The text for my sermon is the story we heard from the book Genesis. When Jacob / Ya’akov wrestled, he did not know with whom he fought. The story was first told around a thousand years before writing was invented. So, when the Hebrew scriptures came to be written – perhaps in exile in Iraq in the 8th-7th century BC – the compilers had centuries of oral tradition on which to draw.
Christian and Jewish scholars have spent their lives offering to congregations interpretations of these ancient writings. What we heard this morning is a mixture of ancient pagan or earth religion, mixed with religious history about the origins of a nation under God, and including a dietary rule which must have delighted the Jewish Sigmund Freud. I will say a little about these different facets, but I want also to say that – whatever its origins – it is nonetheless the word of God to God’s own people, including you and me.
I have not lived long in Herefordshire, although my father’s family was here at least since written records began. So I will assert that you do not have to scratch much below the surface of Herefordshire land and Herefordshire people to find something ancient and earthy that predates Christianity. So we should easily sympathise with a people who believed that each ford and stream had something about it that is mysterious, its own spirit perhaps. That certainly was the belief of the Habiru, the Hebrew people and the rather more civilised tribes amongst whom they settled nearly 4,000 years ago. Crossing a stream or river by night, you would sense that the spirit that guarded that place was more potent by night than in the bright light of day. Come daylight, and you might think that whatever spirit that was had lost most of its power to influence you as you went on your way.
We know the Jacob and Esau legend: how Ya’akov / Jacob had cheated his brother Esau out of his inheritance. And now, having acquired considerable wealth through hard work and the generosity of his father-in-law, Ya’akov was preparing to meet the legitimate head of the clan, his wronged brother. He was understandably frightened. These people did not mess about. Theft was punishable by death. So Ya’akov had sent ahead his flocks of sheep and goats, his people, keeping back his family in the hope of protecting them. It was the night before a crucial encounter.
During that night, Ya’akov had another, unexpected encounter. Was it the spirit of that place? It might help to know that the name of the stream, Jabbok (Heb.’ăbaq), probably denotes “wrestle”. If Ya’akov was up against the spirit of Jabbok, he had only to last through the night before the spirit lost its power. Some rabbis say that the “man” that Ya’akov wrestled was the spirit or angel of Esau. Other rabbis say it was his own alter ego, his shadow self. Jungian psychology advises us that everyone has their own shadow, those parts of ourselves we hide from other people and from our own awareness – the bits of me I wish were not bits of me.
The wrestling is intense. Ya’akov’s opponent demands to know his name. In the ancient world, that was pretty important. Even today we don’t like to give our names to people of whom we are unsure, shredding letters and envelopes with our names on them in case thieves use that information against us. So, if you are wrestling for your life in the dark, you do not want to give your name! But in our story, something unusual occurs. Ya’akov gives his name, and is then told, as though by some authority, that he is to have a new name – Israel. This is a name made up of three Hebrew words ’îš meaning a man; an unusual verb śārâ meaning to struggle; and el, meaning a local god or else God. In this case, a later verse refers to el elohim, God of gods. Thus Ya’akov has a new name meaning: a man who struggles with God.
This wrestling bout has another unusual outcome. Perhaps it’s only an afterthought that got tacked on to the earlier story. But Ya’akov / Israel leaves the fight limping, having been struck somewhere near his hip socket. Anyone who has had a hip replacement will have some idea of what that can be like, but it’s not just a physical injury. From that day forth, the story says, Ya’akov’s descendants will not eat the gid ha nasheh of an animal slaughtered for meat, so much so that, if the kosher slaughterman does not have sufficient skill to remove the sciatic nerve and the common peroneal nerves, then the whole hind end of the beast is not deemed kosher. Now why should these nerves that look like strings or sinews be thought so unfit for Jewish consumption? The rabbis have had 2,500 years to think about this and have a number of answers. The one that many rabbis, some Christian interpreters and, I’d bet safe money, Sigmund Freud would have loved, is the connection between “thigh” – the word used in our reading this morning – and sexuality. In fact, in some Hebrew scripture, the word thigh is used as a euphemism for sexual parts.
Now we have all the pieces of the jigsaw. Ya’akov has fought all night with his demons, has been sorely tried by the spirit that haunts the brook Jabbok. Ya’akov has had to give this angel / man / spirit his name and is himself re-named in the process as “man who struggles with God”. He survives but limps off the scene with an injury that has sexual connotations.
Well, it’s not our jigsaw. It is Ya’akov’s / Israel’s jigsaw. He tells us what he makes of it: “I have seen the face of God and survived the experience”. pĕnī’ēl is what he calls that place: it means Face of God. This is the story of the birth of a superhero, only I think you’ll agree this trumps the origins of Superman, Spiderman and Batman put together. It is the story of the foundation of Israel – the name of a person who wrestled with God and lives with a bodily reminder of that struggle.
But it still has elements of impenetrable mystery about how people and God relate. It seems to me utterly mysterious how God, the God who encompasses not just our little planet, but the whole universe - how that God can bother with one person and, through him, one nation. It is a mystery that God will wrestle with a man - or will enter the uterus of a woman - so that lives are changed forever. And, as a Christian who believes that God was made human in Jesus, and has taken our humanity into God’s self, I have to believe that God may wrestle with me, may mark me in some way. And if God were to show me that face, could I survive it?
There are other patterns in the jigsaw. Brother cheats, robs or seeks revenge on brother. People – men, women and children – are continually caught up in conflict, lives are endangered and lost. Each man and woman has at some time to take on the spirit of a hostile person and struggle to survive. Every man and woman has their shadow self, the parts of themselves they do not want to acknowledge, that they cannot love or live with. But you cannot live in this world without having to face your own demons. You need courage to do any of these things. In the midst of a dark night, in the heat of conflict of whatever type, as you wrestle against odds that seem overwhelming, you may find that you have indeed come face to face with the one who loves you warts and all, who knows you better than you know yourself, who will not let you go, who respects your struggle. In the depth of that struggle you may find what you did not expect to find, your own Peniel, the face of God.