Sunday, July 31, 2011


“Good, but not safe”

Genesis 32:22-33:11


10 Jacob said, “No, I pray you, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God, with such favor have you received me. Genesis 33:10 (RSV)





Walter Brueggeman says that this text is about the creation of the people Israel, no more, no less.  If that is true, then this is also a story about God, because if nothing else, God’s people reveal something of God to the world.

To say that we are created in the image of God is to affirm a basic, biblical truth.  It doesn’t matter which of the creation stories you affirm, that we are created in God’s image is affirmed there in those ancient texts.

And, to say that we are created in the image of God is to affirm that we are different than all other creatures, and that the very nature of God can be revealed through us.  Theologians have argued over this idea for thousands of years, so let it suffice to say that although we were created, perfectly, in the image of God, this ‘point of contact’ between us and God is not automatic.  To say it another way, ‘in a perfect world, humanity would constantly provide evidence of a good and loving God.’  What we have is something less perfect, perhaps only in rare moments when we are at our best do we reveal anything true about God.

The Jacob story jerks us back to reality.  The story of Jacob is a tale about a young man who uses whatever means possible to achieve what he wants.   Even now, in the midst of struggle, he is demanding a blessing.  The other side of this story is that God can choose to work however God chooses, and through whoever God chooses, no matter how unsavory the character.  This is a story about God and in this story God delivers to goods to Jacob, his prayer is answered, not in the way any of us expect, and not without some pain.

I wish the visitor in this story was more forceful.  Wouldn’t it be better if God simply made us live up to this divine image?  Wouldn’t everyone, when confronted with the power of God conform to God’s will and God’s way in the world?  Certainly God could have made Jacob do the right thing, right from the start.

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis reminds us that the divine-human struggle is neither tidy nor tame, but it is still one we can live with confidence. Susan and Lucy ask Mr. and Mrs. Beaver to describe Aslan (Lewis’s representation of Jesus). They ask if Aslan is a man. Mr. Beaver replies.

“Aslan a man? Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion– the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh!” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he–quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about being safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

I think the most powerful image for God in this story is not the image of the One wrestling with Jacob along the river in the night.  The most powerful image of God comes in the morning, when despite the promises offered in the night, Jacob has to go out and meet Esau.  (Remember, as this is read you do not need 400 men for a friendly family reunion.)

1 And Jacob lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, Esau was coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. 2 And he put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. 3 He himself went on before them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother. 4 But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.[1]

Listen, this is a story about power.  Could God have made Jacob into some sort of puppet?  Sure.  Could God have ground Jacob into nothing but a little grease spot on that sand bar?  The conversation could have gone differently, ‘you better shape up and fly right buster, get busy doing the things I want you to do or you’re grounded!’   Yes, but the story also reveals that this isn’t the way that God works.  So, unlike most relationships in the bible where God rules and humankind obeys, Israel comes forth with new opportunities, imposed, but not forced.

This is also story about transformation and reconciliation.  Sure, it is about Jacob and Esau, but like every biblical story, it is about more than that.  It is our story, it tells about every time we go off on our own, using whatever means we have at hand to achieve whatever goal we have at the moment.  This story also recounts our story, when things go awry, and our prayers consist mostly of requests for self-preservation.  This story then points to our own wounds, reminding us that every so-called victory comes with some cost, even forgiveness.  I am not sure what causes the transformation in Israel, once Jacob.  I suspect that it isn’t the wrestling match, but a brother who has every reason to seek revenge but instead offers grace, just like God.  See, it’s  our own sense of gratitude that has the greatest power to change us.  It is in gratitude, even limping gratitude, that we reveal God to the world.




[1] Genesis 33:1-4 (RSV)