Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Hungry for a Blessing - Genesis 32:21-30

Genesis 32:21-30
So Jacob's gifts went on ahead of him, but he himself spent the night in the camp.
            That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak."
            But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."
            The man asked him, "What is your name?"
            “Jacob," he answered.
            Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."
            Jacob said, "Please tell me your name."
            But he replied, "Why do you ask my name?" Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared."

            Many years ago, I was in Jerusalem.  I visited the Wailing Wall and at one point I was sitting on a bench, just taking in all of the sights of this ancient and holy place.

            At one point, an old Jewish Rabbi came and sat with me.  He had a long white beard and he was dressed completely in black.  He could barely move and when he sat down, it was more like he just fell back into the bench.

            He turned to me and asked, “What is your name.”

            Well, being a good Southerner, I thought we were about to have an interesting conversation, so I told him, “Maynard Pittendreigh.”

            What is the name of your father, he asked.

            Well, I thought that was strange, and wondered “does this man know me?”  But I told him, “Bill Pittendreigh.”

            “What is the name of your mother?”

            I told him.

            “What are the name of all your brothers and sisters?”

            I told him.

            Then he raised his ancient hand and said, “Blessings.  On your father, and all of his household.”

            I didn’t know what to say, but I came out with a “Gee thanks mister, I sure do appreciate that.”

            I don’t know what I was supposed to say, but the Rabbi looked at me with horror and asked, “Aren’t you Jewish?”


            “Are you sure?”

            “I’m sure.”

            “Oh well, blessings anyway.”

            You know, blessings like that aren’t part of our society.  No one goes around pronouncing blessings on individuals, nor do we often seek someone’s blessing.

But deep inside, most of us long for blessings in our lives.

            Which brings us to this odd story in Genesis. 

            It seems that throughout Jacob’s life, he was desperately hungry for a blessing.

            We meet Jacob at his birth in chapter 25 of Genesis.  Isaac, the son of Abraham, was married but he and his wife Rebekah had no children.  Isaac prays for a child and the Lord answers his prayer – not with one, but with two sons. 

            Rebekah’s pregnancy was not an easy one.  In fact she says, “I feel like I have two nations at war inside me.”

            Esau is the first born, and then his brother Jacob is right behind, holding onto the foot of his brother Esau. 

            The two boys grow up and they are very different.  Esau is a hunter, Jacob is a quiet man who stayed at the tents. 

Esau was loved by his father, Jacob was loved by his mother.  One day Esau comes in from hunting, and he hasn’t had any luck at all.  He comes home tired and hungry, and he begs Jacob to give him some stew.  Jacob responds by saying, “You give me the right to get the blessing from our father, you give me your birthright, and then I’ll give you some stew.”

            Esau doesn’t think very far ahead, and never does.  So he says, “Fine.  What good is a birthright when you are hungry anyway?

            Jacob, hungry for a blessing, gives his brother some stew and wins the birthright.

            Now you would think that would make Jacob happy.  He has the blessing.  But no, it doesn’t make him happy at all. 

He knows that just because Esau gave him the right to receive the blessing, his father would never agree.  So Jacob stays hungry for a blessing.

            So a few years pass, and the time comes for father Isaac to give the blessing.  He is old and weak and almost blind, and so Jacob and his mother devise a way to fool father Isaac so that Jacob gets the blessing rather than Esau.  She dresses her son Jacob in rough clothing, and they use all sorts of things to trick father Isaac. 

            And it works.

            Isaac gives Jacob the blessing.

            Now you would think that would make Jacob happy.  He has the blessing.  But no, it doesn’t make him happy at all. 

            Not at all.  Because as soon as Jacob gets the blessing, Esau comes home and he is furious and he decides that as soon as father Isaac is dead, he will kill brother Jacob.

            Jacob doesn’t wait for his father’s death, and instead packs up and sneaks out of the home and heads for the hills.

            Jacob decides that what he really needs make himself happy in life is a woman.  So in search of a wife, he goes traveling around and comes to some distant relatives and while he is hanging around this watering hole, this beautiful woman named Rachel comes along.  She is a shepherdess and Jacob can’t wait to roll away a stone to open up a well for her and her sheep.  It is love at first sight.  He talks to the father and proposes marriage to Rachel. 

            Now you would think that would make Jacob happy.  He has the blessing.  But no, it doesn’t make him happy at all. 

            Rachel’s father agrees to the marriage, provided that Jacob work for him for 7 years.

            Well, Jacob is in love, and these 7 years pass by very quickly. 

            The day for the marriage comes and it is a great wedding.

            There is a great feast.  Lots of partying.

            Jacob gets married, wakes up the next morning, looks at his bride, and to his horror, it’s not Rachel with him – it’s Rachel’s less attractive sister, Leah.

            Here’s good advice for any groom – stay away from the open bar until long after the ceremony.

            It turns out that Jacob’s father-in-law planned this all along. 

            Well, back then, it was acceptable to have more than one wife, so Jacob is allowed to marry Rachel a week later, but Jacob is forced to commit to 7 MORE years of working for his father-in-law.

            But, at least Jacob has the wife he wanted – Rachel.  And he has an extra one as well in Leah.

            Now you would think that would make Jacob happy.  He has the blessing.  But no, it doesn’t make him happy at all. 

            Leah, Jacob’s less favored wife, starts having babies, and keeps having them.  But Rachel, his favorite wife, has no children at all.

            So Rachel gives her husband her servant so she can have children through her.  I know -- it’s a really strange world in the Old Testament.  When I hear people talk today about biblical marriage being between one man and one woman I know they have never read the Bible.  Back then it was almost like anything goes!  Jacob has two wives and now a servant girl as well - It’s an old fashioned surrogate mother.  And the servant starts having children.

            Then Rachel is really unhappy.  And she makes Leah unhappy.  And pretty soon, everyone is unhappy.

            It’s just one BIG miserable family.

            And finally – finally – Rachel has a son and names him Joseph. 

            Now you would think that would make Jacob happy.  He has the blessing.  But no, it doesn’t make him happy at all. 

            Jacob’s father-in-law begins to cheat Jacob in business deals, and Jacob cheats his father-in-law. 

            Everything spirals out of control, and finally Jacob decides he’s out of here.  He gathers all of his sheep, all of his property, all of his servants, and both wives, all of his children. 

            They don’t tell anyone they are leaving, but they try to sneak away.

            Well, I don’t know if you have ever tried to sneak out of town, but when Jacob does it, he has 2 wives, hundreds of servants, thousands of sheep.  It’s hard not to notice a small nation leaving town.

            And people notice.

            And Jacob’s father-in-law shows up and reminds Jacob of how well he has treated Jacob.  Which is nuts.  Jacob has been treated like garbage.  But the two finally come to an agreement.  Jacob will go his way.  Jacob’s father-in-law will go his way.  And they say this to one another.  “May the LORD keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other.”  (Gen 31:49-50)

            This is verse is sometimes referred to as the Mizpah Benediction.  Friends and lovers often say this to one another, and you can even find jewelry with this benediction on it, with a medallion that seems to be broken in half, and the boyfriend wears on half and the girl the other half and each half having this verse on it. 

            Years ago, I went to an adult Sunday School class that always ended with the class reciting that apparently-wonderful verse before they walked out of the room.

            But the meaning of that text is not a loving, “May the Lord watch over us while we are apart.”  The real meaning for Jacob and his father-in-law was more, “I don’t trust you and you don’t trust me, but God is watching so we’ll behave.”

            Well, Jacob leaves his father-in-law and is free.  Free at last, free at last.

            Now you would THINK that would make Jacob happy.  He has the blessing.  But no, it doesn’t make him happy at all. 

            Not ever having read a Thomas Wolfe novel, Jacob decides he can go home again. 

But then - with home just over the next hill, Jacob begins to reconsider.  He realizes this might not be such a good idea. 

            He sends messengers out to greet Esau, and the messengers come back and tell Jacob that brother Esau is on his way.

            Jacob figures his brother is coming with a small army to do battle and to get his revenge.

            Jacob even prepares for defeat and divides his family, thinking that Esau will attack one group and the other can escape.

            Jacob is not very optimistic.

            So Jacob sends 220 goats, 220 rams 15 camels, 40 cows, 10 bulls, 30 donkeys, and sends them to Esau as a gift.

            And Jacob does one other thing, he doesn’t send all of these gifts in one group.  He divides them into more than 3 groups and tells them to keep some distance between the groups.  That way Esau will get one flood of gifts after another, after another.

            These aren’t just gifts.  They are bribes.  Like a weakling giving up his lunch money to the school bully, Jacob is giving these gifts out fear, not love.

            And then the waiting begins.

            And it is during this waiting that something strange happens.

            Yep, even though everything in Jacob’s life is strange and bizarre, this event is really outside the box.

            Jacob is waiting to see what effect his gifts will have on brother Esau. 

            He is alone.

            And out of the darkness comes a stranger.

            And the stranger begins to fight Jacob.

            Who is this stranger?

            It isn’t Esau, but is it someone sent by Esau?  No.

            Is it an angel?  No.

            The two fight until the sun begins to come up.

            Jacob seems to have the stranger pinned down and defeated.  And then with no effort at all, the stranger reaches and dislocates Jacob’s hip.  It is as if the stranger has been playing with Jacob all night.  He doesn’t hit Jacob, or use any sort of force at all.  The Bible says, the stranger simply touched Jacob’s hip, and it was dislocated.

            The stranger orders Jacob, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
            But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."

            Even now, after all these many years, Jacob is still hungry for a blessing.

            “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

            The stranger asked Jacob, "What is your name?"

            "Jacob," he answered.

            Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."

            That is a strange thing to say. 

            First, Jacob has not overcome.  He has not won.  He is defeated.  His hip has been dislocated.  He is in pain.  The stranger is victorious.  But this stranger, who now reveals himself as God, declares Jacob victorious – and blesses him.

            Jacob may well have his blessing he has been wanting so desperately to receive.

            Or maybe not.

            Throughout his life, Jacob has thought he was blessed, only to find out he was cursed.

            The stranger disappears.

            Esau arrives.

            But Esau does not arrive with an army, but with a welcome.

            Jacob finally has the blessing he has been searching for.

            He is welcomed by his brother.  The past problems are resolved.  Jacob finds land and settles down.

            How did he get his blessing?

            He tried to deceive his way into getting a blessing, but that did not work.

            He tried to succeed in business, and while he became very successful and wealthy, that did not give him the blessing he hungered for.

            He tried everything – but only thing worked.

            When he stopped struggling with God, when he finally submitted to God, that is when he was blessed.

            Jacob lived a different life after that.

            It still had pain.  It wasn’t an easy life.  A blessed life doesn’t mean things are easy. 

His daughter, Dinah, is raped. 

His son, Joseph, is sold into slavery, although Jacob believes for many years that his son is dead. 

A terrible famine devastates the land. 

But in all of his pain and joy, Jacob is never the same after this wrestling match with God.  He no longer struggles with God like he did before.  He submits to the will of God.  And he is blessed.

            We all hunger for a blessing.

            We look for it in all the wrong places.

            We look for more money, but that does not bless us.

            We get the biggest car, the biggest house, the biggest debt – none of that has the power to bless us.

            We don’t get our blessing from our father, or in-laws, or from anyone else, other than the One who has the power to bless.

            We get our blessing from God.

            When we stop struggling with God and we finally submit to his will, that is when we find the blessing.

         You want a blessing?  Look to God.  Follow God.  Trust God.  All other things are distractions.
Copyright 2014 Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved.