SERMON Wounded by God

A reading from Genesis, the thirty-second chapter.

22 The same night [Jacob] arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 24 And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29 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. 30 So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh. (Genesis 32:22–32 ESV)

We have here what may very well be my most favorite story in all of the Bible.

Jacob is the trickster, the younger son (of twins) who cheated his older brother Esau out of his birthright and his blessing. Esau was the strong brother, mighty, a man’s man, hunting and fishing and farming and doing all those that strong men have always done. Esau is his father Isaac’s favorite.

Jacob stays inside — maybe he’s clever and bookish and probably a bit of a sissy. He’s certainly a mama’s boy. He is not a man’s man. He has lived by cunning and trickery most of his life (Jacob and his uncle Laban struggled hard to get one over on each other), and now he’s on the road — meeting all sorts of heavenly characters along the way — and he has decided to take his chances with his brother Esau.

Jacob has, after a fashion, done well for himself. And maybe the years of having to try and keep one step ahead of each attempt by his uncle to cheat him have finally gotten to him. “I have sent to tell my lord [Esau], in order that I may find favor in your sight,” he commands his servants to tell Esau.

But he’s scared. He stole everything from Esau. We speak of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Esau. This man is the recipient of the promise of God not by birth, but by fraud. “Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come to attack me …” Jacob prays as he sends his wives and all his children away on separate path so that he may meet Esau alone.

With his offering.

“Perhaps he will accept me.”

Alone, Jacob meets a man, and they fight. That man grabs hold of Jacob, and Jacob grabs back. And the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob… So he fights dirty. And Jacob still doesn’t let go. “Give me a blessing,” he demands in what has to be excruciating pain.1 “Tell me your name. Give me a blessing!”

And wounded, in pain, Jacob does not let go.

This, sisters and brothers, is faith. Our faith. We have come to identify the man — this stranger — as God himself. “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” God meets us in moments of fear, in the pitch black darkness of night, when are most alone and vulnerable, ambushes us and grabs hold of us.

And we grab back. Not knowing who or even what we’ve got ahold of.

But notice … God cannot prevail. The almighty cannot beat us. Omiscience and omnipotence and omnipresence cannot defeat us. Cannot prevail over us. Cannot win in his struggle with us. God himself has to resort to trickery, and even that fails to shake us. We do not let go. “Give me a blessing,” we say of this God who grabbed us in the middle of a dark night, who ambushed us when we were at our weakest, when we were at our worst.

This is faith. To grab hold of God when God grabs hold of you. To not let go. To demand to know who’s got you, to demand a blessing. And realize, God fights dirty. God wants to make the struggle stop.

And yet, frighted and wounded and alone in the inky black darkness, we don’t let go. We don’t give up. We prevail. Over God.

We prevail.

That, sisters and brothers, is our faith.

  1. In seminary, I recall reading a Jewish physician and sometime scripture commentator noting this wound was either physically impossible or such that Jacob would have been in so much pain that he would have been utterly incapacitated. The physician suggested the description of the act itself — putting the hip joint out of it socket — was a euphemism, and that God was possibly raping or attempting to rape Jacob. Which is truly fighting dirty. This is speculation. But consider for a moment what it might mean for God to fight that kind of dirty against us. ↩︎

Two Stories

I focus a lot in my book, The Love That Matters: Meeting Jesus in the Midst of Terror and Death, on some very important Bible stories that have helped me make sense of who God is, who I am, and what it means to have met Jesus and to follow as Jesus has called me to follow.

Today, I’d like to focus on the two most important of those stories.

The first is from Genesis 32:22-32, the story of a frightened Jacob who meets a mysterious stranger at a crossing of the wadi jabbock and wrestles with that mysterious stranger.

Jacob is scared. He is getting ready to see his long-estranged brother Esau, whom he cheated out of his birthright as the first son (by a few minutes) and then out of his blessing from their father Isaac. He has divided his people — his wives, his children, his slaves and servants, and his possessions — so that some portion of himself will survive an attack from Esau. He has sent gifts ahead to his brother. He has left his family, and gone on ahead — alone — to meet Esau. And he prays for God’s protection:

10 I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. 11 Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. 12 But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude. (Genesis 32:10-12 ESV)

Alone, Jacob meets the mysterious man, who grabs hold of him. Jacob grabs back. They struggle all night.

When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. (Genesis 32:25 ESV)

The man demands Jacob let go of him, and Jacob refuses. “I will not let you go unless you bless me,” he says. He demands to know the man’s name, and the stranger replies not with his name, but by giving Jacob a new name — Israel יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל — meaning “he has struggled with God” or “he has persisted against God.” (Though it could also mean “God struggles” or “God persists.” But scripture gives us a meaning, and we’ll stick with it.) The mysterious stranger is never identified, but we’re told Jacob names it Peniel פְּנִיאֵ֑ל, meaning “Face of God.”

This struggle with God is faith for me. It’s how I understand what it means to meet God. And what amazes me about this tiny story is that even though the entire story of God’s people Israel is about God’s faithfulness and their failure to be faithful to their God, this story is about one man’s refusal to let go of God. In fact, Jacob is so intent on fighting, on struggling, on sticking with this, that God has to fight dirty — has to put his hip out of joint (one rabbinical commentary I read suggested this was a euphemism, and that God either tried to or succeeded in raping Jacob) — to make the struggle stop.

In struggling with us, His created things, creatures of mud bearing a tiny bit of the divine breath, God has to fight dirty. And even that doesn’t work. Because we won’t let go of God.

Think about that. We won’t let go. That’s faith. A faith even God has to contend with.

There’s also the matter of the injury. Jacob walks away, limping, wounded, from his night-long struggle with God. It is wounding, it leaves us limping, meeting God. Struggling with God. Wrestling with God. Not letting go. We are wounded. We limp. (Though the same rabbinical commentary says the wound here described, putting out the hip, would leave Jacob screaming in pain and unable to walk.) We are not the same. Not after this.

Because we also have a new name. We have a blessing (we do not know what the blessing was here). We are very different then we were the night before, when we crossed this dry riverbed, frightened and alone. We are marked, in a way we weren’t before, as God’s.

This struggle, as I said, is faith for me. God grabs hold. I grab back. And my gabbing back, for all my fear, doubt, and unfaithfulness, is too much for God. Who must fight dirty to get me to let go. Very dirty. Leaving me wounded. Changed. Blessed.

The second story that is hugely important to me is that of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. A lawyer asks Jesus how to “inherit” eternal life? What does the law say, Jesus asks? Love God and love my neighbor, the man replies. You got it right, Jesus says.

But that’s not enough for the man.

“Who is my neighbor?” he asks.

The man wants to know who he has obligations to. And who he doesn’t. The command to love neighbors comes from Leviticus 19, but there is an implication in the Torah that whoever isn’t Israel isn’t quite a neighbor and certainly isn’t a brother. (This is explicit in Deuteronomy 23, when God allows Israel to charge foreigners interest on loans as part of God’s forbidding interest to “your brother.”) So, the man wants to know, who does he not owe this obligation of neighborliness to?

This is where Jesus gets interesting. When Jacob asks the mysterious stranger what his name is, the stranger replies by giving Jacob a new name — and never revealing his. Jesus doesn’t say who the neighbor is. The lawyer wants a noun. Jesus responds with a verb, a story of what it means to be a neighbor.

I suspect this story is well known enough so that I don’t have to do a blow-by-blow. A man — very likely a Judean — is on his way to Jericho from Jerusalem when he is ambushed, beaten, and left for dead. A priest and a Levite pass him by, and do nothing. A Samaritan — someone who is not of Israel, but instead worships the corrupted faith grounded in a version of the Torah — comes along and cares for the man, picking him up, binding his wounds, taking him to an inn, and paying for his care.

Who was the neighbor? Jesus asks.

“The one who showed him mercy,” the lawyer replies.

“You go, and do likewise,” Jesus says.

This is the command to us. Go and do likewise.

There’s a twofold meaning here for me. The first is that the neighbor is whoever God puts in front of you, wounded and needing help. The help given is tangible, real, physical. This is about immediacy, about hearts and heads and hands. This is what we would call an act of charity. It’s not about policy or governance or making the road safer or bringing anyone to justice (though none of those things are precluded; they just aren’t what love means when someone is bleeding in front of you). It’s about meeting someone, unexpected, and being their help and their healing.

This is hard. We like to pick our causes. And we can. We’ve made a world in which it is hard to meet real neighbors. So we tend to focus our efforts on imagined ones, mediated neighbors. It’s not wrong to help those in need far away, and I won’t say they aren’t neighbors. But we can choose to encounter them. Or not.

Out and about, we can’t choose to encounter someone. We can choose not to help them, to walk around them as the priest and the Levite did. But there they are, in front of us.

So, this story means, for me, that part of following Jesus in the world means purposefully living in it, not avoiding the places where we meet strangers and not turning away from their need. That means leaving a lot to chance. The people we meet are not always admirable, not always kind, not always people we would claim as neighbors if we could choose.

But we can’t choose. That for me is a major point of the parable. And of the whole Gospel. This is hard for moderns, because everything about modernity strives to create a world in which we can choose as much as possible — who we are, what we do, where we live, how we’re governed, who our neighbors are, who they aren’t, how we meet and deal with them.

Things most human beings have never been able to choose.

There is, however, another part of “go and do likewise” that intrigues me. While Jesus is clearly using a hated Samaritan as an example of how a neighbor acts, part of me also knows that Judean listeners would identify with the beaten man, and not the Samaritan. They would hear themselves as the victim here, walked around and left uncared for by their own.

Part of that risk we take in the world is the risk that we too shall be left beaten on the road to Jericho. That we will need care from absolute strangers — from hated enemies — and that care will come.

That’s an amazing kind of vulnerability that Jesus is teaching here. You too could be left for dead, and the only people who will care for you are enemies. And I cannot help but see some part of the coming judgment upon Jerusalem, the war that would see the city’s destruction, and the refugees who would huddle in the midst of the very empire that had made that war, finding no one to care for them but those they have avoided or consigned to outer darkness because of their sinfulness or faithlessness to Israel’s God.

Regardless of what is at work here, I believe Jesus is also telling the lawyer, and his disciples — faithfulness also demands vulnerability. It demands risk. You won’t always be a caretaker (which can become a position of power for Christians, who can come to see themselves as bestower of goodies to the world); you may also need care. And it will come from those least expected to care.

Perhaps this parable should be a reminder to the church that the world, as hostile as it may be, is still God’s world, and that God’s people should be open to the means God will use to care for the church in a hostile world. We may be surprised by who will care for us. And how.

Not Right, But Not Wrong Either

I love the little details you find in the Bible.

Because they sometimes are the most important.

I woke up this morning thinking about the rape of Dinah — the one named daughter of Jacob (he must have had lots and lots and lots, what with two wives and two handmaidens and twelve sons) in the whole of scripture — in Genesis 34. It’s a kind-of gruesome story. The Bible is full of gruesome stories. I think that’s why I like it.

The story begins after Jacob meets his estranged brother Esau, which is right after he wrestles with the mysterious stranger (aka God) at the crossing of the wadi jabbock in Genesis 32.

Jacob has decamped with his entire entourage — wives, concubines, sons, unnamed daughters — near Shechem, now known as Nablus. And so it begins:

1 Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the women of the land. 2 And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her, he seized her and lay with her and humiliated her. 3 And his soul was drawn to Dinah the daughter of Jacob. He loved the young woman and spoke tenderly to her. 4 So Shechem spoke to his father Hamor, saying, “Get me this girl for my wife.” (Genesis 34:1-4 ESV)

Okay, so let me be clear here, it is quite likely that Dinah was very likely a willing and eager participant in all this. She was not snatched and violated by someone lying in wait in the bushes (you were thinking of Judges 21:20-24). She was a lonely young woman who was looking for some company and maybe even a little fun.

The humiliation here is very likely not Dinah being robbed of purity and her virginity. The humiliation here belongs to the entire clan of Jacob — to the men of the clan of Jacob — who become “indignant and very angry, because he had done an outrageous thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, for such a thing must not be done.” (Genesis 34:7 ESV)

This is not about the protection of female virtue. It is about the protection of male virtue, of tribal virtue. Dinah might have also been in love with Shechem. But it didn’t matter, because she sought to marry — that’s what a sex act with someone not a prostitute led to — outside the tribe.

More importantly, she sought to marry a Canaanite.

Because marriage is exactly what is proposed. Hamer, the leader of Shechem (and the father of Shechem), goes to Jacob and pleads for his son:

8 But Hamor spoke with them, saying, “The soul of my son Shechem longs for your daughter. Please give her to him to be his wife. 9 Make marriages with us. Give your daughters to us, and take our daughters for yourselves. 10 You shall dwell with us, and the land shall be open to you. Dwell and trade in it, and get property in it.” 11 Shechem also said to her father and to her brothers, “Let me find favor in your eyes, and whatever you say to me I will give. 12 Ask me for as great a bride price and gift as you will, and I will give whatever you say to me. Only give me the young woman to be my wife.” (Genesis 34:8-12 ESV)

So Jacob does have a clutch of daughters! (Well, at least Hamor assumes he does.) And he wants Israel and Shechem (the whole people) to intermarry. We know, from what comes later (Deuteronomy 7, Ezra 8-9) that intermarriage, especially with Canaanites, is utterly unacceptable. And so of course the sons of Jacob plot to deceive Shechem — by demanding all the men of Shechem become circumcised.

Shechem agrees. Eagerly. (Some girls are apparently worth this.) And the people of Shechem think they’ve got the upper hand:

So Hamor and his son Shechem came to the gate of their city and spoke to the men of their city, saying, 21 “These men are at peace with us; let them dwell in the land and trade in it, for behold, the land is large enough for them. Let us take their daughters as wives, and let us give them our daughters. 22 Only on this condition will the men agree to dwell with us to become one people—when every male among us is circumcised as they are circumcised. 23 Will not their livestock, their property and all their beasts be ours? Only let us agree with them, and they will dwell with us.” (Genesis 34:20-23 ESV)

And thus, the deed is done. However, the sons of Israel were biding their time and sharpening their swords:

25 On the third day, when they were sore, two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took their swords and came against the city while it felt secure and killed all the males. 26 They killed Hamor and his son Shechem with the sword and took Dinah out of Shechem’s house and went away. 27 The sons of Jacob came upon the slain and plundered the city, because they had defiled their sister. 28 They took their flocks and their herds, their donkeys, and whatever was in the city and in the field. 29 All their wealth, all their little ones and their wives, all that was in the houses, they captured and plundered. (Genesis 34:25-29 ESV)

And so, Dinah is both avenged, her honor restored, and left without a husband (we never hear of her again). Shechem is depopulated, and the sons of Jacob have profited hugely in their deceitful dealings with the Shechemites. It’s a marvelous deed, no?

30 Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me by making me stink to the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites. My numbers are few, and if they gather themselves against me and attack me, I shall be destroyed, both I and my household.” 31 But they said, “Should he treat our sister like a prostitute?” (Genesis 34:30-31 ESV)

What I like about this story it this whole matter is left right at that. Is Jacob wrong? Clearly the people of Shechem thought Israel was weak, and did not expect subterfuge when they — ahem — pruned their johnsons. They expected to inherit all of Israel’s wealth, that it would be theirs for the taking.

Clearly Abraham and Isaac saw themselves as weak enough to have to pass their wives off as their sisters to potentially hostile kings in order to save their lives. Abraham was powerful enough to field an army and rescue his nephew Lot during the war in Genesis 14, but that doesn’t help him later. I suspect Jacob is not wrong when he sees his position as precarious. Especially if his hot-headed sons go around picking fights and massacring people. That will eventually cause trouble.

But the sons aren’t wrong either. Honor was at stake. If a daughter of Jacob could wander off and have a bit of fun — serious or not — with just any Canaanite lad who took a fancy to her (and Shechem son of Hamor fell hard), pretty soon there’d be no Israel to defend, no people to inherit the promise. And no honor left.

This remains morally unresolved. The argument between Jacob and his sons is unfinished, and left for us to ponder. What would you do? The deed also remains done. The massacre and plunder of Shechem is a brilliant bit of defense, a well planned operation that took a possibly numerical enemy by surprise and inflicted a permanent defeat. Smart, this.

Not even the Bible, however, can leave well enough alone.

Remember what I said about small details? Note who led this. Not Reuben, the oldest son of Jacob (who, in one of the Bible’s ickier details, had taken a fancy to one his father’s concubines), or Judah, the one son who truly matters, but Simeon and Levi. And it’s they who do the actual killing, and they who argue with their father. You’d think they be rewarded.

When Jacob is dying, he has a few choice words for his two hot-headed, sword wielding sons:

5 “Simeon and Levi are brothers;
weapons of violence are their swords.
6 Let my soul come not into their council;
O my glory, be not joined to their company.
For in their anger they killed men,
and in their willfulness they hamstrung oxen.
7 Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce,
and their wrath, for it is cruel!
I will divide them in Jacob
and scatter them in Israel.
(Genesis 49:5-7 ESV)

And sure enough, Simeon and Levi are the only tribes in Israel that don’t get their own allotments of land. Levi becomes the tribe of the priests, and Simeon gets its chunk of land in the midst of Judah (Joshua 19:1-9). There’s a consequence to Simeon’s and Levi’s actions — they get no real share of their own in the land. (Simeon ends up disappearing into Judah.)

There’s something the Bible does, something the church once understood (but generally doesn’t anymore, because it has become as modern as the world it is in) — that there are costs and consequences to doing the right thing, or even the thing commanded or enjoined by God. It may very well be that Simeon and Levi were right to massacre the men of Shechem, and plunder their city (taking and humiliating, of course, their women). They certainly were clever about it. But there is still a consequence to that act, one their descendants will bear.

In our ideological age, we like virtue. We like innocence. We focus on the identity of the actor rather than the act. We like right and wrong, and an act can only be one or the other. It can never be both. We also believe that right acts should never have consequences — that’s only for sinners, for the guilty. A right act, a good act, never morally taints the actor. “I’ve done nothing wrong.” Guilt and consequence belongs only to the one who has been defeated, captured, or is on the wrong side of power.

But scripture is not so easy. Jacob isn’t wrong, even if his sons aren’t either. And their act — which saved Jacob’s honor and increased his power and wealth, comes with a price. Jacob lays a heavy blessing upon his wayward sons, and they shall be scattered — one tribe to serve all the other tribes as priests, and the other to lose his identity completely and utterly.

And their act, and their anger, saved them from the fate that befell the other sons of Jacob when the Assyrians overran Israel. Even our sins can save us.