Imagine the desperation. There was Jacob, on the shores of the Jabbok, surely terrified. He was about to face his brother, about to face certain death.
And he deserved it.
For someone labeled a ‘hero of the faith,’ for someone who gets included in our list of Fathers – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – he certainly didn’t life a very heroic life.
Jacob was the second-born son of Isaac and Rebekah. Well – barely the second born. His twin brother, Esau, emerged only moments before Jacob. In a culture that values birth order – especially amongst sons – even these precious moments helped determine a lifetime of animosity and angst between these two brothers. Jacob’s name, even, reminds him, informs others, of his birth, meaning “he takes by the heel,” (and could also be understood to mean, “he deceives.” To be sure, Jacob would maintain his grip on Esau’s heel, living up to his name for years to come. The stories that follow the birth of the twins seem to retell mistake after mistake or one deceit after another from Jacob.
Jacob steals the birthright from Esau, trading it for a bowl of stew. Under influence and encouragement from his mother – he always was a momma’s boy – Jacob deceives his father and steals Esau’s blessing.
The two brothers never quite got off on the right foot. (Pun intended.) It seemed destined that they would be at odds, as the scriptures tell us in the words to Rebekah before they were born: Genesis 25.23: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”
Turns out, God knows what God is talking about.
For all Jacob’s conniving and jealousy-driven coercions, he has trumped Esau, forging a permanent wall between them. Tricking both Esau and Isaac out of Esau’s proper blessing was the last straw. Jacob’s life is not on the line, and he heeds his mother’s advice to “flee at once to my brother Laban in Haran, and stay with him a while, until your brother’s fury turns away – until your brother’s anger against you turns away and he forgets what you have done to him.”
Jacob left, but not after being blessed again by his father. That was the last he would know of his family and his brother – that he had deceived all of them and his brother wanted to kill him.
Talk about not being able to go home again.
But that is exactly what Jacob wanted to – and intended to do. After 21 years of living with Laban, a victim to his own tricks, being deceived into marrying Leah first, and sticking it out to marry Rachel. Jacob felt ready to return to his homeland. His attempt to leave resulted in conversation with Laban that did not go as planned and he then received the resentment of sons of Laban. He was left with no choice but to pack up everything – wives, servants, goats, sheep, all that he had – and begin the journey back to his home.
Imagine the desperation at this point.
Jacob really has no homeland. His mother is dead, and he is estranged from his father. He has a brother who, last time he checked, was intent and content to seek revenge ending in death.
Not exactly the homecoming I would want. But he’s on his way.
Jacob, determined to do all he can to make reparations, sends ahead messengers bearing gifts. Hoping to appease Esau’s anger, he tells his messengers, “Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have lived with Laban as an alien, and staying until now; and I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male and female slaves; and I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight.’” We can hear the change of attitude in Jacob’s calling Esau ‘my lord,’ and himself Esau’s servant. Either humility or desperation for his own life – for better or worse – it is a change at the very least.
It does not seem to have done any good. The messengers, sensing Jacob’s unease and anxiety return fearfully to Jacob, reporting “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.”
Jacob, we read, “was greatly afraid and distressed.”
I can imagine this figure standing alone – in stark contrast to the men and women standing around the hundreds of livestock. There he is, pacing up and down the edge of the river, assured only of his certain death at the hands of his only brother – his twin brother – his womb-mate. The only other thing he must know for certain is that he deserves every bit of what’s coming to him.
Hands wringing, beads of sweat forming.
Imagine the desperation.
It is this desperation that forms his prayer:
“O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, … Deliver me, please, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children.”
This desperate father, brother, husband tries again to placate Esau’s anger, by sending an army of animals in three different waves, instructing all of them to tell Esau that the animals “Belong to your servant Jacob; they are a present sent to my lord Esau; and moreover he is behind us.’”
Jacob sent all he had as a final act of desperation in hopes of finding favor with his estranged twin – thereby securing another day of his life.
So there is Jacob. Still pacing nervously along the river. He sends the rest of his family across, leaving himself alone for the night. Alone to fear and question his impending fate. I’m sure he had plenty of time to relive and regret all his deceitfulness and misdeeds.
Plenty of time to wrestle with his guilt.
All of his wrestling seemed to be internal – working up knots of guilt and anxiety and fear. Until he found himself grip to grip with an unknown figure. The scriptures tell us that “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” Jacob finds himself wrestled to the ground, caught in a Full Nelson (which I’m told is actually an illegal move), and all Jacob does is react.
He has no idea who this person could be – for all he knows it is Esau – and he is in survival mode. It’s fight or flight, and he’s fighting until the end.
So. There they are, the man and Jacob, locked, wrestling, for hours.
Imagine the desperation.
Jacob was not going to let go. And so the man strikes his hip, knocking it out of joint. Even then, Jacob’s letting go was contingent of receiving a blessing. (Do you notice a theme here?)
The stranger responds with a question: “What is your name?” to which Jacob answered. The man responds by saying, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with God and with humans and have prevailed.” He does not tell Jacob his name, and proceeds to bless him. Here Jacob realized who he has seen, saying, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
We can imagine the desperation Jacob surely felt. He struggled all of his life to be on top – to get what he wanted, even when he knew he did not deserve it – especially when he didn’t deserve it.
And now, when he surely deserved his brother’s vengeance, he was desperate to change his fate. His wrestling, his refusing to let go was an act of desperation.
Imagining how Jacob felt in these moments is the easy part.
But. Imagine the God. Imagine the God who would appear physically to Jacob – to be present – interlocked arm-in-arm with him – and struggle with him. Jacob had received dreams from God, but this was divine intervention of a whole different sort. What does this divine wrestling match mean? How in the world do we understand it?
Many perspectives exist – regarding the identity of the wrestler, the posture of Jacob, the meaning of his physical experience. I believe we should read this story, though, as Jacobs.
We are tenacious, often desperate in our own lives.
God, though – God is not distant – God comes and wrestles with us. Because we do not want to let go, neither does God. In a sense, Jacob’s struggling and holding his own change a potentially negative situation into a positive, blessing-filled one. After the night at Penuel, certainly Jacob’s and God’s relationship has changed. They hold fast to each other. Neither will turn away.
Jacob is changed. We should not overlook the importance of Jacob’s name change at the time of his divine blessing. God has given him a new name. He no longer needs to be identified by who he is in relation to his brother. He is no longer marked by his past deceit and mischief. His new name, Israel, signifies his relationship to God. Jacob’s new identity is a God-given and God-centered one.
Jacob is changed. We ought not overlook the mark left behind. Jacob now limps as a result of his encounter with God. What does it mean?
We can understand it on two angles: On the one hand, it signifies Jacob’s success – not his failure or defeat. He has struggled and has prevailed. As such, Jacob does not become a victim of God, reduced to groveling or to insignificance before the Almighty’s power. Rather, God has met him in the struggle, and Jacob emerges changed, and yet better for the fight.
On the other hand, it attests to God’s graciousness; Jacob has wrestled with God to the break of day, yet his life is preserved. So the mark symbolizes both who Jacob is and who God is.
Yes, this is a very real experience of Jacob. The entirety of the story is wrapped up in its physicality. We cannot forget that.
This story is more than merely a story about a physical wrestling match between one man and his God – or some representation thereof.
We are Jacobs. Scared. Of relationships, regretting what should have been forgiven long ago – afraid of what we do not know.
We wrestle – sometimes it seems an intense physical battle, and sometimes it seems we wrestle within ourselves – with our own emotions and will and desire.
God wrestles with us – God is present with us.
This story is not about a competition where someone must win and someone must lose. God doesn’t wrestle with us as God could. God could “win” every time. Without even a fight. Rather, God meets us in the struggle – holding us tightly, intimately fighting, striving with us – waiting for our slow surrender – waiting to change our names – to change our walk.
We are Jacob.
It’s not hard to imagine our desperation. Imagine our grasping – our need.
But imagine the God – wrestling, waiting – to change us into Israel.