Resourcing Discussions Concerning Racism, Privilege, and Contextual Theology

I was asked to provide a list of resources I have found helpful in thinking and shaping issues concerning racism and privilege. I’ve added resources that also deal with contextual theology because we all read from a place, a position, a framework. Privilege is often assumed and is typically hidden from our eyes, especially when we benefit from those systems. As such, it is helpful to be made aware of our position and its underlying assumptions.

Many of these titles have been very formative for me. Some of the ones I will list have been good to read just to hear dissenting voices from my own. I don’t necessarily agree with every position taken in every book, but I have learned something from each one and therefore offer them as helpful starting points to further conversation and learning. I will also try to categorize each book so that they can be held together with other books that approach privilege, racism, and contextual theology through a particular lens (i.e., preaching, community development, etc.). Some of these resources do not deal with privilege directly, but I certainly see application and overlap. I hope these are helpful!

PREACHING

Dem Dry Bones: Preaching, Death, and Hope by Luke Powery

Preaching as Weeping, Confession, and Resistance: Radical Responses to Radical Evil by Christine M. Smith

Toward a Womanist Homiletic: Katie Canon, Alice Walker, and Emancipatory Proclamation by Donna E. Allen

They Like to Never Quit Praisin’ God: The Role of Celebration in Preaching by Frank A. Thomas (A development of Dr. Henry Mitchell’s Celebration and Experience in Preaching)

Listening to Listeners: Homiletical Case Studies by John McClure

Decolonizing Preaching: The Pulpit as Postcolonial Space by Sarah Travis

Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World by Otis Moss III

The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence by Richard Lischer

The Liberating Pulpit by Justo Gonzalez

The Word Before the Powers by Charles Campbell

Preaching at the Crossroads: How the World – And Our Preaching – Is Changing by David Lose

Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art by Leonora Tubbs Tisdale

The Journey and Promise of African American Preaching by Kenyatta Gilbert

HERMENEUTICS/INTERPRETATION

Reading from this Place, Vol. 1 by Fernando F. Segovia (collection of essays)

Soundings in Cultural Criticism: Perspectives and Methods in Culture, Power, and Identity in the New Testament by Francisco Lozada, Jr.

Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning by Paul Riceour

Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K. A. Smith

COMMUNITY DEVELOP/ PARISH MINISTRY

When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… And Yourself by Steve Corbett

Making Neighborhoods Whole: A Handbook for Christian Community Development by Wayne Gordon and John Perkins

The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community by Paul Spark

Theology/Ethics/Memoirs

Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

Night by Elie Wiesel

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. (https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html)

Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone

The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race by Willie James Jennings

Naming the Powers by Walter Wink

Unmasking the Powers by Walter Wink

Engaging the Powers by Walter Wink

Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics by Willard M. Swartley

Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church by William Cavanaugh

Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William Cavanaugh

Theopolitical Imagination: Christian Practices of Space and Time by William Cavanaugh

The New Asceticism: Sexuality, Gender, and the Quest for God by Sarah Coakley

The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics by Stanley Hauerwas (collected essays)

Prayers for a Privileged People by Walter Brueggemann

Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible by Willie James Jennings

MISSIONS

Missions and Money: Affluence as a Missionary Problem Revisited by Jonathan Bonk

Cross-cultural Partnerships: Navigating the Complexities of Money and Mission by Mary T. Lederleitner

Going Global: A Congregation’s Introduction to Mission Beyond Our Borders by Gary Nelson

Serving With Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-term Missions with Cultural Intelligence by David Livermore

Ministering Cross-culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships by Sherwood Lingenfelter

FICTION

Jonah’s Gourd Vine by Zora Neale Hurston

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

POP CULTURE

Decoded by Jay-Z (preachers should read this)

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich

The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz

DOCUMENTARIES/FILMS

“13”

“Schindler’s List”

“Le Chambon: La Colline Aux Mille Enfants”

“Of Gods and Men”

“Roots”

“The Mission”

“Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom”

“Selma”

“Mississippi Burning”

Sermons

(start around 30:38 mark)

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Pick Up Your Cross and Follow Me: Reflections on Co-pastoral Ministry

Here’s the link to a blog I recently wrote about co-pastoral ministry, power, and being a servant. The blog is posted on Shawna Gaines’ blog. Shawna and Tim Gaines serve as co-pastors in California. Their ministry has been helpful to observe and learn from as Becca and I began our ministry together. Grateful for others that are faithfully demonstrating what it looks like to live in community, sharing ministry together!

Link to article: Pick Up Your Cross and Follow Me: Reflections on Co-pastoral Ministry

Micah 4:1-5 – “Swords into Plowshares: Reimagining Power in a Violent World”

Ask an American to tell the story of America and they will begin, perhaps, with the story of the American Revolution where freedom from tyranny was secured.  It will progress to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.  Naturally, the story will weave its way through World War I and II, where the tyrannical powers of the world were halted by our military might.  Vietnam and Korea.  The Cold War, Desert Storm and the Iraqi War will all make their appearance.  Our imagination, our identity as a country has been shaped by the marking of our history – a history littered with violence.  Some have gone so far as to say that the ethos of our dominant narrative is war. 

        Of course, our violence is not limited to national warfare.  Our history includes the dark shadow of slavery, sexism, and colonialism.  The poor have always and continue to be oppressed by unethical financial practices… just ask Wall Street and Wal-Mart.  Manifest Destiny was thinly veiled genocide hailed as progress.  This fails to mention human trafficking, child and spousal abuse, school violence, and political mud-slinging.  If we have only mentioned our human relationships, what list might we build if we considered violence done to the environment and to the rest of Creation?

The prevailing praxis flowing out of our ethos of violence is necessary to understand.  Our conceptions of power are built on the notion that “might makes right,” no less if by majority vote.  Power is used to attain what one desires and to maintain what one has acquired.  And, if something should be desired or my possessions threatened, then force, violence – even war – are deemed acceptable options to our desired end, no matter who or what might be destroyed.  This “will to power” objectifies the Creation, which includes other humans, for manipulation and exploitation for personal gain, pleasure or benefit.

From this perspective, everything is a commodity to be consumed.  Our consuming is never satisfied.  Our demand continues to climb higher while those commodities becomes fewer.  It is the crisis of the market.  Supply and demand create scarcity, which produces fear, which turns into violence to grab those precious resources.  That’s only one reason nobody wants to be a Wal-Mart door greeter on Black Friday.  Violence is a natural outcome and by-product of consumerism because it is based upon competition for limited resources.  All of Creation suffers as a result.  We are a culture characterized by violence.

The American church has been significantly impacted by this prevailing cultural narrative.  We have engaged in our own methods and forms of violent behavior.  Schism and division.  Proclaiming “truth” without tempering it with love.  We enforce our “rights,” using our power (both individually and corporately) for political posturing and the securing of our “freedoms.”

We have rendered people as commodities to be counted to bolster our attendance numbers to reach the next plateau of growth or what they can do for our ministry until they are used up and discarded, instead of seeing each person as inherently valuable as God’s creation.  We exercise violence through our words against our enemies, by demonizing our opposition.  We do violence to the Gospel when we make it about us.  We do violence to the name of God when the Church cannot be distinguished from the murderous world.

Because our dominate narrative is violence, it is difficult for us to imagine a world otherwise.  After all, how is it possible for our world to change when there is such an extensive history of violence?  Plus, if everyone is looking out for themselves, who’s looking out for me?  The answer, it seems, is obvious.  Kill or be killed.  It’s about survival.  If someone puts out your eye or knocks out your teeth, then it is your right, not only to get even, to exact revenge.  Violence begets violence… and the cycle continues.

Micah, a prophet during the height of Judah’s power, lives in a world filled with violence.  Micah paints a picture of his contemporaries: “Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in their power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance” (Mic. 2:1-2).

The leaders of the community are unfamiliar with justice.  Micah testifies against them saying, “[you] tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones, [you] eat the flesh of my people, flay their skin off them, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a cauldron” (Mic. 3:2-3).  The prophets are also culpable.  Micah says they proclaim “’Peace’ when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths” (Mic. 3:5).

God’s people do not look much different than the Assyrians, who had recently destroyed Israel.  They take advantage of the poor, do violence to one another, and misuse the gifts that God has given to them.  Neighbor mistreats neighbor.  The weak of society are trampled under foot.  The powerful and the affluent hoard and oppress to the detriment of the community.  As such, they misuse God’s name.

Micah, however, imagines an alternative script for the ways in which Judah might faithfully live as God’s people again.  Hear what Micah says, “[God] will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths… They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation will not take up sword against nation nor will they train for war anymore.  Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken.”

Weapons of violence are re-shaped as instruments of cultivation.  Power is re-oriented to the sustaining of life and the protection of the weak, not for the exploitation of the poor and the elimination of our competition.  Power is re-directed from “might makes right” to purposefully seeking the “good of all.”  Micah invites a new world into their midst, not as a pipe dream… as an open invitation to live into God’s future now.  It is a future where power no longer resembles the warrior garbed in battle attire.

Rather, it is a future where they are empowered to live in right relationship with one another, enjoying the fruits of Creation which they help cultivate together, and where fear is but a memory.  No longer is their identity to be found in being a warrior, using power for their own security.  God’s people will be those that till the soil, utilizing their power to add value back into the Creation and into the lives of others.

But, of course, it does seem like a pipe dream.  Israel and Judah both fail to live into this future that God is providing.  Several centuries after Micah, Jesus shows up on the scene.  Things haven’t changed much for Israel.  They live under the pax Romana, peace maintained with the keen edge of a sword.  Power politics rule the day.  Rulers, like Caesar, Pilate, Herod, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees, all play by Rome’s rules.  Some placate more than others, but Rome dominates the landscape and the way of life.  It is Rome’s way or the proverbial highway.  Violence is the basis for this so-called “peace.”

Jesus begins preaching, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.”  He offers an imaginative alternative to Caesar and Herod, to the prevailing violence of politics and religion and business-as-usual.  Fortunate are those who are pure in heart, the peace makers, the meek, the merciful, the poor in spirit, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and those that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.  The world claims that power is for the fortunate.  Jesus re-arranges power and what it means to be fortunate!

Jesus challenges the violence that neighbor committed against neighbor.  He even calls for everyone to love their enemies!  But, in a culture and world where imagination is dominated by violence, it is nearly impossible to see God’s light dawning in the midst of such darkness.  The world’s violence against one another turns to violence against the Creator.  Though the Word  became flesh and tabernacles among us, we do not know him and want to put out his light.  And, so, Jesus is crucified.  The world takes up sword and spear against the Creator and slays him upon the cross.

Yet, that was not the end of the story.  By the power of God, Jesus was raised from the dead.  Death is crushed to death.  Light pierces the darkness, scattering it.  Sin and death are defeated foes.  When confronted by the violence of the world, Christ lays down his life… “[He] was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Is. 53:5).

Christ transforms the cross, the world’s instrument of violence, into God’s instrument of peace.  Beating swords into plowshares.  The cross which was the world’s means of violence, became the very means by which God cultivates and prunes the Creation… readying it for the harvest of salvation.  Jesus, like Micah, wasn’t offering a pipe dream… He is calling us to re-imagine the world, to see God’s future that is even now breaking into our present… offering hope in the midst of violence, offering life instead of death.  And, calling for us to live into that future hope.

St. Francis of Assisi penned a well-known prayer that is very appropriate.  May it be our prayer.

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is error, truth;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek

To be consoled as to console;

To be understood as to understand;

To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

When we gather at the Lord’s Table, we are confronted by our own propensity toward animosity, hatred, and violence.  Yet, it is at this Table that we are offered a new way, God’s way of being in this world.  Jesus breaks bread with his disciples.  He breaks bread with his betrayer.  The Risen Christ stands among us with pierced hands and feet, saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”

The Eucharist reminds us that Death is not the worst thing that can happen to us… precisely because it is a conquered foe.  At this Table, we remember that “on the night that Christ was betrayed, he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.’  In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this, as often as you drink it in remembrance of me.’  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:23-26).

Violence, Power, and Creation Care

Ask an American to tell the story of America and they will begin, perhaps, with the story of the American Revolution where freedom from tyranny was secured. It will progress to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. Naturally, the story will weave its way through World War I and II, where the tyrannical powers of the world were halted by our military might. Vietnam and Korea. The Cold War, Desert Storm and the Iraqi War will all make their appearance. Our imagination, our identity as a country has been shaped by the marking of our history – a history littered with violence. Some have gone so far as to say that the ethos of our dominant narrative is war.
Our violence has not been limited to national warfare. We endured a dark history of slavery, sexism, and colonialism. We continue to be affronted by unethical financial practices that oppress the poor. Manifest Destiny was thinly veiled genocide hailed as progress. This fails to mention human trafficking, poor waste management, child and spousal abuse, and school violence. If we have only mentioned our human relationships as part of Creation care, what list might we build if we considered violence done to the environment and to the rest of Creation?
The prevailing praxis flowing out of our ethos of violence is necessary to understand. Our conceptions of power are built on the notion that “might makes right,” no less if by majority vote. Power is used to attain what one desires and to maintain what one has acquired. And, if something should be desired or something of mine threatened, then force, violence – even war – are deemed acceptable options to our desired end, no matter who or what might be destroyed. This “will to power” objectifies the Creation, which includes other humans, for manipulation and exploitation for personal gain, pleasure or benefit. Thus, we practice violence.
Micah, a prophet during the height of Israel’s power, lived in a world filled with violence. He imagines an alternative script for the ways in which we might faithfully employ power. Hear what Micah says, “[God] will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths… They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation nor will they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken.”
Weapons of violence are re-shaped as instruments of cultivation. Power is re-oriented to the sustaining of life and the protection of the weak, not for the exploitation of the poor and the elimination of our competition. Power is re-directed from “might makes right” to purposefully seeking the “good of all.” Micah invites a new world into our midst, not as a pipe dream… as an invitation to live into God’s future now. It is a future where power will no longer resemble the warrior garbed in battle attire. Rather, it is a future where we will live in right relationship with one another, enjoying the fruits of Creation which we have helped cultivate together, and where fear is but a memory. No longer will our identity be found in being a warrior, using power for our own security. We will be those that till the soil, utilizing our power to add value back into the Creation and into the lives of others. May it be so!

Jacob Wrestles and Prevails: Genesis 32:22-32

INTRODUCTION

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.[1]

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.[2]

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[3] 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.”[4]

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[5], saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

Verse 32 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel,[6] limping[7] because of his hip.

Verse 33 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck[8] Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.[9]

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)?[10]  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.[11]  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,[12] “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.[13]

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.[14]

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.”[15]  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.”[16]  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!

 

Bibliography

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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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).

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] Peniel means “face of God.”  Also, read 33:10 for connections to Jacob’s meeting with Esau.

[6] See citation for “Peniel” in verse 31.

[7] 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.’”

[8] See citation for verse 25.

[9] 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.

[10] Fretheim, Terrence E. “Jacob’s Wrestling and Issues of Divine Power (Genesis 32:22-32).” 1-12. 9.

[11] 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.

[12] 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.

[13] Fretheim, Terrence E. “Jacob’s Wrestling and Issues of Divine Power (Genesis 32:22-32).” 1-12. 11.

[14] 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.

[15] 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.

[16] Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982, 267.

Genesis 3:16 – “And He Shall Rule Over You” Reconsidered

A descriptive, rather than prescriptive, understanding of Genesis 3:14-19 dramatically shifts our understanding.  This passage has often been used as a way to legitimize patriarchal hegemony, showing women’s subordination to men as both Biblical and God-ordained.  Yet, if this is descriptive, Genesis 3:16 merely paints a picture of the rupture that has occurred in the relationship between man and woman due to disobeying God’s command.

However, it must be noted that man and woman are held equally culpable for their disobedience.  For instance, disobedience leads to increased “labor” for both man and woman.  The consequence of disobedience is equal for both genders.  This equanimity is reflective of the relationship between man and woman previous to sin.  Eve, taken from Adam’s side, was intended to be an Ezer Kenigdo, a help-mate that is “flesh of flesh and bone of bone.”  They are like one another (although not the same) and equal in the relationship.

But, the “one flesh” reality has become something less than intended.  Despite this fact, the curse and the results of disobedience are never perceived as God’s desire for Creation.  In fact, it seems to be quite opposite of the God who blesses Creation continuously who now pronounces curse (on the serpent and ground).  Yet, God does not curse man and woman but describes the rupturing of relationship that is now humanity’s modus operandi and has already been demonstrated in pointing the finger of blame away from one’s self to another.

The rupturing of this relationship is most prominently on display in the use of power between man and woman.  Where God empowers humanity to govern over Creation, humanity has now usurped that power for its own self-seeking means.  Rather than stewarding Creation as servants of God, they will now seek to dominate it for their own ends.  The relationship that was intended to most reflect the imago Dei, man and woman, is now interlocked in a power struggle.  Thus, Adam asserts his dominance over woman by naming her Eve in verse 20 (which previously was reserved for naming the animals).  There has been a significant shift in the relationship.  Man and woman were made to provide community for one another.  Now, disobedience and the striving for power have resulted in isolation, which does not reflect the imago Dei.

The Creation marked by God’s shalom is now marred by the enmity between all of the Creation.  The fields will not yield fruit from Adam’s tilling; creatures and humanity will be at odds; humanity will be divided; and life will be dramatically shortened.  Despite this pronouncement from God, we often work to reverse the effects of our disobedience.  Tractors make tilling easier.  Medicines make birth more bearable.  If we work toward these ends, why should we do any less for reconciling humanity, especially the inequality between the sexes?  If this passage is descriptive rather than prescriptive, then this is not an invitation to continue to operate as if it is the will of God!

The Christian community needs this text to be re-interpreted beyond the prescriptive understanding so that it may be allowed to re-function.  The results of sin are not to be taken as the will of the Creator, because that would also make God the instigator of evil!  Rather, this passage can be a platform from which to speak about proper uses of power, especially in the context of covenant fidelity between men and women.  Ironically, our use of such passages to protect or enlarge our power only confirms the truth of the passage, though not necessarily affirming our hegemonic interpretations.  This text is concerned with communicating to God’s people the result of disobedience: fissure in relationship.  As God begins to reconcile the brokenness, we too are called to partner with God in mending what has been separated.

Depiction of God in Genesis 1 and 2

In Genesis 1, begins with the ruach of God hovering over the waters of pre-Creation.  The tohu wa bohu and the waters of pre-Creation represent chaos and the lack of life.  There is no “space” in which life can happen or be sustained.  Yet, God breathes into the chaos, separating waters from waters, and opening space (day 1-3 and 7?) in which life can be sustained.  God is Creator and Sustainer.  God is not a God of chaos but of order.  After each day of creating, God blesses that which was made.

On days 4-6, God fills the space that has been created.  In each of these spaces, God empowers part of the creation to “govern” over the space (i.e., Sun, moon and stars govern the seasons and day and night).  God creates humanity and sets them to govern over the entirety of Creation.  Although God is shown to have all the power, God empowers the Creation and shares power with the Creation.  The potential of Creation is not complete.  Rather, God invites the Creation to participate in fulfilling that potential.  This suggests that God desires response from the Creation.

Everything that God has created is good, nothing is bad.  God does not create evil or chaos, but creates order and proclaims it very good (blesses it).  The life of God is generative.  Thus, God’s command to the creation, “be fruitful and multiply”, reflects the character and nature of God.  Although the Creation cannot create ex nihilo, it is able to “create” its own kind (likeness).  Again, God shares God’s power with the Creation, which blesses and sustains life.

God blesses the Sabbath and makes it holy.  The first thing that humanity sees God doing in Genesis 1 is resting, not creating.  God invites the Creation to rest from its labors with its Creator.  God is not simply about accomplishing tasks, but about relating with God’s good Creation.

In Genesis 1, God is pictured as transcendent and, in many ways, separate from the Creation.  God stands outside of the system.  Genesis 2 paints a different portrait.  God is very much intimately and immanently involved with the Creation.  God breathes life into the man’s nostrils and formed all the living creatures from the ground, like a potter molding clay.

God brings the animals before Adam to see what he might name them.  If God does know what Adam is going to name the animals, yet acts like there is real freedom for Adam to choose, then God has set the world up in deceptive ways (the appearance of freedom without the reality is illusory).  But, if God truly doesn’t know what Adam will decide and God is truthful, then we must re-conceive God’s omniscience.

God knows everything that is knowable, which means that the future is not something that is knowable as a set of propositions.  The future is not knowable because it does not yet exist and is not knowable.  God truly waits to see what Adam will name the animals because God really doesn’t know!  God gives true freedom for decision (and consequence) to the created order.  God invites the creation to participate in what God is doing in the world.

In order for there to be freedom for humanity, there has to be the option to choose opposite of God’s desires.  Thus, God creates the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  It is still part of God’s good creation.  Within that good creation, God provides boundaries and great freedom within those boundaries (“eat of any tree, except this one”).  God outlines the consequences of disobedience.  But, in providing the tree of knowledge of good and evil, God also creates freedom for humanity to really choose to live in obedience and love God.  God’s love is not coercive.

In Genesis 1, God creates and proclaims it as “good.”  In Genesis 2 there is a reversal.  God says that it is “not good.”  Man is alone and God views it as “not good.”  That does not mean that God’s creation is bad but simply incomplete.  It is “not good” because Adam’s situation does not fully reflect God’s character and nature.  Thus, God creates Adam a help partner: woman.  Man was created for community because the very character and nature of God is communal!