Texts: Genesis 32:22-31 (God renames Jacob as Israel); Romans 9:1-5 (Paul’s anguish for his people, the Israelites)
Israel is both an ancient and a modern name. In today’s reading from Genesis, we learn of its origin. God gives Jacob the name Israel after an all-night wrestling match. It is a story set about 3500 years ago.
Today, we hear this ancient story against the backdrop of the latest fighting between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza. It has claimed the lives of more than 1300 Palestinians and 60 Israelis in less than a month, and it has dominated news reports and inflamed the passions and fears of many of us around the world.
Hearing the name of the ancient prophet Jacob/Israel in today’s news reports gives me pause. Today, as we mourn the dead and pray for an end to the killing, I offer some impressions inspired both by the reading from Genesis and our other reading from Romans in which Paul expresses anguish because of his fellow Israelites.
The region at the west end of the Mediterranean that today is the State of Israel and the Palestinian territories is considered a holy one by Jews, Christians and Muslims.
At different times, it has been ruled by Assyria, Babylonia, Greece, Rome, Turkey, and Britain. Its largest city, Jerusalem, was the royal city of ancient Judea and Israel. It is where Jesus rose from the dead. And it is where the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven.
The Holy Land has had many names: Canaan, Zion, Judea, Israel, Palestine. The three religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – that all trace their roots to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham have held different attitudes to the Holy Land. Sometimes, they deemed it essential that it be under their rule, as during the Crusades of 1095 to 1250 when western Christians captured Jerusalem and killed all the Muslims and Jews who lived there. At other times, names such as Israel and Jerusalem have held a spiritual significance unconnected to their geographic reality.
Names are important. Isaac chose Jacob as the given name for his younger son. It means “heel-grabber,” which refers to the fact that Jacob was born holding the heel of his twin brother Esau.
Some of us also get a second name like the one given to Jacob by God as he wrestles on the night before a reunion with his older brother Esau. That name is Israel, which might mean “struggles with God.”
Today, we know about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob from the Hebrew Bible, which is sacred to both Christians and Jews. There are also brief mentions of these patriarchs in the New Testament.
But we can also learn about them from another ancient source, the holy book of Islam, the Qur’an, which was recorded by the Prophet Muhammad 1400 years ago. Just as the Qur’an upholds Jesus and Moses as great prophets of God, so it also tells us stories about Jacob and his father and grandfather, Isaac and Abraham.
Jews, Christians, and Muslims regard these figures as the founders of our faith. All the great religions of the Middle East flow from the same sources. In this sense, people of all three Abrahamic faiths are in some ways Jewish.
The question of who is Jewish has been a difficult one for the modern state of Israel. Since 1947 when it was created out of the British colony of Palestine, all Jews, no matter where they live, have had the right to emigrate to, and become citizens of, Israel. But Judaism is a complicated mix of religion, culture, nationality, and family.
One of my sister-in-laws is Jewish, so her daughter, my niece Rachel, might be considered Jewish even though she is not religious. But does Rachel have the right to become an Israeli citizen if she so wanted? The answer is not always straightforward.
Nearly 2,000 years ago, Paul expressed anguish because many of his fellow Israelites did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. To me, though, their reluctance seems understandable. To accept Jesus as a crucified Messiah meant giving up the dream of national glory for Israel.
Shortly after Paul’s death, Judaism was devastated when Rome destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. The survivors developed a worship life that no longer focused on the Holy City. Judaism flourished in homes and synagogues wherever Jewish people found themselves. In this way, Jews who didn’t follow Paul in his conversion to Christ found something similar to Christianity, a path that moved them beyond tribalism.
All religions seem to lurch at times between exclusion and universality. This is in answer to the question: is God just for one particular place and people, or does our spiritual path embrace all places and people?
In 1095, when Pope Urban II ordered Christian Crusaders to conquer the Holy Land, he succumbed to violence and exclusion. The Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem excluded Jews and Muslims and murdered thousands who had been living there. Today we decry such actions. We try to practice non-violence and to see the face of Christ in everyone we meet.
Long ago, Jacob wrestled with God and so was renamed Israel. Today, his struggle continues among all people and religions. It flows from the difficulties we have in finding and giving love in our troubled families and society.
At its worst, any religious path can be one that leads to war and conquest. At its best, these same paths can be ones that lead us to a Love that rises above ties of family, ethnicity or nation.
Christians try to follow the path that Paul stumbled upon, that of a crucified Messiah. Our prayer is that this will leads us to a love that rises above its origins in a particular tribe and place.
From the little that I know of them, I believe that Islam and Judaism also have the same capacity for transcendence. In lives of prayer, devotion, and loving service, Jews and Muslims can touch the face of God just as Jacob did in Peniel and as we try to do in this church today. But like the Christian Crusaders of the Middle Ages, Jews and Muslims can also slip back into exclusion, war and violence.
For me, the Holy Land is sacred because it is a place where Jacob, Paul, Jesus and Muhammad struggled with God and rose to a higher plane of love.
Today, the Holy Land and it surrounding regions are marked by hatred, violence and war. No magic wand exists to restore harmony there. But in a diverse city like Edmonton, we can strive to live in peace and mutual respect and so help nudge ourselves and the world a little further towards universal acceptance.
In our struggles with God, we are all descendants of Jacob, all “Israelites” who are called to move from a narrow past to a wider future that is graced with God’s love.
In today’s conflicts in Palestine, Israel, Libya, Syria and Iraq, we pray that the better angels of our traditions will surface and move everyone towards greater humility, respect, and love.
May the struggles of Jacob and the anguish of Paul help us remember that God’s Love is for everyone and not just for some.
Thanks be to God.