No longer the supplanter, the heel grabber, reborn with a new sense of being and a new name to go with it, Israel… He is the one who struggles with God and prevails, the father a great nation. Imagine, struggling with God and not letting go. That is faithfulness.
Wrestling with “The Man”
Caleb, a sixteen year old, recently, for the first time, beat his father in tennis. I think it was something of a rite of passage. It was a crossing.
Our text today is Genesis’ story of Jacob leaving his father-in-law with his two wives, 11 children, concubines, slaves, flocks and herds and now approaching the ford on the river Jabbok. Twenty years before he had fled his home and crossed the Jabbok to find sanctuary with the family of his mother. We all remember that story. Having more than enough his brother, Esau, from whom he had stolen his birthright and parental blessing, threatened to kill him. Over those two decades he served his father in law Laben he finally gained the love of his life and during the time with his family he amassed enormous holdings despite being badly treated. Now under threat from the family of his wives, in a dream God told Jacob to leave his adopted country and return to the land of his birth and with the support of Laben’s two daughters he began the migration.
But he hadn’t forgotten his brother’s threat. He sent a message to Esau that he was coming home and said that he hoped to find favor in his brother’s sight. The messengers returned to tell Jacob that his brother was coming to meet him with a force of four hundred men. Being afraid, he divided his party so that were Esau and company to destroy or capture one the other could be saved. Intent on softening up his brother he then sent major gifts across the ford on the river Jabbok: goats, sheep, cattle, camels and donkeys. Later that night, under the shield of darkness, he took the members of his household and everything he owned across the river. The text doesn’t tell us but it has to be presumed that Jacob returned across the Jabbok because he spent the night alone on the banks of the river It was a place of darkness. He will have to face his brother and deal with his guilt over stolen blessings. This is our text: Genesis 32:24-30
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 put out of joint 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 him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
He limped across the river ford.
But what a night. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. Peaks our interest doesn’t it? A man, the text says. And the man doesn’t prevail against Jacob.
Who was this masked man – well, this anonymous man with whom Jacob wrestled? In his imagination was it Esau, knowing he would soon be facing him. Was it his father-in-law Laben who felt that Jacob had defrauded him and was leaving with with daughters and grand children? Was it Jacob himself? His past? His future? His identity? His faith? Yes. And what did Jacob conclude. He was wrestling with God. He puts Jacob’s hip out of place but Jacob held on until the man begged him to let go because day was dawning. Not with out a blessing Jacob demanded. And this would be a real blessing, not a stolen one. In the moment Jacob stopped being Jacob and became Israel. In this ‘dark night of the soul” night time wrestling match Jacob was wounded and blessed. What is it that makes that so normal, being wounded and being blessed going hand in hand?
The final line of our text is truly a life restoring one. It reads: The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. No longer the supplanter, the heel grabber, reborn with a new sense of being and a new name to go with it, Israel. He is the one who struggles with God and prevails, the father a great nation. Imagine, struggling with God and not letting go. That is faithfulness.
In the locker room of my high school Coach Burns put up a sign that read “Quiters never win and Winners never quit.” I’d question the use of this in a competitive sense but Jacob didn’t let go until sunrise threatened the man or, as Jacob declared, God. I’ve wrestled with the idea of prevailing with God. The wrestling match ended in a draw and the gift of a blessing and a crippling. Do you imagine that with ever step Israel took for the rest of his life he was reminded of the blessing and with every celebration of enjoying the outcome of the blessing his limp reminded him of how God had blessed him.
The big issue that the story brought up for me is how we understand prevailing with God. When Maggie, our eleven year old Boston Terrier was a pup a veterinarian told me that when we played tug if I didn’t let her win sometimes it would break her spirit. I wonder about Jacob’s prevailing with God. To think that a human being could be in a contest with God and actually win, or prevail, challenges our notion of God being all powerful. To think that God let Jacob prevail suggests that God just plays with us. But can you imagine God being wrestled to a draw by faithfulness? Can you imagine that going on in your life or mine. It suggests that God isn’t static but spontaneous and is open to doing things in ways that encourage our faithfulness.
How do we connect with that? Is it struggling with addiction or getting up each morning to face grief or loss that seems unbearable? You know what it’s like to toss and turn all night not knowing what to do next. That is the experience of crossing the Jabbok and it’s our experience in many different ways. It’s a nightmare scenario. It occurs in a place of wounding. But it is also a place of rebirth and renaming and the place becomes a holy place. Jacob renames it Peniel, the place where he saw the face of God.
And what is your Jabbok experience? We all have at least one. Most of us can identify where and how we’ve been wounded. And that wounding can cause us to limp through life, each step reminding us of our struggle. That makes it hard to see or trust the presence of the blessing. In the moment things are still too dark, we will need to wait for day break. But faithfulness, in the middle of the dark night struggle, is not letting go. What’s in the future isn’t necessarily a rose garden situation. It doesn’t mean that we can return to life the way it once was or as we’d prefer it to be. It doesn’t mean that good relationships will magically be restored. It means that God is faithful and we can move forward. Blessed and renamed we can, like Jacob, cross the Jabbok and look ahead.