The face of God

 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

photograph by Katherine Brown

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 GodWrestles GodFace of GodJacob 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 blessingJacob 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.

Say his name!

photo by Katherine Brown

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.  But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.  So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you.  As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”  So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. 

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.  And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.  He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt. 

Genesis 21:8-21; lectionary text for Sunday June 21, 2020

Sarah’s urgency and Abraham’s inertia and God’s inscrutable assent to the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael make this a hard text at any time.  To read it these days as the nation continues to roil with racial reckoning long past due is even harder.  Convicting.  On its face this text seems to unquestioningly endorse the separation of the two brothers — God enjoins the act — yet the narrator’s sympathy is with Hagar and Ishmael.  The text seeks to be read from their point of view.  I have imagined Sarah’s years-long plight of being but Abraham’s ‘barren’ wife, going when and where and because Abraham goes with no voice of her own, mute even as she is offered by her husband to one king and then another, suffering knowing that she is too old for any newness now.  But now I feel the anguish of being sent away out into the wilderness as if I myself am Hagar.

We were just at a feast, celebrating the safe birth and weaning of Isaac, God’s promise-child, Sarah’s long awaited Laughter.  It was a great feast.  And now?  Now I am sent away with my child — our child, Abraham, our child!  The son that you and Sarah together got of me.  The feast may continue for you, for them, but for me and for our son, this 16 year old boy-man, there is but some bread and a skin of water.  How long will that last in the midbar, the desert wilderness in which water is scant?  We were just at a feast rejoicing that nothing is too wonderful for the LORD, that Laughter had been born and heard and named in our midst, and suddenly everything turned.  For what?  Because our son, Ishmael, was ‘joking’? ’playing’? ‘mocking’? ‘Isaac-ing’?*  Because suddenly Sarah is frightened for her son, our son must be driven out?  

There was a moment I might even have laughed with Sarah’s God-brought laughter.  She herself foretold that all would.  Yet already I’ve forgotten whatever mirth there might have been.  Sarah’s own joy is already ended.  She cut it short herself.  Her vision is too small.  She looks at our son, Abraham, yours and mine, and sees him only as an alternate Isaac, a reminder of those barren years before and a competitor for her son’s future inheritance.  What is that inheritance, Abraham?  Is it not that all the earth should be blessed?   In her zeal for her son’s full measure, Sarah has cut off her own joy.  She had laughed and spoken the world to laugh with her.   Now Sarah speaks to cast out half the world — as measured in sons of Abraham.  

Our son.  Ishmael — say his name, Abraham.  Though Sarah does not, you at least should name him, for he is your son too, on whose account you are distressed.  Say his name, Abraham!  Say it aloud! ‘Ishmael’ — ‘God hears’ — Ishmael, our son, yours and mine.  Our son is as truly God-named as is your son with Sarah.  Both of them have names given by the LORD.  Why can you not say his name aloud?  Is it because you are afraid to say aloud the truth that ‘God hears’?  That God heard my cry before our son was born?  That God might hear our cries again?  

Say his name, Abraham.  Ishmael.  God hears.  Say it!

God does hear.  God will hear.  

Will God hear?

I cried out at Abraham.  I demanded our son’s name from his mouth.  

Or did I?  

Was it only in my head that my voice was heard?  Was I, in reality, as silent as Sarah who — having spoken that word of expulsion — spoke no more?  

Ishmael.  God hears.  My lips move.  But do I say it?  Can I any longer trust the name’s claim when the God himself did not speak it to Abraham, did not speak either of our names, but gave us the titles that Sarah had used, that Abraham had used.

We have wandered.  Our water is gone.  I have left him.  Cast out because of him, sent away with him, now I walk away from him.  I will not, cannot watch him die.  I lift my voice.  Does he?  Does he cry?  Does he hear?  

Which ‘he’ even do I mean?

ve-Ishma-el-ohim reads the Hebrew text.  ‘And God heard.’  The name of my son held in that phrase.  The name that Sarah would not say, that Abraham could not say, that the LORD God did not say. Ishmael, God hears, now cries out from the text itself.  As the blood of the murdered Abel cried out from the ground.  As the cutting off of peoples causes stones of the house to protest and plaster of the wall to respond.  As the stones of the city will cry out the presence of the Christ if his followers themselves do not.  The text telling my story returns to me the name of my son.  No more is he ‘the boy,’ ‘the child,’ son of ‘Hagar the Egyptian,’ ‘the slave woman.’  The text becomes the testimony.  Murmurs my son’s name in the larger claim.

ve-Ishma-el-ohim:  ‘And God heard.’  Saying the name moves the story from desperate need to divine response.  God heard.  And God called and renewed and expanded God’s promise and opened my eyes to the life-giving water. ve-Ishma-el-ohim:  ‘And God heard.’   

‘A future with hope’ unfolds.  

‘Make strong your hand in his,’** God tells Hagar. 

The story inserts itself into my own hand, clenched as it is in anguish for persistent division and in aching uncertainty for how to move towards justice.  The text pushes itself in, makes itself strong within my palm.  My fingers ease and curl around its strength.  I am lifted to do the next thing:  to name aloud the claim that within the story God himself does not utter but does fulfill. 

Ishmael.  God hears.

Say the name.  Say all their names.  That act shifts the whole story.  Align myself with the text’s own subtle work of inclusion and reconciliation and wholeness.  God’s promise for each and for all.  That all the families of the earth will be blessed.

* The Hebrew verb in 21:3 is a form of the verb ‘to laugh,’ from which the name ‘Isaac’ comes.  The Hebrew text reads ‘Sarah saw the son of Hagar, whom she bore to Abraham, playing.’  The phrase in the NRSV ‘with her son Isaac’ is in the Greek, not the Hebrew.

** This is the literal Hebrew of God’s command in Gen 21:18, ‘Hold him fast with your hand.’