Based on Genesis 32
There is a lot of drama in Jacob’s life, with deep family hostilities characterizing his life, much of it, his own doing. He has been on the run for the past 20 years, fleeing to his Uncle Laban’s home. The trickster Jacob, has met his match in his equally devious Uncle Laban, arguing and double-dealing over wives and livestock. Ultimately he prospers and grows wealthy with flocks and family of his own but he misses the land of his birth. After 20 years in exile, and years of putting up with his father-in-law’s manipulations, an angel appears to him and tells him it is time to go home. So Jacob gathers his family and his household and all the animals he now owns and starts the journey toward Canaan.
He sends scouts who report back that a huge company led by Esau is coming toward him, 400 men. Anticipating what seems overdue punishment, Jacob is terrified as he remembers that Esau may still wish revenge on him and make good on his murderous threats from 20 years before. Jacob finds himself at a turning point: face the consequence of manipulating others or continue to run.
Instead of passively waiting for his Esau to come to him, Jacob thinks he can soften Esau’s heart and sends presents to bribe his brother’s favor. He prepares large number of goats, camels, sheep, cows, donkeys – sending each group by itself – with space between each gift to hopefully pacify his brother. The bearers are told to tell Esau – “these are a gift from your servant Jacob… he’s on his way…”
In another strategic or selfish move, he divides his family and servants; as well as the flocks and herds and camels, into two groups, and sent them to opposite camp sites across the river Jabbok. He thought, “If Esau comes to one camp and destroys it, then the other might survive.” The consummate deal-maker, Jacob is willing to sacrifice his family and possessions, before himself.
He then returns to the other side of the river Jabbok completely alone to spend the night on the riverbank. With Laban behind him and Esau before him, Jacob contemplates his uncertain future. Physically exhausted and deeply anxious about Esau, Sleep escapes him; and his fears creep in.
God again takes advantage of the moment of solitude, a moment when Jacob is most exposed and vulnerable, to reveal God’s self. The last time, 20 years earlier, God came to Jacob in a beautiful dream. The text is cryptic, saying that “a man wrestled or fought with Jacob until the break of dawn.”
The story is ambiguous, about who Jacob is wrestling with. Some commentators say the man is Jacob’s greatest fear and rival — his brother Esau coming to him, disguised in the dark, for vengeance. Others believe it is an angel – while others believe it is God. The Hebrew translation says it is a mortal- like looking in a mirror. Perhaps Jacob’s own opponent was himself – wrestling with inner demons, his conscience, with his past, with the things he has done. Bill Moyers, in the book
Genesis: A Living Conversation commented on this story, “I don’t know whether I’m struggling with God or with myself. And if I’m struggling with myself, I’m struggling with both the demonic and the divine in me.”
The confusion and ambiguity in this story accurately reflects the confusion and ambiguity we often face in our struggles. We some times think that we are struggling against someone else, when we are really struggling with ourselves. Ultimately, there is a point where we can no longer hide from ourselves or continue to run away. Because according to Confucius, Wherever you go, there you are.
Benedictine nun and writer Sister Joan Chittester: ”Jacob does what all of us must do. He confronts in himself the things that are wounding him, admits his limitations, accepts his situation, rejoins the world, and moves on.”
At some point Jacob realizes that he is wrestling with God. Rabbi Bruce Kadden who retired last month as rabbi at Temple Beth El in Tacoma.
The story of the Creation teaches that each human being is created in the Divine Image. Therefore, when we fight with another person or even with ourselves, we are fighting with God. We cannot separate our encounters with our fellow human beings or ourselves from our encounters with God. They are one and the same.
Jacob wrestles the Holy One through the night until daybreak, at which point his opponent reaches out and dislocates Jacob’s hip and demands release, perhaps the moment when God’s face may be revealed. Jacob refuses to let go until he gets a blessing from this stranger he now believes to be God or God’s messenger. The stranger says, “Let me go for day is breaking.” Jacob says “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Like Jacob, there needs to be a reckoning with our own selves, to meet ourselves out there in the field; to wrestle with ourselves, with God, until we are able to let go, to release ourselves, to confess, to seek God’s forgiveness and say, I am whole. I am complete. I am forgiven. I am enough. Think about the wrestling matches you’ve had over the years – perhaps internal wrestling, with yourself, or with God, or with the people or the realities you have struggled with or are struggling with now. Relationships, illness, addiction, loneliness, finding purpose. Maybe the wrestling with the not knowing what is ahead or what God desires. Maybe it is the choices or decisions others have made about which you have little control. Maybe you are lucky enough not to be in the throes of a wrestling match right now which means you can rest up a while.
Rev. Stephen Garnaas Holmes:
The angels you’ll have to wrestle with most often are no strangers:
they’re your anger, fear, control, defensiveness, your despair, blame, insecurity, avoidance.
You won’t get away without a fight.
They may also be God’s forgiveness, the Beloved’s absolute acceptance,
God’s serenity in the face of your betrayal, God’s accompaniment in your troubles.
You won’t accept them without a fight.
You’re not wrestling with what’s happening; you’re wrestling with your feelings about it:
not the problem but its difficulty, not the suffering but how you take it personally.
The angels are not your world, but your self. So wrestle. Grab them firmly.
Feel their breath on your neck, their body against yours, the weight of their intent.
Let your sweat mingle. Learn their moves.
They’re your sparring partner, not out to destroy you but to shove you into the face of God.
Who knew divine intimacy could be so hard?
No matter what name you give to your wrestling match, it is hard and it sometimes wounds us in ways we cannot fully recover from. The angel blesses him but also wounds him with scars that never go away. He walks with a limp for the rest of his life. The good news is that the wound is not all Jacob emerges with; he receives his blessing AND a name change.
The opponent asks Jacob, “What is your name?” And he shouts out, ‘Jacob!’ But he is not just saying his name, he is stating everything he knows to be true about himself… the name, ‘Jacob,’ means, ‘grabs at the heel,’ ‘supplanter,’ ‘trickster’. This is the identity he has lived with his whole life. By saying his name he offers God access to the core of his character. It is an act of confession.
His opponent responds: “No- that is not who you are anymore. From now on your name is no longer Jacob – but Israel… “ No longer “trickster,” “manipulator”. Jacob the Deceiver, receives a new name, Israel, which means “you’ve striven with God and humans, and prevailed.” Jacob is now free- free to be everything God has designed him to be.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a Jewish scholar, says that the riverbank wrestling was about Jacob becoming himself. All his life he had tried to be Esau. He had taken what was rightfully his brother’s because he wanted to be his brother, but that night on the river bank, wrestling with something, with someone, he becomes himself, he becomes complete and whole as a human being for the first time.
So many times, like Jacob, we hang on to the names and perceptions of who we are or have been – we get caught up in our identity; in what we call ourselves, or the ways we act or think, or the perceptions of others, or the things we have done… that we miss the fact that God has already given us a new identity- a new name. 2 Cor. 5;18:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:
The old has gone, the new is here!
Through Christ we too leave our identity behind and receive a new name that reflects God’s nature.
There is a song that reflects this understanding that I am going to play and sing for you.
I will change your name You shall no longer be called
Wounded, out- cast, lonely or afraid
I will change your name Your new name shall be
Confidence, joyful-ness, overcoming one
Faithfulness, friend of God One who seeks My face
Sister Joan Chittister in her book Scarred By Struggle, Transformed By Hope, uses the Jacob story as a paradigm for a “spirituality of struggle.” In Jacob’s story she identifies eight elements of our human struggle — change, isolation, darkness, fear, powerlessness, vulnerability, exhaustion, and scarring. With each human struggle there is a corresponding divine gift — conversion, independence, faith, courage, surrender, limitations, endurance, and transformation.
Wrestling with God changed Jacob’s identity. He was no longer to be known as one who received his blessing by deception. In the words of theologian Henri Nouwen, Jacob, having wrestled with God, leaves Jabbok/Peniel as a “wounded healer,” not as a wounded wounder. The hope is that he will learn from his injury and use his experience to heal, not to wound out of his woundedness.
The struggle turned out to be a profoundly gracious gift of restoration that God gave Jacob. Israel becomes not only his new name, but the name of God’s people – this is where their identity is born.
Just like Jacob named the place where he had the dream of the ladder ascending to heaven – Beth-el – meaning “Surely God was in this Place and I didn’t know it.” He now names this place along the Jabbok River Peniel, meaning, “for I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
This is the promise. Here is the hope: after the wrestling comes the blessing. Jacob learns that sometimes when the angel meets us in the wilderness, it makes us work for a blessing. After the wrestling comes that moment of grace, when we can stand on the riverbank, limping perhaps, but knowing that we have God’s blessing in our lives. We may struggle with God through the night, but by daybreak God only intends to bless us. Within that struggle we too can experience divine blessing. We have what we need and we are whole. Amen. Thanks be to God.
Let us sing along with the Small Family Singers – O Love that Wilt Not let me Go. While it was Jacob who clung to God, and would not let God go, we also affirm that God’s love won’t let us go either.