Genesis 31–33, Psalm 11, Matthew 11
The story of Jacob’s return to face the brother he had cheated twenty years before is a powerful one by any standard, but it also provides a significant insight into our JudeoChristian tradition. Jacob did all that he could to protect himself from the righteous anger he expected from Esau. Lavish gifts were sent ahead, and he divided his household into two groups, thinking that if one was attacked the other might escape. Still, the fact that Esau was coming with four hundred men was worrisome. You and I would probably say that Jacob was left wrestling with his conscience, but in the narrative terms of ancient storytellers we are told that he wrestled with a strange man who turned out to be God.
One result of the match was that Jacob was given a new name, something that often accompanied turning points in life. The new name was “Israel” which means “one who strives or wrestles with God.”
What is especially revealing about this story is that when our faith had developed to the point where it needed a name, there were many options. The people of God could have been named for obedient Abraham or faithful Isaac or Moses the Law Giver. But the chosen name was Israel because the people of God continually wrestle with God about almost everything in life—faith, morality, sin, forgiveness, etc. We wrestle with God partly because, as the psalmist says, God tests the righteous along with the wicked.
We wrestle as John the Baptist did when he lost his confidence in Jesus as the messiah and sent a deputation to ask if he really, really was the Anointed One.The name Israel was not lightly chosen but rightly chosen because the people of God must always wrestle with God.
How do you wrestle with God?
What happens if we stop wrestling with God?
Challenging Lord, you come to us in the still of night when we are alone by our own River Jabbok. Help us to engage with you as our ancestor Jacob did that we might greet the dawn with your blessing in our ears. Amen.
-The Rev. Dr. Francis H. Wade
Washington National Cathedral