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Wrestling with God

January 26, 2022
Photo: Calvin University

Wrestling with God, as Jacob did on the night before he met his brother Esau, whom he had betrayed for his birthright years earlier (Gen. 27-28; 32), can be an important, necessary, and even sacred experience, said G. Sujin Pak, a church historian at the January Series on Monday, Jan. 24.

“In the depth of night Jacob wrestled with this mysterious stranger and wouldn’t let this stranger go as dawn approached until the stranger blessed him,” said Pak, dean of the School of Theology at Boston University.

“We ask, ‘Who was this mysterious stranger?’ I think we can interpret this to mean that it was God and that Jacob had the chance to encounter God face to face. We can read this as Jacob wrestled with the Word made flesh and was blessed in the process.”

Pak added that certainly there are different interpretations of this story – contained in Genesis 32:22-32 – and that is important to keep in mind.

“Multiple and valid readings of this text are possible,” she said. “There may not be one interpretation. I invite readers into the story and invite them to share their interpretation with others. When you read Scripture this way, I hope something life-changing and transformational will happen.”

Titled Wrestling with the Word: Biblical Interpretation through Church History, Pak’s presentation at the January Series was also this year’s Stob Lecture.

Originally called the Stob Lectureship, the Stob Lecture Series came into being in 1985 as a collaboration between Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary and consisted of two lectures.

In 2017, the annual Stob Lecture – underwritten by Stob’s family – was incorporated into the lineup of speakers for the January Series. Instead of two public lectures, there was one public lecture for a general audience of undergraduates, seminarians, Calvin alumni and friends, community members, and more. And in the late afternoon, as happened again this year, there was a colloquium hosted by Calvin Theological Seminary faculty. Stob was a philosophy professor who taught at the university and at the seminary.

During the afternoon colloquium, Pak spoke with Karen Maag, director of the Henry Meeter Center, about the future of theological education. In this discussion, she continued on the theme of keeping an open mind and, when possible, tying seminary education into the social and spiritual context in which it finds itself.

In the January Series talk, Pak emphasized that people through the ages, from the early church to the Reformation and from the 19th-century Enlightenment to today, have often read the Bible through the eyes of the traditions and ideas that defined their eras.

And as a result, depending on the era, people often see their interpretations of Scripture as being as immovable as cement, she said.

“There is not one way to read the Bible,” said Pak. “We are invited into a community of readers across time to wrestle with and reimagine” the stories, such as the one about Jacob and his encounter with a stranger who was likely God himself.

In fact, we can read deeply into this story and imagine that it was Jesus with whom Jacob was wrestling. In addition, said Pak, we can read this as God drawing Jacob to him – as God draws us – for that encounter in which Jacob is given a new name – Israel.

“We read about the push and pull of wrestling, and this image invites the option of faithful resistance,” she said. “We seek a blessing, and then we can be a blessing to others.”

Some Scriptures, especially those in Judges in which the Israelites invade and conquer Canaan, can be hard to read, given that the text may lead us to determine that God wanted his people to wipe out everyone in the land, basically calling the Isaelites to commit genocide, said Pak.

“This text can stop you in your tracks, but you can search for a deeper meaning,” she said. “Perhaps you can read this as slaying sin in an unjust system. You ask, ‘What is going on besides the plain, literal reading?’”

As a historian of Christianity, Pak is an expert in the early modern period, the Protestant Reformation, and the history of biblical interpretation. Her most recent book is The Reformation of Prophecy: Early Modern Interpretations of the Prophet and Old Testament Prophecy.

As she wrapped up her January Series lecture in Calvin University’s Covenant Fine Arts Center, Pak said that Scripture, in the end, can lead us, just like Jacob, into a face-to-face meeting with God – into a sacred, transformational encounter.

“We can seek a blessing and receive it. But we are not blessed simply for ourselves – but to spread that blessing throughout the community in which we live.”

Being blessed, Pak added, should encourage us to join in efforts to establish social justice in whatever ways we are able.

Keep in mind as well, said Pak, that “Scripture is not an object but a subject in which we have room to receive a blessing and not a curse. . . . There is the possibility of God showing up and having something to say to me. God gives us Scripture to cultivate our own holiness. . . . We will never know anything totally, but if we keep at it [reading Scripture], God may surprise us.”