"What's in a Name: Israel" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer
Genesis 32: 9-13 & 22-30
In seminary, I had three male friends who made time to watch “House Hunters” together every week. The guys were roommates and lived in an apartment complex called Lake Louise that absolutely did not have a lake. They were exceptionally close and enjoyed watching the HGTV program so much that they would routinely turn down other gatherings to watch together.
One night, my roommate Natalie and I had the privilege of being invited to watch the newest episode of “their show” with the guys. Curious as to why “House Hunters” so intrigued our friends, we went and discovered they enjoyed it so much because they’d made “House Hunters” into a game.
Points were awarded if the people were looking for a “vacation home” and each time they talked about a budget above one-million dollars. Nitpicking about details like flooring and light fixtures was worth 10 points as were comments about a lack of beach access. Middle-aged white folks tripping over the national language of whatever country they’d decided to retire to was worth 15 points. And, after seeing an episode with a toilet that looked out over a canopied rainforest in Central America, toilet placement with a view became the guys’ gold standard for an excellent episode.
But the most interesting part was watching my friends watch “House Hunters” because throughout the show they debated how and why the homebuyers went on the program in the first place. Had they always wanted to be on TV? Did they really only get three homes to choose from? How did someone in their early 30s have millions to spend on an apartment in downtown Paris? What would motivate a 70-year-old couple from Indiana to retire in Turkey?
Why him? Why her? Why them? And why not us?
I won’t ask you to raise your hands, but the truth is, we’ve all asked a variation of this question to which there’s rarely an answer. With the exception of very clear situations of abusive power and people choosing not to pay attention - think Harvey Weinstien, Bill Cosby and the Catholic and Southern Baptist churches - most “why her?”/”why him?”/”why them?” moments add up to the choices we make or don’t make every day.
Other times the answer to “why me?” is sheer dumb luck or a decided lack of luck. And then there are stories like this morning’s text from Genesis in which the answer to “why him?” is: because God said so. This story about Jacob wrestling with God is, at its core, a story of undeserved blessing because to put in nicely, Jacob is a jerk.
Jacob’s name means trickster, supplanter, or heel grabber because he comes into the world holding onto his twin brother Esau’s foot. Second born, Jacob is his mother Rebekah’s favorite and his long journey to where we find him today begins when he steals his brother Esau's birthright by hoodwinking their father, Isaac. Afraid for his life after Esau discovers his deception, Jacob runs away and keeps running for decades. Along the way, he marries sisters Leah and Rachel, gets into conflict with his father-in-law Laban from whom he also flees until they finally reach a peace treaty in the chapter just before this one.
Now at peace with Laban, this morning’s story finds Jacob again fearing Esau who, despite Jacob’s gifts, is planning to meet his younger brother with an army of 400 men. Always the trickster, Jacob sends his family and possession across the Jabbok River for protection and waits alone for Esau. As Dr. Amy Merrill Willis points out, “this is a rare event. Like most twins, Jacob has virtually never had a solitary moment. Since his conception, he has been tied up and entangled with at least one other human being at any given moment.”
But it’s in these moments of solitude that Jacob encounters God. First, in Genesis 28 God comes to a sleeping Jacob in his dreams and makes a promise much like the one made to Abraham - for land and numerous descendants. Later, after Jacob is married, God again appears in his dreams commanding him to return to his homeland. Then in this morning’s third encounter God “comes posing as a dark and disguised threat, not as a protector.”
It’s important to note, however, that while Jacob identifies the other wrestler the text never does. This has led commentators to a variety of explanations over the centuries including that the dark figure is Esau come for vengeance.
Others suggest that Jacob’s inner demons have come calling. But despite the text’s crypticness, it’s clear that Jacob is attacked by this stranger which leads us to wade through some difficult questions.
If this is God, why would Yahweh attack a human being? What’s to be gained in spending hours physically engaged in this struggle with Jacob? If this is God, what do we make of God striking Jacob’s hip and knocking it out socket? Shouldn’t God be the clear winner in any physical struggle? “Is this a test of character or a test of faith?”
No matter the reason for the attack, Jacob will not submit. Again, as Amy Merrill Willis says, “In some ways, this is not a new response, for Jacob was a wrestler even before his birth…In the Hebrew there’s a “close connection between the name Jacob (y’kv) and the verb for wrestling (y’vk)...” But in other ways this is new behavior for Jacob. Rather than being sly and running away when threatened, “he fights openly and persistently...”
In those final moments as Jacob and his opponent pant for breath and drip sweat dawn begins to break. As fingers of light appear in the sky, the attacker realizes Jacob isn’t letting go and hits him hard enough to knock Jacob’s hip out of joint. Despite being fairly casually mentioned in the text, the force behind such a blow would’ve been excruciating. And yet Jacob holds on.
Eventually he’ll get the blessing he demands, but first he’s given something much more important; a new name. The stranger tells Jacob his name is now Israel and, as Dr. Margaret Odell observes, “in so naming him, the man appraises Jacob’s character.” His new name is “wrung from his opponent as if his life depends on it. And indeed, it is this tenacity that’s honored in [Jacob’s] new name…” For as the text says, Jacob is given the name Israel because he has “striven with God and with humans and has prevailed (Gen 32:28).’”
Jacob is convinced it’s God with whom he wrestles and as we think about what to do with this story that will be our base as well. It says much about God that instead of punishing “Jacob’s conflictive character, [God] challenges and reshapes it so that Jacob is able to live into his promised destiny….” Jacob’s story is our reminder that “in the life of faith, there is no one model to which we must conform and submit.” God not only allows for all kinds of temperaments and personalities, God creates us to have such unique traits.
My friends, the Good News this morning is like Jacob, God meets us where we are as we are right now. That’s why there’s no room for those “why him?” “why her?” “why them?” questions when you’re seeking to follow God - at least not when those questions are personally motivated, for God chooses who God chooses. This is proven again and again throughout the biblical text. Imperfect, even shifty people are chosen to be patriarchs and matriarchs, leaders and judges, prophets and the very mother of God.
Like Sarah’s story from last week, Jacob’s story reminds us that God is unconventional, irreverent, and subversive. And lest we be tempted to domesticate God into a mild, passive deity who simply supplies our needs and comforts us in times of heartbreak we would do well to remember Jacob’s story. He “came away from the encounter with unbounded blessings, but he also walked away limping - a man permanently marked.”
The rest of the Good News this morning is that the same God who is intimately engaged with us, the same God who seeks us when we’re at our most vulnerable, the same God who offers us blessings is “wily, unpredictable, and dangerous.”
Engage with this God and you might walk away limping. Engage with this God and you will absolutely walk away with a new name. Amen.