Laurel Dykstra is a community-based scholar with a long history in intentional communities and the radical discipleship movement. Her justice work focuses on issues of urban poverty; the activism of children, youth and families; challenging white privilege; and Queer and gender-Queer participation and resistance in churches. She is the author of Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus (Orbis, 2002), Uncle Aiden (Baby Bloc, 2005), editor of Bury the Dead (Cascade, 2013) and co-editor, with Ched Myers of Liberating Biblical Study (Cascade, 2011).
I have a lot of favorite bible passages, but today’s about Jacob, his 4 wives and 11 children beside the river Jabbok is one of them–it is complicated, human, and a surprisingly good fit for pride Sunday.
First, some background
After the death of Sarah, Abraham arranged for his son Isaac to marry a distant cousin Rebekkah.
They have twins.
Esau the first-born is ruddy, hairy, grows up to be a hunter and is favored by his father (who, remember, lost an elder brother Ishmael, a hunter)
Jacob, born second gripping his brother’s heel a quiet man—bit of a mama’s boy (Jacob’s name in Hebrew sounds like heel)
With his mother’s help, Jacob tricks his brother out of his “birthright” and his father’s blessing (Jacob’s name means deceiver or even liar—so he’s a bit of a gender non-conformer biblically, since it is most often women depicted as liars) –to keep the alliteration in English we might call him Jacob the Joker or the Jerk
So that Esau won’t kill him, Isaac sends Jacob to the old country to marry a cousin
Jacob and his uncle Laban engage in a years-long escalating tricksters’ showdown. Where Jacob ends up with two official wives and two unofficial wives locked in a painful contest of childbearing
Having made off with some of Laban’s wealth, Jacob flees to Canaan pursued by an angry Laban and his sons, he has just made an uneasy truce with Laban when
word reaches Jacob that Esau, the brother he betrayed, is coming to meet him with an army
Jacob sends ahead of him the livestock he has won from Laban as gifts to appease his brother
Then he sends his family ahead of him –courageous guy eh? – another example of how Jacob refuses to “be a man”
and Jacob is alone on the riverbank.
caught between two men that he has tricked.
The Joke’s up for Jacob the Jerk at the Jabbok.
That is the context for today’s reading.
–a story that my bible teacher’s teacher Phyllis Trible cites as key metaphor for engaging w/ scripture
–a story that Jewish and Christians saints and scholars have seen as showing profound truth about what it is to be a person of faith
And I think is key to Pride and the struggle for Queer liberation
What happens to Jacob is described in 12 spare verses:
Alone, he wrestles with someone? Until dawn
He is injured but keeps struggling
When Jacob refuses to release his opponent without a blessing, the stranger gives Jacob a new name
Jacob claims to have seen the face of God, but leaves that place limping
What is going on here?
Firstly, this story is probably older than the surrounding material—at the root of the story is a tale of a trickster-hero who wrestles a blessing from a night-demon who (like a vampire, or the trolls in LOTR) can’t survive daylight
This is not the first time that wrestling appears in the story of Jacob
(Genesis 25) when Rebekkah, is pregnant with Jacob and Esau
22 The children struggled together within her; and she said, ‘If it is to be this way, why do I live?’*
Rebekkah tends to be dramatic but the narration is very matter of fact: especially compared to the pyrotechnics when men approach god
So she went to inquire of the Lord.
23 And the Lord said to her,
‘Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
In Genesis 30, sisters Rachel and Leah are in conflict over bearing sons for Jacob
8 Then Rachel said, ‘With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled*–GodWrestling– with my sister, and have prevailed’; so she named “her son” by her maid– Naphtali. Which means “my wrestling”
So Jacob, the mama’s boy, has learned a about wrestling from the struggles and survival skills of women, even though he doesn’t treat them very well.
Wrestling is an intimate act, wrestling all night even more so. For a contest to last so long the opponents must be matched.
Now who is Jacob wrestling with?
A stranger? An Angel? God?
Jewish commentators around the time of Jesus said it was Esau’s guardian angel because there is a whole lot of reference to God’s face and Esau’s face
–the notion that we see God when we are face to face with someone we have wronged—makes sense to me having worked with Residential School Survivors
Both Rachel and Jacob’s sibling-wrestling imply that when we struggle with those who are close to us, we recognize the face of God.
In both wrestling stories Jacob and Rachel “prevail” which seems to imply winning. But the Hebrew word yachol-ti is more accurately translated “to be able, or to cope” so really it is not about winning, more about not being defeated.
I think is powerfully true about the struggle for Queer/LGBTQ liberation, it is not something we have won
With queer migrants forced to seek sanctuary as immigration laws become more restrictive
The shockingly high suicide rate of queer people
Persistent misogyny- anti-femme violence that ranges from daily micro-aggressions to murder
Homeless rate of LGBT youth
Pinkwashing—that presents western militaries as the champions of gay rights—for example in Palestine
With new HIV infections in the lower mainland down in every group except men who have sex with men
When our Pride celebration is more about corporations than liberation,
And all of us under pressured to abandon those members of our community, or parts of ourselves, who fail or refuse to conform to a white, partnered, wage-earner model
No, whatever concessions the most privileged of us benefit from, we have not won queer liberation—but neither have we been defeated.
Jabbok, means torrent, and the waterfall of word-play focus attention on Jacob’s name—Jacob the heel, the deceiver is blessed with a new name
‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel
Israel—El means God but there are 3 possible Hebrew roots for the first part of the word
Most often heard, triumphalist, interpretation–God Rules—or the one who Rules with God—implicated in in colonization from Canada, to Palestine, to South Africa
Two—God’s honest one, Implies that Jacob the deceiver has been transformed, the opposite of his old name–hopeful
Three—the one who struggles with god. Godwrestler. I think this interpretation is best supported by the text, you shall be called Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’
Not just Jacob but his family, and his people are named Godwrestlers we among them
Has anyone here has wrestled with god?
been mad at god?
found something in the bible or the church’s teaching hard to understand or believe?
had something completely unfair happen to them or someone they know? Has anyone asked God why?
Speaking of Godwrestling today’s Gospel passages ends with the words
“those who ate were about 5000, besides women and children.”
the New English translation is more blunt “not counting women and children”
I wrestle with the fact that 2000 years later in the church and out of it, in many ways we are still “not counting women and children”
After today’s passage in Genesis, Jacob/Israel fresh from his encounter with God, blessed with new name, goes to face the brother whom he has cheated—but just when you want him to get it right, he puts his wives and children in order of status—most expendable (maids and their children) first.
Those of us who are heirs to the stories of Jacob and Jesus, need to always ask ourselves who are we “not counting?” who is not included?—do we rattle off the string of letters—LGBTQ–but really not mean bisexual and trans people? Do we use the term “Two Spirit” like its “Native for Gay” without listening to those who claim that identity? Do we have meetings up stairs or behind doorways that wheelchair users can’t access? Do we sing “all are welcome” but find in real life that the people who actually feel welcome and comfortable are people who look and earn and live quite a lot like us?
today’s lectionary reading gives us much that we can from this place into the streets and our lives:
Hurt in families, that gets passed from generation to generation, is nothing new.
If you think the bible offers a model of one right kind of family—you better think again
Often the experience that wound us, bless us as well.
When that “one big thing” happens to you whether it is —coming out, surgery, starting hormones, being baptized, accepting Jesus as your personal lord and savior, getting Gay-married, or wrestling with your greatest fear it doesn’t make you or everybody in your family perfect.
It is an honor to be here this morning to talk about Pride and the Bible among so many who embody courage and resistance every day just by getting out of bed in the morning and putting on a dress, or a tie, or a turban, a binder
And if you remember one thing from today, I pray it is this: This is our story.
This story, messy, human and imperfect, is our story and we can argue with it, learn from it and find our place in it.
anybody walk different?—this is your story
anybody here with scars?—this is your story
anybody have a new name, because the one they were given doesn’t fit
Or pronouns—did you know that there are quite a few biblical passages where the pronouns change as the story unfolds?
Who here has refused to quit without a blessing—fought for marriage equity, inclusion in church, schoolboard policy, –this is your story
We struggle and we are both wounded and blessed.
We see God’s face and live. Amen
Laurel Dykstra is a community-based scholar with a long history in intentional communities and the radical discipleship movement. Her justice work focuses on issues of urban poverty; the activism of children, youth and families; challenging white privilege; and Queer and gender-Queer participation and resistance in churches. She is the author of Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus (Orbis, 2002), Uncle Aiden (Baby Bloc, 2005), editor of Bury the Dead (Cascade, 2013) and co-editor, with Ched Myers of Liberating Biblical Study (Cascade, 2011). She is a collective member if the Interfaith Institute for Justice, Peace and Social Movements and a member of the Christian activist group Streams of Justice. Laurel lives with her not so traditional family in a housing co-op in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, BC where she is exploring the vocation of neighbour. She was recently ordained priest in the Anglican Church of Canada’s Diocese of New Westminster.