Genesis 32:22-31 Jacob Wrestles at Peniel NRSV
The same night he 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.
I love this story of Jacob wrestling with the man, or the Angel, or with God, all the night long by the river. This story springs to life for me. It is the archetype of the spiritual journey. It is an epic soul deep myth that reveals God, humanity, ego, past, pain, wounds, healing and transformation. It is amazing what one long night of struggling with God can do. Jacob stopped for the night on his way home to a brother who understandably wanted to kill him and at the dawn he has a life long limp and a new identity.
I’m not the only one who loves this story. Lots of people identify with it. Artists have painted this image of a man wrestling with an angel of God is a 1000 different ways. It is a testament to the depth of this story that each artist interacts in a different and unique way. Here is a painting by Rembrandt. Notice that it doesn’t seem like much of a fight from the angel’s point of view. While Jacob might be striving and pushing for all he is worth, the angel appears to be embracing not wrestling. From the angel’s point of view this is more a divine hug than a battle for supremacy. Next is a painting by Chagall. I love the divine whimsy of this painting. Jacob is purple with passion as he runs headlong to head butt the angel. Here is a painting by a Dutchman, Bartholomeus Breenberg. It seems to be all about the landscape and not by the tiny figures. Maybe he was making a point about the Glory of God’s creation. Gauguin puts giggling maids in the foreground, who aren’t in the biblical stories. But for Gauguin anything done that isn’t viewed or applauded by girls isn’t worth doing. Gauguin was always one for the ladies. Edward Knipper is a Christian artist whose pictures hand in the Billy Graham Library and the Vatican. This is perhaps my favorite. The cubist element show such fragmented energy swirling around Jacob. Next we even have this story recreated in Legos. This is a story we can put ourselves into and some people put the story on their bodies in tattoos. This is indeed one of the most important stories in the Old Testament about our relationship with God.
But in order to get the most from this Jacob vs. Angel Smack Down, we need to understand a little of Jacob’s back story. The very name of Jacob, describes Jacob. Jacob means heel grabber or supplanter, or even cheater, deceiver, schemer, and crook. Jacob was the second born twin. From birth Jacob was wrestling and wrestling dirty for power and wealth. It is said that he grabbed his brother’s heel as Esau was born. Later Jacob gets his hungry, brawny, dimmer brother to give him is birth right, his inheritance, for a bowl of stew. Then Jacob connives to trick his aging, blind father, Isaac, to give him his brother’s blessing. Jacob pretends to be Esau. Isaac isn’t sure who this is and asks, “Who are you?” Jacob replies, “I am Esau.” And steals his father’s blessing. After all those shenanigans, Jacob has to run away from home, or his brother Esau will kill him. He runs away to his uncle Laban, an even greater trickster and the cheater. Jacob gets cheated in the marriage mart. But eventually he does well and now, years later, he is on his way home to make up with his brother or be killed by him.
These are all the events that lead up to this one night alone on the banks of the Jabbok River. On this night Jacob is about to go home. He is trying to make it up to his wronged brother. He is going back to repent and face his sins against his brother. He may well be facing death as word has reached him that Esau is riding with 400 men to meet him. So Jacob has sent this wives and maids and children and flocks and men across the river and is alone on this pivotal night. You can see that Jacob has a lot to wrestle with on this night. He has a lifetime of bad behavior to mull over and tomorrow it may all come home to roost. There is nothing like mortal danger to bring about some deep reflection. Someone once said that God whispers to us in our pleasures but shouts to us in our pain. It is into this time critical and painful night that Jacob wrestles with God.
So what can we learn from this story? First, it is critical to get alone with God. We have a culture that thrives on distraction. More than any other times before, we never have to be alone with ourselves or our thoughts or our God. We have media, music, iPods and cell phones, the web at our fingertips. So we need never have quietness. Even in our spiritual life, we can out source our spiritual growth. Now it can be my job or Graham’s job or your spouse’s job, or your favorite radio or TV preacher or guru to grow your relationship with God. All these sources can help. But at the end it is necessary for each person to as Paul writes, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12). Our relationship to God grows in community. But our relationship with God also requires one on one time. When you are alone with God you can answer the question Jacob answered. Who are you? What is your name? We can be honest about ourselves and then we can have a real start with God.
This brings us to the second lesson. Use your real name as you wrestle with God. The mysterious man in the wrestling match asks Jacob what his name is. Why did he do this? God had been pursuing Jacob for years. God is all-powerful and all knowing. Why ask? God is calling Jacob to relive the last time he asked for a blessing, when he stole his brother’s blessing. When Jacob masqueraded as Esau to receive his father’s blessing, Isaac wasn’t sure this was Esau. Isaac asked, “Is this you? Esau? And Jacob lied and pretended to be someone he was not. So this agent of God asks Jacob’s name. Jacob answers the truth, that he is Jacob, the schemer and grabber and cheat. There is always a humbling truth to be face, an embarrassing reality about who we are and what we have been. The blessings that God wants to bring to us can only be given when we start with truth.
Wrestle until dawn. Be persistent. Jacob wrestles all night. I used to watch my son wrestle in school. The wrestling matches consist of 3, 2-minute rounds. Wrestler pushes and grabs and grapples for all they are worth for 2 minutes. Then they restart and go again, and then again. In all that is 6 minutes. Now in a hard fought match each wrestler is giving it his all for that eternity of two minutes. But getting to the bottom of whom we are and who God is, takes longer than 6 minutes. Too often we are dabbler and not serious searchers. There is a quality in Jacob that will not let go that we need to emulate. We need to hold fast, return again and again in prayer, silence and practice our faith.
There is a woman who reminds me of Jacob; who had Jacob’s persistence, who met God alone and without distraction, who didn’t hide behind any false self as she wrestled with God. This woman is named Jeanne Safer. Jeanna is a therapist, a PhD and an author. One of her particular areas of study and therapy are conflicts between siblings. So perhaps that is what leads her to think about the Jacob and Esau story more closely. But one day Jeanne was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. She had been feeling tired. She had no energy. She had been bruising easily. But one day as she watched a bruise bloom in seconds on her arm. She got herself to a doctor. The doctor immediately ordered blood tests and she could tell that the diagnosis was really serious. She had almost no platelets in her body. She didn’t know it but she was one small bump away from uncontrollable hemorrhaging. The treatment started immediately. She was put in the hospital for one month of round the clock intravenous medical intervention and then one year of outpatient chemotherapy, one month on, one month off. She gave herself over to the medical treatments but she understood that she had to fight for her self in a different way. As she was admitted to the hospital for this grueling intervention, she redecorated her hospital room. She put one of her favorite rugs over the TV. So she wouldn’t be tempted to zone out, she kept books and images of faith around her. She would take grueling walks down the hallways. She passed windows that opened up into look at brick walls of other wings of the hospitals or bare, brick lined air shafts. But at the end of one hall there was a window that showed one tough, tenacious weed. She wrote that a dandelion would be exotic compared to this scraggly weed. But she thought of herself as that weed. The image that she would not let go of was of Jacob wrestling with the Angel of God. She would not let go until she got her blessing from this suffering. Whatever happened until she had her blessing, whatever that blessing would be.
When we do these things, when we get alone with God, bring our real selves and call ourselves by our real names, when we persistently wrestle for a blessing, then God does indeed bless us. But that blessing often means that we are forever different.
Jacob received a new name. Name changing is profound, Abram became Abraham, Simon became Peter, and Saul became Paul. The point of this entire struggle isn’t that you walk away your same old self, but with a bonus in your pocket. Meeting God and receiving God’s blessing changes us. Jacob became Israel. And Israel limped forever afterward. When we meet God in our wrestling we come away with a true knowledge that may make us less in the eyes of the world. Israel came to know that he was dependant on God. People who meet God generally realize that their illusion of self-sufficiency strength was just that, an illusion, a lie we tell ourselves. Young Jacob walked without a limp and caused havoc wherever he went. But Israel can walk confidently and humbly leaning on God.
So as I look out today. It would be best if we all had a little hitch in our giddy-up, a little dependence on God’s spirit, a leaning in humility our God. If you wrestle for a blessing you will come away with a new name, beloved of God.