In the preceding verses (Genesis 32:1-21) we read of Jacob’s fear of his brother, Esau. This fear was well founded. When they were boys, Esau was hungry and asked Jacob to share his food. Jacob agreed, but only on the condition that Esau sell him his birthright (Genesis 25:29-34). The birthright issue emerged again when their father, Isaac, was approaching death. Jacob disguised himself as Esau and tricked Isaac into blessing him as his firstborn. To Jacob, Isaac said, “May God give you of the dew of heaven; and of the fatness of the earth and plenty of grain and wine. Let the peoples serve you and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers” (Genesis 27:28-29). Once he realized that he had been deceived, Isaac could not take back his blessing from Jacob. So, to Esau he said, “See, away from the fatness of the earth shall your home be; and away from the dew of heaven on high. By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother” (Genesis 27:39-40).
In our passage for today, Jacob makes plans to appease his brother and sends his wives, children and servants on ahead with instructions to make offerings to Esau. Even so, Jacob was worried, and our text describes his wrestling with someone all through the night: perhaps he was sleeping fitfully and dreaming. In Jacob’s lack of brotherly kindness to Esau he received his birthright. Through trickery he received Isaac’s blessing. However, in wrestling with God – essentially turning to God and refusing to let go – he received God’s blessing (Genesis 32:29).
- Clearly, God could have prevailed over Jacob, but chose not to do so. What is the significance of what seems to be a standoff? What is the significance of Jacob’s refusal to let go of God?
- Each of us has done or said things in the past that we regret, and at some point these things seem to surface and confront us. How can we apply Jacob’s wrestling with God to our lives when this happens?
Psalm 17:1-7, 16
The psalmist is in some trouble. He is turning to God for protection from those who would rise up and cause him harm. Honesty (verse 1), righteousness (verse 3) and adherence to the law (verse 5) describe the psalmist. There is expectancy: God’s “marvelous loving-kindness” will surely result in granting refuge (verse 7) and vindication (verse 16).
- How would you describe the attitude of the psalmist? Is it arrogance or is it possible to understand it as confidence in God’s protection of those who strive to lead a righteous life and turn to God in times of trouble?
- Can you identify with the psalmist?
There is tension here. On the one hand, the Israelites are the heirs. They are adopted by God and are parties to all of the covenants (verse 4). God had made a covenant with Israel through David, whom he took from “the pastures from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel” (2 Samuel 7:8). God promised that the house of David “shall be made forever before me, your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). Yet, in the Great Commission, Jesus says, “Go therefore and 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 to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20). Paul knows all of this. In his letter to the Galatians, he states, “You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the Church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age for I was more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (Galatians 1:13-14). Now, however, Paul is a Christian. He has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart (verse 2).
- Consider how he ends the passage with “Amen”. Is this a prayer, or is the “Amen” another way of saying “this is most certainly true”?
- Consider the covenant to the Israelites in the context of the Great Commission. How do you feel about the concept that Jesus is both the universal and the particular for all creation (“all nations”)? Having considered this, what do you think about the covenant with the Israelites “forever”?
We begin on a sad note. Jesus has just been told that his cousin, John the Baptist, has been killed. Moreover, his body has been desecrated: his head being placed on a platter and brought to Salome. Jesus withdraws “to a deserted place by himself” (verse 13), but upon seeing the crowds who needed him, he emerged because “he had compassion for them” and went to cure their sick (verse 14).
Jesus surely felt profound grief over John’s fate, but upon seeing the crowds, his sense of mission prevailed. The crowds needed him. The text says that “he had compassion for them” (verse 14). The Greek word that is translated as “compassion” is ἐσπλαγχνίσθη and refers to a sense of profound emotion. “A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition,” edited by William Danker (University of Chicago Press, 2000) describes it as a burning in “the inward parts of a body. In the ancient world, inner body parts served as referents for psychological aspects. It could be the bowels or the heart.” Jesus’ emotions for the crowd, his compassion, eclipsed his personal grief.
This was more than a sense of duty. In the “Theological Lexicon of the New Testament” (Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), Ceslas Spicq notes that “translating the passive ἐσπλαγχνίσθη as ‘he took pity’ is almost opposite the true sense; ‘he was taken by (or moved with) pity’ would be better.”
The Hebrew word associated with ἐσπλαγχνίσθη is רַחֵ֖ם and is understood to be felt in a mother’s womb, such that the entrails are the locus of a mother’s pity for her children. (See Isaiah 49:15.) So, if we combine these understandings, we have an even deeper and richer understanding of what is going on. Jesus is overcome with emotion inwardly, as a mother would feel for her children.
- Consider this understanding of compassion. Can you think of examples of this in the lives of the saints? Have you felt it?
- This story contains a famous miracle: the feeding of the crowds with seemingly not enough food. In today’s post-modern era, how do you receive this story? If you think it to be merely symbolic but unlikely to be factual, how do you then understand the Eucharistic presence, baptism or the Resurrection?