I don’t know another passage of Genesis with which I have wrestled more than this one. That’s good for you to know at the outset because you can relax and not be thinking I am going to resolve all the questions about this account. In some ways, I am like Jacob. I come into it with fear and trembling and leave it limping. But, because it is such a central part of Jacob’s journey from the deceiver to the father of the twelve tribes of Israel we don’t have any choice.
Many stories, like this one, are told to explain something. Almost all of Greek mythology is composed of stories to explain why things are the way they are. You remember the story of the twelve stones in the river Jordan when Joshua led the children of Israel across. God said, “In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean? Tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.” We need those stories. But, it’s hard for me to believe that Jacob’s understanding of this story or that of the one who eventually wrote it down is the last verse. “Therefore, to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.” There must be more to it than this. It must be explaining more than that.
Perhaps one of the things is a way of explaining why we are the way we are and why we do things the way we do. What are our rules and traditions? What are the moments in our history that we value the most and that come the closest to defining us as a people and a nation? Stories get lodged in our imaginations far more than statements and facts we memorize. How did we get to be the way we are and what are our unique traits and characteristics? What are the stories that explain us to ourselves and are not simply stories about one person alone? For the Jews, these verses have helped them accept and understand God’s unique relationship with them for thousands of years. It is the common and unchanging thread that runs through their history. It is what they have in common. They are Israel – the ones who struggle with God and men. Nothing could be truer than that. Unfortunately, Christians have so many different ideas of what it means to be a Christian that we end up pulling out verses or labels and throwing them like stones at each other. We have theology and doctrines and interpretations but we do not have a story like this that tells us who we are in the world. Israel means “the one who struggles with God and men” but what does it mean when we say “Christian”? None of us are really sure or it means whatever we want it to mean. “People first declare themselves to be followers of Christ, and then assume that whatever they say or do merits the adjective “Christian.” Wendell Berry.
First, the setting and the circumstances. Jacob has just completed a treaty with Laban that guarantees they will not cross a line to hurt each other. It’s not an easy parting but then Jacob has never had an easy parting. That’s really his pattern, isn’t it? He always leaves conflict and disagreements behind him wherever he goes.
Second, he is about to face the effects of a relationship he ruined and ran away from 20 years ago. When we last saw him, Esau was consoling himself with the thought of killing Jacob and for all Jacob knew this thought had festered and grown. He didn’t know what he was facing but he had a plan.
He sends his gifts orchestrated in several waves ahead of him in order to placate Esau or at least bribe him. It is not just flocks and herds thinking that Esau may attack them with his four hundred men. It is people as well. The leader of each group is to assure Esau that this is part of Jacob’s larger gift to him. He sends the people thinking that at least some will survive an attack. “For he thought, ‘I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me. So, Jacob’s gifts when on ahead of him, but he himself spent the night in the camp.” It’s just what we would expect from Jacob. He is prepared with a devious strategy. He expects losses and is willing to sacrifice relationships for personal survival. Life is a war for Jacob.
Third, so everything and everyone has been sent on ahead to, hopefully, ensure his safety. He is alone while he waits to find out if his plan works. Everything has been planned out and now he is simply waiting. He is disconnected from everything he has accumulated in his life.
In “Finding God at Harvard”, Kelly Monroe Kuhlberg writes about the spiritual journeys she discovered there among the professors and students. One of them is Dr. Glenn Loury, a professor of economics.
“Although a wonderful and beautiful woman loved me and had agreed to become my wife, I was unable and unwilling to consummate with her the relationship that our marriage made possible. I was unable to be faithful to that relationship. I am not speaking now only of adultery; I was unable to be faithful to be present emotionally. I was unable to set aside enough of my selfishness to build a life with someone else. Marriage involves give and take, but I gave little. My pride and a self-centered outlook eliminated any chance for a fruitful union.
I was dead in spirit, despite the fact that I had professional success as a tenured professor at Harvard. What more could one ask for? I had reached the pinnacle of my profession. When I went to Washington, people in the Halls of Power knew my name. I had research grants. I had prestige. Nevertheless, I often found myself in the depths of depression, saying, “Life has no meaning.” I would say this out loud, with such regularity that my wife came to expect it of me. This is not to say that I was suicidal or psychotic; I was not. For me, there was no real joy. My achievements gave me no sense of fulfillment. Nothing in my life had any sense of depth and meaning. I thought of myself as living on the surface of things. Life seemed to be one chore or contest after another, in which I hoped to score high, to win accolades, and to achieve financial gains. But there was no continuity, no coherence, no thread of meaning which gave these various achievements ultimate significance.”
I don’t want to impose my psychology on Jacob but that is how I see him here – running from one broken relationship only to face another. Successful but willing to give it all up just to buy his survival. No joy or meaning. Empty.
Fourth, what would you expect from God? A word of encouragement? A reminder of the promises that had been made in the past? Comfort? Perhaps a miracle or even deliverance from the prospect of ruin the next day?
Nothing like that at all. In fact, what does he get? God picks a fight with him. It doesn’t read that Jacob chose to wrestle with the angel but that he was the one attacked. There are other stories of men who have disagreed with God with great risk to themselves: Abraham, Moses, Job, and David among others. I would have much-preferred reading that it was Jacob who had made the first move to struggle with God. It would have only underscored how much courage it takes to wrestle with God – and win. Win or lose – it would show great courage. It would show him to be “the man in the arena.”
Teddy Roosevelt: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
But God goes after him when he is down and alone in his fear and distress. This is a God he has never met before. Sometimes when God says, “I will be with you” we discover all the unexpected things that can mean. He is with Jacob but not in the way he imagined. He is not just a voice or even a spirit. He is a man.
I doubt wrestling would have been his choice. Yes, I would understand Esau as a wrestler. I see Jacob preferring a deck of cards, chess or a game of wits. Nowhere do we see him as a wrestler.
This is not a dark night of the soul or a wilderness experience. It is not a spiritual desert for Jacob. It is a contest intentionally designed to change him from one who deceives, outwits, or runs into someone who has the tenacity to wrestle. God forces him into becoming someone he would never have chosen. He was far more at home as a deceiver, thinker, strategist, and plotter. He is comfortable being Jacob. But God changes him. He no longer overcomes by running or outsmarting but by wrestling and struggling. That is his legacy to his descendants for all time.
He’s always been crippled on the inside – afraid of what men like Esau and Laban could do to him. Now, it’s more like a badge of honor. He has been attacked and overcome. He has seen God face to face and lived. He limps away with the gift of a new identity and not just another blessing. God made it impossible for him to ever run again. That part of his life was over.
I’m reminded of Psalm 56 in the image of Israel walking away as the sun rises.
Be merciful to me, my God,
for my enemies are in hot pursuit;
all day long they press their attack.
My adversaries pursue me all day long;
in their pride many are attacking me.
When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise—
in God I trust and am not afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?
All day long they twist my words;
all their schemes are for my ruin.
They conspire, they lurk,
they watch my steps,
hoping to take my life.
Because of their wickedness do not let them escape;
in your anger, God, bring the nations down.
Record my misery;
list my tears on your scroll —
are they not in your record?
Then my enemies will turn back
when I call for help.
By this I will know that God is for me.
In God, whose word I praise,
in the Lord, whose word I praise—
in God I trust and am not afraid.
What can man do to me?
I am under vows to you, my God;
I will present my thank offerings to you.
For you have delivered me from death
and my feet from stumbling,
that I may walk before God
in the light of life.
As I said, there are so many unanswered questions. Why does God want to wrestle? Who is the man? What is his name? Why does Jacob want to know his name? Why does he disappear at dawn? How can we trust that God will not do the same with us when we are in similar circumstances?
Finally, before we leave, let’s look at one more scene of a man alone struggling with God.
”Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.”
I think this is the same nameless man who wrestled with Jacob so long ago. He is facing certain death by his enemies the next day. Everything he loves will be taken from him. Even God will not be with him in the end. He will be forsaken. But, instead of separating himself from them he has asked people following him to be with him. He has not sent them to be sacrificed or taken as hostages. This time he does not make demands for a blessing but lets go completely. This time the angels strengthen him and this time he is not crippled but crucified. This time God sacrifices him and by his wounds we are healed. And this time through him we have been delivered from death and ruin and our feet from stumbling and we can walk before God in the light of life. The struggle is over.