So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
Genesis 32:30; excerpt from Genesis 32:22-31, lectionary text for Aug. 2, 2020
The alarm rings at 6:30. I shut it off, realize I am awake, get up, and slip out of the sleeping house to walk. Sunlight light gilds the tops of the trees to the west; the rest of the world drowses in its own shadow. I set off down the hill, counting on its slope to pull me into some sort of pace. I have trouble walking at first. My stride is shortened by my hip joint catching. I stop to try to shake or stretch out the click then continue on, attentive to my step until it lengthens slightly. Maybe this is my entry into the text: my hip joint sticky and my stride slightly askew. Me and Jacob limping into the day.
Jacob wrestling. God wrestling. This text is familiar as these neighborhood streets, grown more familiar these months mostly at home. I try to pay heed to the slant of the light, shifts in the greens. I move through air that breezes warm and moist as breath. As if the world around me is alive, and clinging to my skin as I pass. Clinging as close as that stranger did to Jacob? As close as Jacob to he? Close enough to touch and disjoint. Close enough to hold for blessing.
I teach this text every semester of Intro. I point out to students how Genesis 32 connects back to 28, how wrestling and demanding are affirmed as part of relationship. Look at the names, I say. Beth-el. Isra-el. Peni-el. House of God. Wrestles God. Face of God. Jacob encounters God. Jacob demands, and Jacob wrestles, and for all these pains, Jacob is renamed and blessed.
These connections can feel as rote as my route through the neighborhood. First the downhill, then a longer loop. Usually I turn right, to the east and have to squinch my eyes against the dazzle of the sun. Today I turn left, away from the sun. My shadow stretches long and slender before me. Not having to half-close my eyes against sun too bright for human sight, I can look and see all that it is lighting. Pavement. Parked cars. Brick houses and grassy yards and leafy trees, crepe myrtles blooming pink and cream and purple and red. Bright zinnias and giant sunflowers and crinkle-blossom hibiscus. Other early walkers.
Turn differently in this text. The same streets, verses, words, but a different route. The relationship between Jacob and God is not itself all that is at stake. Jacob’s reunion with his brother brackets this pivot of God-wrestling. Twenty years before, Esau had howled in anguish that his trickster brother was truly named — the twin who had grabbed Esau’s heel having grabbed as well Esau’s birthright and blessing. Jacob has reason to fear Esau. Heel-grabbing Jacob now grabs at a stranger, grapples and holds, refuses to let go. Blessing and a new name (blessing as a new name?) are bestowed: ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ The explanation of the name discloses that more is implicated than relationship with God alone. Jacob has contended with God. Now Jacob-Israel must go forward and contend with his twin.
Limping into the day, Jacob sees his brother coming. Esau falls on him and hugs him (an embrace as close as wrestling?) and weeps and kisses his twin. The brothers fence in speech yet amid the glint of their words parrying comes this glowing gem: ‘Truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor.’
Jacob has seen God’s face. Now he is able to claim the same in the face of his long-distant twin. It reads as if this glimpse is the reason, the aim, of the other: encounter with God for the sake of encounter with brother.
Jacob wrestling tells as well why I return to this book so persistently, every day walking words that feel familiar underfoot. Wrestling with the text, I experience encounter. The blessing that comes, when it does, is the twist of stride and sight that is less the face to face glimpse of a brightness so bright as to dazzle my seeing and more the realization that when looking on the face of another — brother, neighbor, stranger-among-you — I am seeing what that brightness lights.
‘Truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.’
I round back up the hill towards home.