Jacob’s Wrestling with God – Br. Curtis Almquist
The same night [Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, 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.
This story of Jacob’s encounter – the encounter with some outside force with whom Jacob wrestles into the night – is both surprising and also full of hope. This is Jacob who, up to this point in his life, is notorious not because he is a virtuous man but because he is a rather shrewd scoundrel. Jacob is a man of ill repute because he tricked his father out of a blessing that was actually intended for his older brother, Esau. In those days, a blessing was held with very high expectation, so high that Jacob is prepared to take an ignoble means to reach a lofty end.
A blessing from God is the assurance of wellbeing, a promise of provision, a person’s sense of being “the apple of God’s eye,” of having a place in God’s heart. In the scriptures, this sense of blessing is pervasive. In the Old Testament, the main word for blessing is barak, which has a curious history and etymology. The origins of this notion of blessing lie far back in the religions of the Middle East antiquity. This sense of blessing is connected with the fertility of animals and crops and human beings. A sign of blessing is that there is more: more in substance, more in promise, more in goodness. Prosperity, in every form, becomes the sign of God’s blessing in the Old Testament. (This changes in the tradition of the New Testament, where it is the poor who are blessed – we will come back to that – but here, in Jacob’s day, blessing is evidenced in the sense of one’s prosperity.) When a blessing is spoken – in Jacob’s earlier life by his father Isaac – those words channel a power that cannot be changed or reversed. What has been named will come to be… which could seem so terribly unfair because the blessing Jacob receives is actually illegitimate. It doesn’t belong to him. He has tricked his father into blessing him, and Jacob is unworthy of the blessing, and yet, the blessing becomes his to bear. A blessing once given is irrevocable.
Where our story picks up in our Genesis reading is in Jacob’s travel to meet up with his estranged and cheated brother, Esau, something which Jacob would surely dread. This difficult reunion is delayed because of a wrestling match Jacob undergoes in the middle of the night by the river Jabbok.i This story, which has been remembered and refined over the centuries by the scriptural scribes, is simultaneously clear and unclear. It is unclear who is winning in this night-time wrestling match. Is it Jacob or is it his opponent? And who is this opponent? Is it a demon or is it an angel, some emissary from God? We can’t immediately tell. We must wait to see. These two beings fight with tremendous, even superhuman strength. In Jacob’s case, it’s as if his life depends upon it… which it probably does. This story parallels other legendary stories in which unnamed gods, or spirits, or demons attack a person in the night. And in the legends, this attacked person, in return, often exhibits something of a superhuman strength in facing the accoster. In the legends, the battle in the night always ends at daybreak. And so, in the case of Jacob’s story, we hear his accoster asking to be released by Jacob when the dawning of the new day comes. And who is the winner? It remains unclear. Up to the very end, the two end up almost hanging on one another, fighting for all their life but actually needing one another to hold each other up. Jacob’s thigh is thrown out of joint. And this is very curious. Jacob does not experience this as being beaten but rather blessed. At the end, Jacob asks his opponent for a blessing. Finally we get the picture that his accoster is not a thief in the night or a demon, but rather some angelic messenger who carries God’s blessing, a blessing which Jacob desperately wants and needs. We know how this story ends. Jacob does receive the blessing he desires, but it comes on a condition. Jacob’s angelic accoster demands of Jacob to know his name, which is not insignificant. Jacob reveals his name. So what is this about?
In Jacob’s day someone’s name revealed a person’s essence and their character. To actually know a person’s name opened a channel of power between two people. Jacob is compelled to reveal his name, and in doing so essentially displays his whole nature, which is not a nice picture. Jacob’s name actually reveals him to be a disreputable fraud.ii An amazing thing now happens. Jacob is given a new name by this unnamed divine messenger with whom he has been wrestling, the name “Israel.” Jacob’s new name is interpreted as “May God rule.” Jacob’s divine accoster struggles out of Jacob’s grip and blesses Jacob. Jacob, who had earlier stolen a blessing from his father, now receives a blessing legitimately. And, so the story goes, the sun rises.
What do we make of this story? Jewish and Christian commentators down through the centuries have made various and vast interpretations about this struggle in the night. Among them was Martin Luther who concluded, “And so we have this noble chapter, in which you see the marvelous dealing of God with [the] saints for our comfort and example, so that we may daily ask ourselves if [God] is also at work with us and be prepared for it.” That’s Martin Luther. How does this legendary story speak to you? I’ll suggest three ways.
For one, there is an invitation here to wrestle with God. The witness we see recurring in the scriptures – in both the Old and New Testament – is that we are welcomed into relationship with God. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Thus says the Lord: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”iii God knows you by name, and we, as Christians, have been given a name through which to address God, and that is Jesus. Relationships that are real and alive require engagement. We call on those with whom we are in relationship; we carry them in our hearts. In our own souls we quietly remember and rehearse their lives – what they said and did and why. And, I would say, for those with whom we are in real relationship, we sometimes must wrestle. We may have different views, different values, even different memories. What is essential in a relationship that is real and alive is the actual engagement with one another.
When I have the privilege of listening to someone speak about their life and their relationships, where I witness the most suffering that people bear is when a relationship has grown silent. People suffer the most when they experience disengagement, when in their significant relationship(s) there are few words, or no responses, just a haunting vacuum that begs interpretation. It is terribly sad; it can be crazy-making. The real suffering is in the absence of communication. People in alive relationships are on speaking terms with one another. Real and alive relationships cover the spectrum of life – from the best of times to the worst of times, joyful conversations and difficult conversations. Being in relationship with another person is not about always being nice to one another. (It’s nice to be nice, but that’s not enough.) Being in relationship with another person means you are real to one another. And I would say that this is so because we have been created in the image of God who longs to be really present to us and in a real relationship to us. Relationship is of God’s essence.
What is happening in your life just now and in your relationship with God? If you are living with unanswered questions whose answers are only in God, ask God the questions. Ask why? Ask how? Ask where? Ask when? If your most presenting need just now in your relationship to God concerns the questions of life, then that is your prayer. I would even say it is God who has given you the questions to ask. God is giving you the questions to draw you into a real and active relationship with God, who knows you and calls you by name. Respond in turn. Call on God. Speak to God by name. Jesus gives us his name to use. Use Jesus’ name. Use Jesus’ name as an advocate, as an intercessor, as a lobbyist through whom we speak to the God whom he calls “Father.” (Remember it’s Jesus who tells the parable which we read in today’s Gospel about the woman banging on the gates of heaven asking for a hearing… which she gets!”iv) Speak to God in and through Jesus, who has given us his name.
You know that in this story of Jacob he is given a new name, Israel. Being known by God by a new name may speak to some of you. Here you are: a grown up with very grown up responsibilities, a very important person. You are known by name. In God’s eyes, in God’s heart, you will always be a child, a child of God. Is there a name – which maybe even comes out of your own childhood, a name of endearment which you were called by a parent or grandparent or sibling or close friend – a name which has dropped from your adult vocabulary but which (still) identifies the child within you? Is this the name by which you want to be known and called by God? Some of you may have an endearing name out of your past. You may have a name into which you would like to grow and become in your future. This is the name you claim in your relationship with God: this old name or this new name. God longs to be in a real and alive relationship with you, to know you and call you by name. You might begin your prayer by giving God your name, how you long to be known and called by God. “Hello God, this is _________.”
Secondly, about this thing of blessing. You have probably not deserved your life. Life is not fair, often in two ways. For one, you have likely been the recipient of countless blessings, and from your earliest days. If you consider what we read daily on the front pages of the newspaper – the suffering and trauma that so many people of the world know, and, for some, a state of injustice into which they have been caste since their birth – you can likely recognize in bold relief so much goodness in your own life. If your life in any way parallels mine, you can lay claim on many blessings in life, far beyond what you could have asked for or deserved. You may even identify with Jacob, the trickster. You may have a chapter in your past where your life was a little shadowy, or where you broke a rule or violated a virtue. This may be on public record; it may be a secret you hold in your heart. Because of what you did or said, did not do or did not say, you got away with something, perhaps something twisted, maybe even shameful, clearly not right… and yet you got through it, or maybe you got away with it.
Like Jacob, you may still walk with a limp in some way. There may be still some kind of scarring on your life from this shaded part of your past, but – and this may be nothing short of a miracle – you have come into a clearing. You may even have the experience of your broken past not only being forgiven but in some way redeemed. It’s actually being put to use, and to God’s glory. The insight, care, sensitivity, generosity, humility which may be so evident to other people has come out of your broken past. If they only knew… Take the occasion to acknowledge before God where you find yourself now (which is where God finds you now). Consider the work of God’s hand on you life. Jesus has promised to seek and save the lost, which may apply to some part of your own past. Pray your history… which, of course, God already knows. But one of the most important things in a relationship, when people in relationship speak deeply to one another, is not the content of the conversation. People who know one another well often understand one another well. Many things can go without saying… except that in the saying, often times there’s the making or re-making of a relationship. It’s not about the content, it’s about the trust. It’s about the choosing to invite another back into your life after the lifeflow in the relationship has been broken. It’s not about the content, it’s the trust in these conversations that is so important. And so it is in our prayer. Pray your history; pray your gratitude; acknowledge God’s blessing where there’s blessing to behold.
And lastly, your life (or aspects of your life) may seem far removed from this Old Testament sense of blessing. The hallmark of blessing in the Old Testament is that there is more: more in substance, more in promise, more in goodness. Prosperity, in every form, becomes the sign of God’s blessing in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, in the light and life of Jesus, this changes. Now it is adversity that becomes the touchstone for blessing. Jesus says to his disciples, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets…”v
What Jesus is saying here is unbelievable unless this has been your experience: to know blessing coming out of adversity. And surely this has something to do with the cross of Christ which Jesus invites us to take up. Jesus promises that God’s favor, God’s care, God’s provision, God’s love, God’s blessing can be known in the best of times and in the worst of times… which you can probably best understand if you’ve been there. If you have been to brink of life, if you, in your own words, have cried out to God like Jesus did from the cross, “Why O why have you forsaken me?” and then miraculously lived to tell the story, then you probably know something about mystery of blessing that can come out of the greatest of adversities. What was undeniably and perhaps unexplainably bad has in some miraculous way been redeemed as a channel of God’s light and life and love. And that is the paradox of God’s blessing, where you can neither deny the bad – when you’ve been weeping or hungry or in some other way tormented – nor can you deny the blessed good that has somehow come out of the bad. Maybe even the one prepared the way for the other.
The whole of life is to be blessed. Look for it, ask God for it in your past, in your present, in your future. Blessing is of the essence of God, who longs to be in relationship with you, with thems like you. Whether you have a shadowy past (like Jacob) or are as innocent as a dove – many of us are probably a bit of both – God knows, God loves, God calls you by name. God longs to bless you, and bless others through you. It’s of God’s essence; it’s of your essence, you who have been created in the image of God. Bless you.
i The Hebrew word ’ābhaq, wrestled, is a wordplay on Jabbok.
ii Genesis 25:26; 27:36.
iii Isaiah 43:1.
iv Luke 18:1-8a: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” ’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’”
v See Luke 6:17‑26.
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