Wrestling with God A Reflection on Genesis 32:22-32
We don’t have to be religious in order to wrestle with God. It is the wrestling that counts.
Do you remember Jacob, the conman and trickster? GO Much to his surprise, Jacob had a mystical experience, encountering the Vision and Voice as he dreamed of a ladder of angels. In today’s story, Jacob is about to face the consequences of a lifetime of shady dealings. His brother Esau, whom he tricked out of his fortune, is coming after him. Although he has sent his brother a generous offering as a way of making amends, he doesn’t know what to expect. Would his brother – the stronger of the two –mete out the vengeance Jacob deserved? Or, would he forgive and forget, his anger appeased by his brother’s generous gift? Just to be sure, Jacob sends his family to a safe place, and goes to a deserted spot to await his fate.
In the darkness, Jacob is visited by a stranger, about whose intentions Jacob is uncertain. Somehow the men start wrestling, strength against strength, wit against wit. All night, the two struggle against one another, with neither gaining the upper hand. As day breaks, the nocturnal stranger reveals his intention to depart. It is clear that the stranger wants to remain a mystery. Although he injures Jacob, Jacob hangs on for dear life. Once again Jacob seeks a blessing, or better yet, a bargain. “I will not let you go until you bless me,” Jacob bargains. The stranger counters, “What is your name?” And, reluctantly, Jacob must declare is identity, “I am Jacob, the trickster and conman.” To which, the stranger replies, “You are no longer Jacob but Israel for you have wrestled with God and human beings, and have prevailed.”
Jacob is surprised and pleased, for he did not really prevail against the stranger; he just barely survived, and knew deep down that the stranger had not come at him with full force. As a new day begins, Jacob limps off, aware that he had “seen God face to face, and survived.”
This is truly a strange story. For Jacob, the event was life changing. Was he really wrestling with God? Or, was he wrestling with his past, with the burden of his name and his behavior? Was Jacob being given a second chance to change his ways and become a son worthy of his grandparents Sarah and Abraham? Was it a dream or did Jacob truly have a nocturnal visitor?
Sometimes, when life asks us, “Who are you?” we have to face our lives in all our wonder and finitude, our good intentions and failures, our generosity and small-mindedness. Like Jacob, our moments of self-examination may leave us limping, and feeling the wounds of our past. But, our self-examination may leave us with a new name, and a new sense of purpose. As described in this story, God wants us to embrace our whole lives. God wants us to recognize both our grandeur and pettiness. Painful as it may be, we can grow through encountering God’s vision of who we are and what we can become. We become persons of stature, who are more accepting of others, because we have experienced the acceptance of a reality greater than ourselves. This is what grace means – to find new life despite our past mistakes.
This story may have a theological meaning. Lots of people believe that the answers to life’s questions are clear and easily found. Some religious people think their religious tradition or a holy book such as the Bible or the Quran has all the answers. They discourage questions and see doubt as a sign of weak faith. But, the story of Jacob reminds us that often the answers come in the struggle – that easy answers are often either wrong or irrelevant – and that depth comes from facing our questions, doubts, and objections, along with our imperfections and gifts, and not letting go of the quest until we receive a blessing.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, and author. His most recent books include his response to Rick Warren, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed.