Back before I started seminary, I really didn’t know much about the bible; so I was trying to get as much as I could in. Remember I grew up with no church in the home, and the one religious experience I had as a kid was going to Catholic Church for a year for a girl, so you can guess how much bible I actually absorbed then.
So I’m in Boston as a Unitarian Universalist and I see a community advertisement for a Jewish Bible Study at a local ice cream shop and I decide to go to it.
And I remember the lesson from it almost 10 years later; there’s a somewhat obscure passage in the book of Numbers that refers to something called the Book of the Wars of the Lord.
Scholars tell us that there was an ancient historical Hebrew book of some type, but has since been lost.
But that’s not what they cared about. In the Jewish Tradition- or at least the tradition of the folks who led this bible study, the book of the wars of the lord was the human heart, and the wars of the lord were the struggles that people had with God and with each other that would lead to greater understanding and greater compassion.
This is one of the great cultural-religious differences between Christianity and Judaism; whereas Christianity in general tends to favor unity as a principle born from submission to God’s will, Judaism finds the argument, the discussion, the back and forth struggle to be a vehicle for greater compassion and love.
In that Bible study they talked about the great tradition being that people, especially the men of a town, would gather at the gate after work was done and that they would argue with each other over religious matters, debating the meaning of certain Bible verses with just whoever was around, although in a small town, it’s going to be the same few characters. The goal for these wars of the Lord, was not to dominate and destroy our opponent’s arguments, but rather that we argue, debate, discuss so much that we cannot help but love each other. This is also a model for our relationship with God.
Where might this Jewish religious tradition have started, and why might we as Christians want to take a serious look at it? Our second reading is a wonderful place to start.
The protagonist in our reading starts out our reading named Jacob and ends it with the new name Israel. If his name only vaguely touches the back of our Sunday School memories, he’s quite an important figure; he’s the son of Isaac and Rebecca, and Abraham’s and Sarah’s grandson. The drama of his family takes up the last part of the book of Genesis. As Jacob, he’s popularly known for Jacob’s ladder, which he saw in a dream reaching up to the heavens, with angels ascending and descending. Furthermore, he is the father of 12 sons, who go on to be the patriarchs of the 12 tribes of Israel. So yes, Jacob is an important guy.
This particular vignette takes place in the middle of his grand story; Jacob is a classic bit of a trickster character, always looking for an angle, a way to pull one over on those who oppose him. If he were a superhero, his origin story would involve him tricking his father Isaac into giving his blessing to Jacob instead of his brother Esau.
Jacob then goes to live with his wife’s family, in a foreign land and with foreign Gods, but that situation eventually becomes untenable, as Jacob is unable to forge his own identity, chart his own path. Therefore, Jacob leaves to go back home. Worried about how his brother Esau might react to his presence, Jacob sends ahead gifts to mollify his potentially very angry brother. Jacob sends his family out ahead, and encounters a man and a violent struggle begins. No reason is given for why this encounter begins, and we don’t even get an exact reckoning of who this man is. Yet struggle they do, and this man blesses him, changing his name to Israel, which means “The one who strives with God”
This story is ripe for metaphorical interpretation; all of us been at a low point and have wondered why things aren’t going well. We have all struggled with God at some time or another. I suspect that all of us have asked God why bad things happen to good people, why suffering exists, why things just seem so darn hard sometimes.
This might be at the personal level or at the public level; How Long, Not Long is a form of this public wrestling that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. engaged in in one of his most famous speeches.
Indeed, some of the most powerful voices have asked these questions publicly; Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., the street prophets of the 20th century demanding rights freedom from colonialism, racism, sexism, and homophobia and the modern prophets today have all wrestled with God and with humanity either in the words of scripture or in the public square.
I will say that the struggle cannot be eternal or constant; no one can fight forever, nor should we be expected to. We are all carrying heavy burdens and we part of why we come to God, come to church, come to Jesus is to lay down those heavy burdens, even if for a while. The Sabbath exists for a reason.
Our first reading, psalm 121 reminds us of this; that God is our keeper, the shade that protects us from the harshness of the sun, the keeper of our lives.
It is not that God wishes us harm or ill in our struggles; but it is also true that we do not go unchanged when we struggle with God. Jacob has his name changed, a powerful thing in the book of Genesis, and begins to walk with a limp. In our own struggles, how often are our hearts softened, being able to recognize the pain that others face in their lives.
Jacob, now Israel, emerges a different and better man after his struggle with God. The back and forth, demanding his blessing, seems to stiffen his spine a little bit; he knows that he must deal with his brother Esau forthrightly and humbly to provide for his family, something he would not have been able to do earlier in the story.
So now I ask us to take the lessons of this story; of it being ok to wrestle and struggle with God and one another, so much that we cannot help but love one another, and think of our own relationships with God and each other.
In our moment of silent prayer and reflection, I ask us to consider: when have we wrestled with God? What did you learn from it? What blessings did it give you?