What I Learned Preaching on the Man with the Limp
What I Learned Preaching on the Man with the Limp
Editor's note: This is an unusual article for PreachingToday.com. It is the story of a sermon series. Lee Eclov tells how he tackled preaching for months about one of the important but difficult people of the Bible. Anyone who preaches in sequential exposition through major portions of the Bible knows that such a series marks you. It's more than a chapter in your preaching; it's a chapter in your life. Afterward we says things like, "That was the year I preached Romans," and we say it like someone would say, "That was the year I paddled a canoe down the Amazon." Thinking through a book or a biblical person or a doctrine and preaching it changes you forever. You face great puzzles. You answer inscrutable questions about humanity. You think great thoughts about God. And so it was with Lee Eclov, a seasoned expositor, as he undertook a serious challenge: to understand and apply to his hearers the mysterious life of Jacob. The 14-part sermon series eventually found its way onto PreachingToday.com, titled A Messy, Blessed Life.
Jacob sat quietly in a corner of my office for several years. He knows he's not the most popular guy in the Bible. Truth be told, he is a sad sack. His shoulders droop, and he doesn't make eye contact often. He first showed up a long time ago after I'd tried to preach the story about his wrestling match with the Angel of the Lord. I had underestimated the depth of that story, and the sermon was a disappointment. I knew then that Jacob and I would have to talk again. That's when he moved into a corner of my office.
Finally, one spring day I looked Jacob in the eye and said, "Okay, let's do this." I decided to give him the whole summer—14 sermons from Genesis 25:19 to 35:14, plus one summarizing sermon from Genesis 48 at the end of Jacob's life.
I'd heard the same things everyone else had about Jacob. He was slick. A trickster. Always up to something. But I'll tell you what I learned: that's a bad rap.
By living with Jacob for a summer, I stepped into mystery. The very difficulty of translating his first and later names, Jacob and Israel, is like the whole study of this man. He's hard to pin down. In my first sermon, "The Stew Is Divine," I said, "Jacob's name could have meant 'God protects.' But it also sounded like the word for 'heel,' and in the family at least, that's what they thought of when they called his name for supper—the heel-grabber, like when he'd walk behind his brother and step on his heel just enough to make him trip. The tripper-upper. The brother who'll do what it takes to take the lead." His later name, Israel, seems to mean "He struggles with God." That's what the context (and the footnote in my Bible) suggest. But that would be Yisreim-el. But the Wrestler said his name would be Yisra-el. Eugene Peterson in The message might have gotten closest to the double meaning with "God Wrestler," leaving ambiguous who wrestled with whom. Jacob's whole life is in those names, of course.
Jacob's stories are artfully crafted, and you have to pay attention to what the author is up to, like you do with all great literature. Words are carefully chosen and often given double duty, like when Genesis 27:1 says, "Isaac … could no longer see." The author waits till I get it. "In more ways than one?" I ask, and he nods. Or in verse 18 of that chapter, when Isaac's actual question of the deceitful Jacob in Hebrew is, "Who are you, my son?" That's a question with an agenda. Then there is the way the writer drops bread crumbs to lead us from one story to another, like the way that Jacob's mom, Rebekah, has the same greasy DNA as her brother, Jacob's uncle Laban. And when I looked hard, I caught the angels in Jacob's stories winking at one another across the years. They were all in this together.
These are stories in which thorough exegesis requires imagination. You have to walk into the scenes and feel what the stories are saying. Take, for example, the dark night when Jacob was on the run from Esau. I looked at photos of the barren and rocky hillsides in the region where he slept. Could there have been a lonelier place on earth? And then—bam!—God pulls back the curtain of the night, and it is like a celestial Grand Central Station, with God himself at the top of the angel-packed escalator (see The Voice from the Top of the Stairs). Why there? Why then? What does that setting add to the story? Or read the story of Rachel and Leah's feud in Genesis 29-30. It is like something out of the Jerry Springer Show. What would those years of battling brides and babies have done to Jacob? (See The Messy Family of God.)
Getting under Jacob's skin
Preaching these stories required a kind of spiritual psychology—soul-ology. What does it say about Jacob, for example, when the whole chapter about his meeting and marrying Rachel (and Leah) never mentions God? What does that tell us about this man's heart at that time? When I preached that text (Gen. 29), I contrasted it with the parallel story of his father Isaac finding his bride in Genesis 24, a story where God is prominent.
I found a growing sympathy for this man. When I started, I assumed him to be slick, shifty-eyed, hard-edged, always angling, as people always say. But that's a cardboard cut-out of the man. I have come to believe that he is the Bible's number one Everyman. He was certainly the very personification of the nation that took his name. And when you put his identities together, Jacob-Israel, he bears an uncanny resemblance to most struggling believers we know. Late in his life, after being reunited with his favorite son Joseph, Jacob met the Pharaoh, and do you know how he characterized his life? "My years have been few and difficult," he said. Who doesn't know that feeling! God-wrestling can take it out of a man. Who would have imagined that the God-blessed life could be so hard?
One of the things people loved about this series was all the strange characters that marched into church with Jacob. You've got to feel for Esau, for example, when you hear him crying his eyes out over the lost blessing, but the Bible will have none of it. When he comes in famished from hunting, our English translation gussies up Esau's words and puts a bib on them. The Hebrew makes him sound like a caveman, "I'm dying from hunger here! Gimme some o' dat red stuff, dat red stuff. Hrrh, hrrh!" Okay, I added the last part, but Hebrews 12:16 says simply that Esau was godless (see The Stew Is Divine. Rebekah is another enigma. When we meet her, she is praying her heart out in great faith, but when the great test of her faith came, everything she did was toxic with deceit, disrespect, and manipulation. And in the end she loses both her sons. When Jacob flees for his life, Rebekah never sees him again, and we never hear another word about her. In fact, here's an interesting tidbit: we're told about the death of her nurse, Deborah, at Bethel. Rebekah's nurse made it to Bethel, but Rebekah didn't, and she's forgotten (see Let's Get This Straight).
Laban has got to be the greasiest guy in the Bible, the kind of guy who sees the jewelry first, who's got a currency converter for a brain, and who is always working the angles. Laban was like Jacob on slime steroids, and I suspect the family resemblance wasn't lost on Jacob.
There are other incidents in these stories that will test your preaching chops. That strange business with growing flocks by the weirdest sort of genetic engineering (see The Really Good Shepherd). Elsewhere you have mandrakes (see The Messy Family of God) and household gods (see Good Riddance), the vengeance for the rape of Dinah (see Let's Get This Straight), and the heartbreaking death of Rachel, who once badgered Jacob with, "Give me children, or I'll die." And die she did, in childbirth.
The birthright and the blessing. That's the big deal in Jacob's stories. It is the point. But preaching about it is tricky. For Jacob, the blessing was passed down to him from his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac. It was God's hope chest of promises of a royal line, national preeminence, a vast population, a promised land, and God's presence and protection. The blessing that Jacob clawed for all his life evolved upward to Christ, and then, transformed, on to us. (To make that clear in the sermon Odd Man Out, I used three PowerPoint slides to show the progression of God's blessing across time.) The blessing for us as believers isn't the same as Jacob's, but it is similar, and the preacher has to help people connect the dots.
It isn't God's blessing that is so hard to understand in these stories; it is the way people reacted to it. Jacob's mother, Rebekah, for example, had God's own prenatal promise that her second-born son would be the blessed boy, but still, when it looked like Esau would get the birthright, her faith failed her, and she stooped to the worst kind of deceit, taking Jacob along with her. Esau, of course, despised the blessing yet wept pathetically to have it back. In the sermon Odd Man Out , I said, "Esau knew the blessing came from God, but he had no interest in getting God in the bargain. He was like a kid who just wants the present, and doesn't care at all who sent it."
Jacob himself had two dark nights of the soul, one where God promised him the blessing from the top of his heavenly stairs, and the other when Jacob fought nearly to the death to get the blessing God had long ago promised him. And finally, at the end of his life, Jacob lays his hands on Joseph's two young sons, crossing his hands so that the younger (again) gets the better blessing, and says, "May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm —may he bless these boys" (Gen. 48:15). It is enough to bring tears to your eyes. (See And Grace Will Lead Me Home.)
The pivotal story
The story of Jacob's life and God's blessing pivot on the eleven mystery-filled verses that tell of his wrestling with the Angel of the Lord at Peniel, "face of God" (Gen. 32:22-32). This story is in a league of its own. It is archetypal. You can't get to the bottom of it with a lexicon and commentaries. You have to be there in that dark place with Jacob and wonder it out. This is no place for the prayerless. Frederick Buechner called God here "the beloved Enemy," and he called this story, "The Magnificent Defeat." The two sermons I preached on this story were, to me, sacred ground and among my all-time favorites. The text demanded of me a daunting mixture of storyteller, exegete, theologian, and poet. (See Your Arm's Too Short to Box with God and The Blessed Limp.)
Don't try this alone
I wouldn't recommend preaching on Jacob without some help. I was especially fortunate to have a study buddy in my church, Doug Becker, a young scholar of both Hebrew and the Pentateuch. We met every week to talk through the text. (I also graciously asked him to preach the text in Genesis 30-31 where Jacob outfoxes Laban through the mysterious genetic engineering with the sheep. Big of me to pass that one on, I know!) This is biblical territory where we really need help from the scholars. The most useful commentaries I used were:
- Robert Alter, Genesis, Norton. Alter is a Jewish writer, but highly regarded in his insights into these stories.
- Joyce G. Baldwin, The Message of Genesis 12-50, (in The Bible Speaks Today series), InterVarsity Press. An inexpensive but practical and pithy tool
- Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (in the Interpretation series), John Knox Press
- Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from Genesis, Eerdmans. Very helpful, but he does not cover all the Jacob texts.
- Alan Ross, Creation and Blessing, Baker
- John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch As Narrative, Zondervan
Frederick Buechner's novel on Jacob, The Son of Laughter, stimulated my imagination, as did the wonderful sculptures and paintings I saw at the Ratner Museum website. I also found many other art and sculpture images on the internet that shed light on various stories. There was also the old Wesley hymn, new to me, "Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown."
Look who's praying
Like I said, Jacob has gotten a bum rap. I could say that he was no saint, and you would know what I mean, but the really striking thing is that, in a way, Jacob was as much a saint as you or me. He and God wrestled his whole life long. But he wouldn't let go. "I will not let you go unless you bless me," he gasped to God. And in the end, as always, it was God who didn't let go.
Just before that dark night of wrestling, when Jacob was "in great fear and distress," he prayed, "O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O Lord, who said to me, 'Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,' I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups. Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. But you have said, 'I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.'" (Gen. 32:9-12).
When we were going over that, my study buddy Doug commented, "This is the greatest prayer in the book of Genesis." And who prays it? One of the heroes like Noah? Abraham? Joseph? Nope. Jacob. The guy who is more like you and me than anyone else in the whole Bible. Three-steps-forward, two-steps-back Jacob. Jacob the slick and sly. Leave-it-to-me-Jacob prays one of the great prayers of the Bible. I love this guy!
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.