improve his position as the second born.
     So it is that Jacob took advantage of his brother Esau at a weak moment to acquire his birthright, or inheritance rights, which belonged to the first born. Then, with his mother’s help, he tricked his father in blessing him by impersonating Esau. In Genesis 27:36 Esau protests, “Is he not rightly named Jacob?” (The name Jacob means, “He supplants” or “He takes by the heel.”) “For he has supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright; and look, now he has taken away my blessing.”
     The Bible says that Esau then hated Jacob and planned to kill him. So, Jacob flees from his brother’s wrath, which he had brought on himself. Today’s story takes place 20 years or more later. Jacob has been living with his Uncle Laban’s family, and his duplicitous ways (and his uncle’s too) have continued. Now, at God’s command, he is returning to his home territory as a wealthy man with wives, children, servants, livestock and possessions.
     He learns that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men and is terrified of the potential retribution. So, Jacob acts, hoping to mollify his brother and protect his family and flocks, and save his own life.
     First, he sends a message to Esau, explaining where he has been, how his life has turned out and begging for mercy. He divides his family and animals into two groups in hope of saving a least half if they are attacked by his aggrieved brother. Then he sends gifts that will arrive before Jacob does; his plan is to both win Esau’s favor and impress him with his wealth and power.
     Listen to this list of gifts from Genesis 32:14, “…200 female goats and 20 male goats, 200 ewes and 20 rams, 30 camels and their colts, 40 cows and 10 bulls, 20 female donkeys and 10 male donkeys.” Each group of animals is spaced out from the others, so that they will reach Esau independently and hopefully make a huge impression. Finally, Jacob sends his family and the rest of his possessions over the brook, seemingly to serve as a kind of shield between himself and Esau.
     Then, he prays, “Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with their children.” Then he reminds God of God’s promises, “Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sands of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’” (Genesis 32:11)
     THEN, he wrestles with a man until daybreak. Who is that man? This is difficult to figure out. The Hebrew used is clearly “man”, not “angel” or “divine being”. Yet, Jacob asks the one with whom he wrestles for a blessing. It is said that Jacob had “striven with God and prevailed,” and that he called the place Peniel because it was there that he saw the face of God. What does all this imply?
     There are many, many opinions about that among commentators and scholars. Mine is that what is being described here is a man’s battle with himself, not an actual wrestling match with a flesh and blood person, or even a divine being. The wrestling match is a metaphor for Jacob’s self-doubt, fear, regret, all boiling up inside of him, and finally boiling over. In a sense, this wrestling match has been life-long, but it finally has overwhelmed him. I can even imagine that perhaps he did actually injure himself as he paced and ran during this struggle, tripping over rocks and falling into ditches, which is why he later described it as a one-on-one actual encounter.
     And, as he waged this internal battle, facing up to who he was – Jacob, the trickster, the schemer, the deceiver – God was there. Jacob encountered his failings, but he did not give up; he held onto his faith in God. Did he finally realize that he could not move forward under his own power? This realization meant he must surrender his name, the name that links him to the cheating he has done in his life, Jacob. Did God speak to him with the new name? Likely.
     According to this text the name Israel means, “the one who strives with God,” but in other contexts it means, “May God rule.” To say that Jacob, now Israel, had “striven with God and prevailed”, does not necessarily mean that he somehow triumphed over God, but that he prevailed, survived, in spite of himself and his short-comings. He was transformed, not just his name, but his nature.
     As this part of the story ends, a limping Jacob-turned-Israel leads his family and as Esau draws near he bows himself to the ground seven times. Then, we read, “But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” (Genesis 33:4) What a moment of grace! The humility shown by Jacob (Israel) continues as chapter 33 unfolds, indicating that he truly is a new man – Israel.
     I suppose if we were to look for a moral of this story, it would be different for each one of us. The summary message is, perhaps, that if we have the courage to come face-to-face with ourselves, and our shortcomings, it will be painful, but God is with us, and we can prevail and be transformed.
     Today’s Psalm, number 121, is one of my favorites because it reminds us of God’s abiding presence. I especially like the last verse, “The Lord will watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth forevermore.” It’s mostly comforting, but I suppose the thought of God being aware of not only our comings and goings, but also of our internal thoughts and feelings is a bit disconcerting.
     And, yet, should we end up in a wrestling match with ourselves - with doubt and fear and regret boiling over - as was true for Jacob, then we can be assured that God is present. And, if we hold on, if we do not give up, when we acknowledge that we need help and ask for it, God blesses us and gives us new names. Jacob’s was Israel, what might ours’ be? Forgiven? Empowered? Beloved? Contented? What would you like it to be? I encourage you to give that some thought. AMEN