Thursday, February 19, 2009

What’s Your Name?

Genesis 32:9-12, 22-32[1]

Herman Melville’s classic story Moby Dick begins with an interesting line: “Call me Ishmael.” Now, to the average person that probably doesn’t mean much today. It sounds to most of us like a typical name for an American whaler in the 19th Century— a bit old-fashioned. But Melville was writing to an audience he knew would assume more than that. You see, “Ishmael” is the name of an outcast. Ishmael was Abraham’s son who was rejected, banished from his home, and sent out into the desert with his mother to die.[2] Although the narrator of Moby Dick is the only one to have survived the tragedy of the good ship Pequod, he considers himself to be unlucky, rejected—an outcast. When he says, “Call me Ishmael,” it’s almost as if he’s apologizing for even existing!

We live in a much more “enlightened” era—we know better than to assume that our name somehow reflects who we are. Most of us were raised with the phrase, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” And so we know better than to let “name-calling” get to us, or to indulge in such uncivilized behavior! (My tongue is firmly in my cheek at this point!).

Of course not! Names are important, whether or not we choose to acknowledge it. Would you ever name a daughter “Jezebel”? Or who would name a son “Judas”? There are definite associations with those names in our culture that effectively remove them from the list of most parents’ possible baby names. The truth is that names do matter—not only our own names but also the names we create to attack and demean others.

When Jacob approached his homeland, he had been away from home some 15 years. And yet he was still afraid of what he might face when he met his brother Esau, whom he cheated out of his birthright. So Jacob did what he always did—he tried to manipulate the outcome by sending messengers to appease Esau (cf. Gen. 32:4–5). But instead of receiving word of his brother’s disposition, all they reported to Jacob was that Esau was coming with four hundred men, a small army!

So Jacob the deceiver continued his manipulative ways by dividing his caravan. He sent several groups of animals ahead as a gift to Esau, separating them into different groups, perhaps to magnify the size of the gift, perhaps to achieve the desired effect of placating Esau with repeated offers of good will. Jacob then sent his wives and children across the Jabbok River, and “strategically” remained behind! After all that Jacob had been through, it seems that he had not learned a thing!

Then Jacob did something we only hear of him doing one other time—he prayed! He prayed earnestly for God to deliver him from danger and rescue him from vengeance at the hand of his brother Esau. And in response Jacob encountered an unknown adversary attacking him in the night! He wrestled with this “someone” all night, and apparently was able to hold his own! At the end, Jacob’s adversary asked him his name, and the fact that he replied with “Jacob” suggests that he was admitting his character as a deceiver. Somehow this wrestling match brought Jacob to the place where he could finally admit to himself and to another who he really was—a liar, a cheat, and a fraud.[3] Jacob’s adversary then renamed him “Israel,” meaning “one who strives with God and with men and prevails.”[4]

It was only at the end of this strange wrestling match that Jacob realized he had actually been struggling with God! So he named the place “Peniel” in honor of the fact that he had seen God face to face and yet lived. Jacob crossed the river to rejoin his family, with a new limp to remind him of his encounter with God. The result was that instead of slinking up to his brother behind his wives and children, as he had originally planned, he went ahead of them. When Jacob met Esau, he was a changed man—so he humbly bows down to him seven times. Esau, himself a changed man, embraced his brother and forgave Jacob his past wrongs.

Thomas Moore, in Care of the Soul, reminds us that the first step toward embracing the life we have may very well be to embrace who we are. We can only embrace those around us when we can embrace ourselves, and we can only embrace ourselves when we can acknowledge who we are—all of who we are![5] Unfortunately, many of us are like the beautiful young man Narcissus of Greek mythology, or like Jacob the deceiver—we cannot really embrace those around us because we cannot embrace ourselves! The tragedy is that it leaves us disconnected, both from our own life and from the lives of our family and friends.[6] And if we never have to face who we are, like Jacob did, we may wind up selfish, rigid, intolerant, and perhaps even bitter![7]

The problem is that, like Jacob, we have to be “dislocated” or perhaps even “broken” in order to come to the place where we can actually look ourselves in the face and not only acknowledge what we see—all of what we see—but also actually embrace it![8] That’s what happened to me 8 years ago—I lost everything that meant anything to me. At the time I thought my family life was through and my career was over. Before my divorce, I was a lot like Jacob—very wrapped up with reaching my personal goals but not very connected with the people around me. But after all I went through, I came out much more comfortable with who I am—all of who I am, the good and the not-so-good! That kind of experience is one that many of us go through at one time in our lives or another. But the good news is that it brings us to the place where we can acknowledge our own name, with everything that goes with it, and that frees us to embrace our lives and the lives of those around us in the joy of friendship and love that God intends for us.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/26/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] The only other significant “Ishmael” in the whole Bible is Ishmael the son of Nethaniah, who assassinated the Babylonian governor who was appointed over the Jewish people after the fall of Jerusalem and then proceeded to kidnap his court (2 Kings 25:23, 25; Jeremiah 41).

[3] On this and other interpretations of the story, see Frederick C. Holmgren, “Holding Your Own Against God,” Interpretation (1990): 5-17.

[4] Jacob’s new name signifies the change in his character in an ironical manner. The name “Israel” itself means “God strives” or “God rules” (Holman Bible Dictionary, 722); in this text, however, the meaning of the name is interpreted as “one who strives with God and with men and prevails.” In a sense, because of Jacob’s resistance to God’s purposes, God was “striving” against him; yet in another sense, though Jacob was certainly “striving” against God, God graciously allowed Jacob to “prevail” by blessing him (cf. G. Wenham, Genesis 16–50, 303).

[5] Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, 57.

[6] Moore, Care of the Soul, 58.

[7] Moore, Care of the Soul, 65-67.

[8] Moore, Care of the Soul, 61-62. Stuck with a certain “image” of ourselves that gets in the way of relating to others.

No comments: