Because he could

Gen 32:28

Translating from one language to another always involves imprecision and a degree of informed speculation.  Such is especially the case with dead languages since the translator cannot have access to a native speaker for advice.  One passage in Genesis has long intrigued me because the almost universally accepted translation does not seem to fit the circumstances and because another option tantalizes me.  The linguistic data suggest that this other option is merely possible, not likely; my sense of its suitability to the context, on the other hand, entices me at least to contemplate the significance of the possibility.

When Jacob wrestled with the mysterious stranger on the far side of the Jabbok the night before he and his family would meet his brother Esau and an entourage of 400 men on horseback, just before the contest ended in an apparent draw, the stranger changed Jacob’s name to Israel (Gen 32:28).  He explained the name change with a popular etymology that alludes to the contest at the Jabbok (Yisrael = “wrestled with God”).  The name suits, the stranger said, because Jacob “had striven (yasar, cf. Hos 12:5) with God (el, thus yasar + el = yisra el) and with men.” The next one-word clause (wattukal) is, for me, the problem.  It is almost universally translated “and have prevailed.”  The root verb ykl normally functions as an auxiliary in the meaning “to be able to,” taking a supplementary verb to complete the idea:  “to be able to do something.”  In these instances, forms of the English word “can” may be used “he is able to/ he can run.”  Sometimes it stands alone and, in these cases, usually means, as the translations rightly recognize “to prevail, succeed.”  One other linguistic possibility also intrigues me.  Hebrew has only a few conjunctions.  It relies heavily on one (the wa[t] in wattukal) to do the work of all the conjunctions we have in English: and, but, because, since, however, etc.  Taken together, I wonder whether the final clause in the stranger’s statement might be translated “because you could.”

After all, Jacob had definitely not prevailed in the wrestling match with the stranger.  Instead, midway through the standoff, the man “touched” Jacob on the thigh and displaced Jacob’s hip.  Jacob would leave the encounter not only with a new name, but with a limp to accompany him the rest of his life as a reminder of the struggle.  Jacob failed to learn the stranger’s name, although in the aftermath, he concluded that he must have been wrestling with God (“So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel [= “face of God’],” 32:31).  I do not see any victory for Jacob here other than, as Jacob himself realized, he walked away with his life.

Jacob’s history of struggle with other people does not comport with the notion that he always prevailed, either. Rather, his pattern of relating to his family reflected the meaning of his name before it was changed:  Jacob, “cheat.”  To be sure, he succeeded in buying his brother’s birthright and stealing his blessing.  Yet, he had to leave home because of Esau’s determination to kill him in retaliation and the morning following the wrestling match, he would come face to face with Esau and his army.  Jacob had become wealthy, but he could not hope to defend himself against an angry, aggressive, armed brother.

Jacob found himself in this tenuous position, after all, because he had also struggled with his father-in-law/uncle, Laban, for economic advantage.  Round one had gone to Laban when Laban pulled a “bait and switch” with Rachel and Leah, extending Jacob’s seven-year indenture to fourteen. Apparently, deceit and fraud were family habits:  the theft of the blessing had been Rebekah’s idea.  She must have learned the technique from her brother.  In any case, at least in the eyes of Laban’s sons, Jacob had virtually impoverished the family in round two of his struggle with his father-in-law.  They had parted company with bitterness and recrimination.  Jacob was journeying back home because he had nowhere else to go!  He was trapped between a murderously angry brother and murderously angry brothers-in-law!

Jacob may have succeeded materially, in the short term.  In the long term, he had destroyed every important relationship with members of his family except for his wives.  Consequently, he was on the run – limping as he went.  Consequently, “and you have prevailed” does not suit the story of Jacob’s life.

Why would anyone be so selfishly destructive of relationships?  Jacob was clearly ambitious and he did the things he did, I submit, simply “because he could.” He could gain materially by tricking his brother and lying to his aging father, so he did. He could gain by tricking his father-in-law, so he did. The personal consequences did not enter into his calculations.

Jacob/Israel is the patriarch who would be at home in today’s America in which bankruptcy has become a business tool to be manipulated ‘because you can’ rather than a last resort.  Why do large corporations turn their backs on the workers who built their success to relocate abroad?  Because they can. Persons are means.  From the interstates flooded with people recklessly racing to their destinations to classrooms full of students who consider cheating a tool toward success, our culture abounds in Jacobs doing what they do because they can.  Raid the pension fund?  Go ahead, because you can.  Cut corners on your taxes?  Go ahead, because you can.

Jacobs must be prepared, however, for the wake of damaged and destroyed relationships that they will leave behind. They must be prepared for the contest that may render them lame.  God willing, they may get a new name.

My Confession of Faith

For Now

In a few weeks, I begin my twentieth-eighth year teaching, my twentieth at BTSR.  The realization has given me occasion to reflect on a number of matters.  How has my thinking changed?  Has my faith deepened?

A tradition at BTSR calls for elected faculty to make a confession of faith in opening convocation in their first semester.  We are Baptists – we are not creedal.  (One of my former colleagues at another institution used to say that he would not sign a creed even if he wrote it.)  At BTSR, then, each faculty member composes his or her own statement of faith.  As I approach the anniversary of my confession of faith in opening convocation, I have revisited that statement.  Can I still affirm it as a concise but complete statement of my basic faith convictions?  Yes, with only the addition of one phrase (in italics).

Much of what I said nearly 20 years ago has deeper meaning for me now, however, because in the meantime I have watched a world at war, humanity displaying its least human qualities of hatred and fear, and individuals whose actions seem transparent media of God’s love. I have taught hundreds of students, participated in scores of ordinations, reared four children to adulthood, lost my mother … In short, I have come to realize how desperately and determinedly I now believe these things.  I invite you to consider my confession – not as a model or an example for you to emulate, but as my personal testimony.  If God is willing, I may revisit it again in another twenty years.


I believe in one God who created the universe for good, who sustains it in wondrous order, and who calls it to fulfill its purpose in God.

I believe that God created human beings, male and female, in God’s own image, for communion with God and with one another. I believe, therefore, that God, whom we experience as personal, intends authentic personhood and relationship as the highest purpose for human beings.

I believe that the manifestations of God’s active benevolence toward creation are manifold, including:

God’s character revealed in the beauty, order, and majesty of the universe;

God’s revelation of a moral order, mysteriously the common heritage of all humanity;

God’s special relationship with Israel, later to include the Church;

God’s unique revelation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ;

God’s steadfast and continual involvement in human affairs to this day.

I believe that, since human beings fail to respond fully to God’s call to live out the purpose for which we were created, and since God is ever faithful to God’s purpose, God has always eagerly forgiven and restored those who trust God. I believe, further, that as the clearest statement of God’s love for creation, God in Christ reconciles the world to God’s self.

I believe that sacred scriptures, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, bear trustworthy witness to God’s character, God’s intention for creation, and God’s unshakable determination to effect God’s good purpose, especially as scripture bears testimony to God’s relationship with Israel, with the church, and quintessentially with all creation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.

I believe that God calls those who trust God and seek to fulfill God’s will to relate to individuals and to society in ways which reflect God-likeness as taught in the Torah, exhorted in the Prophets, and modeled in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ: namely, to demonstrate authentic personhood, to act toward others with steadfast benevolence, and to work for rightness in all spheres of life.

I believe that God, who created for good purpose, who patiently and unwaveringly loves even the most errant with love surpassing that of human mothers and fathers.

I believe that God – who has not left any age or any individual without evidence of that good purpose and faithfulness nor without the testimony of the Word who comes to all as light, life, and truth – will not cease working out that purpose for which God created and to which God calls all.

I believe that my hope for the world, for our lives in it, and for eternity rests on God’s faithfulness shown to all humanity throughout all ages, in particular to Israel and the church, and most especially as evidence in the faithfulness of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.

Grace: Transactional or Transformational?

Exod 2:24; Judg 2:16; Luke 17:12-19

This time of year means preparation for facing first year students. Most have never engaged in rigorous academic study of the Bible. They come to seminary as I came to my undergraduate religion major, innocently expecting that the Bible says what they have always thought it said and that serious study of it will only confirm what they Continue reading Grace: Transactional or Transformational?

“Be Angry and Sin Not”

Eph 4:26 (Ps 4:5 [4])

My parents had a mixed marriage of sorts.  My mother had Quaker and strict Methodist heritage; my father was (still is, he would say) a United States Marine.  Mother taught me that I should avoid conflict, bear insult and injury with quiet grace, and, above all else, maintain control of my temper.  In her view, anger was always and only as dangerous and Continue reading “Be Angry and Sin Not”

Christians should Engage in Politics

This continues a discussion of Christian discipleship and politics begun last week via excerpts from a series of lectures entitled “Baptist Polity, Biblical Theology, and Responsible Citizenship” that I delivered as the Solon B. Cousins Lectures at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond March 29-30, 2016.  The full text of the lectures is available under the “Sermons and Lectures” tab on this website. Continue reading Christians should Engage in Politics

Render Unto Caesar

Matt 22:21

The political season began in earnest yesterday.  It seems to me that politics represent “an attractive menace” for Christians. What can be more important than determining the values and policies that govern everyone’s everyday lives? Christians must be interested and involved. On the other hand, of course, lie the temptations to exercise control over others, to mistake temporal concerns for eternal, to compromise the core of Christian identity, and a host of others.  I addressed these concerns in a series of lectures entitled “Baptist Polity, Biblical Theology, and Responsible Citizenship” delivered as the Solon B. Cousins Lectures at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond March 29-30, 2016.  Below is an excerpt outlining what I believe to be the principle temptations.  The full text of the lectures is available under the “Sermons and Lectures” tab on this website.

Continue reading Render Unto Caesar



And God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh is coming before me because the earth is full of violence (hamas) because of them.  Now I am about to destroy them along with the earth.  (Gen 6:13, my trans.)


The Priestly authors of portions of the Genesis narratives of the beginnings of the human race did not clearly elucidate their understanding of humanity’s responsibility for “subduing” the earth, but they did include statements that rule out any notion that this responsibility could include exploitation. In the Genesis 1 creation account, for example, Continue reading Hamas!

Crossword Two Down – A Seven Letter Word for “Nostalgia”


“Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic…Now we languish; there is nothing in sight except manna.”  (Num 11:4b-6)

Beginning in Exodus 19 and continuing through all of Leviticus and on to Numbers 10 (all or significant parts of three of the five books of the Torah), the Bible records the Continue reading Crossword Two Down – A Seven Letter Word for “Nostalgia”


“…what I in turn had received” (1 Cor 15:3, NRSV)


I grew up wanting to believe that I was not much like my Dad, although I was not a very vigorous rebel.  I remember sitting across the table from Dad and thinking, “Boy, are you wrong about that,” without saying a word.  Beginning in my twenties and accelerating in my thirties when I became a father myself, I began to realize, for example, that my Continue reading Tradition