That Pesky Hip Joint – or what is in a name
No, I am not referring to mine, but to Jacob’s. Last Sunday, the Old Testament reading was Genesis 32: 22 – 31, the narrative of Jacob’s struggle with himself/an angel/God. Like all human struggles, it left its mark, a dislocated hip, an imperfection that he and those who identify with him would have to carry. But it is not the hip that is central to the narrative but the name he was given - Israel.
There are many who, perhaps with good reason, doubt the historicity of the narrative, but that is not the point. The point is that in this story we are to understand the origin of Israel in Jewish tradition, the meaning it carries, or should carry, and the defining values, or identity, of any who would subsequently appropriate the name and be known as Israelites or Israelis.
Jacob is of course the grandson of Abraham, and inheritor of the founding ancestor’s God given blessing and legacy, which he accessed by tricking his twin brother out of it. He is the father of the twelve tribes, sons of his two wives, including Judah, whose name Netanyahu and Israeli authorities like to use for Palestinian territories they covet. Was the struggle he experienced that night related to living with his deception, and redeeming its consequences? Idle speculation! The Bible is never shy of recounting the weaknesses and failures of its heroes; indeed, its overriding theme is that grace prevails despite human frailty.
The detail of what happened that night is of far less importance than the import that is ascribed to it.
As Jacob struggled, he asked his assailant to provide a name. The assailant refused. If we are to understand the assailant was God, or Jacob’s experience of God, this is hardly surprising, given a name objectivises, giving control to the subject. God is beyond the limitation of human description, as much as we love to do it. Indeed, God is not to be objectified as an entity at all. Those who seek to deny any reality in religious experience love to ridicule with the assistance of objectified images.
But naming was indeed on the cards that night, not of God, but Jacob. From that day forth he and his descendants are to be known as ones who struggle with God. That is essentially what the name Israel means. Struggling with God implies struggling with meaning, with identity, with purpose, indeed with truth. Unwittingly, Pilate momentarily joined this struggle when Jesus was arraigned before him and he asked: “What is truth”.
The prophetic tradition shines light on the struggle. It reminds those who call themselves Israelites that by virtue of their name, they are channels of God’s grace in and to the world. What happens in the temple is meaningless if it does not reflect what is happening in the world. The words that repeat themselves again and again are righteousness, justice, and compassion. Those who do not long for, and strive to live out these virtues, are not struggling with God, but living independent lives.
In the New Testament, this struggle is made crystal clear in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, where he says: “Have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself…..”
When Chaim Weizmann and other Zionist leaders appropriated the name Israel for the modern Jewish State, they were not claiming a name devoid of meaning or history. Although now a secular State, Israel appropriates a religious history and a deeply religious identity. Because of the elements I have already described, Israel’s identity can never simply be about itself, but about how it relates in righteousness and justice to others. To be a child of Israel (Jacob) is to be one who seeks to share blessing with others. The blessing that came to Jacob was never for himself, through him and his descendants this blessing was to be a channel of grace to others. Not being prepared to be that channel is to forfeit the identity.
Israel, under the leadership of Netanyahu, is about as far from this description as it is possible to travel. Perhaps that is why so many Israelis have joined a campaign of protest against him. Jesus once said of Nathaniel: “here is an Israelite in whom there is no guile”, the tragic truth is that no one could truthfully say that of contemporary Israeli leadership. Does any of this matter beyond the boundaries of the Israeli State?
Well, yes it does for three reasons.
I will almost certainly have the opprobrium of anti-Semitism accelerated in my direction for writing this blog. This is quite ironic. I believe in Israel. I want Israel to exist, because of what the Bible tells me to be the reason for its existence. Modern Israel is not that, it is the very antithesis of that. My blog is a call for Israel to be true to its origins or abandon any claim to its religious history and any rightful claim to the land of ancient Palestine.