A blog post about a recent vote in the Church of England General Synod, on sexuality, raised some questions about this passage, which resulted in this blog post. It should have been a paragraph, but became the below exploration of what exactly might be going on in the text…
Genesis 32:22-32, where Jacob wrestles with a man who reveals himself to be God is a complex passage. Taking one verse, about a contentious and rich theophany, out of context, is a dangerous way to use the Bible. But then the Bible is a dangerous book. The narrative of Genesis 32 radically and wonderfully involves God in the story of Jacob and Esau, culminating in the complex story of Jacob wrestling with God (v22-31). We learn why Israelites don’t eat a certain part of meat joints (v32), why a place is named (v30), and why Jacob was renamed Israel (v28). There is much mystery here. This passage has spawned many, many debates. We could spend hours talking about the meaning of key words like blessing, Israel, and so on. And this is where I want to make my substantive point. Not about the story Ian Paul and Simon Butler share between them, or the disagreements between the tweeters I snapshotted above.
God does what we see as being impossible.
Throughout the Old Testament, language of the ‘face of God’ is complex and terrifying. Moses, at the Burning Bush, does not look on God’s face out of fear. In God’s own words, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live“. But the impossible happens in Genesis 32. Before Exodus, to be sure, and perhaps foreshadowing the many incidences in Scripture where God’s face is associated with blessing. There is, perhaps, a clue about the value of wrestling, with God and with man. But the emphasis, the central actor, the focus, is on God. God is the one who reveals himself, who speaks and changes the way a culture works and gives names. God is the one who blesses. At the risk of stretching the text, and importing foreign meanings in, I wonder whether this is what we should take note of.
John Goldingay, in his popular-level (And very readable!) Genesis for Everyone, writes of this episode:
“the audience of this story is Jacob, is Israel. And insofar as the Church comes to share in Israel’s relationship with God, we recall that we too are Jacob, we are Israel. We are a people whose nature is to struggle with God to avoid becoming the people we could be, and a people with whom God continues to try to take us there” (p. 118)
As ever, with Scripture, there is more going on, too. The late Joyce Baldwin, in her Bible Speaks Today Commentary on Genesis, writes:
“the passage says less about prayer than about God’s search for us… God took the initiative in appearing to him… God was in charge, not Jacob, and that was precisely the point” (p. 138)
Joyce goes on;
“In the Old Testament Jacob/Israel, the individual, came to stand for the people of God, called by that name. In the same way as Jacob had needed the transforming power of God, so in every generation did his successors. The name Jacob stood for the raw material taken by the Lord to achieve his purposes, while Israel called to mind the transforming power which made a new man of Jacob, and which could have done the same for his descendants, had they been willing…” (p. 139)
Discussion of the relationship between Israel and the Church is beyond the scope of this blog post. But I want to close by drawing a few things out. This passage forces us to read carefully and humbly. Out of context, as is ever the case with the Bible, we could end up extrapolating strange things. Three things, though, stand out to me:
- Relationship with God is a struggle – as he moulds us to be more like him, even as our sin shapes our response – but it is a positive thing because God will take us where he wants us to go.
- God takes the initiative – anywhere we think we can go that God has not been, we will find his footsteps, anything we think God has not thought about, we will find His wisdom inviting us deeper in.
- God transforms individuals into communities, fights into blessing, a rabble into a people called by his name.
Genesis 32:22-36 is a complex passage. I’ve barely scratched the surface. But I hope that I’ve shown, in a small way, just how rich this passage can be for those of us wrestling (literally and metaphorically!) with God and His people, in God’s World. I wonder what an understanding of prayer informed by Jacob’s wrestling, an understanding of community formed by God’s transforming call, and the reality of struggle, could do in the lives of those of us trying to follow Jesus.