Genesis 32:22–31; 33:1–12 “Improvement versus Healing – Is There a Difference?” [Psalm 17:1–7, 15; Romans 9:1-5; and Matthew 14:13-21]
Caitlin Trussell on July 27, 2014 at Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO
Genesis 32:22-31 through 33:1-12 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
33:1 Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. 2He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. 3He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother.
4But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. 5When Esau looked up and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” 6Then the maids drew near, they and their children, and bowed down; 7Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down; and finally Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down. 8Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” Jacob answered, “To find favor with my lord.” 9But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” 10Jacob said, “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God — since you have received me with such favor. 11Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.” So he urged him, and he took it.
12Then Esau said, “Let us journey on our way, and I will go alongside you.”
This is our fifth and final week with the story Jacob and Esau. A good time to press pause and recap the tale. Jacob and Esau are twins, Jacob is born second and comes out clutching the heel of his brother. As the boys grow up, they each become a favorite of one parent – Esau favored by his father, Isaac, and Jacob favored by his mother, Rebekah. There are manipulations that begin with Esau selling his firstborn birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew and culminate with Jacob lying to his blind father, telling Isaac that he is Esau so that Jacob receives the deathbed blessing of their father.
As you might imagine, hell hath no fury like a brother scorned. Esau’s reaction to Jacob’s final betrayal includes his spoken vow to kill Jacob. Rebekah catches wind of Esau’s plan so the next thing Jacob does is packs up and travels a long distance to Haran to get married. On the way to Haran, he dreams his almost-famous Jacob’s ladder dream in which he hears from God. In Haran, he spends seven years trying to marry Rachel, is sneakily married to Leah instead, and works another seven years to finally marry Rachel too. Jacob stays in Haran and becomes father to 12 sons through Leah, Rachel, and their servants Zilpah and Bilhah.
“Like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives.”
We pick up the tale this morning after the passing of many years. Jacob acquires wealth and status in Haran that includes his 12 sons as well as droves of animals of all kinds. In the verses just before ours today, God tells Jacob it’s time to leave Haran and head back to his home country. Anyone remember who and what Jacob left behind in his hometown? Yup, Esau and his fury-laden vow to kill Jacob are still out there.
Jacob is afraid of Esau’s revenge. Before heading out for his homeland, Jacob sends messengers ahead of him and his family. These messengers take along droves of oxen, donkeys, flocks, and slaves as an attempt to curry favor with Esau. The messengers return telling Jacob only that “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” Jacob sends more droves of animals to appease his brother Esau, this time including goats, cows, and camels.
And then Jacob is alone. Alone with his thoughts and his fears. But not alone for long as a wrestling match breaks out between Jacob and a man. They wrestle the night away. Jacob’s hip was put out of joint by the other man but still Jacob hangs on to the break of dawn. Here’s one of my favorite parts of the whole story. The man asks Jacob his name and Jacob says, “Jacob.” Many years ago, when asked his name by his father, Jacob said, “I am Esau, your firstborn.” Now he comes full circle, Jacob is about to meet his brother after years of manipulation, including the latest gift of animal droves, and Jacob says his own name in a seemingly unprecedented moment of honesty.
“What is your name?” “Jacob.”
This moment of naming himself is followed by a blessing from God and an emotional reunion with Esau. This moment of naming himself followed by the forgiveness between the brothers has me wondering about the difference between improvement that comes with maturity versus being healed. Is Jacob’s transformation simply because he is older, wiser, and afraid? Or is Jacob’s transformation a healing?
My husband Rob and I just wrapped up watching a History of the Eagles – the iconic American rock band that formed in the 1970s, disbanded, and regrouped in the 1990s to a lot of fan enthusiasm and more top-selling albums. The retrospective includes the musicians themselves and those who know them dishing on the music as well as the egos, the money, and the drugs that fractured friendships and ultimately the band itself in its earlier days. Toward the end of the documentary, the band is getting ready to launch its 1994 reunion tour. Glenn Fry, one leader of the band, is asked this interview question: “How have you changed as musicians over the years, both as a group and individually?” Fry replies, “Well, your whole mandate is just to improve, you know, life is about improvement whether it’s as a musician or as a singer or as a songwriter or, you know, all the other different hats we all wear; hopefully we’re just getting better.”
In the throes of God wrestling Jacob this week, I am caught by Fry’s use of the words “improvement” and “getting better.” I am caught because even in the face of what is going on for Jacob having to go meet Esau, he was still working all the angles in the hope of being forgiven. And yet, in the end, healing for Jacob launched into the mix from outside of himself – from God’s hip-striking smack-down to Esau’s running embrace.
Joe Walsh, one of the Eagles’ guitarists and singers, talks in the documentary that he knew he was headed toward an early death from an addiction to alcohol and cocaine. He describes his addiction beginning as an inspirational high and then the rest of the years spent chasing the high with no sign of inspiration in sight. At the time of the Eagles reunion in ’94, Glenn Fry and Don Henley went to Joe Walsh, inviting him into the band’s reunion on the condition that he get sober. Hearing their invitation as a last chance at life, Mr. Walsh takes them up on it and is driven to rehab.
There is a slippery line between an invitation to life and a person’s response to the invitation. Just like there is a slippery line between the way Glenn Fry talks about improvement versus the healing that Jacob experiences through being wrestled by God and embraced by Esau. There is a tendency in some circles of culture to make the purpose of life about an improvement project some might call the pursuit of happiness, rather than the purpose of life being something else entirely.
As a pastor, people talk to me from time to time about their addictions to alcohol, drugs, porn, sex…you name it and people are struggling with it. Maybe you yourself are addicted or someone you love is struggling with addiction. One of the big questions people ask is whether or not God actually forgives them for the pain inflicted from that person and their addicted place. The answer to that question is an unequivocal, “Yes!” The next question is often whether or not the people in their life are going to be able to forgive them too. My answer that question is, “I don’t know.” There are consequences to hurting people and the hard work necessary to make amends to those who have been hurt. In the absence of chemical or other addiction, Jacob seems to understand that his impending meet-and-greet with Esau includes making amends.
There are consequences to non-addictive behaviors that hurt other people and there are consequences from the pain heaped on self and others by the illness of addiction. Jacob’s story offers a glimmer of hope as he says his own name in the wrestling match and throws himself on the mercy of God and on the mercy of his brother. The line between improvement and healing may be blurred but there is no line between God’s mercy and the healing that flows through it. After the wrestling match, Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face…” After the reunion with Esau, Jacob says to his brother, “…for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”
Like Jacob who holds onto God as a desperate act and won’t let go, today we pray with the Psalmist…
I call upon you, O God, for you will answer me; incline your ear to me and hear my words.
Show me your marvelous loving kindness, O Savior…
 Amy Merrill Willis on Genesis 25:19-34 at WorkingPreacher.org on July 13, 2014. “Genesis 25:19-43 begins a group of narratives that biblical commentators usually call “the Jacob Cycle” and which the Hebrew Bible calls “the toledot (generations or descendants) of Isaac” (25:19). http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2149
 One of my Hebrew Bible professors liked to tells us that stories like Jacob and Esau’s story survive through hundreds and thousands of years, in part, because they are really good stories. The characters’ twists and turns capture us into the drama with them and we are able to see ourselves in the Biblical story.
 Days of Our Lives, a daytime television drama on NBC known as a “soap opera”, begins with these opening words. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98T3PVaRrHU
 Genesis 32:6
 Genesis 27:18-19
 Genesis 32:30
 Genesis 33:10
 Psalm 17:6-7