The Face of God or ‘God Rules” or “The One who wrestled with God,
And Was Allowed to Live”
By Paul Nicholson
Text: Genesis 32:22-31
Jacob keeps vigil during the night in anticipation of a meeting the next day with his brother Esau. He is obviously tense and anxious as he had not seen Esau for some twenty two years and they had not parted on the best of terms as Jacob had taken both Esau’s blessing and his inheritance. Jacob had received word that Esau was approaching with a large body of men and this sent fear through Jacob’s heart. So he prepared by splitting his camp into two thereby doubling the chances that at least one of them might survive an all-out attack. But then as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it “one of the most haunting scenes in the Torah (the Penetuch) takes place. I relay it using the translation used by the Rabbi:
And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he (meaning the man) touched the hollow of his thigh… Gen 32:24-25.
If one continues reading three more significant acts emerge. First Jacob requires that the man bless him as a condition of his release, second he seeks to know the man’s name and third the “man” bestows a new name on Jacob who will henceforth be called Israel.
The man does not respond to Jacob’s question about his name but does bless him and rename him saying “…for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed”. Jacob realizes that this is no ordinary man and is convinced he has seen God face to face and lived to tell the tale.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that “everything about this passage is mysterious” The struggle takes place in that liminal time between dark and daybreak, and the passage does not identify the man with whom Jacob struggled. The text calls him a man, the prophet Hosea claimed he was an angel, the majority of the sages thought he was Jacob’s guardian angel and Jacob himself thought he was God.
Jacob gets his blessing but is denied the knowledge of the name. The reference to the name is interesting since in ancient times it was believed that selfhood was expressed in one’s name. The man or divine being refuses to say his name lest Jacob gain power over him. But there is another connection here which relates to God. As Moses received the law on Mount Sinai he also sought to know the identity of the being with whom he was dealing and had a bit more success when God responded “I am” or ‘I am that I am”.
And, by digging deeper we discover there is something yet more profound. “What’s in a name” asks the Bard “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. But seeing a rose face to face is usually not a fatal event whereas seeing God in the same way can kill you. Or at least that was the common belief. No, the revelation is that it would be impossible for the holy omniscience of God and the unholy limitedness of humanity to co-exist in the same time and space.
That sounds like a bit of a cross between folklore and magic. The story of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, being consumed by fire because of their offering incense when not authorized drove home the message that one must handle “holy things” with great circumspection or suffer dire consequences. Accidentally breaching the barrier between the material and the divine is dangerous unless done with care.
These concepts begin to make even more sense when one analyzes them with an understanding that God, the omniscient, was required to engage in “divine self-effacement” in order to permit his “creation to exist in time and in space.” Otherwise there would be no room within which humankind could exist. The good Rabbi asks the question in his book on Leviticus “How do you bring two beings close when one of them is vaster than the universe and the other is mortal of flesh and blood? How do you relate to a God who is infinite and unknowable?
The answer to that question lies in the story of a misstep by the Israelites in the dessert after their liberation from Egypt. Having gone up to the mountain (Sinai) to talk to God and receive the tablets of the law Moses was gone for quite some time leaving his people to their own devices. After receiving the law he is informed by God that he should hurry back to camp and tend his flock as “Your people whom you brought up out of land of Egypt have acted perversely”. They had made a golden calf and worshipped it to assuage the feeling of abandonment created by Moses absence.
Having gained freedom and left the only land they had ever known the Israelites were greatly dependent on Moses as the connection between them and the divine. His absence created a sense of sheer terror and a gap that had to be filled. It also created mistrust for a God who was so distant, overpowering and unpredictable. To bring the people to God and keep them there required something more than the reliance on the leadership of a prophet even one like Moses.
The answer came from God himself. In response to Moses plea for forgiveness on behalf of the people God answered Moses saying “Let them make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst.” This ushered in a new kind of relationship. One which was to be mediated not by a prophet but rather by a new kind of religious leader: the priest. Priests and the priesthood represented a community “immune to the vicissitudes of time”. The priesthood was predictable, and dynastic not charismatic. Through the regular offerings of sacrifices, korban, the people were offered an opportunity to come closer to God. While translated as victim or sacrifice Korban is better translated as “coming close by bringing close.” The opportunity for sacrifice and giving brings the people closer to the invisible God which they worship. The priesthood routinized charisma by creating daily rituals and daily encounters with the divine. It is the role of the priest to maintain the presence of the holy and the divine and serve as a mediator between people and deity.
Thus Jacob’s encounter is a prequel to the later encounter with the divine as the people of Israel exited the land of Egypt. Their sense of abandonment prompted the development of the Levitical priesthood which routinized daily opportunities for “coming close by bringing close”. Israel was called to be a “holy nation” and fulfilled that calling through the daily liturgy of sacrifices. And then, after the disappearance of the priests and the prophets it has continued to fulfill that calling with the daily liturgy of prayers.