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.
Israel was born, not because of any great act of devotion or piety, but because Jacob was willing to wrestle the God of creation. Alone, by the side of a river, looking across the river that he had just sent his entire household to ford, Jacob encountered God and fought God. Unlike so many other theophanies throughout scripture there is no mention of Holy Ground. There is no worship of God until after the event takes place. God meets with Jacob, the two fight, and only when the fight is over do we see Jacob worshipping God.
In fact, throughout this whole episode Jacob is acting in ways that we would not typically consider a biblical hero to act. He has just sent his family across the river to meet his brother Esau ahead of him. Jacob stole essentially everything Esau rightfully owned before leaving home – as a result he imagined that Esau was going to be angry when they met, that Esau would kill him. So he sent his family ahead of him, bearing as many gifts as they could carry. It did two things, firstly it would let Jacob know how vengeful Esau was – if he killed people bearing gifts he would not hesitate to kill Jacob. Secondly, it gave Esau a chance to put his anger in perspective. Yes, you rightfully dislike your brother, but he has a family now. Would you make them orphans?
Jacob has set the stage to protect himself at the expense of his loved ones. Jacob in his fear and worry has emptied himself of all his worldly possessions, and is sitting on the literal edge of a new life. When the sun rose the next day he would either be killed, or be reconciled to his brother. Either way, there was nothing that would be the same. The night would end and with it an entire season of Jacob’s life would come to a close. At this river there was a clear separation between what was and what will be, and into that moment God entered to make the separation clearer.
When God appears there is no description of what God looked or acted like, only that God appeared as a, “man,” who wrestled with Jacob. Ancient wrestling was an intense sport, but in this context of what would have seemed life or death to Jacob it would have been even more aggressive. The two did not engage in any sort of organized struggle, it was Jacob striking out and trying to prevail over this stranger. Like anything else in his life, we can imagine that Jacob would not have fought fair in this fight. Anything he could do to win he would use – perhaps this is why the word used here for “wrestle” has the connotation of involving dust. This was not an organized struggle, it was a down and dirty fight.
What is puzzling about this text is that God does not win this fight. The lesson of the text is not that we are doomed in our efforts to oppose God, or else Jacob would be knocked flat here. Instead, Jacob is described as bringing the fight to a standstill. God does not prevail over Jacob, but neither does Jacob prevail over God. The two are locked together, they are equals in this moment. The God of all creation, locked in combat by the side of the river with one of God’s chosen people.
Christians have not liked this image. We turn it very quickly into a variety of things that the text simply does not support. We change this appearance of God into an angel, that way Jacob’s ability to match it in combat does not seem offensive to our sensibilities. Others have made the entire struggle metaphorical for the people of Israel, saying that what this is really saying is that the Jewish people are so basically rebellious that even their namesake refused to stop fighting God. Therefore the one leg of Jacob which is hobbled comes to represent the rebellious people of Israel, and the good strong leg becomes an image of the Christian church. The Body of Christ literally divided for the sake of a more hateful but palatable reading of scripture.
Yet Jacob was not beaten that day, and more than that Jacob was blessed because of his willingness to fight God. In an ambiguous moment of fear, fighting God seems to have been the correct course of action. When God seemed to be an enemy threatening Jacob, when God visited upon him in the secret of night, a fight was what needed to happen. Blessing came from it, enlightenment came from it, the full realization of what happened came after that. After struggling against God, Jacob comes to worship God and shouts out the name for the place the battle to place – “רָאִיתִי אהלים פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים” – I have seen God, face to face.
While being overly analogous with this text is dangerous, it does offer us a model for what our struggles with God can be like. In other conversations of grief and doubt, we have talked about being honest. If we are not honest then we are left in the same place, we do not approach any new understanding of God and we do not really heal so much as bury our feelings. In the same way, this scripture shows us just how brutal our interactions with God can be. When we feel in danger, when we are uncertain of tomorrow, when we are left alone with God the interaction is not always going to be a sweet conversation or a feeling of peace.
Sometimes we will strike out against God. Fists poised and ready before God has said anything to us we assume the worst is on its way. We strike out, we push back, we let God have it. And the strange thing is, God does not end the fight. God who could in a second crush us chooses not to. God who has all the power in the universe, in interacting with us acts as one of us. We can strive against God, we can meet an equal, we can even play dirty, but we will never beat God. God can take our striving, God can come down and be equal with us, and no matter what tricks we try to pull on God, we will never beat God. Yet, somewhere in all these struggles, the two parties draw closer together.
We cannot say all of this struggle is a positive example though. We are a violent species. We, like Jacob, can do some terrible things when we see something that we want. At the root of all our violence there is the desire for power – to show power, to acquire power, to consolidate power, but always to alter the economy of power. Jacob was willing to lie to his dying father, to steal from his starving brother, and now he was facing down God and he made one last play for power.
Having already been blessed by God, Jacob asks to receive God’s name. Now, Jacob is frequently shown being the least willing of the patriarchs not to worship more than one God. Whereas other people are shown destroying idols, Jacob only buries them in well-known locations. Whereas other people are shown to use the divine name, Jacob is more prone to refer to God in the relatively neutral term, “Elohim.” So here, Jacob is asking two questions of God – One, “What is the name of the God I have just fought with,” and two, “What is your name so that I have control over you?” Because, for those in the ancient world, knowing a God’s name meant you had the ability to control their actions, and for them to know yours meant the same.
We, in our interactions with God and with other people, are often thinking about what we can get out of the interaction. We want to take control of the situation and to exert our will on the other party. We want, we want, we want. Yet, deep down in whatever we are after there is some deep need. For Jacob, the need was to know that no matter what happened down the line, God was going to see him through to tomorrow. Where Jacob thought he needed control, God gave assurance – but how could either know what the other needed if the two did not first have their struggle by the river.
And Jacob was transformed by that struggle. Not only in taking on a new name, “Israel” – he who wrestles with God, or perhaps the one with whom God wrestles – but in his approach to this entire situation. Going forward to face his brother, he is no longer fearful. The fight of the previous night is still fresh in his head and the pain in his leg is real. As he walks across the field to meet his brother he would be limping, he would be tired, but he kept on walking forward. The battle against God left him empty of any anger toward his brother, of any fear of what might come next.
Jacob walks across the field – he plans out how he will kowtow to him. He will bow seven times, he will approach with all reverence and power. All his family is already in front of him, and he is prepared to face whatever comes next. How surprising then that Esau, rather than getting revenge against his brother, rather than accepting his submission to him, runs and meets his brother. The two embrace and we are told that Esau celebrates the goodness that God has given to his brother. The two had fought their entire lives, Jacob had stolen everything from him, yet somehow the two had prospered apart from one another. Esau, not as concerned with power as his brother, sees him as a member of the family, as someone he has missed, as someone who he wants to be in community with and work toward a better future together.
Jacob, seeing this act of kindness abandons his own preconceived notions of his brother. He has sought forgiveness for his past cruelty, and now his brother is transformed in his eyes. Esau is not some great villain waiting to take away what he has, he is not power-hungry. Jacob no knows he had projected these feelings onto his brother. When he looks at his brother the words he said at Penuel come back to him, and to Esau, he says, “רָאִיתִי פָנֶיךָ, כִּרְאֹת פְּנֵי אֱלֹהִים” – “looking at you is like looking at the face of God.” His brother, his enemy, the one he has struggled against for so long – becomes the image of God to him. Can we do this? Can we be honest when we fight God, can we let God transform us, can we see in our enemy the face of God? Let us fight the good fight and find out. – Amen