Forming Faith Blog

Wrestling with God (September 22, 2019)

Broken Relationships

In these first few weeks of the Narrative Lectionary year, we have looked at God creating humans, God promising Abraham and Sarah a son, and now God wrestling with (and blessing) Jacob. Throughout this all, God is active with the goal of creating the great family God promised to Abraham, the people of Israel.

A lot has happened in the twelve chapters since Isaac was born to Sarah and Abraham. Abraham sends his first son, Ishmael, away with his mother, Hagar. Abraham almost sacrifices Isaac. Sarah dies. Isaac marries Rebekah. Abraham dies. The twins, Esau and Jacob, are born to Rebekah and Isaac. Isaac tries to pass his wife off as his sister (like his father).

Family Drama

Amid all of this is the drama that is the story of Jacob. From the beginning, he is a con artist. He manipulates his older brother (by a few minutes) into giving up his larger portion of their inheritance. He cons his father into giving him the spiritual blessing intended for Esau, with the help of his mother (it’s a messed-up family). Since he royally screwed over his brother twice, the ever-intelligent Jacob decides it’s best to run away. After all, Esau is a hunter, so an expert with weapons and killing things.

Jacob runs to his uncle, Laban, and this time he’s the one who is conned. Jacob is smitten with Laban’s daughter Rachel, but after getting seven years of labor out of Jacob, Laban subs in Leah on the wedding night. Since they had sex, now they’re married. Laban extorts another seven years of labor out of Jacob in return for Rachel’s hand in marriage. So, Jacob gets his revenge on Laban by manipulating him out of a large portion of his livestock. Now, he’s running away. Sound familiar? (There’s also the whole bit about his wives’ machinations for the privilege of sleeping with him, but we won’t go there today. Still a messed-up family.)

Running Away (Again)

All of this leads up to today’s reading. Jacob is running away from his uncle to his homeland, promised to him and his forebears by God. He is now in the whole “rock and a hard place” situation. One the one hand, there is his uncle whom he just recently pissed off (they made up, but going back is still not an option). But, at his destination is his brother, whom he pissed off 14+ years ago. It would be my hope that Jacob is wrestling with his conscience here, but what we know is that he was afraid.

Jacob Wrestling

As Jacob was wrestling with his fear of the future, we get a very strange story. “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak” (Genesis 32:24). Random and without any lead-up. Did this stranger attack Jacob, challenge him to a wrestling match, or something I cannot even imagine? The two were evenly matched, so the grappling lasted all night. The man saw that he couldn’t win by traditional means, so he dislocated Jacob’s hip. That still didn’t work. So, they negotiated. Jacob wanted a blessing. The stranger responded by giving Jacob a new name, Israel, and then a blessing.

The Stranger

One of the weirdest parts of this story (besides its existence at all) is the identity of the stranger. He is called a “man” with masculine verb forms (as Bible Hub tells me, I don’t know Hebrew). So, the assumption can be made that the stranger is human. But, the stranger says, “you have striven with God (Elohim) and with humans” (Genesis 32:28). This itself is ambiguous, for two reasons. First, “Elohim” is used both for God and for other divine beings, like angels (this is the interpretation apparently used in Hosea 12:4, though also note Hosea 12:3). This could also apply to Jacob’s exclamation in verse 30. Second, the stranger said “and with humans” which probably indicates all the stuff he did to Esau and Laban but could possibly include the stranger.

Wrestling with God

No matter who the text says Jacob wrestled with, I think that it’s a safe interpretation that the stranger was sent by God so that we can say that Jacob wrestled with God. But, what about us? What, and who, do we wrestle with? Do we wrestle with guilt? Do we struggle with a health condition? With a conflict in our family or friends? With doubt?

We may have been taught that doubt is the opposite of faith so that we should just believe more strongly. However, I think many (most? all?) of us struggle with doubt at some time in our lives, maybe even every day of it. Even if it is not a general doubt of God’s existence or love or forgiveness, we can struggle with the meaning of passages or some of the things in Scripture that we find abhorrent now (e.g. genocide, slavery, the oppression of women).

Wrestling in Faith

This is a good thing. And, when we wrestle with God, we are in good company. The psalmists and prophets did, and even the Son of God himself. When we wrestle, we are engaging with God. Whether we think we win or lose these matches, we encounter God face-to-face. When we do this, we are forever changed, as Jacob was.

Faith Formation Strategy: MOVE!

Jacob’s encounter with God was physical and active, and ours can be, too. Within an educational setting, there is a lot of evidence that argues the benefits of movement for learning and student engagement and the problems with the traditional method of sitting and listening. Unfortunately, “sitting and listening” is often the model of both corporate worship and (less so now) Christian education. This is a problem for adults, but it is especially ineffective for the faith formation of children and youth. We can change this by finding creative ways to incorporate movement into worship (and education).

Free Resource

During the traditional program year (the main Narrative Lectionary cycle), I offer a free, downloadable resource to help you engage your worshippers, students, or other participants in the story. This week, add some movement to your faith formation work with the activity “Are You Strong Enough?” This activity was developed for younger students in a classroom setting, but it can be used in educational settings for all ages, including intergenerational classes. With a little creativity, it can be included in a worship service as a demonstration with volunteers.

This activity comes from our Living the Word: Kids (PK-2nd) product, which provides lesson guides for early elementary classes. These guides provide a lesson plan designed to get our youngest disciples learning, moving, and building relationships with God and each other. This product is available to purchase for the full year or by quarters (fall, winter, and spring). If you are interested in something a bit different, talk to us about a special order!

May God bless you as you wrestle!

In Christ,

-Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

If you would like to know more about our perspectives on faith formation and cross+gen ministry, you can check out the following links:

For more great ideas on how to engage participants of all ages in the story of God’s love, check out our complete Living the Word series for elementary students, youth, adults, and intergenerational settings!

Be sure to download our free Narrative Lectionary 2019-2020 Planning Tool, NL Readings Overview, and Scope & Sequence

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