Israel received its name and destiny in struggle, a struggle that included tension between need and abundance.
Today’s reading from the Torah concludes the selections from the story of Jacob included in this year’s Lectionary. In these selections, the conclusion of the story is Jacob’s wrestling with God – and holding his own!
Background. The whole of
The whole chapter emphasizes Jacob’s wealth and the measures he takes to protect it from Esau’s probable revenge. Jacob sends news ahead to inform Esau of his coming and of his great good fortune, but the messengers return saying that Esau is heading this way with a force of 400 men (verses 3-6). Frightened, Jacob divides his great retinue into two camps with the practical idea that if Esau destroys one camp, the other can get away and not all will be lost (verses 7-8). Finally, as a last desperate measure, he sends gifts to Esau, groups of valuable animals, one flock or herd after another to keep surprising Esau with his generosity (verses 13-20).
In the midst of these anxious
defensive measures, Jacob also prays to God.
“Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, … for I am afraid of
him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children” (verse 11,
The Struggle. After all others are sent ahead, Jacob spends the night alone by the Jabbok river. A “man” wrestles with him through the night – the actual fight is not of interest, but the identity of the other wrestler is. (The verb “to wrestle,” ’abaq, is similar to the name of the river Jabbok. In the ancient folklore, the name of the river inspired a story about divine wrestling.) The mysterious “man,” who does not immediately defeat Jacob, is a being of the night, and when the dawn approaches he must leave. Thus, he bargains with Jacob in order to get away.
Jacob will not let him escape
without a blessing. The mysterious being
asks Jacob’s name, and then changes it.
“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven [sarah, a play on the name Israel] with
God and with humans and have prevailed” (verse 28). More literally this declaration has an
interesting ambiguity, “You have striven with gods/God [’elohim] and men and have
prevailed.” (In form ’elohim is plural, “gods,” but over time
Israelites came to treat it grammatically as a singular, “God.”) Through the ages,
The mysterious being refuses to give
his own name, but Jacob realizes that he has dealt with a major divine
power. “I have seen God face to face,
and yet my life is preserved” (verse 31).
Thus, the name of the place where the wrestling happened is Peniel, the Face of El, the place where
one can get access to the high god of the heavenly world. (Peniel was a major Israelite sanctuary east
The Lectionary selections about
Jacob thus end with a statement of
Psalm 17:1-7, 15.
If we hear the Psalm reading as a prayer of Jacob, with his new identity, it is a prayerful affirmation of his righteousness.
The speaker in this psalm is one of the innocent who has been wrongly accused. The psalm is the plea before Yahweh for vindication. “Hear a just cause, O Lord,” is the opening appeal. The middle part of the reading asks that God search the inner being as only God can do, examining the deep self which no human court can adjudicate. “…If you test me, you will find no wickedness in me…” However, this innocence is because the speaker has followed God’s guidance.
…By the words of your lips
I have avoided the ways of the violent.
My steps have held fast to your paths;
feet have not slipped (verses 4-5,
The final declaration of the psalm can be understood as the declaration of the Jacob/Israel who saw God face to face.
As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness;
when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness” (verse 15).
Paul was a Pharisee who had received
a new interpretation of the Israelite scriptures, received this interpretation
by revelation from the risen Jesus himself.
Paul has been carrying this good news about Jesus’ death and
resurrection to Judeans and non-Judeans throughout
Three chapters of Romans (9-11) are
devoted to Paul’s reflections on
Today’s passage is mostly the intense affirmation that
The Gospel reading is Matthew’s version of Jesus providing food for a multitude of over 5,000 in the wilderness.
There are six episodes in the Gospels in which Jesus multiplies the loaves to feed the hungry people, two each in Matthew (14:13-21; 15:32-39) and Mark (6:32-44; 8:1-10), and one each in Luke (9:10-17) and John (6:1-14). This was clearly a powerful action in the memories and reflections of early Christians.
This is one of those stories that is told in a straightforward manner but almost certainly has larger, symbolic meanings and connections. It IS a miracle story. A tale about enticing people to share their otherwise hidden lunches, as rationalistic interpreters would have it, is really pretty innocuous.
Bread. But given the miracle, it is also about a
number of larger things. Most of all it
is about the basic need of human life – food.
One of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness was about getting
bread from rocks, a temptation to misuse miraculous power. In that connection Jesus quoted Deuteronomy,
“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth
of God” (Matthew 4:4,
Distribution. Jesus “looked up to heaven, and blessed and
broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them
to the crowds” (verse 19,
Daily. The giving of bread to the needy people in the wilderness certainly has echoes of the manna story in Exodus (chapter 16). That story itself is a complex set of lessons about faith, rebellion, and an appreciation of the Sabbath structure of God’s time. It is the example par excellence of living by “daily bread.” Needy Israel in the wilderness was the model for followers of Jesus who prayed that God’s kingdom would come and that they would receive what they needed for the journey – one day at a time (Matthew 6:9-13).