The story of Jacob wrestling with God is one that I have felt drawn to many times in my life. I can’t count how many times I have found myself awake in the middle of the night with either my head full of thoughts or my heart disquieted for one reason or another and as sleep evades me for minutes or hours I inevitably find myself thinking about dear Jacob up all night wrestling and I am able to take a deep breath and remember that sometimes wrestling, in whatever form it takes, is a necessary stop on the journey of faith.
Lately I have found myself up in the middle of the night, more than once, not particularly full of anxiety, but more full of anticipation as the time draws near for our son to be born. Some people tell me this is the body’s way of naturally preparing me to get used to going without sleep or learning how to survive on some patched together hours of rest as will certainly be the case when the child first arrives. This may be part of it, but I am also aware that there is a certain level of anxiety and a whole bunch of anticipation that are present within me as I wait in this time of limbo, not sure what to expect of the encounter about to take place.
In the Genesis story we find Jacob in a moment like this, in a moment of anticipation and anxiety over an eminent encounter. Jacob is about to be reunited with his brother, Esau, after many years of separation following Jacob stealing Esau’s birthright and blessing. Let’s recap some of the happenings in Jacob’s life to this point. Jacob and Esau were the twin sons of Isaac and Rebecca and even in the womb Jacob was a wrestler, he and Esau struggled so much with each other inside Rebecca that she turned to the Lord and asked “If this is the way it is to be, why go on living?” When the two were finally born Esau came first and Jacob came out grasping Esau’s heel. The name Jacob even alludes to this heel grabbing and names Jacob a trickster from birth: one who yanks on the heel, or pulls someone’s leg. The trickster nature of Jacob sticks with him and, although he was the second born son, he tricks his father, who has poor sight, into giving him the firstborn’s blessing by putting patches of goat skins on his arms and neck to imitate the hairiness of Esau, his elder brother. Once Esau finds out that Jacob has stolen his birthright and blessing, there is a great quarrel between them and Jacob is forced to flee from Esau’s anger.
Jacob’s flight leads him to his Uncle Laban, his mother’s brother, and it is from within Laban’s family that Jacob finds and marries Leah and Rachel (in that story Jacob is actually the one who is tricked by his uncle as he has asked and worked for 7 years to earn Rachel’s hand in marriage but is given Leah in disguise and then has to work an additional 7 years to then win Rachel’s hand). But back to the story at hand, Jacob, his wives and servants and all of their children are now back on the road because God has told Jacob, “Return to the land of your ancestors and I will go with you.” Many years have passed since Jacob fled from the wrath of Esau, but there is still uncertainty in how Esau will respond to the return of Jacob. Jacob sends messengers ahead of his caravan to let Esau know that he is on his way and the messengers return to Jacob saying that Esau is coming to meet them with 400 riders. This news upsets Jacob and fills him with fear and dread. Does Esau still hold anger and resentment against Jacob? Is Esau coming to meet them on the road prepared to do Jacob and his family harm or have time and space allowed Esau a chance to forgive Jacob’s deceit? It is in the midst of these myriad possibilities of Esau’s response to the return of Jacob that we find Jacob alone of the edge of the river Yabbok – a word that means crossroads. And Jacob is at a crossroads. His past is catching up with his present and when the two meet the direction forward is uncertain.
In this moment of fear and uncertainty, someone steps forth to wrestle with Jacob. Who this someone is, is sort of up for interpretation. Is it God in human form? Is it an angel wrestling on God’s behalf? Or is it Jacob wrestling with himself as he prepares to once again come face to face with his brother? Whatever the reality, the intent is the same, there is a struggle going on between fear and faith, between ego and letting go, between resistance and trust. And both parties are equally invested in the struggle. The wrestling lasts all night and it is only at the break of day that God, seeing that Jacob will not be overpowered strikes Jacob on the hip, dislocating it as they struggle and bringing the match to a moment of reckoning.
What a force of will Jacob must have had to be able to wrestle with God all through the night. I wonder if that force of will was simply stubbornness to not let go of his own desires and plans and control over his own life. To this point in his life, while God has journeyed with him, Jacob has also made choices of his own to move his life forward on his own terms and usually in whatever ways benefit him most. Or maybe that force of will is a determination to finally seek and find a new path forward. Perhaps it is a struggle to seek and allow himself to find the faith and trust beyond his own power that he knows he will need in his re-union with his past. Whichever it is, or whatever combination of both it may be, it takes courage and energy to step into the struggle. This is a reality when living a life of honest, authentic faith: from time to time one must be willing to step into struggle.
Last week at the Allegheny Mennonite Conference fall delegate session there was an update given on the work of a new church plant community in Pittsburgh called Shalom: A Peace Church Community of Brother Francis and Sister Clare. This community is seeking to be a place where it is safe to grapple with the difficult questions of faith and life. Their name comes from their respect for and desire to learn from the mothers and fathers of the church, including the teachings of St Francis and St Clare of Assisi to help them seek how to follow Jesus with reckless abandon. They said in their update that, while many churches think of themselves as a banquet, they like the image of a potluck, where everyone who comes to the table offers what they can and benefits from the offerings of others at the table. One of the questions they ask each other as they gather together is “what are you learning from God right now?” I like this question because it opens up a conversation about whatever you are encountering and/or struggling with in life and seeks to find and name God’s presence in that moment. It keeps the faith struggle active and relevant for each person as they seek to see the hand of God in the moments of their life. And that in itself can be a wrestling match – sometimes we are not able to see God in a moment, sometimes we blame God for the moments we find ourselves in, and in other times we are fully aware that it is only the presence and grace of God that is helping us make it through a moment.
Like us, Jesus also struggled to see the hand of God in moments. Jesus himself wrestled through a night with the presence and plans of God in his life as he spent time in prayer at Gethsemane facing head on the uncertainty and painful reality of the coming days. Jesus, like Jacob, was distressed and troubled, and he went off by himself to wrestle with God in prayer. Falling to the ground he prays that if it were possible this hour might pass him by. He said, “Abba, you have the power to do all things. Take this cup away from me. But let it be not my will, but your will.” Jesus, like us, struggles with what it means to put our own desires and egos aside and to willingly let God’s presence lead the way forward. Yet part of the beauty of God’s presence and our tendency to wrestle with it is that we have a God who joins us in the struggle.
The wrestling match by the river lasted until the break of day. God joined in the struggle with Jacob and let the struggle play itself out for hours, only touching Jacob’s hip at the last moment before daylight arrives. Daylight required the match to stop if Jacob’s life was to be spared – for as tradition stated, one cannot see the face of God and live. We are allowed and even encouraged to question and struggle with God and God sticks with us throughout our struggling, equally invested in questioning and struggling back for as long as we are willing to stay engaged or until a moment of absolute necessity and even then God stays attentive to us if we continue to seek after God.
Even when Jacob is wounded and can no longer hold his own in the wrestling match, he clings to his opponent and will not let him go without receiving a blessing. This is the same Jacob who stole the blessing belonging to another, now asking God for a blessing of his own. And God, having been present with Jacob in his struggle, provides a blessing that changes Jacob’s name to Israel – meaning one who prevails with God.
Wrestling with God is holy business. It is in the struggle that we are able to encounter ourselves and God in unexpected ways. God is present with us from the moment we resist till the moment we are transformed. When transformation comes, we stop struggling against ourselves and God and start struggling alongside of God.
There is a teaching from the Polish Hasidic Rabbi, Avraham Yehoshua Heschel who lived in the late 17 and early 1800s that offers this insight into these two names. He taught that there are two aspects of a person a Jacob aspect and an Israel aspect.
Sometimes we do something, and we don’t find God in that thing until afterward; this is the aspect of “Jacob”…But when we truly cleave to God, and have in mind at the beginning of the act that we are serving God, then we feel the divine life in that act even as we do it, and then we are called “Israel”…In this world most of us are like Jacob, only feeling God’s presence from time to time and usually only afterward, but we should strive to be like Israel, living in God’s presence always.
May we have the courage to strive to live in the presence of God in all things. May we not fear times of struggle that come our way. May we instead be empowered to embrace our struggles, stepping into them with a determination like Jacob’s and fully knowing that God is struggling with us and for us.