Sunday, October 21, 2007

Peniel: Jacob and Sacred Space

Today our OT text was a familiar one from Genesis 32.3-8, 22-30 where Jacob wrestles with the strange man all night. Several things caught my attention with regards to sacred space.

In the text Jacob wrestles with God, has his name changed, and received a blessing from God. From that encounter, “Jacob called place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

Several things regarding the nature of place are important here: encounter and naming. The encounter is primary. Jacob encounters either God, man, or angel and wrestles with him through the night. Despite the variety of translations and opinions over who Jacob met that night there was an encounter with someone greater than he. And yet, Jacob fought on.

Second, the naming of that place is important for several reasons. Naming an event would seem to give it an importance from all of the other more mundane moments of his life. This placed-event was an important thing. Naming that place also roots the event on earth. Was this just a dream or spiritual state the Jacob wandered into? Would that necessitate a place to named? Perhaps, but knowing the physicality and earthiness of the Psalms and OT imagery, I would have to think that the place to be a literal marker. And if that place was to be marked it was a significant event, not only for Jacob, but for all who entered that area as well. This place was to be a reminder to all. We also see the name of the place does not designate the struggle of the place, rather the meaning of the place. Jacob does not commemorate his struggle with God, rather that God has been made known here.

This was not the first place that Jacob named either: Bethel (28.19) and Mahanaim (32.2).

We see that naming becomes a key to understanding sacred space not just in terms of events but the meaning behind them. As we look to places of importance in our lives we need to name them, maybe not literally, but be aware of what happened there and the significance of that placed event.