This is a small piece I wrote about why I read Walter Brueggemann. He is a significant voice for Old Testament studies and has been a significant voice that I have come to value in my own studies and development as a pastor and theologian. His social critique has been helpful in many regards, as well as, his imaginative interpretations for our context. For your viewing pleasure: http://www.walterbrueggemann.com/2013/11/07/levi-jones-why-i-read-brueggemann/
Today, I had lunch with a professor from Nazarene Theological Seminary, Dr. Doug Hardy. He teaches in the area of spiritual disciplines. We had an intriguing conversation concerning practices in the Church. I asked him what he thought is a need in the Church that has been forgotten or left out, with the understanding that each church has different needs. He suggested that perhaps we need to recapture silence and the capacity to wait on the Lord. I thought this was insightful, especially considering that we live in a culture of entertainment, distraction, and disconnection. We are extremely fragmented. Go into any restaurant and they’re likely to have music blasting or a television turned to a game. Our cellphones are our constant companions. So much so, that we would rather text the person sitting next to us rather than engagement them in actual conversation. I don’t feel that I’m overly exaggerating the situation, even within the Church.
I wondered out loud if this absence of silence and waiting upon the Lord – opening space up for God – is the reason for the lack of genuine discourse and Christian conference. We are combative and quick to demonize those we disagree with. Not to mention, we are not likely to listen and really hear the other’s position – especially if it is opposed to our position. My rambling concluded with this point: If we’re not willing to listen to God, then what makes us think we’ll listen to people. If we are not cultivating space in which to listen to God, is it any surprise that we are unable to have charitable discourse among ourselves? I ask this question of myself and have to look honestly for ways to open up space, to provide places of silence – to be still recognize who is Lord… even in the midst of difficult, challenging conversations.
I have been thinking this morning about something Dr. Terrence Fretheim said last Fall. He was talking about God’s activity in the world, saying this: “God always acts directly but always through agents.” It reminds me of Exodus 2 where the Hebrews are groaning under the weight of their enslavement in Egypt. Suffering is their lot in life, it seems. And the question might very easily be, “Where is God?” The text says that “God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them” (Exodus 2:24-25).
“Concerned” is too soft of a word. God “knows” their suffering. God suffers even as the Hebrews suffer! God is present in the midst of suffering! The next scene flashes to an old man sitting in the desert watching sheep. He’s been doing this for forty years. He used to be a prince of Egypt… now, he’s prince of sheep (not exactly a CV builder). It is in the mundane routine that the shepherd, Moses, notices something out of place. A bush on fire. That’s not so out of place, but the fact that it is not consumed is surprising. Moses watches the bush because… well, because what else do you watch in a desert? After watching for some time, he notices that the bush isn’t being consumed. So, he gets up to go and take a look to see why it isn’t being consumed.
It is at this moment that Moses hears God calling him to go back to Egypt as God’s representative. God will use Moses, flaws and all, to “draw out” God’s people from Egypt. “God acts directly but always through agents.” Moses’ seeing and moving toward the burning bush is the opportunity for God to use Moses, even as God has seen and knows the Hebrews’ suffering and is moving toward them and toward their redemption from slavery. Moses will be the vessel by which God’s presence is manifested in a desperate situation.
The question of God’s presence in the midst of suffering is still one we ask today. With the recent tragedy due to the great destruction by tornadoes, we may very well wonder where God is at. Yet, I can’t help but remember this story and recognize that God suffers with us. God sees, hears, and knows our suffering… and has not abandoned us. Rather, like Moses, God calls waiting to see who will respond so that we might be sent as a tangible sign of God’s presence in the midst of suffering. “God always acts directly but always through agents.”
The story of Jacob wrestling has long been a text of confusion and difficulty. The character of God testified to in this text does not fit the typical framework for understanding God’s power. How is it that a human might prevail against God? And, what might that say about the kind of God depicted in this text? Jacob’s wrestling may help re-shape our understanding of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
This text, although it center upon an individual, is about a nation. In fact, one might say that Israel is given birth in Jacob’s wrestling with God. This grappling match will forever characterize Jacob and Israel’s relationship with God! Identity is named by God in this passage. For those experiencing exile, this story serves as a powerful reminder of Israel’s call and identity, which is given by God in their wrestling.
IN THE TEXT
Verse 22 And so the gift went on ahead, while he remained in camp that night.
Verse 23 That same night he arose, and taking his two wives, his two maid-servants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok.
Verse 24 After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions.
Verse 25 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
Verse 26 When the man saw that he had not prevailed against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.
Verse 27 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
Verse 28 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”
Verse 29 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
Verse 30 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.
Verse 31 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
BEHIND THE TEXT
Genesis, as the name indicates, is a book of “beginnings.” Origins of the world are not the only beginnings that are recorded in this text. Instead, we see brokenness enter the Creation through disobedience and violence escalate exponentially. The Flood narrative watches God repent of the Creation, but exercise mercy in the midst of divine judgment. God gives the rainbow as a sign of God’s commitment to the Creation, a new reality has emerged. And, Abraham is the beginning of the promise that will find fruition in Israel and, ultimately, Jesus.
Genesis 32 plays a unique role in this sequence of beginnings. Israel is foreshadowed in the name change of Jacob. Likewise, there is a new reality that erupts for Jacob in this encounter with God. No longer is he the “supplanter” but his character is shaped toward a different telos. Namely, one who wrestles with God and prevails! But, more than this, perhaps it is a new beginning for the way that God will engage the world. It is a position that entails much risk, not only for humanity, for God.
Genesis is a narrative following the Creation of the world to the blessing of the family of Abraham as inheritors of the covenant. The narrators (J, E, P) that compose Genesis are not simply interested in the historical accuracy of these patriarchal stories. There are definitely elements that bear the weight of history, but there is more to the narrative than documenting the past. Simply reading Genesis gives one the overwhelming sense that this story is just as much about God as it is about the patriarchs or even the creation of the cosmos. Genesis records the deep theological reflection of the community concerning the world and their calling as descendents of Abraham. If Genesis is a history, it is a theological history. More appropriately, it is a theological narrative that establishes the foundation for the Abrahamic covenant and God’s relationship with this unique people called Israel.
Genesis 32, in particular, must be carefully understood as theological narrative. Fretheim notes that the story is not a dream or a vision (i.e., Jacob’s ladder). Instead, there are real, tangible consequences for Jacob (and God?) in wrestling all night. In other words, the author does not construe this story as something that occurred in Jacob’s imagination, but calls for incarnation of the divine.
The cultural context of this pericope is essential to comprehending the conflict that Jacob faces. Jacob’s fear of Esau coming to meet him with a large cohort of men (presumably an army in Jacob’s mind) stems from Jacob’s past underhanded dealings with his brother. Primogeniture named the firstborn as primary heir. Esau, as the first son, was entitled to Isaac’s possessions. However, Jacob tricked Esau into selling his birthright for a bowl of soup. Granted, Esau was not very wise, but Jacob was equally crafty. Discovering Esau’s plot to kill his brother (thus making him the rightful heir again), Jacob flees Esau’s wrath, living in exile with Laban (Jacob’s uncle).
Before their birth, Rebecca is given a notice about her children. Wrestling in her womb are two great nations! However, these two great nations, embodied in the two sons, will not follow the way of primogeniture. Rather, the older will serve the younger and the younger will rule over the older. The story of Jacob is the unveiling of that promise, which Jacob seems to try to accomplish under his own power. Through conniving manipulation, Jacob seems to be on the verge of fulfilling that promise. However, the promise is soon precariously close to being killed, literally.
Jacob’s name even gives away Jacob’s character. Names are of utmost importance in this culture because they reveal something about the person that is named. Their identity is contained in this moniker. “Heel grabber”, which can also mean something akin to “backstabber” in our current context, is Jacob’s name. Immediately out of the womb, Jacob begins to live up to his name as he wrestles with Esau in the womb and follows him in birth, grasping Esau’s heel.
Our pericope follows Jacob’s departure from service to Laban. Jacob has become quite wealthy off of his father-in-law. Of course, Laban’s sons are far from impressed and are likely extremely wary of Jacob taking their inheritance as well. Needless to say, Jacob senses the trouble and decides to leave in secrecy. Laban finds out and pursues him. In this altercation, Jacob takes final leave of Laban, reminding Laban of the great service that he has given during those twenty years. Jacob notes that God has seen Jacob’s affliction and has rebuked Laban. At that time, they covenant together not to bring harm to the other and to depart in peace. Jacob subsequently enters into Esau’s territory and receives word that Esau is coming with a troop of men. Jacob is immediately fearful, perhaps having had already tense interactions with his father-in-law, Esau is coming for retribution.
Jacob’s response once again highlights his cunning, as well as, a knack for saving his own skin. He separates out everything out in two groups, leaving himself alone behind everyone and everything. He has placed a buffer between Esau and himself. To ease Esau’s anger, Jacob sends gifts ahead before passing before his “face.” “Face” is a repeating theme in Genesis 32-33 that ties Jacob’s wrestling to his meeting with Esau the following day.
Verse 25 states that Jacob is now alone after having sent everything across the Jabbok. The audience might be tempted to wonder if Jacob is going to flee again, as has been his modus operandi for so long. It seems that his past has finally caught up with him and there’s only one way to escape: run. Although the context is slightly different, there may be parallels here with Exodus 14 where the Israelites find themselves trapped between the sea and Pharaoh’s marching army. At this point, there are no more options. God called Jacob (and Israel) to go back to Canaan and now both find themselves confronted by an army they cannot hope to defeat.
A mysterious stranger shows up during the night and begins to wrestle with Jacob all night until daybreak. There have been conjectures about the identity of this “man.” Is it Esau? A river demon (which are said to be found at river forks in some religions)? Is it God in human form? In beginning to answer this question, I want to give two answers that are not mutually exclusive.
First, I think it is important to think about how wrestling fundamentally works. Wrestling is a full-bodied endeavor. Both parties are grabbing, pulling, pushing, and rolling around. The physicality of this match is portrayed in Jacob’s injury to his hip that is sustained when the stranger realizes that Jacob cannot be bested. This is more than a vision. After all, Jacob limps the next day when meeting Esau. This is a bodily encounter, not an ethereal dream or ghostly haunting. Real flesh and blood are involved. If this is Esau, Jacob would have had a clue as to the identity of the stranger given his hairy body. Jacob probably could remember the early wrestling matches that all brothers engage in when they are young.
Jacob would have also heard his voice when they conversed, which would have been further confirmation of identity the next morning when talking with Esau. In fact, near the end of the altercation with the stranger, Jacob asks to know the stranger’s name. Does he begin to recognize who he has wrestled with all night? Is the response, “Why is it that you ask my name?” a surprise from Esau at Jacob’s lack of recognition? We will return to this subject.
Terrence Fretheim suggests that regardless of the stranger’s identity, Jacob’s interpretation of the event is what matters most. Jacob summarizes his wrestling experience, saying, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life is preserved.” Jacob understands his flesh and blood wrestling match to have been a wrestling match with the divine. How is that possible? Issues of divine power, as they are understood by many, seem to necessitate separation between the finite human and infinite divine. How can both be present?
The text necessitates an investigation into this tension. After all, Jacob wrestles a “man”, then he is renamed Israel because he has “striven with divine beings and human”, and Jacob reflects upon his experience by saying that he has seen “God face to face”. The story transitions from human to human-divine to divine. The line between them is blurred so that it is difficult to separate one from the other. Somehow, both are working in conjunction with each other.
Terrence Fretheim recently stated in a lecture on violence in the Old Testament, “God acts directly but always through agents.” Those agents can be human or through other parts of the Creation. In essence, this means that God’s presence is always mediated and it is always embodied. This is true of God’s judgment issued in the Exile through the Babylonians. It is also true that the word of the Lord comes to Israel through judges and prophets. If this is God’s typical way of interacting in the world, it creates issues with our conception of divine power.
Verse 26 suggests that, if this is indeed God, God can be equaled. It seems that Jacob in some sense has control and power over this other individual. Is God limited in power and strength? Verse 29 further suggests that Jacob has “prevailed” over God! In answering objections about God’s limited power and God’s use of agency, Terrence Fretheim writes:
I would claim that God’s assuming a human form for a specific venture in the world does not compromise divine transcendence. The finite is capable of the infinite. In such theophanies God takes on human form in order to be as concretely present as possible. In assuming such a form, the personal and relational dimension of the divine is more sharply revealed; there is greater intensity of presence.
The limiting of God’s power is not a new concept within the Genesis text (or in other parts of the Bible). In fact, covenant is such a limiting of God’s power by God! Covenant restricts how God will act in the future (i.e., no more floods to destroy the earth). Furthermore, God’s use of power will not violate God’s character and nature, which is Holy Love! Thus, even the use of power is restricted in its use. The relational God that is attested to in the Scripture uses power to engage in relationship, not simply to accomplish tasks! The greatest act of God’s power may really be God’s willingness to be imminent in the Creation, which includes experiencing suffering.
God’s power is demonstrated through weakness. God is not threatened by the prospect of losing, even to humanity. In fact, time and again God reveals God’s character to be one of patience and willingness to allow humanity to make decisions that matter, even decisions to reject and disobey God! God does not use God’s power for coercion, but encounters with the divine do leave their mark. Incarnation might prove to be God’s fundamental movement toward humanity, to engage humanity where they are.
Returning to Jacob’s face to face encounter with Esau in Genesis 33, there is a further hint indicting Esau as the mysterious man from the previous night. Esau questions the gifts sent to him by Jacob. Jacob says that he wanted to find favor in Esau’s eye because seeing Esau’s face was like seeing God’s face. Jacob notes that Esau has received him favorably. Esau then tells Jacob to come and start their journey together and Esau will go at Jacob’s “pace.” Did Esau know about Jacob’s ordeal? It seems plausible, if not probable. Yet, even in this encounter Jacob recognizes God’s presence in the midst of the meeting between estranged brothers.
Jacob’s interpretation of the encounter must be allowed to carry weight. Jacob does not deny his wrestling with another person, but in that great struggle Jacob recognizes something much great at work: God! Not only is Jacob allowed to live, Jacob prevails! This throws all categories of power out of the window. What kind of God is this that holds all power and yet can be bested in a contest of wills? Perhaps, it is the same loving God that is depicted in the Exodus wrestling with Pharaoh, whose power will not bend the knee. Ultimately, it leads to his destruction (as well as the destruction of others).
Yet, in Jacob’s wrestling match, there is a notable difference in that Jacob prevails but is not destroyed! Jacob’s prevailing, unlike Pharaoh’s prevailing, leads to recognizing God. There is a marked difference in how Jacob now encounters the other. It is demonstrated in Jacob’s act of humility that prostrates himself (exposing his neck for the sword) before his brother. The scene with Jacob ends with day; Pharaoh’s encounter ends with darkness.
God is a wrestling God, who can be bested. Imagine that! But, in those wrestling matches, “There are those who say to God ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God say, ‘Thy will be done.’” The difference between the two scenarios is the difference between life and death.
FROM THE TEXT
Henry F. Knight wrote, “Jacob wrestled with a lifetime in one night.” In this encounter, Jacob wrestles with his brother (whom he had deceived), he wrestles with himself (something about his identity and character is different after this episode), and he wrestles with God. It is a contest between people where the lines between God’s actions and the actions of the agents becomes fuzzy.
This intriguing text leaves us pondering the mystery of God’s work through human agents. Brueggemann states, “In the night, the divine antagonist tends to take on the features of others with whom we struggle in the day.” In other words, the conflict and interactions of our daily life becomes the means of God’s redemptive and transformative work in us.
Jacob, from before his birth, was chosen by God to be the heir of God’s promise to Abraham and Isaac. God chooses Jacob over Esau, although both appear to be poor candidates. Esau is unwise and flippant with his birthright. Jacob uses God’s promise as the justification for his deception. The result is a chasm in the relationship of a family. Esau is left with a full stomach but no longer having his birthright. Jacob is now the primary heir to his father, but is driven into exile by Esau’s threat. Yet, despite Jacob’s deceitful nature, God sees something in Jacob that Jacob has yet to see about himself.
Jacob’s wrestling with man and God brings two worlds colliding together. He finds himself between a rock and a hard place. Left alone, he begins wrestling with both his past and God’s future. God’s future calls him to go to where he cannot avoid his past, but must come “face to face” with it. And, in confronting his past head on, Jacob comes “face to face” with a God that is able to direct Jacob’s character from “backstabber” to one who “wrestles with God and man and prevails.”
Does this change the reality of the past? No, Jacob can no longer run from his past actions. But, he can limp forward into a hopeful new future that God has set before him. Seeing his past in a new light, rather than shrouded in darkness, is like seeing the “face of God.” Jacob’s wrestling with his dark past leads to seeing the bright dawn of reconciliation where exile is a distant memory.
For those in the Church, those who have received the new covenant and become heirs and co-heirs with Christ, Jacob’s story is a familiar one to us. We have received a great promise. Although we were not the wisest or the strongest, God chose us to be inheritors of the blessing which was first given to Abraham and fulfilled through Christ Jesus. It is an amazing gift we have received.
However, like Jacob the Church has often used this promise as justification for being “heel grabbers.” We think that because we have been chosen that all avenues are open to us to ensure that God’s promises are accomplished in our time and in our way. It’s no wonder that the Church, at times, finds itself alone alongside the Jabbok. It’s afraid of the impending doom of facing its past. It’s scared to look Esau (the world?) in the eye and recognize its past deceptions.
Even as Jacob could not ignore God’s call to return to Canaan, the Church cannot deny its call to fulfill its mission (Matt. 28). In order to fulfill that mission, it is necessary that we wrestle with “a lifetime in one night.” The Church cannot ignore the way we used Scripture to excuse slavery or validate the denigration of women. We cannot hide behind our vows of silence while children are harmed. We dare not ignore our hate disguised as righteousness, our patronizing masked as discipleship, or our greed veiled as stewardship.
If we are to encounter a God that is able to shape our identity in a new way, then it requires us coming face to face with our past darkness. We can run back to the comfort and convenience of Laban, forsaking our call to go. Or, we can limp into a new future that marks us as those who have wrestled with God and humanity… and have prevailed!
Blumenthal, Fred. “WHO WRESTLED WITH JACOB?.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 38, no. 2
(April 2010): 119-123. Academic Search Elite, EBSCOhost (accessed October 12, 2012).
Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982.
Fretheim, Terrence E. “Jacob’s Wrestling and Issues of Divine Power (Genesis 32:22-32).” 1-12. This article will be published in a year and was used with permission from the author.
Fretheim, Terrence. Earle Visiting Scholar Lecture, “The God of the Old Testament and Issues of Violence”. Nazarene Theological Seminary. Personal Notes. August 28, 2012.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003. New American Standard Bible: Reference Edition. Anaheim: Foundation Press, 1973.
Knight, Henry F. “Meeting Jacob at the Jabbok : Wrestling with a Text–a Midrash on Genesis
32:22-32.” Journal Of Ecumenical Studies 29, no. 3-4 (June 1, 1992): 451-460.
ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed October 12, 2012).
Smith, Marsha A. Ellis. Holman Book of Biblical Charts, Maps, and Reconstructions. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1993.
Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures: The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985.
 The first two verses are the Tanakh’s translation. This translation connects to the previous context of Jacob trying to conjure a way out of this dilemma. I also used the Tanakh’s verse numbering, since it provided connections with Jacob’s preparation for Esau’s arrival. The following verses are based more upon the NRSV, with notes on changes.
 Smith, Marsha A. Ellis. Holman Book of Biblical Charts, Maps, and Reconstructions. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1993.
Jabbok is a tributary of the Jordan River that flows East. Deuteronomy 3:16 (also Joshua 12:2) sets Jabbok as a border for the Reubenites and the Gadites, separating them from their neighbors, “the sons of Ammon”, to the East of Canaan. Jabbok would elicit the memory of foreign nations serving others gods (perhaps river gods?) and the call to come out of those nations. However, in connection with the Abrahamic covenant, Israel would be reminded that God intends them to bless the nations, even as Jacob blessed Laban (although Laban wasn’t entirely thankful).
 Fretheim, Terrence E. “Jacob’s Wrestling and Issues of Divine Power (Genesis 32:22-32).” 1-12. Fretheim argues for this translation over using “touch.” Although the word can be translated either way, Fretheim makes the case that “strike” language is more congruent with the grueling wrestling match. The use of “touch” may be betraying the translator’s desire to preserve God’s power from question. The Tanakh translates this word as “wrenched”, which also demonstrates the struggle appropriately.
 Jacob means “deceiver” or “heel grabber.” In our context it might be translated “backstabber.” Hebrew names were thought to convey the nature of the person named.
 Peniel means “face of God.” Also, read 33:10 for connections to Jacob’s meeting with Esau.
 See citation for “Peniel” in verse 31.
 Knight, Henry F. “Meeting Jacob at the Jabbok : Wrestling with a Text–a Midrash on Genesis 32:22-32.” Journal Of Ecumenical Studies 29, no. 3-4 (June 1, 1992): 451-460. ATLASerials, Religion Collection.
Henry F. Knight states, “For a tradition that speaks of the way of right living as halakhah, to be permanently hindered in one’s walking could never mean just a simple physical wounding. The linguistic echoes penetrate far deeper. Right living, or ‘halakhah’ is literally derived from the verb ‘to walk.’ The lingering limp of Jacob could not have been just in his legs. It would have reached to every fiber of his identity as he stood before God, now as the ‘Godwrestler.’”
 See citation for verse 25.
 This is an obvious addition to the story that connects Jacob’s wrestling with Israel’s dietary laws. The dietary laws do not come into play until much later in Israel’s story, which suggests a history of redaction to the oral tradition concerning the patriarchs. This redaction interrupts the flow of the narrative of Jacob’s wrestling and Jacob’s meeting with Esau.
 Fretheim, Terrence E. “Jacob’s Wrestling and Issues of Divine Power (Genesis 32:22-32).” 1-12. 9.
 Blumenthal, Fred. “WHO WRESTLED WITH JACOB?.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 38, no. 2 (April 2010): 119-123. Academic Search Elite, EBSCOhost. Blumenthal argues that Genesis 32:22-32 is a prophetic vision. However, he does not take into account that Jacob is limping the next day. There was a physical altercation, according to the text. This is more than a vision.
 Terrence Fretheim. Earle Visiting Scholar Lecture, “The God of the Old Testament and Issues of Violence” given at Nazarene Theological Seminary on August 28, 2012.
 Fretheim, Terrence E. “Jacob’s Wrestling and Issues of Divine Power (Genesis 32:22-32).” 1-12. 11.
 Exodus 12:29-32. Pharaoah asks for a blessing, even as Jacob asked for a blessing at the end of the wrestling match. However, Jacob’s name is changed and receives the blessing. Pharaoh is not changed and ultimately receives the destruction that had been planned for the Hebrew boys in Exodus 1.
 Knight, Henry F. “Meeting Jacob at the Jabbok : Wrestling with a Text–a Midrash on Genesis 32:22-32.” Journal
Of Ecumenical Studies 29, no. 3-4 (June 1, 1992): 451-460. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, 452.
 Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982, 267.
The bibliographical citations are from reputable resources. Arthurs uses ideas from several well-known preachers and theologians: Thom Long, Fred Craddock, David Buttrick, Robert Alter, and C. S. Lewis, to name a few. Although Arthurs does quote Elizabeth Achtemeier, his sources are scantly filled by women or minorities. This is a real drawback to the book in terms of holistic styles of preaching.
God is the “Great Communicator.” Scripture is the means by which God communicates with us. Within Scripture there is a variety of genres and literature types. If God uses variety, then there is a good reason for us to use variety in our sermons as well. The variety of literature also provides for a variety of responses in the audience. Through these various modes of communication, we are able to look at the facets of reality.
Preaching with variety also involves preaching in the vernacular of our congregations. If we cannot communicate in culturally appropriate ways, it may be difficult for our audience to receive the messages we send. In our present context, we need to engage the visual senses. Likewise, personal experience and participation is expected in our sermons. Although sermons are auditory and oral events, we must find ways to include a holistic experience that engages the entire person. Long-term learning best occurs in this environment.
The contents of the book are separated into several genres: psalms, narrative, parables, proverbs, epistles, and apocalyptic literature. Each of these forms communicates in a different fashion, whether through song, story, metaphor, or logical progression. Each form has its own peculiar way of communicating. Sermons in some way should mimic the intention of the genre. In this way, the impact of the genre might also be upheld. Fred Craddock states, “Let doxologies be shared doxologically, narratives narratively, polemics polemically, and parables parabolically. In other words, biblical preaching ought to be biblical” (166).
This might include making a brief statement to summarize your sermons over a Proverb. Or, it might include singing or responsive readings in the sermon of particular Psalms. Perhaps, instead, they would be poetic in describing God’s activity. Apocalyptic might use symbols, hymns, and doxologies to convey its contents of God’s victory. Story might be woven throughout a sermon to help the audience identify with the characters of a narrative. Dialogue and discourse might be implemented to convey an epistle’s meaning. The impact of the genre, rather than its exact form, is a vehicle for transporting meaning from the text to the audience.
Overall, I thought this book was extremely helpful in understanding the Biblical genres and how their forms might be implemented in a sermon. Although we do not have to be slaves to the genres, they provide some very creative frameworks from which to construct your sermon. And, in doing so, one can potentially keep some of the intentions of the text for the contemporary audience.
“You will be to me a royal priesthood and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6). Delivered from the shackles of slavery, Israel now had a high and holy calling. Quite simply, God had set Israel apart, not to rule over the other nations, but to serve the other nations as reflections of God’s character and nature. Even as God had invited the Creation to participate in God’s creative activity in the world, so now God was calling Israel to engage in the mission of God in the world. Israel was to be a microcosm, a small world within a world, of God’s Kingdom reigning on earth as it is in Heaven. The Kingdom starts small but is intended to expand to all Creation.
The Church has always understood itself to be an extension of Israel’s calling. 1 Peter reminds us that we are called to be a “royal priesthood and holy nation.” Just as Israel was called to serve the world, the Church as the Body of Christ is also called to serve our world. We serve even as Christ models servant-hood for us: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped for his own advantage;rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:6-8).
We are familiar with the Great Commission: “As you are going, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20a). The world is rarely transformed through eloquent argument or great displays of power. Rather, discipleship looks more like Calvary’s Hill than the political games of Capitol Hill. It resembles a Cross and not crossed swords. The Kingdom looks more like the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Suffering, than it does the American Way. Following Jesus’ resurrection, he appeared to his disciples. Showing the disciples his nail-pierced hands and feet, Jesus told them, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” The journey of discipleship just might be a painful and deadly one.
But, that is neither cause for despair or fear that leads to self-preservation. “Those who lose their life will gain it.” Through Christ Jesus, Death and the Grave no longer hold the victory. They have been defeated. Death has been crushed to death. Our cry, “O, what a wretched person I am. Who can rescue me from this body of death?” is answered by the definitive proclamation, “Thanks be to God – through Christ Jesus our Lord.”
We have been given this great Light and great Hope. The darkness does not understand it and will try to snuff it out. But, even as the darkness could not conquer Christ, the Church will not be the victim of destruction. We are made to be more than conquerors through Christ Jesus. Our fight, however, is not with flesh and blood. It is against the powers and the principalities of this world. It is against the Pharaohs and Pilates trying to shape us in their image. Thus, we are called to “normalize the Kingdom” in the midst of a sometimes hostile world.
In doing so, we find ourselves surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses cheering us on. We follow the Pioneer of our faith in this race of endurance. We allow God’s vision for this world to become our vision, proclaiming, “I have a dream” with Martin Luther King, Jr. We stand up for what is right, stating, “Here I stand! I can do no other” with Martin Luther. We see the needs of our world and are burdened for them, recognizing, “The world is my parish” with John Wesley. We find unity within the Body of Christ, despite differences we may have, acknowledging, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity” with Saint Augustine. And, when we find ourselves persecuted and attacked, we pray, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” even as Jesus and Stephen, the first martyr, prayed.
1) God is Triune: Three-in-One (Although this term isn’t used in Scripture, the basis can be found in Deut. 6; Gen. 1?; John 1, 14, 15; Matt. 28). God is communal and dialogical, not only within the Godhead but with all of Creation. God invites and empowers the Creation to participate in the creative activity of God in the world (Gen 1-2). There is a degree of freedom inherent in the Created order, but it also depicts a relational God that is deeply and intimately involved with the Creation. As such, God is not unaffected by what happens in the world. This is most demonstrated in the Cross. God is so committed to the Creation that God is willing to enter into the Creation and live with it, even at the cost of great suffering.
The language of Body of Christ and “royal priesthood and holy nation” (1 Pe. 2:9, 1 Cor. 15) suggests something that is collaborative and interdependent. True faith cannot be privatized. Rather, as Wesley suggests, “There can be no personal holiness without social holiness.” We are created to be in community as a reflection of the Triune community. Thus, the missio Dei is intrinsically connected to the Church as a community. Each part has its role to play that helps the Body of Christ function as it should. Therefore, communal language is appropriate to communicate this aspect of faith.
2) The Kingdom is an essential concept (Matt. 3-4 and Luke 4). The Kingdom embodies God’s reign in the world. It signifies God’s true intentions for the Creation. God’s call is not about national identity, although it sometimes reduced to that belief. Rather, the Kingdom transcends nationality and national allegiances. The Kingdom is the shalom of God bringing about the unity of the Spirit in Creation with the Creator. Israel and the Church are the microcosm of Christ’s peace being lived out in tangible ways that reflect God’s character and nature back into the world. In other words, this is a matter of holiness. We are in the world, but not of the world. There is a Kingdom ethic that guides our lives and it is modeled in Christ Jesus’ death on a Cross. The Way of the Kingdom is the way of cruciform, Incarnational living.
Pastors equip the people for “doing every good work” (1 Tim. 4:11-13). This is not over and above the congregation but alongside the congregation as co-laborers in Christ Jesus. Leadership is not something to be “lorded over others” but to empower others. Christ is the Head of the Church, not the pastor (Eph. 4:15). Rather, the pastor should be the first to pick up the “towel and the basin” and wash feet. Pastors are servants of servants.
3) God invites response (Gen 1-2, Heb 3-4). Although I did not get into the specifics of praxis, the theology of a dialogical, relational God shapes our praxis. Understanding God as reaching out to all of Creation to restore it undermines nationalism, imperialism, militarism, consumerism, to name a few. As Terrence Fretheim suggests, “God always acts directly, but always through agents.” God desires to share this Kingdom with all of Creation. We are all called to be “a royal priesthood and holy nation” (1 Pe 2:9). Our response is gratefulness for the grace we have received through Christ Jesus. It is also the call to extend that same invitation to others as God’s ambassadors in the world.
God’s perfect love invites us to respond in new ways that go beyond fear (1 John 4). This not only includes the fear of punishment from God, it includes the way that we live in the world. “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Tim 1:7). The Church needs to learn charitable discourse, especially among its members. Jesus warned his disciples that the world will hate them because of him. But, that does not then permit us to fight the way the world fights. Rather, a sign of our maturing in Christ is the ability to discuss, even as God is dialogical, without fear of being destroyed. God’s love brings a peace that passes understanding and allows us to stand firmly while maintaining charity.
Birch, Bruce C. A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament. 2nd ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005.
Braaten, Carl E., and Robert W. Jenson. Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998.
Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982.
Brueggemann, Walter. The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering Word. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.
Brueggemann, Walter. Mandate to Difference: An Invitation to the Contemporary Church. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2007.
Brueggemann, Walter. An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.
Cladis, George. Leading the Team-Based Church: How Pastors and Church Staffs Can Grow Together into a Powerful Fellowship of Leaders. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999.
Fretheim, Terence E. Exodus. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2010.
Hauerwas, Stanley. The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.
Hauerwas, Stanley, and William Willimon. Lord, Teach Us to Pray: The Lord’s Prayer and the Christian Life. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002.
Outler, Albert C., and Richard P. Heitzenrater. John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002.
Volf, Miroslav. After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1998.
Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.
Brown begins by showing the connection between humanity and humus. All of humanity is connected to the ground from which they come. They are “groundlings.” This connection is more noticeable in the Hebrew in which Adam is only slightly different than the word for earth. As such, Brown points out that humanity is not created in the imago Dei but in the imago terrae. It is from this dust that God creates everything. Rather than a powerfully cosmic God, we see a “God of the compost.” God is intimately working in the “Garden of Plenty.”
Genesis 1 has the continual mantra “It is good.” However, Genesis 2 moves against this pattern, saying, “It is not good.” That is not to say that Creation is somehow poorly constructed. Rather, it is not good because in some way the Creation does not fully reflect the nature of YHWH. We soon find out this is because man is alone, which is not good. God is a communal Being, as such, humanity is also communal. Fretheim’s relational theology becomes quite helpful at this point in recognizing the connection between Creator and humanity. The Creation is a community, but it is lacking in the fullest sense for the man without woman. There is an unequal relationship between man and the other creatures. This is demonstrated in Adam’s naming of the animals, while woman is not “named.” It is only with woman that Adam proclaims that he has found his ezer kenigdo.
Fretheim notes that God allows the man to decide what is “adequate to move the evaluation of the creation from ‘not good’ to ‘good’” (Kindle location 1537). In determining what is “fit for him,” God allows and invites freedom and real decisions on the part of humanity. However, in discerning the issue of homosexuality, would Fretheim also say that this same reality would allow humanity to determine what is good, so that it might be changed? Fretheim notes that the relationship is not purely sexual, but based also upon the equality between male and female. So, are the options that God provides contained within certain boundaries? How might we discuss issues of sexuality further, especially given the heated nature of the topic?
Fretheim’s framework of relational creation is decisively helpful in several ways. First, it suggests that Creation is not static. Rather, it is dynamic and subject to further development by other parts of the creation (i.e., humanity). God creates a world full of potentialities. Decisions of humanity opens and closes possibilities. For instance, the narrative notes that no vegetation exists because man has not tilled the soil. Not only is humanity brought into Eden, but they are invited to join in the creative process!
Fretheim addresses the issue of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This prohibition is the Law which precedes sin. In this way, creation’s capacity to create is shown to be derivative of God’s power to create. There are limits or boundaries within which humanity is invited to work. These boundaries of relationship provide life and blessing and fruitfulness of Creation. To step outside of these boundaries is to no longer recognize their dependence upon God or the “proper use of power.”
Unfortunately, Brown spends most of his time discussing the science of origins rather than focusing on the text of Genesis. Although they may not be mutually exclusive, the text should not be forced to say things that it is not concerned about. The primary issue is theological and should remain so in our discussions of the text. Fretheim integrates science into his discussion of the Genesis narratives; however, it is woven much more seamlessly in with the narratives of Genesis 1 and 2. Thus, science and the text are given voice while maintaining respectful boundaries where they cannot speak.
- Depiction of God in Genesis 1 and 2 (kingdomcruciformity.wordpress.com)
- Genesis 1: Comparative Analysis of Terrence Fretheim and Bill Arnold (kingdomcruciformity.wordpress.com)
- Genesis 3:16 – “And He Shall Rule Over You” Reconsidered (kingdomcruciformity.wordpress.com)
- Genesis 6:5-8 and 8:20-22: Reflecting on Pre- and Post-Flood Humanity (kingdomcruciformity.wordpress.com)
- “Productive” Pastors (kingdomcruciformity.wordpress.com)
Written in poetic prose, Genesis 1 contains a rhythm and rhyme that provide a certain meter to the content. This rhythm strengthens the overall sense of orderliness inherent in God’s ordering of tōhû wābōhû. Other creation narratives from the ancient Middle East contain many parallels with the Hebrew narrative. Arnold maintains that Genesis 1 is not explicitly polemical in nature to these other narratives. He does recognize the parallels and suggests that it is implicitly polemical. At this point, Arnold seems to be splitting hairs. First, nobody can really know if this was or was not the intent of the author. Second, we can recognize that it is polemical, whether that is the intention or not.
Fretheim agrees with Arnold by stating that God acts in entirely different ways in Genesis 1 than does Marduk and the other gods of ancient Middle Eastern creation narratives. The gods of the other nations are violent, whereas Genesis 1 describes God as merely speaking to simultaneously command and invite Creation into being. God does not struggle with chaos. The watery deep is not like Tiamat, but is invited to cooperate with God. Fretheim also uses science to back up his position concerning chaos. Although chaos is randomness, that randomness falls within certain boundaries. There is orderliness that proceeds from chaos, although it still may not be predictable.
Arnold states: “What God has created in vv. 3-5 is time, which is more important than space for this chapter” (39). Although time may be an important part of the Creation (i.e., seasons and days), space plays an equally important part in the process. Day 1-3 is the creation of space, which is then filled on days 4-6. Day 7 can even be framed as a creating of “space” for rest. Life does not happen without the proper “space” in which life can be sustained. Fretheim contests that light and space are inseparable dimensions, contra Arnold. Both are vitally important aspects of Creation that enable life.
Fretheim employed the imagery of the cosmos being formed in the likeness of the tabernacle. Each day moves you closer to the Holy of Holies, embodied in the Sabbath. Although I had thought about the tabernacle being a microcosm of the Creation, I had not considered the reverse in Genesis 1. This is a powerful image in that all of Creation is gathered in this symphony of worship, where life is created, blessed and sustained. Thus, space seems to be equally important!
In connection with this imagery, Genesis 1 revolves around the number seven. The first sentence is made of seven words, the second has fourteen, and the third sentence has thirty-five. Overall, there are 469 words, which is a multiple of seven. “God ‘saw and pronounced creation ‘good’ seven times; ‘earth’ or ‘land’… appears twenty-one times; ‘God’ is repeated thirty-five times. There are also seven days of Creation. Seven is a significant number in this passage, connoting wholeness or completion. Fretheim notes the differentiated order that is represented in this number’s use and how that reflects the character of the whole passage.
The phrase “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness,” has been interpreted in a number of ways. Typically, the Christian faith has understood this in Trinitarian terms: Father, Son, and Spirit conversing. Another way to understand this is to say that there is a heavenly host that is being referred to here. I have heard both of these positions before; however, I was unaware of a third possibility. Arnold suggests that God is simply deliberating with God’s self “about the creation of humankind… God himself decisively steps in to make humankind” (44). This seems only mildly different than the Trinitarian formulation.
Fretheim, on the other hand, understands this to be a heavenly host rather than God’s inner dialogue and deliberation. Fretheim bases this interpretation on other passages in the Old Testament that record the “heavenly council.” According to Fretheim, the heavenly host has been replaced by humanity as “God’s new pantheon.”
Overall, both Arnold and Fretheim have strengths and weaknesses in their interpretations of Genesis 1. Fretheim couples his interpretation with scientific undergirding to help shed light on the complexities of creation. This also happens to be the weakness of his argument, especially given the changing nature of science. This potentially limits some of its future usefulness.
Arnold offers a less holistic view of the passage. Most of his commentary on Genesis 1 focuses on its similarities and dissimilarities with the ancient creation stories (i.e., Enuma Elish). Although this is an important thing to consider, his argument is weak in trying to show that Genesis 1 is not explicitly polemical. As noted above, that is not something that can be proven. We only have the text as it is now… which is polemical when read with the other ancient creation stories. This detracts from Arnold’s interpretation. However, Arnold does provide some contrasts to Fretheim that allow you to see other available options.
Thesis of the Book
Missions are compared to a mouse and an elephant at a party. Although the elephant is having fun, the mouse ends up crushed. Essentially, that story depicts the manner of Western missions in the Global South. Although missions may have good intentions, quite often there are disastrous results for the Global South (like the mouse). The thesis of this book is that missions is changing and must continue to change so that we may truly partner with the Global South rather than continue being unreflective about the outcome of our missions. The Global South has much to offer that we can learn from and it is important to hear their voice as we work together to live out the Kingdom in our world!
Evaluation of Sources Used
Yes, the sources helped to support the thesis. The sources implemented were from notable theologians, such as Marva J. Dawn and Lesslie Newbigin. These sources were not merely mentioned, but were often quoted to provide support for the main idea. However, that was not the strongest point for the sources used. This book put into practice what it was preaching through its pages. Authors from the Global South were also implemented into the composition of this work. C. René Padilla, for instance, was referenced quite often and to great extent. This strengthened the argument of the book on the sole basis that the authors were willing to listen to other parts of the world and their perspective. Thus, their actions spoke louder than their words: “We have much to learn from our ministry partners in the Global South.” They also implemented other sources from contexts outside the Global North.
The sources used also included “secular” sources. This provided “outside parties” that have taken note of these problematic issues that confront those engaged in cross-cultural missions. A great amount of data concerning the issues of poverty, war and genocide, environmental concerns, and other problems set the backdrop for the discussion about “partnering” with the Church across the world. This was helpful to see that being missional is a holistic endeavor that must include the indigenous peoples and leaders, if there is to be a good and lasting impact.
Development of the Main Idea
Missions have become a much more de-centralized endeavor. Previously, missionaries and missions agencies were at the center of outreach to other parts of the world. In recent years there has been a decrease in the local church’s reliance upon these missionaries as the only source of information. Due to globalization, the world has become more accessible to people geographically located in other world areas. This accessibility has not only inculcated a desire to be involved with the “borderlands” but it has also encouraged local churches to undertake missions on their own. The missionary has become more of a tour guide than previously.
Globalization is often seen as a “flattening” of the world where everything is becoming more uniform and accessible. Although there is a great degree of that, there is still a great deal of diversity and inequity in the world. The world is both “flat and spiky.” Working cross-culturally means that we must be aware of the cultural differences and issues that may be potential “spiky” areas.
Many well intentioned missionaries or groups have entered other cultures and created disastrous results because they came in as the “experts” rather than in humility, asking how they might best serve the community. The result ranges from distrust, to confusion, to anger from the indigenous population. The Northern “partner” is often left disillusioned or unaware that their endeavors were harmful… thus, the vicious cycle is repeated. Resources are sometimes wasted on useless projects that could have best served in other ways.
Partnership is not merely a good idea, but it is a theological necessity. The Church is never fully whole if it is not the universal Church. We have much to learn from our Southern partners. PLA (acronym meaning Participatory Learning and Action) helps us to remember that we are engaged in mission together. And, ultimately, the mission is not ours but God’s mission in which we are invited to participate. As such, the community determines the need and we simultaneously learn and act toward a collective solution. This empowers the local church while helping it to keep momentum through the partner’s contributions (i.e., time, resources, knowledge, people etc.). There is an overlap that should link both partners inseparably together for cooperative transformation of both communities. It is long-term discipleship together.
Ultimately, partnering together takes diligent work and listening. It is vital to understand the context and culture, to know the heartbeat of the community, and to fully understand its potential and limitations. To have an effective and sustained impact on an area, it is important that we weigh all of the necessary information before acting. This means that we should take seriously the knowledge of those that live in the culture. They are resident experts on what will likely work best. This does not mean that we can play an important role, but it does mean that we cannot walk into a place thinking that we know best. Otherwise, we may only waste time and energy.
One of the strongest points to me was the planning element. It is helpful to see that we are “intercultural” partners, rather than cross-cultural partners. This means that we engage the issue together on equal footing, working together. As such, it is important to get the local community involved and “rolling the wheel” first. Then, as this happens, there will be momentum added as the other church contributes to the overall vision.
However, the strength of this element in the book is also its weakness. In cultures, like North America, that value planning and are time-oriented, this planning may be seen as the obvious progression of steps. But, in event-oriented cultures planning like this may be a foreign concept and not easily or readily translatable to that context. As a result, the planning suggested in the book may drastically need to be altered to fit the context.
The mission is not merely about converting people or completing projects. These are minor goals compared to the overarching goal, which is to connect people as growing disciples to the living Christ. As such, we are equipping one another as partners for this all-encompassing mission! We must ask how our partnership is aiding us in discipling others. We must move beyond charity and allow our works of compassion to embody justice. Really, it is about “normalizing the Kingdom” in a broken world.
Personal Evaluation of the Book
Overall, I thought the book was insightful concerning the ways that missions has morphed and detailing the ways that it still needs to be sensitive to issues in the Global South. Missions must be a partnership that goes beyond merely “saving souls.” Rather, it is a partnership where both may be edified and built up in the faith. It is about transformation. This transformation is challenging because it calls for mutual accountability and discipleship. It is long-term partnership that engenders active listening to all parties concerned. And, it engages the issues that continue to promote oppression and the resulting resentment from the “bottom billion.” I would recommend this book, especially given that it emphasizes the theology of missions in considering how we should embody our call as a missional people. That is something with which we must continually wrestle.
- Cross-Cultural Partnerships: Navigating the Complexities of Money and Mission by Mary T. Lederleitner (kingdomcruciformity.wordpress.com)
- Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-term Missions with Cultural Intelligence by David A. Livermore (kingdomcruciformity.wordpress.com)
- Missions and Money: Affluence as a Missionary Problem… Revisited by Jonathan Bonk (kingdomcruciformity.wordpress.com)