Preached 17 October, 2010, Christ Episcopal Church, Cooperstown, New York.
28Then the man* said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,* for you have striven with God and with humans,* and have prevailed.’
Names today aren’t quite as socially important as names were in Old Testaments times, but we understand how meaningful it is to name a child after a loved one or to carry a name that holds a particular weight. My middle name is “Rose,” which is also the name of my great-grandmother, who is one of the people most dear to my mother—my great-grandma Rose is still alive, so I take it as good luck that I, too, carry her name. In today’s Old Testament lesson, Jacob’s name is changed after a great struggle.
When Jacob was born, hanging on the heel of his older twin brother Esau, he was named as “the one carried on the heel” which was a figure of speech in ancient times for “supplanter” or “deceiver.” Jacob sure lived up to this name, stealing the blessing meant for the first-born son from his brother by tricking their father, and later, stealthily building up his flocks out of his father-in-law Laban’s animals, agreeing to be paid only in livestock. In ancient literature, and even in some stories today, there’s a character role that Jacob is fulfilling in Genesis—he’s the “trickster.” This sort of character shows up in Greek and Roman myths, in Native American myths, and even in children’s stories. The “trickster” is a rule-breaker, but he does it purposely, to get ahead of the game. A trickster doesn’t have a black-and-white conception of right-and-wrong, but instead tends to judge situations based upon his personal interest at the time. In stories about animals, the fox and the wolf are often cast as tricksters, like in Little Red Riding Hood, where the wolf pretends to be the girl’s sick grandmother. Jacob is part of this family of trickster characters, which makes his name especially appropriate, and which makes his re-naming in our lesson so important. After Jacob outsmarts his father and brother in obtaining the special blessing, he leaves town. That’s the last time he sees his brother before the meeting talked about in the passage this morning.
No wonder Jacob was so nervous. He’d grown up enough in the interim, having been tricked himself by his father-in-law, to understand the import of what he had done to his brother as a young man. Unlike most tricksters in ancient literature, though, Jacob exposes that he has a sense of right and wrong. This is one way that shows how the stories in Genesis are different from classic ancient literature—our trickster has a heart, and struggles with himself. The Bible’s famous trickster isn’t like other tricksters; while this was a story that would have been familiar to ancient people, they would have been able to identify Jacob as the trickster immediately by his behavior, if not just his name, they also would have seen that this wasn’t the way a trickster was supposed to act. A trickster doesn’t ever grow a conscience—the point of being a trickster is to always be a bit of an outsider, albeit a financially successful and very clever one. In this story, we see as we do many times in these patriarch narratives that God uses deeply faulted people—real people. We know that God uses people like us, God uses US, to enact His will in this world.
Let’s look more closely at the re-naming piece now. In verses 22 through 30, Jacob is wrestling. We find out at the end that he’s wrestling with God. This trickster doesn’t want to continue in that life-path, but it’s hard to derail years of clever circumventing of the rules. Jacob is wrestling with getting off that train, so to speak, and setting a new course for the rest of his life, starting with facing his brother again. This intimate look at Jacob’s rough night give us a window into our own struggles—just as Jacob wrestled with God over his knee-jerk tendency to promote himself at other’s expense, we have inner struggles. We tend to have short tempers or tell lies much faster than the truth, or struggle with addiction or faithfulness to our spouses—those habits that we try to hide from others. These trappings of faulted human life are the sort of thing that we might wrestle with God about at night, like Jacob.
In the morning, we see, Jacob is given hope—God not only blesses him, but changes his name. What a startling and freeing step for Jacob—to no longer hear “deceiver” any time his name is spoken, but instead to be reminded that “God strives” each time he’s called. In verse 28, “the man” blesses and re-names him, dubbing him “the one who strives with God.” The newly-minted “fighter” fords the river to face up to his brother, knowing that God has blessed him.
In chapter 33 of Genesis, directly following this story, Esau and Israel come face-to-face. For a moment, let’s think about what Esau must have felt, having been warned the day before that his younger brother was approaching. They hadn’t spoken since decades earlier when wily Jacob had taken Esau’s rightful older-brother-blessing. Indeed, Esau’s last recorded words, in chapter 27 of Genesis, verse 41, were “Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, ‘The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”” Of course, their mother intervened and Jacob survived and fled, but that had been the tenor of their last interaction. As they approached each other, Esau knew nothing of the night before, he didn’t know that Jacob’s name was no longer “deceiver,” but “the one who strives with God”—the one who, by God’s grace, becomes a man of character.
In chapter 33 of Genesis, verse 4, “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Esau, though he had known his brother better than anyone as children, knew that during their time apart, Jacob may have changed. Esau let go of his violent, rightly-placed anger during the intervening decades and gave Jacob space to be a new person when they met again. Esau knew that God could change Jacob, just as Esau surely had been changed, and so, when they met again, instead of continuing with the plan he’d had years ago, Esau didn’t assume that he knew Jacob and could predict the way he would behave based on their past. Esau looked to the future and was open to be blessed by the new family member that Jacob, now Israel had become.
Israel teaches us that no one is stuck being a trickster for his entire life, and Esau teaches us that the greatest blessing among friends and family is being given the space to develop from being a trickster to becoming one who reminds us that God strives. Amen.