I can still remember my shock when my Old Testament professor called Jacob a coward. “Look at what he does,” Dr. Szikszai said. “He sends his wives and children across the river, giving them as slaves, to save his own miserable skin. He waits in the dark, trying to find a way to sneak away.” This is how one of my favorite Bible Stories begins. Jacob, like us, doesn’t have the courage to live the life he is called to live. God has to wrestle with him. God has to bring pain into his life, putting his hip out of joint. God has to leave him limping with broken-ness. Out of broken-ness comes transformation. A new name. Israel.
The other thing that Dr. Szikszai taught me thirty five years ago, was that the name Israel is a pun. God likes puns, the Bible is full of them. This one hinges on the vagueness of the Hebrew language concerning who is doing what for whom. Israel can mean, the one whom God fights for. Showing us that the special relationship we enjoy with our God means that we can depend upon His strength for our earthly battles. The other meaning, however, is just as likely. Jacob the trickster becomes branded as the one that God is constantly fighting with. Our souls are defined by the way we fight with God. Even the great patriarch Israel, fought tooth and nail against God’s will for his life.
A lot could be said about Christian hubris. We are quick to say, “God is on our side.” We are slow to admit that we fight with spiritual doubt, our own lack of courage, and the great temptation to do things the most efficient way, instead of God’s way. Similarly, we rarely speak about the awesomeness of a God who will enter into our darkest night and bring meaning and hope to our lives. God is always with us.
Genesis 32 is near the middle of the Jacob/Israel story. Unfortunately, the lectionary moves us on to Joseph next week and most people lack the patience to trudge with Israel into midlife. The narrative, however, is rich and rewarding. Jacob/Israel is both a shining example of faith and a dismal failure. God grace shines through on every page, reminding us that He will never forsake us.