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Genesis 32:22-31

You should have no trouble finding interpretations of this pericope. It is preached to extensively. If it is familiar, try to approach it with fresh eyes. When I first read it, I thought it was one of the strangest Bible stories I had ever read. As the central part of the story begins, the wrestling, we are given no clue that this is God. Jacob has plenty or enemies, and everything he owns is on the other side of the stream. It would have been an ideal time to sneak up on him and take him down.

Tradition demands, and the Bible usually tends, toward an omni-God, omniscient, omnipresent, omni-benevolent. It's not possible to maintain all-knowingness and keep the character interesting, but as I said about Kings last week, sometimes the story says he doesn't know something, but the listeners understand that he actually does. It's hard to know if we get those changing literary uses of God correct. You almost need a wink from the story teller's eye. It's also impossible to have a God who is both just and merciful if you try to maintain that it is all-knowing and all-powerful and also all-loving. How do you then explain Him not using his powers when He has knowledge of some terrible pain of one of His beloved children? This is dismissed by fundamentalists as mysterious and the liberals attempt to reduce his power in some logical way. But the era of this story is that of ancient story telling, where characters are malleable. There is no overarching Biblical narrative that requires maintenance and explanation.

In that world, we have men who can steal birthrights and rob their uncles and be considered heroes. God has had little to say about this in the preceding chapters. Now he can't even beat Jacob in a wrestling match, so he tries to at least wound him. But even that doesn't work. God has never had trouble with daylight before so why he asks to be let go before daybreak is left unexplained. The story needed some way to have this match come to a stalemate. A bargain has to be made, and Jacob is a tough negotiator. He couldn't triumph over God, but he struggled with Him. He is given the name “Israel” which means “struggle with God” in Hebrew.

From the story, we can't actually be sure this is God. He says that Jacob has “striven with God and with humans”, but does that mean that this wrestling match was “striving with God”? It could be metaphorical, or just a way of saying he's struggled against many odds. Jacob asks for a blessing as if the man has one to give, but Jacob is known for getting what he wants, no matter the means. It's Jacob's idea to name the place “Peniel” (“face of God”). Frank Schaeffer is fond of telling stories about “seeing the face of God” in his wife or his granddaughter. Would we mistake Frank as saying either of those is actually God?

This story began with a list of 15 people he has been traveling with and how he sent them across the stream. For the first time in a long time, he had a chance to meditate about all the things he'd done; about how he tricked people who loved him, and they gave him kisses and offered peace in return. When Jacob asks twice for the man's name, he is dismissed. Depending on the inflection you put on that “why”, it could be the man is saying Jacob should know.

Romans 9:1-5

If you just read these 5 verses, this sounds like a complete prayer of thanks and a willingness to give up anything to help his people. Reading the rest of this chapter explains these verses pretty well. Paul quotes chapter and verse from the story we've been following in Genesis, plus a few others. He ignores all the stuff about Jacob stealing sheep and sticks to God promising things to generations to come. This is the belief that existed at the time. Despite the problems Israelites had with their kingdoms crumbling, they still believed they were chosen and had a destiny. A prevailing notion was that they needed to get the law right. That led to a lot of arguing.

Paul now comes along and says faith is the key. It doesn't matter if you are in the blood line, and in verse 16 “it doesn’t depend on what people want or what they do. It depends on God’s mercy.” I'm not going to sort through his exegesis, because I don't think it's worth it. It comes down to God can do whatever he wants, since he created us. Paul rhetorically asks a question that many still ask about why God creates people who sin, why did he make us like this? He points out where this is asked in the book of Isaiah, so it's not like atheists creating these questions in 16th century philosophy. His answer is that God can do whatever he wants. In verse 22, “But he put up with the people he was angry with. They were made to be destroyed.”

Paul's theology doesn't eliminate the idea of a chosen people, it just frees that idea from arguments about law and arguments about who is in the tribe. God now chooses to make some people who have the capacity to accept Jesus. You then just choose to have faith. It's not clear if you will know you are chosen or not, or how you would know. This effectively expands potential membership in a future church to everyone in the world, and sets it up so you have to keep coming back to that church for your blessings. I don't think he meant to do that, but it is what has happened.

Matthew 14:13-21

I have heard, and I have passed along to others that this miracle can be explained by the tradition of people carrying small bits of dried fish and some bread in their pockets. In a world of few possessions and uncertainty, you would always be prepared. But I don't think that's what's important here. The lection begins “Now when Jesus heard this”, so obviously, as the one giving the sermon, you should know what he just heard. If you use one of those Bibles that adds modern Chapter headings, it'll be right there, “John the Baptist's Head is Cut Off”. You might want to introduce that with a little more tact.

Also, read the whole 12 verses. It includes Herod being tricked by his daughter, actually by his wife, using his daughter. Herod is not a powerful leader, he was given the position by his father (This is Herod Antipas not Herod the Great). He needs to please the Romans and the Jews at the same time to maintain any semblance of order and keep his job. But he made a promise and he has to keep it. This is why he was “very upset”.

To the people following John around in the desert, their leader has just been used as a pawn in some stupid political game. Their religious leaders are stuck in the confusion of outdated laws and tribalism. Their political leaders are oppressive conquerors who are destroying their communal lifestyle. Herod represents the cross over of those two, and he just killed the guy who was trying to talk about healing and having everyone come together in a new age of loving each other. And he did it for childish reasons. It's a timeless story, which just makes it worse when it plays out with people close to you.

So the story is of a community trying to figure out how to deal with this, or at this point, just coming together to honor their fallen friend and be together in mourning, as anyone would do. Then you have the leaders who have to bring some order to that chaos. They barely have the time to mourn themselves. It is just mentioned almost in an off hand way that Jesus “showed compassion and cured their sick”. Well, of course he did, he's Jesus. When the disciples start trying to organize a meal, Jesus doesn't want anyone doing something so mundane as heading off to town for groceries. They protest with their statistics that back up their requirements for the project they have in mind, but the leader who sees the larger need, that they need to be given something but it's not just loaves and fishes, he calmly takes charge. This community needs to know that they have what they need and the important thing is “they need not go away”. The important thing is that they have each other. I don't care about the miracle of feeding X number of people with Y amount of food. The miracle is that people come together and find solace and comfort in just being with one another.