If you are a person who struggles with your faith – if you feel you have more doubt than belief, more resistance than trust, are more apt to being cautious than eager to take a leap – then this story is for you.
This story is about Jacob – one of the most important patriarchs in Israelite history. In fact, it was from Jacob that we get the word “Israel”.
It was from Jacob’s sons that the nation of was Israel built.
And it was Jacob’s tenacity and struggle – it was Jacob’s wrestling with God and others – that became the identity for the people of God.
So this story of struggle should give comfort and courage to all whose faith does not come easily.
“To wrestle” or “to struggle” is at the core of what it means to be the people of God. The book of Genesis has been so clear about that fact.
No blessing came easily for the people who carried God’s covenant.
The Hebrew verb, to wrestle, is used only one time in the Bible and it is here. There’s a triple play on the word wrestle, because we have three forms of the Hebrew word. Jacob (Ya-aqov), the verb wrestled (ya-abeq) and Jabbok (yabbok) which actually means the Wrestling River.
The text is opaque and mysterious about who it was that Jacob wrestled with– a man or Esau or an angel…or was it his conscience? The lack of clarity allows for an expanse of interpretations, and meanings, and connections. But the story is surely centered on this dynamic action between the uninvited stranger and Jacob.
So, let’s recap, just like they do on Downton Abbey – PREVIOUSLY ON GENESIS:
We heard the story of Jacob as a young man, leaving his homeland after he had stolen his twin brother’s birthright. The word, Jacob, is most often translated as cheater, manipulator, liar, conniver, cunning. Jacob had certainly lived into his name. His identity reflected his actions. Remember, he had grabbed his twin brother’s heel at their birth. He then grabbed Esau’s birthright through trickery.
Jacob was a quiet, reserved child who held a special place in his mother’s heart.
Esau was hairy, and the outdoorsy type who garnered his father’s affection.
After Esau discovered that Jacob had cheated him out of his birthright, Rebekah helped Jacob escape to save his life. On the way out of his country, he stopped and slept on the desert floor and while asleep had a dream about angels and a ladder. In the dream, God came to him and promised him that he, the trickster, would become a blessing.
Jacob ended up finding refuge and employment working for his Uncle Laban, a man cunning like his nephew, who eventually became Jacob’s father-in-law. Jacob married both daughters: Leah first, who was actually his second choice; and then seven years later the love of his life, Rachel. After 20 years working for Laban, and being economically astute, Jacob finagled more than his share of his father-in-law’s wealth. He knew how to get what he thought was coming to him. And then some, because Jacob worked out a golden parachute upon his departure.
So Jacob, 20 years earlier, left his home empty-handed. He returns in today’s episode prosperous and overloaded with goods. In addition to countless livestock, he brought with him Laban’s daughters, their two maids, and all 11 children who later would become the foundation of the nation of Israel.
So we enter the story on the day of reckoning. Life had caught up with Jacob. Life always catches up. What we deny or run from seems to follow us until eventually we have to face ourselves. Jacob had to face up himself.
In an elaborate plan with great strategy to appease his brother, Jacob sent all his worldly wealth ahead of him drove by drove to appease Esau who was with his four hundred men. During the night, Jacob, racked with fear, sent all his family across the ford of the Wrestling River.
There, in the darkness, wracked with fear, Jacob was finally alone with himself. There, the uninvited guest showed up. Let’s call this man, the divine Wrestler.
The Wrestler didn’t come to Jacob as some mild, comforting presence. Rather, in the darkness, he came as a mysterious opponent, appearing from nowhere to accost Jacob in a match. We listeners are as startled as Jacob was. The struggle between the two of them took all night and it’s not clear who really was the winner. Jacob hung on. Wounded, he still refused to let go – even after the Wrestler asked to leave.
The Wrestler asked Jacob his name, “Who are you?” To which he replied, “Jacob.” Or, the cunning one.
“You will no longer be the cunning one,” the Wrestler pronounced. “You are now Israel: the one who strives with God and with humans.” What Jacob received was a blessing which came in the form of a new name, a new identity.
Jacob’s story is all of our stories. Turning points in our lives call us to engage in our own internal wrestling match, a struggle within our very hearts and souls. Jacob was at the moment of potential transformation, returning to his land. Returning to his family. Returning to make things right. He left a boy and returned a man.
We all must come to the edge of the Wrestling River alone at times of change. Wrestling is part of the human journey of transformation. There cannot be growth without struggle. There cannot be change without the ground shifting beneath us. To move from one place to another, metaphorically and literally, engages our will, our energy, our orientation to the new life ahead.
Change always seems to catch us by surprise. It’s always an uninvited guest. I’ve yet to meet someone who felt prepared for the crisis.
A Divine Wrestler came to Jacob, and Jacob wrestled with him until he limped away transformed, empowered by both a wound and a blessing. In that encounter, Jacob was not passive; he did not take it lying down. In that encounter, he didn’t run or hide from the pain. He didn’t use his cleverness to avoid the conflict. He was fully present in the honest struggle.
Jacob met his match that night. The Divine wrestler met his too. It was Jacob who tells us the identity of the man. “I have seen God face-to-face.” God did not shirk from Jacob’s boldness nor did he allow Jacob to win. There was a draw of sorts—the story is left unclear about who was the victor.
In the struggle, we find a new identity. A new self. A new name.
Your struggle might come when you’re moving through normal stages of life’s development: from childhood to adolescence, adolescence to young adulthood, mid-life, or onward. We who’ve gone through these stages understand that each one presents its own challenges.
These changes create shifts in our understanding of ourselves. If we are going from singlehood to being partnered, from partnered to singlehood, from childless to parenthood, from employed to unemployed, all these changes mean that we will find ourselves at the edge of the Wrestling River. Like Jacob, the uninvited guest calls us to face these transformations with courage and resilience .
Who hasn’t found himself awake at night wrestling with anxiety, fear, guilt, shame or anger? Who hasn’t had to face her past and reckon with decisions made and actions taken? Who among us hasn’t at one time or another wished to go to sleep and awaken with a new name, or a new life?
It is in the darkness and in the “sweet confinement of your aloneness” said poet, David Whyte, that the wrestling match takes place.
In the middle of the darkest of nights, God is known to appear in unexpected forms and offer us new life.
Jacob certainly was in a dark place journeying toward an utterly uncertain future. He could not imagine how Esau would respond to him. His justified fear was that Esau would kill him. But quite the contrary! Esau responded beyond Jacob’s imagination; Esau grasped hold of his brother, his betrayer, and bestowed on him another blessing—forgiveness and grace.
Grace is the soul of the struggle. Blessings are never handed over easily.
Wrestling with God, refusing to let go, is what made Jacob into Israel, the Father of the People of God. A nation that struggles with God and perseveres.
And wrestling with God is what makes us the People of God too. God loves a good tussle! God finds Jacob’s relentless faith so much more interesting than passive obedience and indifference.
Struggling in our relationship with God with all our doubts and disbelief and with a legion of unanswered questions does not exclude us from being counted among God’s faithful.
What we see in this story of Jacob is the revelation and affirmation that to boldly meet God face to face, to go to toe to toe, to look God in the eye is the act of faith that gets God’s attention, that get’s God’s blessing.
Don’t resist an honest struggle, whether it be with God or with another person. Don’t let go. Stay in the match and insist on a blessing from it. You will probably walk away a bit wounded and limping. But powerful transformation and blessing will come.