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 Genesis 32 is a skillful presentation of Jacob’s anxious preparation to meet his brother Esau, from whom he thinks he has been alienated for twenty years. Jacob had fled from Esau carrying only his staff (verse 10) but now he is returning with great wealth in sheep, goats, cattle, and camels, as well as having four women who are mothers of his eleven sons and one daughter. He returns a wealthy man.
The whole chapter emphasizes Jacob’s wealth and the measures Jacob 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, NRSV).
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.” Through the ages, Israel will fight against polytheism and its representatives. Jacob’s new name expresses his destiny—and that of his descendants.
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 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 of the Jordan river in the monarchic period, I Kings 12:25.)
The Lectionary selections about Jacob thus end with a statement of Israel’s destiny. Israel (through the ages) has wrestled with God—as well as with human groups—and has survived!
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 do the searching of the inner being that only God can do, and which no human court can adjudicate. “…[I]f you test me, you will find no wickedness in me…” However, this innocence is because the speaker has followed God’s guidance.
…[B]y the words of your lips
I have avoided the ways of the violent.
My steps have held fast to your paths;
my feet have not slipped” (verses 4-5, NRSV).
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).
For Israel, there was to be both righteousness and the mystic vision of God’s presence.
One of Israel’s struggles through the ages would be that between the followers of the two-fold Torah (Rabbinic Judaism) and the followers of Jesus who confessed him as the Anointed One of God. The Epistle reading is the beginning of a discussion of Israel’s destiny by the great apostle who took Christ to the peoples of the nations, to the non-Jewish world.
Paul was a Pharisee who had received a new interpretation of the Jewish scriptures, received this interpretation by revelation from the risen Jesus himself. Paul has been carrying this good news about Jesus’ death and resurrection to Jews and non-Jews throughout Asia Minor and Greece for many years. However, the Jewish hearers have mostly not responded. This grieves Paul deeply. “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh” (verses 2-3, NRSV).
Three chapters of Romans (9-11) are devoted to Paul’s reflections on Israel in God’s larger plan of salvation, a topic he obviously labored over and spoke of frequently in his missionary work. Today’s passage is mostly the intense affirmation that Israel did receive the revelation, covenants, worship, and promises—even the Anointed One himself—that the Jewish scriptures describe. Israel was and is the beginning of salvation, for the nations as well as the Jews. That is Paul’s firm insistence at the start of the discussion, which we will follow further in coming weeks.
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 about a number of additional 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, NRSV). In our present passage, Jesus is using this miraculous power, but in a way that advances God’s kingdom, not human showmanship. Here the people have listened to the word all day. When it is really and truly dinner time, people do live by bread, and Jesus shows that God also provides that.
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, NRSV). Each detail is deliberate and revealing. The breaking of the bread is a solemn, sacramental action. It is from the hands of the disciples, not of Jesus, that the people receive the bread and fish. And what is provided proves to be very abundant. There are twelve baskets of left-overs available for distribution to other poor people not at the event.
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).
The Israel of history, whether led by teachers of Torah or followers of the Anointed One, share a mission to feed the hungry who have followed God’s word into the wilderness.