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Blessed and Broken

Date: September 22, 2019/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (cropped)

Scripture: Genesis 32:22-32

What’s your name? How did you come to have it? Do you know what it means?

It occurred to me awhile back that my sister and I actually have two different forms of the same name. My name is an alternative spelling of the female form of the name Charles. My sister’s name is Carrie, which in a lot of cases is short for Caroline, which is the female form of the Latin version of Charles, Carolus.

Carrie’s name isn’t short for anything, though. She was called that because around the time she was supposed to be born, my mom got to noticing that a lot of elderly ladies named Carrie were showing up in the obituaries. When she was little she thought her name was Caroline—because her middle name is Lynn (a family name) and until she started school everybody called her Carrie Lynn.

So what is your name? Do you know what it means?

My mom’s name is Claudia—female form of a Latin name that means “lame” (as in having a mobility impairment). She was named after her grandfather, Claude Marshall. Grandma Marshall griped a little about that, but it wasn’t until we started looking at our family tree that we understood why.

My mom was born on September 6, which was also Grandma Marshall’s birthday. Grandma Marshall’s first name was Zella, and she was named after her father’s sister, who had raised him after their parents died—and who was also born on September 6. So when my mom was born on September 6, Grandma Marshall assumed she would also be named Zella—but she got named after Grandpa Marshall instead.

My grandma Hulsey always said the doctor named her; she said that her folks couldn’t think of a name for her after having had so many girls already. But Grandma was only the third one born, and she had three more sisters born after her. Her name was Mary Elizabeth, and looking back at her family tree it turns out her great-grandmother was Mary Elizabeth DeGroftenreid.

Grandma’s youngest sister[1] was named Gladys—which is the Welsh version of my mom’s name, Claudia.

Do you know how you got your name? Do you have any nicknames? If you do, is your nickname a short version of your actual given name, or is it something else?

There was a man in Sac City whose name was Neal, but everyone called him “Lucky.” He told me how he got that name.

Evidently back in the 1930s one of the movie theaters in town had a drawing from time to time, where people who were there and paid for a ticket could have the chance to win a hundred dollars—a lot of money during the Depression. So Neal paid his dime, and put his name in the drawing; then he slipped out of the theater and went for a drink. When the drawing happened, his name was called—but you had to be present to win, so one of his friends went and retrieved him so he could collect his hundred dollars. After that people got to calling him Lucky, and it stuck.

Do you have a nickname?

I have a family nickname: my parents and grandparents and some other relatives call me “Shar.” But I don’t really like for people outside my family to call me that. Then I have the nickname Mike gave me: Johnson. He even got me a hat last Christmas with “Johnson” embroidered on it. He says it’s from that comedian who used to do Budweiser commercials back in the ’70s, whose shtik was getting people to ask his name, and then he’d say, “You can call me Ray, or you can call me Jay…” and so forth… “but you doesn’t has to call me Johnson.”

My sister’s family nickname is “Shorty”—actually, now that I think about it, nobody but my dad has ever called her that.

And then there are the other names we get over the course of our lives, the ones that define who we are. Mom or Dad, Grandma or Grandpa, for instance. Or titles, like Doctor or Judge or Reverend.

(In the Episcopal Church, deans of cathedrals are The Very Reverend, and bishops are The Right Reverend. I’ve always thought there should be someone up the hierarchy who is called The Most Frightfully Reverend Indeed.)

Other names are even more descriptive. A friend of mine years ago had a daughter who was, let’s face it, the only good thing that came out of a very bad marriage. Mary called the girl “Child of grace.”

And some names are less than flattering. If you ever saw the ’80s teen film The Breakfast Club, you might remember a scene in which John Bender—the rebellious character played by Judd Nelson—describes how he’s treated at home. He imitates his dad talking to him (I’m going to leave out some of it because it’s not really church-appropriate language): “Stupid, worthless, no good…freeloading son of a [gun]. Retarded, big mouth, know-it-all…jerk.” Then he imitates his mom chiming in: “You forgot ugly, lazy, and disrespectful.”

That’s sort of the kind of name Jacob had—but in his case, it totally fit.

In the Bible, names mean things. Nowadays we’d give someone a nickname, like “Lucky,” that expresses something about them. But in the Bible those descriptive names are often the ones people are given when they’re born.

Jacob was the younger of two non-identical twins. He and his twin brother, Esau, were already fighting before they were ever born; and when they did come out of their mother’s womb, Jacob had hold of Esau’s foot, as though trying to pull him back so he could go first. The name means heel (as in the one of Esau’s he was hanging onto when he was born), or trickster, or supplanter—simply put, cheat.

He managed to cheat Esau out of everything that was rightfully his as firstborn—even his father’s blessing—and then took it on the lam when Esau told him, “Next time I see you, I’ll kill you.”[2] He ended up living with his uncle Laban—his mother’s brother—and marrying two of Laban’s daughters.

And Laban could give him a run for his money in the trickery department: he ended up married to both of the daughters because Laban sent Leah in on the wedding night, after Jacob had worked seven years to earn the right, or so he thought, to marry her younger sister, Rachel. He had to work another seven years for Rachel. [3]

There was a whole lot more trickery on both sides over time, until finally Jacob managed, via some strange sympathetic magic, to cheat Laban out of most of his livestock and most of his fortune—and even took Laban’s household gods as he left in a hurry to avoid Laban’s wrath.[4] At that point Jacob was sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place: he needed to put a lot of distance between him and Laban, but doing that meant reducing the distance between himself and his brother Esau, and he had no idea whether Esau was still nursing a murderous grudge against him for stealing his birthright and his blessing.

It was the night before he was to meet Esau that our reading for today takes place.

The text is actually quite vague about who it is that Jacob wrestled with that night at the ford of the Jabbok. It just says the combatant was “a man.” Was it just some random guy, a “road agent,” as they used to call them in the Western movies,[5] who came to do harm and maybe help himself to some of Jacob’s wealth? Was it one of Jacob’s sons? Was it Esau? Or maybe it was a demon, or one of the elemental spirits ancient people believed inhabited certain places, like river crossings.

Or was it an angel? Was it a nightmare? Or was Jacob simply wrestling with his conscience—with the way he’d lived that had brought him to that moment, running away from one person he’d tricked and straight into the territory of another, who’d sworn to kill him?

In any case, the “man” couldn’t defeat Jacob, at least not as long as it was a fair fight—so, as the eastern sky began to grow lighter, he cheated. He hit Jacob below the belt. (The text says “thigh,” but in the Old Testament that tends to be a euphemism for more private areas of a man’s body.) And he said, “Let me go. I can’t be seen in the daylight.” (That’s one of the bits of evidence people who believe this was a demon or an elemental spirit point to in support of their belief.)

Well, Jacob, who if nothing else has got some nerve, says, “Not until you give me a blessing.”

Good heavens, Jacob, you got the blessing your brother was supposed to get from your father; wasn’t that enough for you? But he gets his blessing, as well as a new name: Israel.

Jacob’s original name described who he was up until that moment, but now he gets a new one. Instead of Jacob the cheat, the con artist, the one who tricks others to take what doesn’t belong to him, he is now Israel, and that name means two things, at the same time. One of its meanings is he who struggles with God. The other is God struggles.

And this is where we realize just Who it was that Jacob had spent the night wrestling with—and even God couldn’t get the best of Jacob in a fair fight.

When the sun came up there at Peniel (it means “face of God,” because, as Jacob said, “I have seen God face to face, but my life is preserved”) on the Jabbok River, Jacob was not the man he had been the night before. Now he was Israel, whose relationship was close, intimate, and complicated. He was Israel, who struggles with God—Israel, the blessed, who limped away from Peniel.

Interestingly enough, somewhere along the line I read that there is another possible interpretation of the name Israel.[6] I’m not sure exactly how the scholar reached this conclusion, but they said the name might also mean upright. Jacob was physically strong and unbroken before that night, but his heart and his spirit were crooked. The next morning he limped away, perhaps quite unable to stand up straight—but for the first time in his life, perhaps, he had a new heart and an upright spirit within him.

It used to be the custom, in some Christian traditions, for a person to take a new name when they were baptized, or when they entered a religious house or became a priest. That still happens in the Catholic Church when someone is chosen to be the Bishop of Rome, head of the church—Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II; Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis.

Sometimes the new name was the name of the saint on whose feast day the person was born. Other times it was the name of an ancestor in the faith whose life and ministry the person wanted to emulate (this is definitely the case for Pope Francis, who seems to envision the church living the ideals of the saint of Assisi, simplicity, poverty, and compassion).

If you were to take on a new name, as a child of God, what would it be? I would argue that we could do a lot worse than to be called Israel.

[1] Youngest to survive to adulthood, that is.  Grandma had another sister, Carol Maurine, who was born severely disabled and died when she was two years old.  My dad’s sisters are named for Grandma (Mary Anita) and this youngest sister (Carol Sue).

[2] Genesis 25:24-32; 27:1-45

[3] Genesis 29:1-30

[4] Genesis 30—31

[5] I imagine this term is an Americanization of the British highwayman, also a robber who preyed on travelers.

[6] Looking back over my notes and various resources, I have been unable to locate the source for this.