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Demon or God?–Genesis 32: 22-31

Demon or God?

Genesis 32: 22-31

Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch, Preacher


Our Old Testament story is one of the most familiar of the Bible. Jacob, the most conniving fellow in the scriptures, finds himself between a rock and a hard place. He has managed to outsmart his father-in-law Laban and free himself and his family from Laban’s service. But now he has to figure out how to overcome the demons of his past. Years before, he had disguised himself as his twin brother Esau to trick his blind father into giving him Esau’s blessing. Now Jacob has to pass through the land where Esau now lives, and he has heard that Esau is coming to meet him with two hundred men.  Jacob is terrified. He divides his own company into two groups, so that if Esau attacks him, one group has a chance of escaping. He sends them off and he waits, alone, by the river Jabbok, waits—for what?

At some level he’s haunted—haunted by his past, haunted by his own behavior. Jacob knows his own inner demons have gotten him into this fix. He has a grasping nature. He is a trickster, a conniver, a schemer. He’s always looking out for Number One. But now he has a family, children by his two wives and his two concubines. He has property and wealth. Not only that, he has started to get a feeling that there is a god who is on his side and looking out for him—this God he inherited from his father, Isaac, who has ordered him to return to his homeland and establish a home for himself and his family. This God has told him that if Jacob does as he’s told, then he will be blessed, and his family shall flourish, and his children will be as many as the sand on the beach or the stars in the sky.

Jacob thought it sounded like a good deal. He used God’s promise to convince his family to escape from Laban. It’s always easier to escape your present situation when you know you have something to escape to, and God had promised that Jacob was escaping to a prosperous future.

But that same promise was the reason that Jacob now had to cross his brother Esau’s country and face the man he cheated. Jacob had dealt with God the way Jacob dealt with everybody—he’d cut a deal. He would do what God said as long as he got what he wanted out of God. But what if God was a trickster, too? What if God wanted Esau to kill Jacob and his family?

What if God was really a demon?

That night, Jacob wrestled what the Bible calls “A Man” until the break of day. But it wasn’t really a man. It was something else. The river Jabbok got its name from a river demon that supposedly dwelt there. The demon was called a “Jabbok.” It would only come out at night, and like a vampire, it had to return to the river by dawn. Scriptural evidence suggests that Jacob had reason to believe that he was wrestling a Jabbok. For one thing, Jacob gets it into such a grip that it starts to yell, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking!” It’s apparently afraid of the sun, like a vampire (or a Ginger!).

But Jacob, true to his conniving nature, knows he has the upper hand on a Supernatural Being, and he won’t let him go until he gets something out of him. He uses the Creature’s seeming fear of the sun against the Jabbok and tries to get the same thing out of the demon that he tricked out of his father: a blessing. “I won’t let you go until you give me a blessing!” he says.  But when he gets the blessing, he discovers to his shock that he hasn’t been wrestling A Man. He hasn’t been wrestling a demon. He has been wrestling God.

If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that sometimes it isn’t easy to tell the difference between God and demons.  I don’t mean theologically. We know theologically that God is good, all-powerful, loving, just, and merciful. But that’s theology. I’m talking about existentially. What we hope for is that our faith in God will protect us from the worst in life. I am reminded of the motto I used to hear when I was a young Christian: “things go better with God!”

There are things that go better with God, but if we think that our faith will help us to escape from reality we are sorely mistaken. Jacob has to face his own fears. So do we.  Jacob had to deal with the consequences of his past actions. So do we.  Jacob had to confront his own sinfulness. So do we.

In fact, one of the hard truths of being Christian is that we have to confront our own demons. Parker Palmer, the noted educator and spiritual writer, says that the reason for this is that to be truly spiritual, we have to go deep down into ourselves—and there be demons there. But we swim through those demonic Depths with the assurance that God is with us—and at the bottom awaits God in Person. Dante has the same idea. In his Divine Comedy, you have to go down through all the Circles of hell before you find the entrance to Heaven.

It’s not easy, and sometimes it makes it hard for us to tell the difference between God and the Demon. Hard things come in life, sometimes terrible things, and it feels like God must hate us. We find ourselves feeling angry or betrayed, wondering if God cares, or worse, if the whole “God thing” is just a tremendous cosmic joke. Rather than dismiss those thoughts, God expects us, like Jacob, to wrestle with them—to face them rather than run from them. God can handle our questions, our doubts, our anger, our confusion. God can handle the times we mistake God for a demon.

Where we go wrong, too often, is that rather than wrestle with these doubts and fears, we try to explain them away. We announce to the world that God is a demon. We may not think we’ve done exactly that, but that’s what happens when Christians believe the most horrible things of a good God—that God causes suffering, often because God wants to punish people; that God hates certain people and only loves a handful; and so on. People who believe that–who announce it as their theology–have come to believe for all intents and purposes that God is a demon. They’ve figured out how to make bad into good and hate into love, and God into the Devil.

The challenge for us is to wrestle with the God we meet when we are facing the demonic—to wrestle and, like Jacob, refuse to let go until we get the blessing. The greatest challenge of faith is to honestly face the demons of life, to name them as demons, yet still believe that God loves us. Like Jacob at the end of the story, we will limp away wounded, but still blessed.

Those wounds that we earn through honest spiritual wrestling are honored by God.  I have often wondered: why was Jesus Christ raised from the dead with the wounds still in his hands, feet, and side? After all, he was supposed to be raised with His perfect resurrection body. Why the wounds? And the answer seems to be, Because God honors our wounds. God honors the wounds we’ve earned through that honest spiritual wrestling. Those wounds shape our character. They are what make your personal relationship with God unique and special and different from my personal relationship with God. It is how we deal with those wounds that makes us and shapes us into the spiritual perfection that God intends for us all at the resurrection.

That’s what it will mean when, on the day of Resurrection, God will say to us as God said to Jacob, “You have striven with God and with human beings—and you have prevailed.”