Holy Wrestling

Holy Wrestling

And the tribute procession (to impress Esau) passed on before him, and he spent that night in the camp.
…And Jacob rose on that night and took his two wives and his two slave girls and his eleven boys and he crossed over the Jabbok ford. And he took them and brought them across the stream, and he brought across all that he had.
And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. And he saw that he had not won out against him and he touched his hip socket and Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched as he wrestled with him.
And he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” And he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”
And he said, “Not Jacob shall your name hence be said, but Israel, for you have striven with God and men, and won out.”
And Jacob asked and said, “Tell your name, pray.” And he said, “Why should you ask my name?” and there he blessed him.
And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen God face-to-face and I came out alive.”
And the sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel and he was limping on his hip.

Genesis 32:22-29 –translation by Robert Alter

The story in Genesis of the wrestling match between Jacob and this man/angel of God is one of the foundational stories of Hebrew scripture. It is a ‘hinge’ story; what takes place ‘before’ is vastly differ-ent than what happens ‘after.’

This epic story has meaningful implications covering a lot of ground; both Biblical and current/real life as well. It might recount for you old sibling rivalries. Or you might relate to it individually, as in what keeps you up through the night in those things you wrestle with, tossing and turning in body and mind. Or you might see in this story a new challenge or opportunity lurking around the corner, with you ready for it, or not.

For Jacob, this story takes place the night before he is to meet his brother, Esau, for the first time in twenty years. It is a portentous event. Remember how the brothers feuded as youngsters, with Jacob always tricking Esau into making a foolish move, most famously giving up his birthright for a bowl of porridge?

Ever since, Esau wanted revenge, maybe even to kill Jacob, and for all Jacob knows he still would like to do so. In fact, Jacob had just heard that Esau was coming to meet him with four hundred men! This doesn’t sound like the makings of a happy reunion, and Jacob is terrified.

Dreading an encounter with Esau, Jacob first has a different and unexpected encounter on the banks of the River Jabbok. He wrestles with a “man” until daybreak. Even after this stranger puts Jacob’s hip out of joint, Jacob won’t let go until he gives him a blessing. The stranger asks for his name, Jacob an-swers, and then the man gives him a new name, “Israel,” “for you have striven with God and men and have prevailed”. (The name “Israel” is most simply translated “God will prevail,” but is understood here as “one who contends with God.”) Then the stranger blesses him.

Jacob calls the place Peniel, “face of God” – “for I have seen God face to face and I’m alive!” and for-ever after this encounter he limps, wounded by the encounter and changed as a person, no longer the trickster but now the embodiment of Israel, the nation.

The name ‘Jacob’ comes from the Hebrew word for “heel” with the connotation of “usurping” or even “cheating.” And that just begins to scratch the truth of who and what Jacob once was, one who lied to his old and blind father and stole his brother’s blessing, one who had to run for his life and flee into exile, one who struggled for twenty years with his father-in-law Laban, deceiving and being de-ceived.

But then God gives Jacob a new name: Israel. And this portends the truth of who Jacob will be-come; a new man, the progenitor of a new nation. Traces of the old Jacob will remain, but he will ma-ture from the callow youth he once was. The once self-centered youth will become the patriarch, the man who in his old age will lead his family into Egypt and bless Pharaoh himself. This is the decisive truth, the Gospel of the story, that God gives Jacob a new name and is forever changed with a new identity.

Jacob, the scheming youth, becomes Israel, the father of a nation. The turning point in this account takes place at the River Jabbok (a place that is in itself a play on words, a rearrangement of the conso-nants of Jacob’s name.) The story of the wrestling match tells us a lot about Jacob, about the man he was and about the man he becomes. It is also a parable of the ancient nation Israel. Israel is a nation that wrestles with God, holding on to God fiercely, even when God seems harsh or uncaring. In scrip-ture, the people of Israel hold God to God’s promises because she is the nation that bears the great responsibility of being chosen and blessed by God.

It still happens in different ways; this ‘Holy Wrestling’ we engage in. Early this week I was struggling with this story, how to make sense of it and bring some relevant application to it.

I had read through lots of creative efforts to explain what could possibly be meant with a story where a human wrestles and survives a match with God. I had tried a few attempts at an explanation myself.

While I was struggling with this text, I happened upon a ten year old sermon transcript of a friend of mine who once lived in Dubuque, Iowa, who recounted an article from the premiere issue of a magazine called Our Iowa.

This was a story about a high school wrestling match between Ogden and Humboldt. Wrestling, needless to say, is VERY BIG in Iowa. Humboldt had a senior on their team with Down syndrome, 154 pounds. He was not capable of wrestling at a competitive high school level and posed no challenge to any wrestler. But the coaches asked if anyone on the Ogden team would at least give the boy a chance to get out on the mat.

An Ogden wrestler offered to take him on. He not only wrestled him for the entire six minutes, but allowed his opponent to beat him on points. He gave the Humboldt kid the thrill of a lifetime, not only by competing, but raising his arms in victory. Both wrestlers got a standing ovation and there was hardly a dry eye in the gymnasium.

And for the first time, I understood what the story of a man wrestling with God and prevailing was all about.

The real message of this story is that God is not an impersonal or terrifying presence to whom we cannot relate in any meaningful way. God is not a universal force expecting only praise, sacrifice and groveling from us with no further use for us at all.

Instead, God is ready, willing and eager to get down, dirty and sweaty with us.

We are the spiritual descendants of Jacob. We are the people who wrestle with God. It is not at all presumptuous of us to make this claim. God was the one who gave this name to God’s people. This is who God wants us to be.

Of course God could remain impersonal, aloof, apart- a trillion miles away from us. But for the sake of this world that God loves, God is always ready to wrestle with us, at whatever level we are ca-pable of wrestling.

In a very specific and dramatic way, God sent Jesus into the world to wrestle with us, and Jesus allowed himself to get pinned to a cross. That’s what it finally took for humanity to realize and experience the love that flows from God.

It’s been said that ‘God only gives us as much as we can handle’. That may or may not be true.

Whatever it is that we’re given in life, we tend to struggle with it; whether it’s success or failure, a new birth or a devastating loss; with whatever God gives us in life, we can struggle. The Jacob story is a ‘subversive narrative’, an unexpected account of an underdog over against the ‘system’ who astonishingly and unexpectedly manages to survive and succeed.

  1. Discern who it is you’re wrestling: is this the real thing or not?
  2. Don’t disengage from God in the struggle; God won’t disengage with you.
  3. Discipline is vital throughout the process; walk on, step by step, though you will surely be changed by the struggle. 
  4. Finally, TRUST that there’s a way forward, even when you can’t see it.

First, in order to discern with whom or with what you’ve struggled, it’s important to know the difference between the voices of your past and that of the living God. God is alive; Christ is risen, and continues to speak. How? In prayer, in study, in the confidence of good close friends confirmed by experience. Unlike Jacob at the river, we tend not to have our encounters solely ‘one on one’ without having a chance to confide in someone else close by while we’re in the middle of the action. The best kind of discernment comes in conversation with others; and God, through scripture, prayer and friendship, needs and wants to be included in the discussion.

Second; don’t disengage, don’t let go. Keep at it. Keep beating a path to God’s door in your hopes and dreams, not so much for God to hear you (because God hears you as surely as your heart is beating), but because persistent prayer may well be the best way to find the right door for you to open. Pray about it, talk about it, verbalize it. God will act; keep at it, and keep the faith…

Then walk on ahead, disciplined; with a plan….though you may be changed because of it. Wrestle with what is put in front of you. Wrestle with where you are in relation to where you want to be. How will you grow spiritually? How will your life be further enriched with the experience of God and sharing the goodness God gives you in your life?

How will you respond to God’s call to you in this new season of living? How will you feed that part of God to grow in you and through you?

Finally, know that there’s always hope, even when it’s so dark you can’t see it. Jacob felt the inner compulsion to move ahead in the night in order to meet his destiny. After he wrestled, he was re-leased, not just with a dislocated hip, but with a blessing, too. It surely wasn’t easy for Jacob to do what he did, but in the end, it was more worthwhile than he could have ever imagined.

Now, when all of this is put together, what all of this means is that if we seriously want to be engaged by the Holy, we need seriously to do it. And Church can be a big part of where the encounter can take place.

Church is where the human quest for God is recounted week in and week out; it’s where critical issues of faith and life are brought to light, not so much because we here are holy, but rather because we here wrestle with Holy words, Holy stories, and by our connection with them become more closely aware of the mysteries of God.

In whatever it is God gives us in life, our struggles can be made all the more meaningful and all the more important when we wrestle knowing that God is with us in the process and will only let us go, finally, with a blessing that we are given to share with others.

This is the good news. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: Lord, our God, we meet you in life, in challenges we encounter and opportunities we meet, renew our faith in you and our commitment to your church, that we may be a blessing to others in our lives and with our actions, for in Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.