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Faith Seeking Understanding #6

Wrestling with God

Reading: Genesis 32

“The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven sons, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle” (Genesis 32:22-32).

This climactic scene comes in the midst of a larger story of fear and faith in our flawed patriarch, Jacob. God has told Jacob to pack up his family and herds and belongings that he has acquired while working for his father-in-law Laban and return to his homeland. In response, Jacob has begun the trip back home, only to be confronted first by an angry father-in-law with whom he must make peace before he can leave. But the route home also means confronting the fear that drove him from home in the first place. It has been 20 years since he fled the murderous threats of his brother Esau. Genesis 32 offers a wonderfully ambiguous account of Jacob’s journey that becomes much more than a geographical sojourn. It is the story of Jacob’s journey of faith.

I love how the chapter begins. As soon as Jacob has settled everything with Laban, we are told that Jacob meets “the angels of God.” Are we to remember his encounter when he was on the way to Laban? Are these the angels from the ladder scene in his dream? All we are told is that Jacob calls the place “God’s camp.” Then we are introduced to the real struggle: Jacob’s fear that Esau will kill him. The chapter becomes the story of Jacob doing and saying everything he can think of to appease his brother. At the same time, Jacob is calling out to God, praying that somehow the God of his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham will intercede because of his promises. In many ways, the chapter depicts the human struggle of discerning God’s part and the human part in conflict resolution. First Jacob sends a delegation to Esau in which Jacob is presented not as the one with the birthright or the blessing but as a humble servant of lord Esau.

“Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have lived with Laban as an alien, and stayed until now; and I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male and female slaves; and I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight.’”(32:4-5).

Jacob obviously hopes that such a humble presentation will lead to a softened response from Esau. But the news carried back by his emissaries is not good. Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men! That sounds like an army! So Jacob quickly divides his family and all of his belongings into two separate camps hoping that if one camp gets destroyed the other will survive. Then it is time to pray!

“O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’”(32:9-12).

Just in case the prayer isn’t heard, Jacob then proceeds with back-up plan #2: send ahead a huge gift of 550 animals, something that looks like the equivalent of the blessing he once stole from his brother. He then starts sending the servants ahead of him in droves so that the present comes to Esau one drove of animals at a time. Maybe that will appease Esau, so that by the time Esau and his 400 men actually reach Jacob, he will be appeased.

Jacob evidently is unable to sleep when he decides to send his family on across the river while he stays behind. Is this one final attempt to use his own wife and children as human shields? Whatever Jacob’s intent, the night and Jacob’s life are forever changed by the encounter that takes place while he is alone. The ambiguity of the scene is striking. At first we are told that Jacob is wrestling a “man,” and that they wrestle all night. Whoever this man is, Jacob appears to be winning when the “man” strikes him in the hip somehow so that Jacob’s hip is put out of joint. How does one keeping wrestling with that condition? For that matter how does one wrestle “all night”? With daylight approaching the “man” wishes to leave but Jacob refuses to let go until the man blesses him. What is Jacob hoping to receive from this stranger? Is this Jacob the deceiver and conniver still at work? And why does the man respond by asking Jacob his name? Why, for that matter, does Jacob politely answer him?

Then comes the pronouncement of a name change: ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ The one whose name means deceiver receives a new name. Remember that a name change in Genesis is always a reflection on a character change as well. We’re not certain what Israel means, but we do know it involves God’s name, “El”. Part of God’s name is given to Jacob: Isra EL. Perhaps it means “God fights” or “God preserves” or “God protects.” But the strangeness of the story continues. Having been told he has a new name, Jacob asks the stranger about his name, and the stranger refuses to answer. Instead he “blesses him,” whatever that means, and departs. Even though he has a new name, Israel, he continues to be identified in this story as Jacob. Jacob then names the place where he has spent the night in this wrestling match. He calls it Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” So it wasn’t an ordinary man at all, it was God?

The scene ends with Jacob limping across the river. This time he arranges his family again and then limps out in front of them to meet his brother, Esau. There he bows his face to the ground as his brother approaches and Jacob is surprised that his brother races ahead to embrace him. The brothers who years before had lived in tension and distrust now can’t out-humble one another. Esau insists the he won’t take the gifts; Jacob demands that he must take the gifts. Esau invites Jacob to journey under his protection and come stay with him in Seir; Jacob humbly declines and heads on toward Canaan.

So what did happen that night on the other side of the Jabbok River? Was it God or just a man? Or was it an angel, as the prophet Hosea suggests? Hosea remembers Jacob this way: “In the womb he grasped his brother’s heel; as a man he struggled with God. He struggled with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged for his favor” (Hosea 12:3-4). Whatever the identity of this stranger who can wrestle all night and not win, yet announce name changes and leave Jacob with a limp, Hosea is correct in understanding that the scene itself is also a description of Jacob’s entire life. Wrestling with God was not a one-night event for Jacob; it was his life up to that point. Yes, he had acted in all sorts of underhanded and deceitful ways. Yes, even when he first encountered God in the dream at Bethel, his expression of faith was actually an attempt to bargain with God. “God, if you will take care of me and bless me, I promise to give you 10 percent of everything.” Can one actually bargain with Creator God? When he prays this wonderful prayer in chapter 32, is it a word of trust or his own test of God’s promises?

How does one wrestle with God and humans and prevail? Is prevailing a good thing or a bad thing in this context? How can he refuse to let go without receiving a blessing? Why does Jacob limp away believing that he has not been wrestling a man but wrestling God? If a name change suggests a change in character, what is now different about Jacob?

I have more questions than I have answers in this story. Somehow, I think that’s what is supposed to happen. I think we are supposed to be left confused about the identity of the wrestling partner. We are supposed to wonder how or why these two could actually wrestle all night. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched a real wrestling match – not what the actors do in professional wrestling, but collegiate or high school wrestlers. It’s not an all night event! A few minutes wears one out. I think we are supposed to struggle with the ambiguity of the story regarding Jacob’s search for a solution to the problem of facing his brother. He does everything he can think of, plus he prays the most fervently he can pray. At the end of the story, is it all of his efforts to humble himself that makes the meeting go so well, or is it God’s intervention that makes it go so well? If Jacob had simply prayed and not done anything else would the outcome have been the same? If he had done everything else and not prayed, would Esau have received him so graciously? Is his prayer answered by the confrontation with the wrestler? Isn’t the event an obvious metaphor for all of Jacob’s life and isn’t the transformation of his character (symbolized by the name change) included in the larger story?

Does the metaphor find meaning in your life and mine today? Wrestling with God. Most of the time we don’t even realize that’s the opponent grappling with us! We think we’re just doing everything we can to control the situation and control those around us. We think it’s a good day when we prevail. After all, we’re supposed to be tough. We’re supposed to keep fighting. But every now and then we discover that while we have been prevailing, our strength has surprisingly become weakness. We don’t know quite when the limping started, but we know that the struggle has left us changed. We’re not quite so self-centered, not quite so afraid, not so dependent on deception and hiding behind others. Somehow we know we have seen God face-to-face and survived. And we are changed. Yes, the transformation is not complete. There is still that sense, some nights, that we are back in the wrestling match again, still trying to prevail with our own efforts, still trying to tell God how he is supposed to act because he said he would behave this way or that. But it is really ourselves behaving this way or that which means we’ve forgotten the limp and lost sight of that which has forever changed our name.

So we tell our stories. Stories of transformation. Stories that have not yet arrived at the all night wrestling match. Stories that now look back on that night and sing of survival and humility and reconciliation. Stories of wrestling that already took place and are yet to come. But everywhere, in every person’s story, there is that other being that could show up at any moment when we find ourselves all alone, when the crisis is upon us and we’ve sent everyone else to the other side. The one who asks us our name even when we thought we were the one in control. And with a word, he gives us his name, a piece of himself, and changes us forever.

Delivered at Woodmont Hills, February 16, 2003.


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