Wrestling with God
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Cycle A
Text: Genesis 32:22-32
22The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok River. 23Jacob took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was dislocated as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31The sun rose upon Jacob as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because God struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.
Have you ever found yourself at a crossing? A true Robert Frost moment – two roads diverge in a yellow wood, a decision that makes all the difference? One of those life-changing, transforming decisions, that you know will leave its mark on you forever? Maybe you can identify with Jacob as he stands there at the river’s edge. Picture the scene: a canyon, carved out by a river, with two hills, one on either side. To the North, lies the country of his uncle Laban, his mother’s people, the land of the Arameans; and to the South, lies the Promised Land, the land of Jacob’s birth, the land God promised to his father Isaac and to his grandfather Abraham. The future of Israel literally depends on Jacob’s decision whether or not to cross the river, and not without cost, because crossing the river means risking his life, and the lives of his entire family, at the hands of his brother Esau. And we know from the text in Chapter 33 that Esau is already on his way out to meet Jacob; and not only Esau, but with him a band of 400 men, whom Esau has sent on ahead of him. Jacob is coming out of hiding; coming out of exile. One doesn’t just go into exile for no reason, and one doesn’t come out of it lightly either. Returning home after a family conflict, after having been away for a very long time, is not an easy task. But that is exactly what Jacob is trying to do.
In the Hebrew language, names are things of great power. Names often reflect the character of a person, or convey the nature of a place. In Hebrew, the word Jabbok is pronounced Ya-v’q, which means “to wrestle.” Thus the Hebrew text is trying to tell us something about the nature of a crossing, and perhaps even give us a clue as to the nature of a man named Jacob, in Hebrew pronounced Ya-q’v. Thus Ya-q’v, “one who grasps the heel,” is the one who will engage God at the Ya-v’q, the crossing, called “Wrestle.”
Having already sent his entire family and all his possessions, literally everything that he has, across the river, Jacob finds himself alone. What does it mean, to be alone? To be alone at a crossing? To be alone in the face of a decision? The Biblical witness points to the fact that every significant event in the history of salvation happens when you are alone in the wilderness. Remember the story of Moses’ encounter with God in the wilderness? Moses was a murderer who’d been driven out of Pharaoh’s court in Egypt, into exile in the wilderness, alone, when he encounters God in a burning bush. Isaiah insists that we prepare ourselves to meet God by listening to a voice crying aloud in the wilderness. And remember too that the Spirit often drove Jesus, alone, into the wilderness. Why is that? Perhaps God simply takes advantage of our openness, our vulnerability, when we’re alone. Because when we’re alone, when we’re at our weakest, that’s often the time when we’re the most receptive to hearing the Spirit’s voice, and following the Spirit’s leading.
Don’t misunderstand me – God doesn’t create these wilderness-like circumstances, or cause certain difficulties to befall us, but when the challenges of life come, and come they will, God will often choose those exact moments to reveal God’s own self to us. Just when we begin to believe that we are lost and alone in the wilderness, well, wandering in the wilderness is exactly where we need to be – because it’s the best way to be found. For in the wilderness, we not only learn who we are, but we learn who God is.
In the story of Jacob, the narrator is setting the stage for an extraordinary human encounter with the divine. Anyone can see it coming, even the most casual of readers, everyone that is, except for Jacob himself. For Jacob, it is truly a surprise encounter – even more than that, a surprise attack! God appears to Jacob in the form of a man, and wrestles with him all night long, until the day breaks. God wrestles with Jacob and permanently dislocates his hip! For life! What in the world is going on here?
Growing up as a Southern Baptist, I was never encouraged to doubt God, or to question God. God’s ways are not our ways, they’d say. Just have enough faith and all will be okay. But after studying comparative religion, and looking at other faith traditions, like Judaism, for example, I began to notice within my own childhood experience of Christianity a certain hesitancy to question God, a fearful unwillingness to argue with God. Contrast that with Judaism where it’s a sign of virtue to argue with God and to debate with God. Just look at Jewish theological responses to the Holocaust to get a glimpse into this rich tradition of sacred argument, even to the extent of putting God on trial and pronouncing God guilty for failing to uphold God’s end of the covenant – the covenant that God made with God’s people Israel. Look no further than the Bible itself – for the Scriptures give us plenty of examples where God’s people engage in an argument with God. Abraham bargains with God over Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Hebrew prophets frequently question what God is doing, but nowhere is it more pronounced that in the book for Job, in which God calls to Job and begs him to get in the ring with God and lay it all out in a cage-match. In fact, the whole genre of lament is based on getting God’s attention about something, getting God to relent, or to change God’s mind about something. Oh God, see my suffering, come down here, and do something about it!
So what does it mean for us, to wrestle with God? Perhaps substituting the word struggle for wrestle can shed new light on this ancient text. Jacob is engaged in a struggle at the deepest levels of his being – he’s afraid to face his brother Esau, he’s fearful of his own demise, and he fears for the survival of his family. In fact, he may even be anticipating the destruction of his entire family line! For if Jacob is killed, what will become of God’s promise to Abraham, to make from him a great nation? It’s at that very moment of internal conflict, when God chooses to engage Jacob, to show Jacob what he’s really made of. It is truly an exercise in human becoming for Jacob, as God takes Jacob seriously enough to engage him in a struggle. In fact, it is in the midst of the struggle itself, that God demonstrates God’s faithfulness to Jacob, and to the promise that God made to his ancestors, and to the people of Israel, to all the future descendants, who are yet to be.
Through the wrestling match, God is preparing Jacob for his encounter with Esau – because Jacob’s confrontation with God is what enables him to move forward, and prepares him to confront his brother. In the night, God comes to Jacob and puts him through an advanced preview of the encounter that is to come: if Jacob can endure a wrestling match with God as a rehearsal, then Jacob can survive an encounter with his brother. If Jacob can prevail against God, then surely Jacob can overcome a human confrontation with Esau.
The point to the story may simply be that God encounters us in times of transition, in moments of conflict, by taking on the very form of our anticipated difficulty. In the night, God takes on the features of whatever it is, or whoever it is, we struggle with in the day. We can either choose to engage with God in the struggle, or refuse. But if we refuse, we deny ourselves the very resource we need the most. We deny ourselves the very thing we need in order to move forward – the presence of God.
For God humbles God’s own self, to take on human form, to be with us in our own struggling. By taking on human flesh, the only way Jacob can truly experience the divine, God enters into the fray with Jacob. God isn’t afraid to get down and dirty with us, if down and dirty is where we are. God stoops down to our level, to engage with us, on our level, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, wherever we happen to be. Surely this is what the author of Philippians had in mind, when he quoted portions of that ancient Christian hymn:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, being born in human likeness, Jesus humbled himself and became obedient to death. [Philippians 2:6-8]
Remember that we worship a God named Emmanuel – our God is with us, and if God is with us, who can stand against us? What do we have we to be fearful of? [Romans 8: 31-39]
That’s not to stay that wrestling doesn’t have its ill effects – just ask Jacob, who came away limping, scarred for life. But scars aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Scars tell a story – they’re a visible marker, a sign that a change has taken place. They acknowledge the transition, the growth, that has occurred. They serve as a reminder, a memory of that event. In Jacob’s case, a memory of a life-altering event, an encounter with the divine – a memory of seeing the face of God. Jesus, too, is known by his scars. Following his resurrection, when he appears in his new form to Thomas, and to the other disciples, they can only recognize him by his scars. In fact, the book of Revelation [5:6] even portrays Jesus as scarred. When he is depicted in all his heavenly glory, he is identified by the marks of his suffering, which God chose not to erase, perhaps even as a reminder to God, that we worship a God who struggles with us, who suffers with us, who is like us, so we can be like God. The struggle is not only for Jacob’s benefit – it’s an exercise for God as well. Just as Jacob learns something about who God is, God is also learning something about what it means to be human, and what it means for God to be in relationship with us, as God’s people.
God is also showing Jacob who God is – by showing Jacob Her face. To look upon God, in that ancient Hebrew culture, meant certain death. But through this encounter, God is showing Jacob, and us, that to look upon God’s face brings life, not death. It too parallels the story of Job, in which Job is vindicated from the prevalent, but incorrect, theology of his friends, the prevailing theology of the day. That Deuteronomistic theology that states: “You get what you deserve, and you deserve what you get.” But Job experiences wave upon wave of unjust and undeserved suffering, and calls God to account. After God engages Job in the Great Debate, Job also looks upon the face of God, and is granted life in place of death. As Job declares after his wrestling match with God is over: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” [Job 42:5].
Because Jacob sees God’s face, and lives, he knows he can face his brother Esau, and live. Because Jacob was terrified of seeing his brother Esau’s face, God allows Jacob to see God’s face, in preparation for that event. The struggle reveals something new about Jacob, and something new about God. Both parties in the covenant have changed, which involves God granting Jacob a new name, signifying that he has changed as a result of this encounter. It’s a defining moment in the life of Jacob, and in the life of an entire people.
Because Jacob perseveres in the struggle, as does Job, he is rewarded with a blessing. The blessing is a sign of God’s continued faithfulness – the renewal of the promise, made long ago, the renewal of the covenant that God make to Jacob’s ancestors, and now to him, personally. The promise that God made to Abraham, that Abraham passed on to Isaac, didn’t become real to Isaac himself until he personally experienced God’s salvation when God provided a ram in his place when Abraham had attempted to sacrifice his son. That same promise which Isaac passed on to Jacob didn’t become real to Jacob either, until Jacob had his own sacred encounter with the divine.
As parents, you attempt to pass on your faith, your religion, to your children, just as your parents tried to pass on their faith to you. But you can’t really do that. Every individual has to have their own sacred encounter with God, to receive the promise directly from God for themselves. Here, Jacob receives the divine blessing for himself, and receives it directly from the hand of God. A blessing that he had previously attempted to steal, he now is given the opportunity to earn, outright. And in so doing, he earns a new name. Jacob takes on a whole new identity, a whole new character. He becomes someone new, as a result of the struggle. Jacob is finally ready to enter the Promised Land, now that he has established his own relationship with God. Now that he has finally faced his past, Jacob is ready to face the future.
The Scripture tells us that Penuel was already a sacred place, long before Jacob arrived there. Stop and take a moment to imagine what such a place might look like. El is the old Canaanite name for God. P’nim is the Hebrew word for face. So P’n-El – the face of God. Imagine a place where you can encounter God. And not just encounter God, but a place where you can actually see God’s face. Think about it: to see God, face to face, at a boundary crossing, at a river called Wrestle; yes, that’s exactly the place where you meet God.
Do you have a sacred place where you go, to meet God? Think about your own life’s journey – where are the sacred places in your life, the places where you’ve encountered God in the past? How did it happen? How was God revealed to you? What was that experience like for you? Did you hear a voice, calling to you in the night, like Samuel did? Did God visit you in a dream, like the one Joseph had? Did you see a vision of the future, as Isaiah did? Or was it more like Elijah, where you found God in the silence, following the wind, the earthquake, and the fire? Or does wrestling symbolize your relationship with God? If so, remember that the struggle is the path to the blessing, there’s no way to avoid it. Our most meticulous plans and careful preparations cannot guarantee a future for us. But know this – God can break into your life, and change your life’s direction at any time. Because God will stop at nothing to find you, even to the point of joining you in your struggle. And God will be right there with you, in the midst of your wrestling, in your suffering, in your pain. And if you persist in the struggle, you’ll find your answer, but more importantly, you’ll find your God. And divine blessing will result, the blessing that comes at daybreak from God’s own hand. You may walk away with a limp, but joy will come in the morning, when you see God’s face, because to look upon the face of God no longer means death, but life. And in the morning, you realize that the One you’ve been up all night struggling with, is God. You may have to risk death, in order to receive life, but all the while God remains with you, in your aloneness, and in your discerning. Just open your eyes to see God’s face and receive the blessing that awaits you in the morning, at the crossing. And as for sacred places, God remains a dream to those who sleep on holy ground. In God’s name, Amen.