Still Wrestling

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

I began this blog a year and a half ago by writing about the Genesis scripture in this week’s reading. You can read my original post here. Interestingly enough, one of the first comments I received about the post was “you know this didn’t really happen, don’t you?” My response was that I think the story is true, whether or not it actually happened the way the writer of Genesis told it. I get just as annoyed with liberal literalists as I do with conservative literalists. I think they are both missing the point.

The story of Jacob wrestling with God resonates with me because that part of his story is my story too. Literal faith is easy. Transformative faith requires struggle. Jesus talked about an easy and a difficult path, too.

Are Souls Gendered?

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27

At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. Matthew 22:30

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28

The BBC television series “Doctor Who” recently created controversy by announcing that the role of the Thirteenth Doctor would be played by a woman. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, the Doctor is an alien from a planet called Gallifrey whose species have not only the ability to travel in time, but also are able to “regenerate” into a new body instead of dying. The ability to regenerate was originally invented by the writers in order to keep the show going when the actor portraying the original doctor became too ill to continue working. (This literary tactic reminds me a bit of the “invention” of the transporter in Star Trek, which happened because it was less expensive than filming a spacecraft landing on different planets.) “Doctor Who” has been around since 1963, changing actors in the role every few years, and until now, the Doctor’s character has always been male. And some people object very strongly to that kind of gender fluidity, even in a fictional alien from a fictional planet. I have one Facebook friend, a fan of the show from the beginning, who says she will never watch it again.

One of the reasons I enjoy fantasy and science fiction is that it invites speculation about the nature of ultimate reality. What makes us human, and what is the essence of our individuality? “Star Trek”, which began its run about the same time as “Doctor Who” often dealt with these questions. In “The Wrath of Khan”, Kirk eulogizes the alien character Spock, “Of all the souls I have known, he was the most human.”  Several episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” dealt with this question in the character of Data.  In The Measure of a Man”, Data’s personhood is put on trial. Is he a person or a thing? This question is revisited in “The Offspring”, where Data creates another android, Lal. He considers Lal to be his daughter after allowing her to choose her own gender and species. “Star Trek: Voyager” pushes the question a bit further in the ongoing character of the holographic Doctor. Do aliens have souls? Do androids? Holograms?  I suppose it depends on your definition of “soul”, but if you understand “soul” to mean the essence of a person, what makes “you” you, a unique individual, the answer  in all three cases is “yes”.

Fictional characters aside, what is the soul, and is gender an intrinsic part of it? The first creation story in Genesis says that humanity (Hebrew adam) was created in the image of God in both male and female variations. If God created both sexes in his own image, then either God is both male and female, or gender is irrelevant to personhood. I’m inclined to the latter interpretation as I do not understand God to be some kind of anthropomorphized hermaphrodite. “God is Spirit”, Jesus taught,  “and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth”. 

Matthew relates a story in which some of Jesus’s theological opponents try to entrap him by setting up a hypothetical scenario in which a woman marries seven brothers in succession in accordance with the Mosaic commands for levirate marriage. If there is life after death as Jesus claims, then whose property will the woman be? Jesus responds by saying that at the resurrection, marriage will no longer exist because people will be “like the angels in heaven” The woman won’t be anyone’s property because gender roles are apparently irrelevant in life after death.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul states that one’s relationship to Christ is not dependent on ethnic origin, gender, or social status. Faith (not intellectual belief, but trust in and loyalty to) is what is essential to that relationship. There are no second-class citizens of the kingdom of God. The kinds of things we like to use to categorize people into neat binary boxes are irrelevant.

Are souls gendered? I think not, and I’m looking forward to meeting the Thirteenth Doctor.

 

Not All the Voices in Your Head Are From God

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” Genesis 22:1-14

This week’s Old Testament reading, the binding of Isaac, has always been problematic for me. I’m aware of traditional explanations for why God subjected Abraham to such a cruel test, but those explanations exacerbated rather than relieved my unease.  I’m also aware of some of the more liberal explanations of the story as an apologetic for the development of animal sacrifice and temple worship, but I’m not entirely comfortable with those either. Although I don’t necessarily take all the stories in the Bible literally, I do take them all  seriously. The best way I can understand troublesome passages like this one (and the story of Jephthah’s daughter, where God failed to intervene) is to remind myself that there are many times when people think God is saying something to them, and he isn’t. Not all the voices in your head are from God.

I don’t think God asked Abraham to kill Isaac (Ishmael in Islamic tradition) and offer his body as a burnt offering. I think Abraham thought God asked him to do that. Abraham lived in a time and place where child sacrifice was commonly practiced, and it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to think that Abraham might have thought that was something his God might have wanted him to do, too. If his God was greater than all the gods of the neighboring cultures, surely his God would require the same level of “skin in the game” from his worshippers. The son of Abraham was more fortunate than the daughter of Jephthah, because Abraham heard another message from God, countermanding God’s first order, and he stops just in time. Relax, says God. This was a test; it was only a test. I can’t help but wonder about how this experience must have scarred Isaac for life and how it must have negatively affected both his relationship with his father and with God. Isaac’s son Jacob later describes God as  “the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac,” which I find pretty telling. And what happened between Abraham and Sarah? Did they separate over this incident? In the chapter which immediately follows, Sarah dies in Hebron, and Abraham apparently has to to go some distance to mourn her passing and obtain a burial place. Apparently, there’s a lot going on between the lines of this story, with neither Isaac nor Sarah hearing the same voice from God that Abraham heard.

There are a lot of people going around saying God told them to do this or that, and whenever I hear those kinds of statements, I am skeptical. They may think God told them something, but I question whether the voice they heard was actually from God. I am especially suspicious whenever money or politics is involved with such epiphanies. I do not think God told Oral Roberts he would die unless his supporters sent him a certain amount of money by a certain date. I do not think God told Harold Camping when the world would end.  I do not think God tells any of the innumerable candidates of office that they are God’s chosen one. If God was actually talking to all the people who claim he was talking, he would be a very irrational and disturbed deity.  I’m not sure how many of these people actually thought God was talking to them, but I’m pretty sure that, if there were voices in their heads, those voices weren’t from God.

When I first started reading the Bible, I used to wonder why God doesn’t seem to talk to people today as clearly and obviously as he seemed to do in the Bible stories. Recently I read a rather interesting article in the Atlantic, “Psychics Who Hear Voices Could Be on to Something”. The article was about the ways “healthy voice hearers” might help people with psychotic disorders, and seemed to have a lot in common with Julian Jayne’s much earlier book, “Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”. Both the article and the book postulate that what most of us perceive as our own thoughts, some people perceive as originating from an external source. Ancient peoples, some aboriginal cultures, children, and mentally ill people seem to be more open to the latter perception. I can vividly remember an experience I had in the third grade, when I was convinced the devil was tempting me not to believe in God. I now understand that experience as the immature perception of my own subconscious doubts, rather than any need for my parents to consult an exorcist. But at the time it was very real, very scary, and probably the origin story for why I have always been very interested in matters theological.

So does God really speak to people, and if so how do you know it is God and not your own thoughts doing the talking?  I think the answer to the first question is yes. As my friends in the UCC are fond of saying, “God is still speaking”. The answer to the second question is a bit more complicated. I think it takes practice, what is sometimes called spiritual formation, to learn to hear the voice of God correctly. As John wrote to some of the first Christians, Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God. For John, the main criteria for discernment seem to be (a) Jesus and (b) love. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God”.Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.Those work pretty well for me, too.  If you think God is telling you to do something that is incongruent with the character of Jesus, it’s probably not God doing the talking. If you think God is telling you to do something that is hurtful to yourself or others, it’s probably not God doing the talking. As James put it, “ No one who is tested should say, “God is tempting me!” This is because God is not tempted by any form of evil, nor does he tempt anyone but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.”

I also like the Wesleyan quadrilateral approach, which considers Scripture, tradition, and reason along with personal experience. I have found that the more I read and study the Bible the more I find verses float into my consciousness just when I will find them helpful. The same holds true for the words and melodies of hymns, as well as traditional prayers. I’m glad God expects us to use our minds, too. If you think that God is telling you to do something ridiculous like jump off a building as proof of your faith, it’s probably not God doing the talking. (as Jesus observed)  Deuteronomy is quite pragmatic about the use of reason, although helpful only in retrospect: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken.” 

Is it God speaking, or my own thoughts? Does it matter? I can’t help but think of Paul’s advice to the Roman Christians:  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will. I understand this passage to mean that, as much as we will allow, God works to change our thoughts.

His mind to our mind, his thoughts to our thoughts, with the end goal that God’s mind and our mind become one.

A Tale of Two Mothers

Third Sunday after Pentecost

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt. Genesis 21:8-21

One thing I appreciate about the Hebrew Bible is that it isn’t afraid to portray its characters as flawed human beings. If I were making up origin stories about the patriarchs and matriarchs of a religion, I certainly would think about leaving out certain details about Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, or Jacob and his  “sister wives”. Sarah and Abraham certainly don’t come across looking very good in this passage.

First, a little background: At God’s direction, Abraham leaves his homeland and migrates to “a land I (God) will show you.” God promises Abraham that his descendents will be as numerous as stars in the sky, yet years go by, Abraham and Sarah aren’t getting any younger,  and they still have no children. Sarah gets the bright idea of using her personal servant as a surrogate. “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” If this sounds a lot like “The Handmaid’s Tale”, you’re exactly right. The Biblical stories are where Margaret Atwood got many of her ideas, including the term “handmaid”. As Sarah’s property, Hagar doesn’t have much choice in the matter, becomes pregnant, and gives birth to Ishmael. Thirteen years later God’s messenger shows up again and tells the aging couple they will have a child together. Sarah laughs at the very idea, but within a year Isaac arrives on the scene. With a child of her own, Sarah has no more use for her human property, and wants them gone. So off into the desert they are sent – disposable people who have lost their value to their owners.

Sarah really comes across as a villain in this story, and Abraham comes across as weak. Earlier in the story, before Isaac actually arrives on the scene, Abraham seems to stand up for Ishmael a little:  “Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?”  And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” But the most he seems to be able to do when Sarah’s push becomes a shove into the desert, is to provide Hagar a skin of water and a loaf of bread. If you do a Google image search on “wilderness of Beersheba”, you will see that is not a hospitable-looking place. Hagar is helpless to save herself or her son.

But the slave woman Hagar and her son Ishmael were not throwaway people to God. “God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her,What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there.  Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” And God fulfills his promise. He saves Hagar and Ishmael from a horrible death by dehydration, he continued to be a presence in their lives (“God was with the boy as he grew up”), and Ishmael does become the ancestor of millions, just like his half-brother Isaac.

Unfortunately the descendants of Sarah and the descendants of Hagar, both children of Abraham and beloved by God, have been at odds for much of history. The butterfly effect continues to ripple through time and space. How different might our world be today if Sarah and Abraham made a more compassionate choice! We can’t go back in time and warn them, but we can learn from their mistakes and hopefully make better choices today. Who knows what difference our choices might make a thousand years from now?

Sarah was given a great gift by God, a child of her own when she thought that could never be. Yet she responded to that great blessing in the wrong way. She thought it meant that she, and her son Isaac, were special in a way that made them superior to Hagar and her son Ishmael. God did choose Abraham and Sarah to be the parents of the nation of Israel, but his purpose in making that choice wasn’t because Abraham and Sarah were better than anyone else. They were chosen in order that  “through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” God’s blessings are not meant to be hoarded, but shared, and there are certainly not meant to be used as an excuse to ostracize or oppress other people.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Hagar to be in such a helpless position. She was unable to tell Abraham “no” when it came to having sex. She was unable to stop Sarah’s abuse and mistreatment, even by running away. And she thought she would be unable to prevent Ishmael from dying under the hot desert sun. There are still Hagars today- women caught in abusive marriages, women who are harassed and mistreated in jobs they can’t quit, women who fear their children could die because they do not have access to healthcare.

I also can’t imagine how Abraham could send his teenage son away. Sarah must have considered him her son too, at least for his first thirteen years. How could they do that? The scary thing is I think they thought they were doing the right thing. God had promised that his covenant with Abraham would be fulfilled through Isaac, so perhaps they needed to do something to protect Isaac and ensure that future. There is still that kind of thinking going on today. I especially think of cases where parents have kicked their gay teenage children out of their homes, mistakenly thinking that action is something God would want.

There are no nobodies in the mind of God, no disposable or dispensable people. We may think that some people are more important or deserving than others, but we are wrong about that. One of my favorite Doctor Who quotes is “In nine hundred years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important”. I think that’s how God thinks, too.

Everyone you meet was created in the image of God and is beloved by God. I believe that if we practice seeing others with God’s eyes, things will get better for us all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sodom, Gomorrah, and the Locker Room

This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.- Ezekiel 16:49-50

I’m reading through Genesis this week, and tonight will watch Alabama vs. Clemson in the national championship. As a graduate of UA, naturally I’m rooting for Alabama. But I especially hope Alabama trounces Clemson this year in light of the viral video that shows a Clemson player groping a downed Ohio state player. The player defended his actions as “locker room behavior” and offered a half-hearted apology along the lines of “boys will be boys” and “just having a little fun”. His attempts to justify his behavior reminded me of Donald Trump’s “locker room talk” recording which went viral a few months ago.

What does this have to do with Sodom and Gomorrah? Quite a bit, I think. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction is often used as a proof-text against homosexuality, but I don’t think that’s what it’s really about. You can read the “rest of the story” in context here. There is no way I can read this story and conclude that it refers to consensual, loving same-sex relationships. The “plain meaning of the Scripture” is that a large crowd of Sodomites sought to gang-rape Lot’s guests, who unfortunately for them happened to be angels. There’s a similar story in Judges, this time involving the gang-rape of a woman, which also ends badly for the residents of the town.  The Judges story didn’t involve loving, consensual relationships either. It’s interesting to me that the Sodom story seems to be much more widely known than the Judges story.

I don’t think either story is about sex, homosexual or heterosexual. They are stories about violent disregard for other human beings bringing violent consequences to the perpetrators. They are stories about people using other people for their own entertainment in horrific ways. Locker room talk and locker room behavior may not result in the same physical damage, but I’m afraid Jesus might tell us the thinking that underlies such talk and such behavior is a deadly danger. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  Jesus knew that thoughts and attitudes usually result in behavior consistent with those thoughts and attitudes. Trying to control human behavior via an ever-expanding list of rules, as the Pharisees did, is like playing whack-a-mole. The root of the problem is attitudinal, not behavioral. Change your attitude, and changes in behavior will follow.

The problem with Sodom was not one of sexual orientation, but of self-centeredness, as Ezekiel wrote many years later. The problem with Sodom is that they thought only about themselves and their own self-gratification. They had plenty of food, but stuffed themselves rather than sharing with those in need. They had plenty of free time, but used it to look for trouble instead of helping others.  They saw Lot’s guests as objects for their own entertainment, not as persons.

People are meant to be loved, not used. If we strive to “love our neighbor as ourselves” we will treat people in ways we would want to be treated ourselves. That certainly rules out rape and other violent crimes, but when you think about it, it rules out a lot of other stuff too, in and out of the locker room. It’s something to think about.

Roll Tide!

Habakkuk: Hey God, Explain This!

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
so that justice is perverted.

Habakkuk’s  three short chapters present a dialogue between the prophet and God. Its setting seems to have been during the zenith of Babylon’s power, when the occupiers ruled over the land of the people of God with an iron hand. Unlike many of the other prophetic books, Habakkuk doesn’t attribute Israel’s captivity and exile to punishment for their many sins against God and neighbor.  Instead, he describes how bad life under the thumb of Babylon is, and he clearly can’t understand why God isn’t doing something about it. As he sees it, the  Babylonians behave in much worse ways than the Israelites ever thought about doing. Life is not fair, and this does not make sense to someone who believes God is primarily a god of justice. In a bit of an existential crisis, he asks God to explain himself: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?”

God’s response to Habakkuk is not to give him a reason, but to advise patience.  God assumes responsibility for the rise of the Babylonian empire; he is quite aware of all the bad things they are doing, and he will see that the evil that they do comes back on their own heads, but it will be on his own timetable. “The revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.”

The book ends with a psalm recalling God’s past acts of power on behalf of his people, and urging him to intervene once again. In language reminiscent of Job’s, Habakkuk vows to remain faithful to God even if the world falls apart around him. “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”  

Habakkuk is yet another example of a Biblical character who had doubts about the nature of God. His observations about what is happening to him and around him do not square with his understanding of God. Rather than engage in theological contortions to explain away any discrepancy, he expresses his doubts and concerns honestly to God. Like Jacob, he wrestles with God, and will not let go until he is blessed with understanding. Like Job, he is unafraid of making his case directly to God. And like Jacob and Job and so many others before and after him, he is rewarded. His understanding of God takes a quantum leap to that place beyond logic we call faith.

God isn’t angry with us when we have doubts about his goodness, justice, or even existence. Such doubts are often the way to God, rather than away from them. And that’s good news to me.

 

Genesis: Wrestling with God

 

That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel,[and he was limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon. Genesis 32:22-32.

This has always been an intriguing story to me, one that poses more questions than answers. First, a little background on how Jacob came to be in this particular place and state of mind. Jacob’s story begins in Genesis 27, and it’s a great story. It beats any soap opera or reality TV series I’ve ever seen.

Many years earlier, Jacob and his mother Rebekah conspired to trick Jacob’s twin brother, Esau, out of his inheritance. Esau was rather understandably upset, which caused. Jacob to flee from the area in fear for his life. While on the road, Jacob has a dream in which he tries to cut a deal with God: You bless me, and I’ll serve you. Jacob spends the next couple of decades with his mother’s relatives, who live a safe distance away from his angry brother, but finds his Uncle Laban to be an equal match for his own devious mind. Jacob the cheater often finds himself cheated. Eventually he decided that he’d be better off taking his chances with his brother than with his uncle and cousins, and heads for home, taking with him everything he owns. Hoping to placate his brother, he sends an impressive selection of gifts ahead of him, which I always imagine as something like the scene in Disney’s “Aladdin” where Prince Ali enters Agrabah preceded by all the dramatic showmanship Genie can imagine. Despite all his careful scheming and planning, Jacob doesn’t really know how things are going to turn out.  No wonder he had a sleepless night!

Who was the mysterious man who wrestled with Jacob until daybreak? Was it God? Jacob certainly seemed to think so. If it was God, why did God need to cheat to win? Couldn’t God have quickly and easily overpowered a mere human being? Why would God have to ask Jacob to let him go, and actually concede defeat? What does it mean for God to rename Jacob Israel because “you have struggled with God and with man and have overcome”? What did Jacob overcome? Was it really God, or something in himself?

This story only makes sense to me when I understand it as a mental rather than a physical wrestling match, but I don’t think it really matters. Whatever actually happened that night beside the Jabbok, Jacob was forever changed by the encounter, and to me, that’s the most important outcome.  As J K Rowling wrote, “Just because it happens in your head doesn’t mean that it’s not real”.

What this story says to me is that first of all, God meets us where we are. If our own efforts and errors have left us mired in the metaphorical mud of the River Jabbock, God is willing to get down in the mud with us. Jacob was not a particularly admirable character. He was a schemer, a liar, and a cheater who seemed to think he could play tit-for-tat with God and win. His very dysfunctional family seemed to have picked up on most of his least admirable traits. Despite karma repeatedly coming back to bite him, he never really seemed to learn its lesson. Still, God continued to reach out to him, even when it must have been awfully inconvenient and seemingly futile. This is comforting to me, because I have made, am making, and will make plenty of mistakes in life.  God doesn’t wait for us to get everything right before initiating a relationship. He is with us, in spite of us.

Secondly. it’s OK to wrestle with God. I appreciate the long Jewish tradition of arguing with God. In this passage, the very origin of the name “Israel” is apparently attributed to this kind of boldness, and it didn’t start or end with Jacob. Abraham argued with God about the number of righteous people needed to spare Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction, Moses argued with God on more than one occasion when it came to an appropriate punishment for the recalcitrant Israelites in the wilderness, and Job actually wanted to take God to court and sue for unfair treatment!  Many times when it comes to life, not to mention theology, there are questions that don’t have easy or pat answers. God seems to take questioning and doubting in stride. Not only does God not mind; the struggle often leads a person to see God more clearly. At the conclusion of his struggle, Jacob receives God’s blessing. Job rebounds from despair to proclaim “My ears had heard of you (God) but now my eyes have seen you”. “Doubting Thomas” cries “My Lord and my God!” when Jesus invites him to see and touch his resurrected body.

I don’t know exactly what all was going on in Jacob’s mind that night as he wrestled with God. I do think he’d agree with me that doubts, questions, and struggle are not opposed to faith, but part of it. And that’s good news to me.