Dr. Aleshire was the commencement speaker May 15 for the James and Carolyn McAfee School of Theology on Mercer's Cecil B. Day Campus in Atlanta. His remarks are as follows:
The Blessing that Belongs to the Beginning
The same night (Jacob) got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then the man said, "You will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." Genesis 32: 22-28 NRSV
I wonder if part of this story sounds a little familiar to you graduates. Not so much the two wives, two maids, or the eleven children, but going off to what you were not sure about, being alone more than once, wrestling through a restless night, struggling with strangers, wanting to meet God and being scared to death that you might. You might have thought that this is a story about Jacob going to seminary. It's not, of course. You know that because you have gone to seminary and have learned that a text like this means some things and doesn't mean others. What it never means is simply what you or I want it to mean.
But this night near Jabbok does sound a little familiar, doesn't it? Some professor said something that challenged a belief that you held dear, and you struggled—first over coffee after class, then over night. Someone said something to you at the church where you were working that was unfair and unkind. The words stung then and they can come back to haunt you even now. Your CPE supervisor was more right about you than you wanted her to be, and you began to wrestle with a part of you that you had avoided so craftily. A seminary education has many moments, and some of them are a little like Jacob's night at Peniel.
I. Genesis and Blessing
I graduated from a Baptist college thirty-five years ago this month, and there is a connection between that day and what I want to say about Jacob today. The commencement speaker was G. Henton Davis who, at the time, was principal at Regent's Park College of Oxford University. It was 1969, and Davis was in the United States as the first volume of the Broadman Bible Commentary was being released. Davis wrote on Genesis, and I have a hunch as to why the editors chose a British Baptist to write it.
Earlier in the 1960s, Southern Baptists had a nasty encounter over a book written by a Midwestern Baptist seminary professor called The Message of Genesis. Ralph Elliott, among other things, described how this ancient text was the result of multiple literary traditions that had been edited together. The idea of multiple authorship of the Pentateuch had been around since the nineteenth century, but many Baptists found it offensive. Elliott lost his job at Midwestern Baptist as a result of the events around his book (according to the Mercer on-line catalog, there are two copies of Elliott's book in the Swilley Library if you are looking for something to read after graduation).
The Broadman Bible Commentary project, likely in hopes of being scholarly and not risking another professor's job, asked a reputable British Baptist to write on Genesis. Davis accepted the assignment, and when it was published, controversy ensued. This time, if I recall correctly, the protest was because Davis had argued that while Abraham clearly thought God had commanded him to sacrifice his son Isaac, God hadn't issued such a command. There was a sufficient enough outcry that the Baptist Sunday School Board was instructed to withdraw this volume from publication and commission another scholar to rewrite it. After the original Volume I was withdrawn, someone obtained a copy for me from the small stash that had been secreted in a Nashville warehouse. As far as I know, I was the only student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with a copy obtained after the volume had been withdrawn. It is one of the few banned books that I own, and it frames what I want to say to you this morning.
Davis wrote: "The book of Genesis is ...a book of persons and a book of blessings. People and blessings belong together...." (p. 108). This is an interesting interpretive lens. This book that we have used to wound one another over the past century and a half is, among other things, a book about whom God blesses and what God's blessings do for the human family.
II. Struggling for a Blessing
Genesis 32 does not give us much of a clue as to why Jacob crossed the ford at the Jabbok. Jacob was on a journey that would take him and his family back to his homeland, where he would come face to face with his estranged brother, Esau. While we know about the big journey, we don't know why Jacob left his family and crossed the ford for the night. Maybe Jacob's reasons were similar to some of yours' in coming to McAfee. Maybe, like most of you, Jacob sensed some call of God that led him to this place on this night. Many of you came to seminary because you wanted to prepare for service among God's people. Maybe Jacob, preparing to confront his past and find his future, went to Jabbok for that reason.
What is clear in the text is that it was a long and difficult night. Jacob encounters a man whose identity is unknown and he ends up wrestling with him until daybreak. Jacob seemed to be winning, and when the "man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him..." Whatever the reasons that brought you to a theological school, I 'm sure that many of you, like Jacob, have struggled. The struggle is not so much from the amount of academic work; other professional school students work equally as hard. It is not so much the difficulty of some of the subjects; econometrics and organic chemistry do not have a reputation as snap courses. Theological education, if you take it seriously, crunches your soul, squeezes you faith, and tries your calling.
The text goes on. The man tells Jacob to let him go because the day was breaking. Jacob says "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." Jacob had attained other blessings. You remember how he tricked his aged father into blessing him instead of Esau? Was Jacob just trying to take leverage on yet another blessing? Even if Jacob were on his best behavior, doesn't seeking a blessing seem a little self-serving? Should faithful, humble people go around seeking blessings? Would you dare come to seminary, or to church, or to life, in order to seek a blessing? If I understand the biblical concept of blessing, you should. We need God's blessing to make it through the day, let alone the night. We cannot live apart from the grace and goodwill that God extends to us. There is no hope for us if we are removed from the blessing of God. We seek God's blessing like we seek air and food.
What blessing have you been seeking? When I was a member of the Southern Baptist faculty, I was walking behind two students on their way to graduation rehearsal. I overheard one say to the other, "I'm going to miss this place like I miss Vietnam." I suppose the blessing that student wanted was simply to get out. My suspicion was that he had endured the pain of seminary in order to get a degree and maybe a better church, but not necessarily to become a better minister. There may be blessings not worth seeking, but there are others worth wrestling for.
One of the blessings that is prominent in Genesis is material wealth, and maybe that is what Jacob thought he might get out of the wrestling match. If that is the blessing you are seeking, then I regret to tell you that a career in ministry may not have been your best choice. Wisdom is another kind of blessing often mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures. I hope that you have learned well enough that you are leaving with the beginnings of wisdom and not just an accumulation of knowledge; that would be a blessing worth seeking.
III. The Blessing of a New Identity
We will never know from the text what kind of blessing Jacob was seeking. What we do know is the kind of blessing he received. After Jacob tells the stranger his name, the man says "You will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." Jacob the "supplanter," by God's blessing, becomes Israel, "the one who perseveres with God."
You know from your Introduction to the Old Testament class that, in ancient Hebrew language and culture, a name meant more than it does in English and Western culture. Name and personal identity were almost the same. Jacob's blessing was a new identity. What had apparently served him well for the first half of his life would not serve him so well in the next half. God's blessing to the human family, originally given through Jacob's grandfather, Abraham, was to pass through Jacob. Street smarts and a shrewd business acumen may have worked in the past, but they were not what God needed to pass the blessing to future generations. Jacob was blessed by being changed that night.