In the modern era, the name of God is more accessible than Jacob could have imagined. I don’t mean all the people who say “Oh my God!” upon seeing their new houses, wardrobes, or other loot on reality TV shows (though that does irritate me). I’m not talking about people who use the modernized pronunciation of the Anglo-Saxon word God when they whack their extremities with hand tools. (I’m more understanding of that.) I’m not even talking about every American politician’s sudden interest in professing the divine at every turn. (Don’t get me started.)
I refer instead to the Hebrew tetragram, the name with the vowels for the common noun adonai in the Masoretic text and which I tend to transliterate, when I transliterate it, as YHWH. When I drive to work I pass at least two temples of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I know well the scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian in which a crowd sets out to stone a man who’s said “Jehovah,” only to turn on the priest leading the mob when the priest recites the accused man’s crimes. I can think of praise-and-worship songs that so grossly misuse (and overuse!) “Jehovah” and “Yahweh” that I find myself in my grumpier moments wishing we could have more such mobs.
My point here is not to rail on my own pet peeves (though I’m not above that) but to note the strangeness that Genesis 32 sets before the 21st-century reader. Jacob, at the end of the episode, never utters the word mal ‘ak (that we English readers get as the transliterated Greek “angel”). He never has a moment of metaphysical angst wondering how Spirit or Being had somehow engaged with his muscles, bones, and skin, much less how he’s managed to hold on to ‘elohim all night with only a bum leg to show for it. And he does not think twice of demanding that his fellow-struggler offer him a blessing. But when he asks the figure’s name, nothing comes forth.
I don’t have any grand ethical conclusion to draw from such things–if anything, this is another of those stories that Kierkegaard might have settled on had he not focused his early work on the sacrifice of Isaac. The best I’m going to offer this morning is that, in the tradition of Kierkegaard and Barth and Brueggemann, I’ll advise caution in the face of the text of Scripture, a reticence to systematize at the expense of the strange particulars. There’s more in heaven and on earth than what a system can contain.
May our faithfulness to our strange God leave room for God’s freedom, and may our faithfulness embrace the strange among God’s creation.