Shuck and Jive

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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Wrestling With God--A Sermon

Wrestling With God
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

John Shuck
November 20, 2011

Genesis 32:22-32
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’

But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’

So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’

And he said, ‘Jacob.’

Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’

Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’

But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’

And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’

The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.

During the season of Autumn we are working our way through the myths of Genesis. If you haven’t recently, I invite you to take an hour or two and read Genesis. Skim the genealogies so you don’t get mired in them and move on to the narrative portions. They are our stories. When I say “our” I mean Western Culture’s stories.

All the way through the 19th century in academic circles (and it is still the case for most people) Genesis told the story of Earth and human origins. Since Galileo, Newton, and Darwin, we know intellectually at least, that Genesis has been replaced by science in regards to Earth’s and humanity’s story. Rather than the Bible telling the story of the universe and the human condition, it is now one part of a human story that is encompassed by a much larger story that grows larger each day through use of the tools of science.

Those of us for whom the Bible has been our book, the Word of God, wrestle with this. Like Jacob at River Jabbok, we have been wrestling with this new story and we are not going down easily. Why Creationism for example? There may be a number of reasons but I think one is the anxiety over the loss of the Bible as the grand narrative. Their beliefs will not allow that. "The Bible is the only book God ever wrote." So they try to fit the universe into the Bible. That could go on for some time especially as the guardians of the texts, the church and its theologians, priests, and preachers, continue to operate as if nothing has changed.

Those of us who know this change wrestle too. We know the Bible no longer contains the grand narrative but it does say something about us. We wrestle with what it does say. We turn to the literary critics who tell us about myth, irony, and motif, and to the depth psychologists who can tell us about archetypes, shadow, and projection and to anthropologists who can tell us about patriarchy.

We turn to these stories as myths, not universal human myths, but myths forged from patriarchy that still have a hold on us, our values and our drives, regardless of whether we identify as religious or not.

When I read these stories and enter them I see myself in them in surprising ways, not unlike when I realize that I have become my father or my mother. You know that experience don’t you? Someone else might make the observation, “You are just like your dad” and it is not meant in a positive way. But it often isn’t good or bad, just what is. These stories, like our parents, are part of us. Even as much as we might like to move beyond them, we may find it is not so easy.

I also see my spirituality in these stories. Even in the stories from which I recoil, such as Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, I see myself. What parent does not look back and ask “What have I sacrificed for my ideals or some code or script written or unwritten that I am compelled to follow? Who did I sacrifice for it?”

I see myself in Jacob, wily, charming, cunning, deceitful, and yet naïve, ambitious, needy, and in love. Reading Genesis can be therapy. We find here the stories of wives and husbands, fathers and mothers, sons, daughters, siblings. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah. These stories can be doorways into our own psyches. As we give these characters voice, our voice, we can recognize our wounds and perhaps even honor these wounds and allow healing.

We have to be careful. These stories are raw. They are not politically correct. They are patriarchal. Carol Delaney, author of Abraham On Trial, pointed out that patriarchy is based on a theory of procreation in which the seed belongs to the male and is planted in the female who is like the ground. The identity, the soul, is the father’s. Thus the father has control over the sons and daughters. They belong to him in ways they do not belong to the mother. This is a theory of procreation that belongs to patriarchy and it is not universal. Nevertheless, patriarchy is the dominant mythology in Western culture.

What about God? How does patriarchy imagine God? The sacred or the holy is presented as other. For Genesis and the myths of patriarchy, God is not Mother Earth. Not a She. God is not seen in every flower. I and God are not one. Those notions of the sacred and the holy are very different traditions. For Genesis, the sacred is wholly other. W-h-o-l-l-y as in completely and H-o-l-y as in set apart.

I am not saying that that view of the sacred is right or wrong, it is what it is. That Holy, that Other, that Sacred, intrudes itself, uninvited and unexpected. “And God said to Abram, “Go!” And after that, no communication for a long while. That is the myth of the call. The myth of giving up everything and following. The Holy intrudes when you don’t want it and is absent when you call for help. The spirituality of this is the constant struggle, the wrestling with this intrusive absence. That is the experience of the patriarchal sacred. God is on his own time. He has his own agenda.

And he owns your seed. That is the mark of circumcision. You, Father Abraham, your seed, your children, your sons and daughters belong to the Holy. Within the tradition that is the test of Abraham. Will he or will he not acknowledge that Isaac is not his but belongs to the Holy? If Abraham is willing to sacrifice his son to the Holy and give him back to the Holy, then he is faithful to the Holy. In the story the Holy acknowledges the faithfulness of Abraham and gives him back his son. I provided a critique of that story last week. I won’t go into that again.

Now we enter into the sibling cycle. This is the story of Jacob. His story begins in the womb when he is struggling with his twin brother Esau. God tells their mother, Rebekah, that two nations are wrestling within her. When they are born, Esau is born first but Jacob grabs Esau’s heel. The name, Jacob, means “heel” and it also means “one who supplants.” Jacob, the heel, is going to take Esau’s position.

Jacob is the smooth man and Esau is the hairy man or the red man. Esau is an outdoors guy and he hunts. He is his father Isaac’s favorite. But Jacob is a smooth man. A smooth operator. He is his mother’s favorite.

One day Esau comes back from the hunt and is hungry and Jacob prepares some stew and Esau trades his birthright for the stew. That is where we get the image for making a bad deal. Foolish Esau traded something valuable for a bowl of pottage. That isn’t the only trick that Jacob "the heel" will play.

Isaac is old and he can’t see. He is about to give his final blessing to Esau. Rebekah tells Jacob that he needs to get that blessing instead. She puts animal skins on him and he brings in some mutton and offers it to his father pretending he is Esau. Isaac has his doubts but is convinced enough to bless Jacob thinking he is blessing Esau. Here is the blessing:

May God give you of the dew of heaven,
And of the fatness of the earth,
And plenty of grain and wine.
Let people serve you,
And nations bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers,
And may your mother’s sons
Bow down to you.
Cursed be everyone who curses you,
And blessed be everyone who blesses you.

These words have power. These blessings are prophecies. The blessing is like an arrow that has been shot. Once it is sent, it is no longer under control of the sender. Isaac cannot take it back. When he realizes that he has been duped, there is nothing he can do for Esau except give him a second-rate blessing:

See, away from the fatness of the earth shall your home be,
And way from the dew of heaven on high.
By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother;
But when you break loose, you shall break his yoke from your neck.

Esau is pretty upset. He vows to kill his brother. Jacob heads for Haran.

One night Jacob camps out and he has a dream. He dreams of a ladder that goes to heaven and angels go up and down it and the Lord speaks and tells him that he is the God of Abraham and Isaac and he will make Jacob a great nation.

Jacob’s response is tepid. He says yeah this is cool. He performs a lightweight spiritual ritual by pouring some oil on a small rock and says to himself:
If God will protect me and give me bread and clothing and peace at my father’s house, then the Lord will be my God.
We know enough about these stories to know that that isn’t what you do with the Holy. There are no conditions. We know that Jacob has some things to learn.

He goes to Laban’s home--his mother’s brother’s house--and falls in love with his cousin, Rachel, who is the younger sister to Leah. The lovestruck Jacob makes a deal to work seven years for Rachel. Jacob is the Bible's first romantic. Here is the text:
“So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.”
But on the wedding night, the cunning Laban who was even more cunning than Jacob, sends Leah to the marriage bed. How Jacob didn’t know I never could fathom. Maybe too much wine? Anyway, he is tricked and has consummated a marriage with Leah instead. Laban says you can have Rachel, too, but you will have to work another seven years.

Seven years and more and eleven sons and one daughter later between his two wives, their slaves, and plenty of loot that he tricked from Laban, Jacob leaves. He has a destiny. He must meet his brother, Esau. The dream of the patriarchal myths is brotherhood. One day brothers will live in peace. This is the dream of patriarchal spirituality. This is the hope.
Psalm 133:
How very good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!
it is like the precious oil on the head, running down the beard of Aaron,
running down the over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.
While on the journey, Jacob gets word that his brother Esau is coming to meet him and he has 400 men with him. Jacob sends him gifts and flattery and bribery, one bunch of them after another after another, and he divides his family and sends them on ahead in different groups so that if Esau attacks one the other might escape.

He waits alone on the River Jabbok. He does the one activity that is the last refuge of a scoundrel. He prays. He prays that God will protect him like God is supposed to and deliver him from his brother. Jacob, all alone, has what we call the dark night of the soul. Solitude is most certainly a centerpiece of patriarchal spirituality. You have to walk that lonesome valley. Ain’t nobody gonna walk it for you. You have to walk it by yourself.

Jacob is all alone. He has no more tricks left. Jacob is alone with his sins. Been there? That night a man wrestles with him until daybreak. Out of nowhere. That is how patriarchal spirituality works. It is dusty and bodily and sweaty. It is violent and erotic. Jacob wrestles a man until daybreak.

Jacob proves not to be just a smooth mama’s boy after all. He is a good match. So good that the man can only get away by wounding him. He touches his hip. The word for hip is yarekh. It also means loins. There is a sense in which the wounding is the wounding of the sexual power and drive, the source of the seed. It is another sign that the holy controls the seed.

Even when wounded, Jacob will not let go until he gets a blessing. The man will not tell him his own name, but he does rename Jacob. He calls him Israel, one who struggles with God. With the name Israel, he comes to represent in his story the people of Israel. His twelve sons become the twelve tribes of Israel. Christianity supplanted that tradition with its twelve apostles. Both traditions go back to the founding figure, Jacob, who wrestles with the Holy. Peter Pitzele in his book, Our Father’s Wells writes of wrestling:
Wrestling is a metaphor for the patriarchal sense—and my own—of the soul’s existential reality. Soul is made by grappling with ultimate things: with one’s own nature, with one’s kin, and with God. As a poetic image and as a way of life, wrestling seemed to me the unique contribution of the patriarchal tradition, its splendid excess. P 191
I identify in many ways with Jacob. He is not an admirable person. He is a chess player and a schemer. He calculates and deceives. The fact that God picks him makes me question God’s judgment. Adonai is not always a good judge of character. Adonai picks who he wants despite their character. I don’t think Jacob ever really trusts God like his grandfather Abraham did. Jacob always wants something. But that maybe is the point.

God is not easy for Jacob. This is why I identify with him. Jacob does things the hard way. God is a struggle. His spirituality comes from lonely nights wrestling. I am putting on Jacob things that aren’t in the text now. I am taking him over. Jacob is for me the one who simply won’t stop doubting and struggling. Faith is not simple for Jacob. It is not trust and obey. It is
Fight me all night long, God, and I won’t give up.
This spirituality, the myth of wrestling allows for putting it all out there. There is nothing to hold back. This is a spirituality to which you can give all of your doubts, all of your shortcomings, your anger, your battle with authority, your addictions, whatever you got. There is no place for being politically correct or pious or nice. The Sacred, the Divine Wrestler will take you on as you are. You wrestle in the dirt with this God and you don’t ask for permission. You take it.
“I won’t let you go until you bless me.”
You wrestle until you are wounded, even then you hold on. You will get renamed.

That is why Jacob gets the story and not Esau. Esau is a better man. Esau is a moral human being. He is simple. He trusts. He forgives. They meet and they embrace and Esau kisses him and hugs his neck. Esau is good. He doesn’t have that ambition. Jacob is not a good man. But Jacob is chosen because he is a son of a gun who will not give up. Jacob is the survivor. That is the heart of the patriarchal tradition that still lives with us and still has its value.

Life, the Holy, the Sacred, God, whatever you call it is a struggle.
You don’t have to love it.
But don’t let go.
Wrestle with it until you are blessed.
Wrestle with it until dawn.



  1. This spirituality, the myth of wrestling allows for putting it all out there. There is nothing to hold back. This is a spirituality to which you can give all of your doubts, all of your shortcomings, your anger, your battle with authority, your addictions, whatever you got. There is no place for being politically correct or pious or nice. The Sacred, the Divine Wrestler will take you on as you are. You wrestle in the dirt with this God and you don’t ask for permission. You take it.

    That was my favorite bit. I'm thinking a lot of people in this country would be a lot happier (and so would the rest of us, then) if they would just let it all out, get down in the mud, and duke it out with their Christianity. Instead, they wear it like the ugly outfit their mom got them for Christmas, uncomfortable yet boasting their strength, all the while resenting anyone who is comfortable in their baggy pants and holey t-shirt.

  2. Great sermon, and great comment Snad. I with you, casting off the ugly clothes and wrestling naked in the mud.

  3. Brilliant Sermon. Wow. You bring out the Bible at its best. There really is so much there when you dig deep as you did here. Again, Wow.

  4. Thanks all! I owe many insights to Peter Pitzele's excellent book, Our Father's Wells.