The more I think about Jews, the more I wonder: Why does God choose for Himself a people that He Himself describes as “stiff-necked”? (see Exodus 32:7-10) Don’t judge me too harshly as I engage in some free-form exegesis below.
The “stiff-necked” people has its physical origin in a man who fought with God – at God’s own provocation! – and its etymological origin in the name this man receives after the episode – Israel, or “he who strives with God.”
Note that the fight with the angel takes place just as Jacob is repenting for his sins. He recognized that he had wronged his brother Esau. He sought reconciliation by sending his brother gifts. He prayed to God to protect him and reconcile him with his brother.
A fight, especially one that catches us off-guard, is one of the most real and intimate ways people can interact. The urgency of a fight and the rushing adrenaline melt away the sheath of civilized behavior hiding the real person – the person into whose heart God can see. The emotional engagement, on both sides, is intense; you can’t fight while thinking about something else. One is hardly ever closer to a person than when locked with him in mortal combat.
It is then almost as if, by challenging Jacob to wrestle, God affirms him as a mensch who did the right and godly thing by seeking reconciliation with his brother. He rewards him by engaging with him in perhaps the most intensely personal way a man (and not a woman) can experience: a physical fight. To make this even clearer, he then grants Jacob victory, a great blessing, and a physical memorial of their close relationship in the form of a hip out of joint – a reminder that no one emerges unscathed from an encounter with the Almighty.
Is it, then, that God chooses a stiff-necked people for His own because He wants a people that will fight with Him? A people that will strive for its own righteousness, and defend it against the righteousness of God, and draw near to God in its resistance – and, finally, ask for a blessing?
Or, perhaps, another way to look at this is that it is Israel’s challenge to discern when God wrestles with us, that we may draw nearer to Him by fighting back with due dignity and making sure to ask for our blessing – and when we wrestle with Him of our own foolishness, killing His prophets and dishonoring His faithfulness. Whether Jewish or not, one who is not tempted toward the latter may shrink away from the former.
As per my favorite line from one of my favorite movies, Robert Duvall’s The Apostle:
(insert Texas accent) Sometimes he talks to the Lawd, sometimes he yells at the Lawd. Right now, he just happens to be yellin’ at Him.