The Surprise of Grace: Reflections on Genesis 32:22-31

"Then Jacob asked, 'Tell me right now your name' (the NRSV's "please" makes the question rather more polite than it in fact is). But he said, 'Why in the world do you ask my name?' And he blessed him there" (Gen. 32:29). Jacob in fact extracts the blessing from the man, after being told that he has struggled and won no matter his opponents, divine or human.

Many commentators have tried desperately to make Jacob out to be the loser here, since he limps away from Jabbok, having suffered the dirty trick of the hip socket from his opponent. And they have wanted to make Jacob the loser because they have identified the "man" as God. They do this, because Jacob names the place of the struggle "Peniel" ("face of God" in Hebrew), claiming "I have seen God face to face, yet my life is secure" (Gen. 32:30). It must be noted, however, that only Jacob names the man as God. Why should we trust Jacob to decide for us who his opponent was in fact? Jacob is a consummate liar as we have seen again and again. And the fact that the man announces that Jacob has won all his matches, is undefeated against all opponents, makes me very suspicious about calling this match a divine-human encounter. I rather think that Jacob's real antagonist was himself. Who else would crow that he has never lost a bout; who else would demand and receive a blessing even while locked in combat; who else would shout that he has seen God face to face (an event only afforded to Moses in the later traditions of Israel) and yet has survived the confrontation?

Jacob finally sees God face to face, all right, but not until he recognizes that God in the face of his doltish brother, Esau, whom he expects to kill him after all he has stolen from him, but instead who welcomes him with a massive hug and a slobbery kiss (Gen. 33:4). I do not see that Jacob encountered God at Jabbok, but to his incredulous surprise, saw God in the last place he expected to find God, namely the gracious acceptance of Esau.

As I said in the last reading I gave of this story three years ago, Genesis 32 and 33 must always be read together. The former presents, in my reading, an unaffected Jacob, who is affirmed in his own righteous victories by himself, his real opponent at Jabbok, though he tries to turn the man into God. Only when he sees Esau will he see God, and it will not be because of a great struggle against God, but rather an amazing reception of unexpected grace and love on the part of old Esau.

And so may it often be with us. Do we not often find God in very unexpected places, mirrored in very unexpected people? Perhaps once we open ourselves to such wild possibilities, we may in fact encounter the living God, rather than a god made somehow in our own image.

7/28/2014 4:00:00 AM