In the Beginning, God - wrestling and blessing

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
 
So says Juliet in the William Shakespeare play “Romeo and Juliet”.  I’ve been thinking about names over the last few days, and what they say about us.  I think that was prompted by the fact that my youngest sister will be getting married in a few weeks time.  I remember the night she was born – I was very nearly 5 and my other sister was 3.  I think we must have known what her name was to be, because in the middle of the night (we were too excited to sleep), my dad brought our new sister through to my room, gathered us around and asked us who this new baby was.  My sister and I replied excitedly, and in unison “Laura”.  And so, as we grew-up we would occasionally tease her that we had named her, and she should be thankful because we could have shouted “Ermantrude”.
 
Names have meanings, don’t they. My wife is Karen, which means “pure and beautiful lady”.  Very appropriate.  Matthew is my son.  His name means “gift from God”.  David means “beloved”.  Sarah means “princess”.  And James, my name, shares a meaning with a character in the book of Genesis, but we’ll get to that in a minute. 
 
Have you ever had someone wrestle with you?  It could be physically - some of you are into martial arts that have an element of wrestling.  Maybe you wrestled with your dad, or children, or brothers or sisters?  But not all wrestling is physical.  The process of negotiating to buy or sell a house can feel like someone is wrestling with you.  Or have you sensed the strong will of someone in your workplace.  Not cut and thrust, but wrestling.  Or how about the effort, persuasion and wooing that you may have experienced with someone who wants a deeper relationship with you?  Wrestling for your love. 
 
Names and Wrestling are two ideas I want to look at this morning as we continue this series on Genesis – “In the beginning, God...”  A few weeks ago, Sarah did a great job of sharing with us some of the story of Joseph, and of life in a dysfunctional family.  This week, we pick up the story of his father, Jacob, together with one of the strangest events in the whole of the book of Genesis - a time that he had an unusual physical encounter with someone who wrestled with him. We can read the story in Genesis Chapter 32.  Let’s see if we can get a hold of this shall we?

24-25 Jacob stayed behind by himself, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he couldn’t get the best of Jacob as they wrestled, he deliberately threw Jacob’s hip out of joint.26 The man said, “Let me go; it’s daybreak.”
Jacob said, “I’m not letting you go ’til you bless me.”
27 The man said, “What’s your name?”He answered, “Jacob.”
28 The man said, “But no longer. Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it’s Israel (God-Wrestler); you’ve wrestled with God and you’ve come through.”29 Jacob asked, “And what’s your name?”
The man said, “Why do you want to know my name?” And then, right then and there, he blessed him.30 Jacob named the place Peniel (God’s Face) because, he said, “I saw God face-to-face and lived to tell the story!”
31-32 The sun came up as he left Peniel, limping because of his hip. (This is why Israelites to this day don’t eat the hip muscle; because Jacob’s hip was thrown out of joint.)

To quote a friend, what the bobbins is going on there? 
 
Whenever you see any televised or anticipated sporting event, the programme always starts with the build up – clips of previous high and low points of the athletes or teams.  In part it is to build excitement, and in part to give you some insight as to who is the favourite and why.  It is the context that gives the opportunity for understanding the finer nuances of the game.  
 
To understand this passage, we need to rewind a bit and get some background – some context to help us understand where it fits in the story of Jacobs life. 
 
The story of the build up to the wrestling match starts way back with Jacob's birth.  If you feel so inclined (and I would encourage you to do so), you can read his story for yourself, beginning in Genesis chapter 25.  For the next few minutes though I want to pick out a few key moments of his life up to this point. 
 
Naming
 
The ancient Hebrew culture is one of the ones where a person's name is more than just a handle.  It carries with it the very essence and identity of the person. No Hebrew parent chose a name for their baby just because it sounded nice, or was popular, but only because the name fit the child! Jacob was the second born of twins, and he was born literally holding onto the heel of his brother.  The name "Jacob (and James)" means "supplanter, schemer, cheater; one who grabs from behind; or grabs the heel."  His name turns out to be prophetic sums up his character in the early part of his life.
 
Jacobs parents, Isaac and Rebekah had favourites.  His brother Esau was Daddy’s boy. Being older, he is due the birthright or inheritance from his father.  He is a hunter, strong but unfortunately is not the brightest spark in the world.  Jacob is a Mummy’s boy; an excellent cook and a schemer.  What he can’t get by pure strength he more than makes up for in guile and cunning.  Two events early in their lives stand out.  First Esau trades his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of soup.  Later, as their father is coming to the end of his life, Jacob (aided and encouraged by his mother), disguises himself as Esau and deceives his father Isaac into giving him a blessing that Isaac was planning to give to Esau.  In two events, Jacob claims the birthright and blessing that should have gone to his brother.  Isaac discovers the deception too late, Jacob is forced to flee from Esau in fear of his life. 
 
Wrestling with life
 
Jacob sets out for the safety of his uncle Laban’s house.  On the way, he prays “If God stands by me and protects me on this journey on which I’m setting out, keeps me in food and clothing, and brings me back in one piece to my father’s house, this God will be my God.”
 
On his arrival, Jacob falls in love with Laban’s beautiful younger daughter, Rachel.  Laban says that Jacob can marry Rachel, but it will cost him seven years of labour.  Jacob fullfills his part of the bargain (and the bible says the years seemed but days to him because of his love for Rachel), but Laban tricks Jacob. On the morning of the honeymoon Jacob looks at his new wife, and finds it is not Rachel he’s slept with, but her older sister, Leah.
 
Jacob was furious (well you would be!) and tells Laban to make it right.  Laban agrees that he can marry Rachel after all, and straight away but it will cost him another 7 years of labour.  Jacob agrees and finally he has married the woman of his dreams.  And Leah.
 
Having married (twice!), he sets out to have children, but this is complicated by the fact that this does not come easy for his favourite wife, Rachel.  A few years and some family politics later, he has 11 sons and a daughter by four different women. The last of whom was the first one Rachel gave birth to.  His name was Joseph.  Have you ever wondered why Joseph seemed to be the favourite?  It’s not just because he is the youngest of the 11 sons born so far.  It’s because he is the son of Rachel, the favourite wife... Rachel would have one more son a few years later, who would also be a favourite.
 
Alongside procreating, Jacob prospers as a shepherd by instituting a sort of genetic breeding programme, as a result of which, he becomes very rich.  He certainly seems to have been blessed, but his Uncle Laban notices too, gets jealous and God warns Jacob that it’s time to leave and head back home.  So Jacob packs up his family: 2 wives, 2 concubines, 11 sons, one daughter, servants and livestock and sets out for home. 
 
Reading the story of Jacob, I sense he has been wrestling with life from the word go. Nothing has come easy for him. He wrestled the birthright and blessing from his brother, wrestled with his uncle for the right to marry his daughter, wrestled with his family as his children were born and wrestled in business.

Our struggles are really not so different to Jacobs. We all have the tendency to wrestle with life, to take things in our own hands, to set our own agenda, try to work things out on our own.  Family problems, financial problems, relationship breakdowns, no purpose, no sense of identity, fear about the future can all drive us to breaking point.  And that is where Jacob is headed.

The pre-match build up
 
Sometimes you can sense a moment approaching which is going to make a big difference in your life: exams; job interviews; someone about to propose; a conflict that needs to be addressed head on.  Remember what that felt like?  As Jacob nears the land of Canaan, heading home, it begins to dawn on him that he is heading back to an encounter with Esau, the brother he had cheated.  Twenty years have passed since he fled in fear of his life, and in the absence of Royal mail, telephones, email, Facebook or twitter, he has no way to know what is going on in Esau’s head, and what sort of reception he might get. So he sends messangers ahead of him.  And word comes back that Esau is coming to meet him.  With an army of 400 men. 
 
Let’s pick up the story again in Genesis 32:
7-8 Jacob was scared. Very scared. Panicked, he divided his people, sheep, cattle, and camels into two camps. He thought, “If Esau comes on the first camp and attacks it, the other camp has a chance to get away.”
9-12 And then Jacob prayed, “God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, God who told me, ‘Go back to your parents’ homeland and I’ll treat you well.’ I don’t deserve all the love and loyalty you’ve shown me. When I left here and crossed the Jordan I only had the clothes on my back, and now look at me—two camps! Save me, please, from the violence of my brother, my angry brother! I’m afraid he’ll come and attack us all, me, the mothers and the children. You yourself said, ‘I will treat you well; I’ll make your descendants like the sands of the sea, far too many to count.’”

Notice how he prays. Clearly scared that Esau is coming to kill him, reminds God about how that there are wives and children to consider. He also humbles himself, acknowledging how God has blessed him abundantly and how unworthy he is of God’s great faithfulness to him so far. But also notice who he is addressing: the God of Abraham and Isaac.  Not yet His God.

Besides praying, Jacob decides a little bribery is in order - as extra insurance. Jacob sends gifts for Esau – ones that he hopes are too good to refuse. He sets servants off at intervals with flocks of goats, sheep, camels, oxen and donkeys to find Esau and present them as peace offerings.  550 animals, the majority female so they would increase in number quickly.  Some peace offering. Back to Genesis 32:
21 So his gifts went before him while he settled down for the night in the camp.22-23 But during the night he got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He got them safely across the brook along with all his possessions.

The real wrestling was not what it seemed to be

Esau is close, and it’s time for the main event.  Seconds out, round one... But as we read earlier, it wasn’t Esau who would wrestle with Jacob.
So what was this wrestling really all about? What was Jacob wrestling for? Is it all somehow still part of his prayer to God over the fear he felt meeting Esau again? Is it all in his head or is it real?  Well, I think the bible is clear, that this is a real event with genuine physical contact, and Jacob carried away with him a very real injury. So what is it about?

Well let’s go through the post match analysis.  The first thing to notice is that this does not seem to be a fight that Jacob starts.  The passage says that “A man wrestled with Jacob until daybreak”.  Not the other way around.  It’s not Jacob seeking combat, someone brought it to him. 
That point is absolutely key, because the whole idea of wrestling with God is something I think that we can misunderstand.  You see, this is not a story about Jacob Wrestling with God.  This is a story about how God wrestles with Jacob.  God seeks out Jacob and wrestles with him.  Jacob is on the defensive, as in some ways he has been all of his life, and now God is physically wrestling with Jacob, trying to turn him into the man God wants him to be.  And when God grabs hold of you and wrestles with you there are consequences.  You change.  
So let’s follow the blow by blow account:

24-25 But Jacob stayed behind by himself, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he couldn’t get the best of Jacob as they wrestled, he deliberately threw Jacob’s hip out of joint.

God comes and wrestles with Jacob but apparently can’t get the better of him. Why not?  God is all powerful, he created the heavens and the earth.  There is nothing he cannot do - so why can’t he pin Jacob?  I wrestle with Matthew sometimes.  I could pin Matthew down any time I like, but what would be the point in that?  What would Matthew gain from the experience?  Clearly God could have overcome Jacob, but was that really the point?  The question really, is would Jacob submit.

Today, each and every one of us will, in time be presented with the choice as to whether or not we are going to submit to God – to follow his Son Jesus Christ.  Actually, even after we choose to do so, it is still a daily, or hourly or even minute by minute choice that we are presented with - how will we live our lives.  Sometimes, God wrestles with us over a point in our lives. How we treat our spouse or our children.  What we do with our money.  How much we drink.  What we watch on TV or how we talk.  He will never force us into following him – that would be a hollow victory, like me pinning Matthew.  He wants willing followers.  And that is some part of what is happening in this wrestling match.  God is trying to get Jacob to submit; to follow him.  God wants to be the God of Jacob as well as the God of Abraham and Isaac. 

From Wrestling to Holding on.

But Jacob will not yield, so in the end God has to use some of his power and throws Jacobs hip out of joint.
Have you ever dislocated a joint?  I went ten pin bowling once with some friends when one of our number dislocated their thumb picking up a bowling ball.  It was simultaneously fascinating and queeze inducing seeing a thumb bent at 90 degrees in an unnatural direction.  I also remember watching an American football game when a player was tackled as he threw the ball and ended up with a dislocated elbow.  A dislocated joint doesn’t function well. 
There is no power or strength in it. 

Jacobs hip gets thrown out of joint, and at this point, I imagine Jacob stops wrestling.  Instead, he starts clinging.  He knows he cannot win, but he is still stubborn.  He will not let go.  It is now, at the end of the night, that God has Jacob in the position he wanted him in all along.  Not struggling against God, trying to go his own way, but clinging on.

Twenty years before, when he was fleeing from Esau he had prayed the vow “If God stands by me and protects me on this journey on which I’m setting out, keeps me in food and clothing, and brings me back in one piece to my father’s house, this God will be my God.”  And now he was face to face with God, and holding on for dear life. You see, even up to this point, he had never taken God to be HIS God. He knew about God but he didn’t know God.  He was holding on to his identity.  But that was about to change
26 The man said, “Let me go; it’s daybreak.”Jacob said, “I’m not letting you go ’til you bless me.”

God had already blessed him hadn’t he? Jacob had riches and a large family.  But that was not his blessing, honestly obtained and given to him.  It was rooted in the blessing stolen from his brother.  Now, he was going to cling on to God until he got a blessing that was just for him.  He wants to be blessed for who he is, not riding someones coat-tails with a blessing gained through deceit.  I won’t let go until you bless me.  But again remember that it was God who started this fight.  This is not Jacob seeking out God and wrestling until he gets what he wants, this is God seeking out Jacob and wrestling him into submission in order to change him.  And now Jacobs hip is out of joint and the dialogue has started, we get to see that even if only a little bit, Jacob has already begun to change.
27 The man said, “What’s your name?”He answered, “Jacob.”

The last time that Jacob had asked to be blessed was when he had stolen the blessing from his brother.  He had dressed in Esau’s clothes, put animal skins on his arms and when asked who he was had pretended to be someone else.  This time is different.  God says : “What is your name?” and he answers truthfully.  Jacob.  The deceiver.  The surplanter.
28 The man said, “But no longer. Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it’s Israel (God-Wrestler); you’ve wrestled with God and you’ve come through.”29 Jacob asked, “And what’s your name?”
The man said, “Why do you want to know my name?” And then, right then and there, he blessed him.

God does bless Jacob, and in the process he gives him a new name - a name that recognises what Jacob has been through.  A new identity.  The change in name is not just a new label on the jar, but a whole new shape to the jar itself!

The text in The Message translation that I have been reading from says that Israel means God-Wrestler.  A closer translation of Isra-el in the context of God having started the wrestling match would be God-Wrestles.  God wrestles with Jacob to change him into the man he wants him to be.  And that is symbolised by the change in name. And you cannot wrestle with God without being changed or left with the reminder of the process.
The sun came up as he left Peniel, limping because of his hip.

For Jacob the cost was high and he limped for the rest of his life.  But God did bless him as he surrendered to God, and the blessing was unimaginable. Jacob-Israel received the blessing from God.  His male children (the children of Israel), the 11 born so far, and Benjamin who will be born soon, will go on to be origins the 12 tribes of Israel of whom much of the History books of the Old Testament are concerned.  God fulfills his promise of blessing for Jacob, to make his descendents like the sands of the sea, too many to count.  Not now a stolen blessing, but his own blessing, obtained honestly as a consequence of the wrestling match. 

Summary

So what have we learned?

Jacob wrestled with life, as to some extent we all do.  He had a decisive moment approaching but the real wrestling was not where it appeared to be.  God would not give up on Jacob and sought him out, and wrestled with him. And in the course of his encounter with God, Jacob moved from wrestling to holding on.  In the process his relationship with God changed. It matured.  It became less about him and more about God. 
You might well be aware of a kind of struggle or wrestling in some area of your life that God has his finger on - maybe one of the ones I mentioned earlier.  He will seek us out and wrestle with us if that’s what it takes to change us. He will not give up on us. 

Are you tired of wrestling? Well, I think Gods calling to us is that it’s time to stop wrestling and start clinging. If we surrender our lives, our wills, our dreams and plans, to follow Jesus and let Him change us, then he will bless us with a new name, a new identity, a new nature, and a secure future.  Perhaps today is the day when bruised, tired, and lame, we stop wrestling and start clinging on, not fighting with God, but dependent on the God who loves you and is for you and will always be for you.

James Garvican, 18/03/2013
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