Today’s reading from the Book of Genesis is one of the most fascinating and mysterious stories in all of Scripture. Jacob has stolen his father’s blessing from his brother Esau and ran away with his family. But Esau has come looking for him full of fury, he imagines, and the meeting is to take place the following day. So, Jacob sends his whole family across the river to safety, and as night comes we read, “Jacob was left alone.” In those simple words we can sense Jacob’s fear, his anguished imaginings before meeting Esau. But in the middle of the night a mysterious man appears to Jacob, and this man starts to wrestle with him. They wrestle all night until daybreak. This was no ordinary man. In the Fogg art museum here in Cambridge there is a wonderful painting of Jacob wrestling with this mysterious stranger. The painting is by the French nineteenth century artist Gustave Moreau, and I go back often to look at it. For Moreau the man Jacob is fighting is clearly an angel, a magnificent figure dazzling bright. The fight is very uneven. Jacob is fighting with all his strength, but the angel uses just one arm to effortlessly hold him down. For of course the angel is infinitely more powerful than Jacob. Nevertheless, the angel clearly wants to fight, and Jacob never gives up.
Every time I stand in front of this painting and reflect on this story, I seem to understand more and more spiritual truths about our relationship with God. Jacob fights with God and never gives up. This man who knows that he has cheated his brother out of his blessing, brings all this anguish to the fight. He wrestles with everything he knows about himself, his past actions, his present situation. He comes to God in openness and honesty, with all that he is, good and bad, and wrestles with God, and will not let go until God blesses him. And God honors his struggle, and indeed blesses him. God blesses him with the gifts he will need to enter into the vocation which has always been his. Now you are ready. “You shall no longer be called Jacob but Israel “For you have striven with God and prevailed”.