10/21/2019 9:36:09 AM
In the game Oregon Trail, one of the elements that needed to be overcome was rivers. The game invited players to jump into a covered wagon on its journey from St. Louis to Oregon in the mid-1800s. After suffering broken axles, hunting for food, and contracting dysentery, players needed to cross several rivers. Players always hoped that these crossings would be uneventful but the wagon sometimes tipped over, causing wagon tongues to float way. Rivers, in Oregon Trail, were boundaries that needed to be crossed so that players could enter their promised land.
Today's first reading Genesis 32:22-31 begins at a river. Jacob, with his family and his wealth, is on his way to meet his brother Esau. Ever since their time in the womb, these two siblings have been in constant competition with each other. As a young child, Jacob pretended to be his brother in order to gain his father's blessing. Esau, in response, cursed his brother. Since then, Jacob's entire life was under Esau's curse. Jacob knew he needed to reconcile with his brother. But Jacob was unwilling to face his past. He needed to be transformed into something new. So God, in a colorful moment, intervened and the nation of Israel gained its new name.
In the ancient world, rivers were "believed to be infested by demons."* Jacob, when confronted by the unknown being, did not know what he was struggling against. He assumed he was fighting a demon but when dawn broke, he realized he was struggling with God. In that moment, his past and his assumptions collided with his present reality. He became open to new possibilities. Jacob then asked for a blessing because he knew his struggle with God required him to become something new. Jacob's name change did not ignore or diminish his past. Rather, God's gift of a new identity signifies his transformation into something more than he once was. In our baptism, we are, like Jacob, given a new identity. We are not limited by what we have done or by what others have said about us. Rather, in God's eyes, we are God's beloved. And since we are loved, we get to live new lives that bear the marks of all our struggle while God's carries us into God's Promised Land.
*quote from page 233 of The Torah, a Modern Commentary (Revised) edited by W. Gunther Plaut, 2006.