Wrestling with God: Blessings and Bruises
Text: Genesis 32:3-32
Speaker: Joel Miller
“Jacob was left alone.” That’s what it says in Genesis 32:24.
Jacob is alone because he has sent his entire family – two wives, two maids, and eleven children – and all his possessions – hundreds of sheep, goats, cattle and camels; servants, tents, changes of clothing, - everything he owns and everyone in his family and entourage – he has sent them all to the other side of Jabbok River. It is night, time for sleep, and Jacob lies down, under the dome of the heavens, alone.
It was a rare thing, for Jacob to be alone. From the very beginning, even in his mother’s womb, he had company.
Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah, who we met last week, married Rebekah. And Rebekah, like her mother-in-law Sarah for most of her life, had no children. But she becomes pregnant, with twins, who, as Genesis 25 says “struggled within her.” Oof. Jacob must have lost that wrestling match. In a culture in which the bulk of the inheritance went to the first born son, Jacob is born second. But just barely, grasping the heel of his very slightly older brother Esau as they entered the world.
The struggle didn’t end there. Once, after they had grown, Jacob was cooking a stew and Esau came back from an unsuccessful hunt, famished. Jacob offered him some of the hot stew, but for a price, Esau’s birthright. Later, when the now-elderly Isaac is ready to confer his blessing on his firstborn son, Jacob, with the help of his mother Rebekah, tricked his blind father by putting on his brother’s clothes and offering him the ritual meal while Esau was still out in the field. Smells like Esau. Feels like Esau. Isaac falls for it. He gives his blessing and inheritance to Jacob. When Esau finally returns with the meal he has prepared, he is enraged at Jacob’s trickery. He begs his father to withdraw the misguided blessing and offer him his rightful share. “Have you only one blessing, father?” Esau begs. “Bless me also, father.” Isaac refuses, considering his blessing as official as a signed contract. Jacob, the wrestler, has played the long game. It’s a big score.
But the match isn’t over.
At Rebekah’s prompting, Jacob flees for his life. And it’s a good thing. We’re told that Esau intends to kill his brother as soon as their father is dead, which could be soon. Jacob escapes from Beer-sheba in the south through Bethel, all the way north the Paddan-aram, the home of his uncle Laban. Jacob works for Laban and marries his daughter Leah, and then his younger daughter Rachel, and has children through them and their maids Bilhah and Zilpah.
Now, at least two decades after they last saw one another, Jacob is preparing for an encounter with Esau, who is on his way to meet him with 400 men at his side, the size of an army. That’s what the bulk of today’s reading is about - Jacob’s strategic preparations for this clash with his older twin brother he had usurped, from whom he had escaped half a lifetime ago.
Thus the herding of these elaborate gifts of goats, sheep, camels, cows, donkeys - hundreds in total. It’s a pre-emptive strike. Diplomacy. They will go ahead of Jacob as an appeasement of guilt for all he’s taken from his brother. Thus the arranging of his entourage into different companies and the placement of his favorite wife and favorite child, Rachel and Joseph, in the most protected spot at the back. It’s OK if you don’t like this guy, by the way. Thus the sending across the Jabbok River of everything and everyone in his life.
Jacob, at long last, is alone, by himself, the night before this dreaded encounter. And it’s when you’re alone that you begin to encounter what you can’t escape no matter how practiced you are at trying.
Genesis 32:24: “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until morning.”
It’s a beautifully vague scene of Jacob wrestling, struggling, with….well, with whom? With what?
The text initially says it’s a man.
Tradition remembers it as an angel. Even still in the Bible. The prophet Hosea wrote of Jacob: “He strove with the angel and prevailed” (12:4) At the end of the 19th century Paul Gauguin painted “Vision After the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel.”
The bottom and left hand side of the painting shows women, wearing their church attire of bonnets and dresses. Many have their heads bowed, folded in a praying position. One central woman looks to be fixated on what’s going on in the upper right hand corner of the painting - The vision after the sermon. Against a red background an angel has their wrestling partner in a headlock, the other latched onto the angel’s leg, attempting a take down. An art historian may know better than me, but it looks to me like a stark contrast between standard church piety and the ferocious undercurrent of struggle in which we are all engaged. Or, with a title like “Vision after Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel,” it could be a warning not listen too closely to these Bible stories. You might start to question standard church piety. Your nice church clothes might get grass stained.
So maybe it’s a man, maybe it’s an angel.
But the story itself takes it even further. As Jacob is prevailing, he is given a new name, “Isra-el,” “For you have striven with God and with humans,” says his opponent. Isra-el means “one who strives with God,” El being the name of the Canaanite High God. And once the wrestling has ended Jacob declares, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
So which is it? Is it a man, is it an angel, is it the High God? Is it the ghost of Esau, Jacob’s very first and long time wrestling partner? Is Jacob just alone, wrestling with himself all night?
What is clearer in the story, is that Jacob prevails. At least that’s what it says multiple times. He wins. Jacob prevails by doing what he’s done his whole life. He refuses to let go. He gets his hip put out of joint, the sun is almost dawning over the horizon, and he still refuses to let go.
Alright. Congratulations. So what does he get? What’s the prize? What do you win when you wrestle with God and with humans and prevail? Genesis 32:26 “But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’”
Supposedly, Jacob had already won the big prize - his father’s blessing, the family inheritance. That was a done deal. He had been #blessed for over two decades, with the goats and camels and all that. It must not have been enough. It must not have been the kind of blessing he was ultimately after. Jacob holds on to the angel for dear life, and won’t let go until he is blessed.
And he gets his blessing. He gets a new name and he gets a Divine blessing.
Oh and one other thing. Verses 30-31. “So Jacob called the place Peniel (which means face of God), saying ‘for I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of the hip.”
Jacob gets a blessing, and he gets a limp. As a result of his wrestling, he is both blessed and bruised. He is diminished, and yet more complete than he has ever been.
And that’s a pretty good picture of the spiritual journey.
Sr. Joan Chittister has a name for this: “A spirituality of struggle.” She writes, “God is not a puppeteer and God is not a magic act. God is the ground of our being, the energy of life, the goodness out of which all things are intended to grow to fullness. Yet it is a struggle…How can we possibly deal with the great erupting changes of life and come away more whole because of having been through them than we would possibly have been without them? To do that takes a spirituality of struggle.” (Sr. Joan Chittister, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, p. 16)
Isra-El, Struggles with God.
The new name will follow the people around from here on out, which is pretty much the whole Bible and following. This is just Genesis after all, the book of beginnings. It’s the name the Apostle Paul will passionately argue is available to all who move from being spectators outside the ring, to participants inside of it. We are all children of Israel. God-wrestlers. The name stuck.
So you can be forewarned as the spiritual children of Israel: In your life, you either are going to wrestle with God, or you are currently wrestling with God, or you have wrestled with God, and you have the limp to prove it. Nobody escapes without some grass stain on their church clothes.
The participation award is a blessing and a bruise, which is all part of the same package.
And once you have that limp, it’s a little harder to escape anyway. At some point you get tired out from wrestling, call a truce with God, find some shade together, maybe a cold drink, and just enjoy the day. I’m pretty good with that kind of blessing these days.
Here’s one more thing: If we identify with Jacob/Israel in this story, as we have been invited to do, we’re in for another surprise. Not just the surprise of the struggle that comes to us when we are alone enough to realize it’s happening. Not just the surprise of prevailing, if you call blessing + bruise prevailing. And not just the surprise of, as Jacob says, seeing God face to face, and living to tell about it.
If we stick with this story as Jacob, the surprise is that we, heroic as we might think ourselves, spiritual athletes, engaged in the great struggle – the surprise is that we are not as in control as we would like. We cannot predict where this is going, despite our careful preparations. And we are ultimately not the champion. At some point we come face to face with a wrestling maneuver from the most unlikely of characters. Someone who embodies the presence of God in ways we could not anticipate. And we are undone.
That’s what happens to Jacob, and maybe that’s what could happen to us.
So here’s what we’ll do. Rather than me giving any more commentary, we’re going to sing the first four verses of our response song, VT 191, which retells this story. After that I’ll simply read the next 11 verses of what happens after Jacob’s encounter with the man/angel/God. And then we’ll sing the final verse and we can sit together with the blessing that ultimately emerges from this story.
Genesis 33:1-11 Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. 2 He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. 3 He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother.
4 But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. 5 When Esau looked up and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” 6 Then the maids drew near, they and their children, and bowed down; 7 Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down; and finally Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down. 8 Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” Jacob answered, “To find favor with my lord.” 9 But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” 10 Jacob said, “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand, for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God, since you have received me with such favor. 11 Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me and because I have everything I want.”