Many years ago, when I was newly ordained, I taught an adult Sunday School class called “Saints and Sinners.” The class took a look at those we typically think of as Biblical heroes of faith – people like Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, and Paul – and examined not only their heroics, but also their human fallibilities.
I was excited about the class, and so was surprised when I received an anonymous letter from a parishioner, accusing me of trying to destroy her faith. “Leave our heroes alone,” she wrote. “Don’t tear them down by digging up all their faults.”
Well, you don’t have to dig too hard to find the faults of these patriarchs. All you have to do is read the Bible to know that Moses murdered a man; that David got his married lover pregnant, then arranged to have her husband sent to the front lines of war to be killed; that when Peter’s life was on the line he denied ever knowing Jesus; or that Paul was once a feared persecutor of Christians.
Far from destroying my faith, it gives me comfort and hope to know that those we think of as the giants of scripture had faults and sins at least as bad, if not much worse, than my own. If God could work with and through them, I think, then maybe there is the possibility that God can also work with and through me.
In today’s Old Testament reading we hear of one of the most flawed of Biblical characters – the scoundrel and founder of a nation, Jacob. Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, was a rogue even at his birth, when he grabbed his twin brother Esau’s heel in the womb, trying unsuccessfully to push him aside to become the first born son.
In fact, the name Jacob means supplanter, one who tries to take the rightful place of another.
Jacob’s attempts to usurp the privileges of the first born did not end in the womb. Years later he tricked a hungry Esau into giving Jacob his birthright, the leadership of the family and a double share of inheritance, in exchange for a bowl of stew. (Obviously, Jacob’s trickery was helped by Esau’s gullibility.)
Years later, Jacob tricks his blind, dying father Isaac into giving him the blessing that rightfully should have gone to Esau. In that culture, a blessing was a powerful force for the good. A father had only one blessing to give, and once given it could not be retracted.
When Esau learns Jacob has once again cheated him he is enraged and vows to kill his brother. Jacob flees for his life to the land where their mother, Rebecca, is from. He lives there for many years, taking two wives, and becoming a wealthy man.
In fact, he does so well that his brothers-in-law become jealous and plot to kill him. So God appears to Jacob and tells him it is time to return to his homeland.
Jacob does as God directs, although he is terrified at the prospect of seeing his wronged brother again after so many years.
“Deliver me please, from the hand of my brother, the hand of Esau,” he prays, “for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children.”
In hopes of appeasing his brother, he sends servants ahead of him with hundreds of goats, sheep, camels, cows, and donkeys as a peace offering.
He stays alone the night before he is to meet Esau, trying to ready himself for the big day.
But as Jacob’s thoughts are filled with the prospects of facing his brother, he suddenly finds himself in an unexpected encounter. Out of nowhere, someone appears in the night and engages Jacob in a great struggle.
The story is vague in the beginning about who this opponent is. At first we think it might be Esau, seeking vengeance for those long ago sins. But as the struggle continues it becomes clear that this is no ordinary man; this opponent is God in human form.
Through the long, dark hours of the night Jacob and his opponent wrestle, with neither able to defeat the other. As the night sky begins to give way to day, the unnamed opponent sees that he has not prevailed against Jacob, and strikes him in the hip, putting it out of joint.
“Let me go, for the day is breaking,” he tells Jacob.
Common wisdom in those times was that one could not survive seeing the face of God. As the sun begins to rise, Jacob will be able to see the face of his opponent, the face of God, and at that moment his life may end.
But Jacob continues to hold on.
“I will not let you go, unless you bless me,” he says. Jacob is willing to risk death for the sake of a divine blessing.
The opponent does not answer Jacob’s request directly. Instead he asks Jacob his name. Jacob replies, giving the name that has so aptly described his life of cheating and trickery, of trying to get what was not rightfully his.
Then his opponent says, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
Jacob, the supplanter, the trickster, the scoundrel, has a new identity – Israel, which in Hebrew means “one who strives with God.”
The opponent blesses Jacob, and then leaves as quickly as he had appeared. And as the sun comes up it dawns on Jacob just who that opponent had truly been, saying, “I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.”
This blessing is one that comes through honest struggle and wrestling with God, not through trickery and deceit. And Jacob, the scoundrel, goes on to become the father of a nation, Israel, a people chosen by God and a nation that strives with God.
Commentators have written volumes about this story, and what it says about Jacob. And certainly Jacob is a pivotal figure in the history of our faith.
But what interests me in this story of epic struggle and blessing is what it says about God, and about us.
We sometimes are tempted to think of God as a divine being removed from the everyday occurrences and struggles of the world. Some of our founding fathers described God as a watchmaker, who winds up creation and then leaves it alone, letting it tick on its own.
The opposite temptation is to see God as a micromanager, who directs every move made on earth, making even history’s greatest evils and tragedies somehow part of an incomprehensible divine plan.
This story of the epic struggle between God and the scoundrel Jacob belies both of those views of God.
The God of Jacob, the God who we worship, is not a divine watchmaker observing us from afar. This is a God who enters into the struggle with us, who sometimes initiates the struggle, who neither overpowers us nor deserts us.
God honors the relationship with Jacob by engaging in the struggle in the first place, and by persisting in it through thick and thin. When it comes to the struggles of life we can count on God mixing it up with us, challenging us, but also sticking with us.
God enters into the struggle with Jacob not knowing what the outcome will be, or how Jacob will respond. God gives Jacob, and us, the freedom to engage or not, to respond or to walk away.
The fact that God chooses Jacob for the struggle, the blessing, the new identity as father of a nation, also says something about God. After all, why not choose Esau, the first born, the lawful heir to Isaac and Abraham?
Maybe it is because Esau is so gullible and passive. Maybe it’s because he is so certain he is right, but is at the same time not willing to fight for what is important. Maybe it is because he, unlike Jacob, is unwilling to engage God at a deep level, unwilling to wrestle.
What God honors here is not certainty and rightness, but the struggle itself.
And that is good news for us as we face our own life struggles – struggles in our relationships, struggles with ourselves, and perhaps most of all, struggles with our faith.
We live in an age when we are particularly tempted by the allure of religious certainty, perhaps even religious smugness and arrogance; when questions and doubts are seen as weakness and struggle as a sign of unfaithfulness.
For such a time theologian Nicholas Lash gives an important warning. “Immense human suffering has been caused by people who, lacking any very profound understanding of themselves, were nevertheless quite confident that they understood God.”
From Jacob we learn that what God honors is not certainty and rightness, but honest struggle. When we admit we do not know, we are not sure, we are not in complete control, then we may open ourselves to God’s presence with us.