Genesis 32:22-31 - link to the NRSV text
The story of Jacob wrestling with the mysterious figure near the Jabbok is an ambiguous text. Two figures, Jacob and the man, enter into conflict but neither walks away a true victor. There is ambiguity, almost ambivalence, in the outcome. It doesn’t lay out a clear, new path. It doesn’t point Jacob in a new direction. There is no giant shift in Jacob’s mission, no new pronouncement from on high. Just two figures leaving the site of battle with things changed, but with no strong indication what those changes mean or what should be done about them.
It reminds me, actually, of the ending of the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Once More, With Feeling,” when the villain leaves and the heroes are left standing there with no nice, clean resolution to the conflict, the cast sings:
battle’s done, and we kind of won,
So we sound our victory cheer.
Where do we go from here?
Not all battles, not all struggles conclude with a clear-cut victory. It’s a messy, difficult fight for both. The dialogue between the two in verses 26-29 echoes the back-and-forth struggle that they were engaging in. In the first back and forth, the stranger speaks then Jacob responds asking for a blessing. Jacob is the one with the leverage. The next exchange suddenly shifts to the stranger having dominance, asking Jacob his name then granting him a new name in return. Then it shifts again, with Jacob now demanding the name of the figure, and instead receiving the blessing he wanted in the first place.
There is a battle of both physical will and mental will going on here. There is more going on here than a test of strength and skill. Jacob, the one who wrestled even in the womb, who has wrestled with others through trickery and guile his entire life, has suddenly found himself an opponent that his tricks aren’t working on. But Jacob finds himself holding his own, being able to keep pace if not actually overcome his adversary.
And though there is not a victory, this does not mean that nothing has happened. Jacob does emerge from the night changed in two significant ways: Jacob has a new name, and a new wound.
In the biblical world, names are linked with character. A name change often indicates a shift in status or character, like Abram becoming Abraham. Jacob, which means something like “heel” or “supplanter,” possible related to the verb “to betray” (see BDB 784, HALOT 872), is changed to Israel. As Brueggemann points out, the etymology (that is, origin and meaning) of the name is disputed, possible meaning “God preserves” or “God protects” or “God rules” (Brueggemann, Genesis, 268). The point isn’t so much in the name meaning, but the fact that the name has changed.
No longer is this man the “deceiver” or “betrayer,” but is something else, something more. No longer is he Jacob, he is now Israel. And it is Israel that has struggled with God and emerged, if not victorious, at least as something changed, something new. And there is something poignant in that idea: that in our struggles, we emerge changed, especially in our struggles with God. There will be times in life when we wrestle with God, either over those dark places in life or just with what faithfulness demands of us. Either way, there is something to be said for the struggle itself, and not just the outcome. Thus the lack of “victory” or success doesn’t mean that our struggles in life are not beneficial, though they may not always seem that way a first glance.
Secondly, Jacob emerges changed into this new person Israel, but he emerges limping away from the conflict. There is something poignant in this also. Namely, life can sometimes hurt. Life is struggle, it is not always easy, and sometimes when we emerge from our times of trouble we emerge wounded. In Jacob’s case, meeting God “did not lead, as we are wont to imagine, to reconciliation, forgiveness, healing. It resulted in a crippling” (Brueggemann 270).
There is something dangerous about encountering God. This is demonstrated time again in the biblical witness. Moses desires to see God’s glory but God allows Moses to only see the back of God’s form because “no one shall see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). Uzzah reached out to steady the ark of the covenant and was struck down (2 Sam 6:6-7). Isaiah cried, “Woe is me!” when he beheld God’s presence in the temple vision (Isaiah 6). There is something dangerous, edgy about encountering the divine.
Encountering God and being changed by that encounter may bring about some pain. Change is rarely without effort or sacrifice. To emerge as Israel, Jacob also needed to be wounded. The apostle Paul expressed a similar theme when he wrote about baptism: “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Jesus himself spoke about the kind of change life with God requires by describing it as taking up our cross, or taking up a death sentence. The life of faith isn’t just something that is a heavy burden, but is something that might just call for something that will cause us pain, either physical or emotional.
The wrestling Jacob story is one that reminds us of what life with God often looks like when we move beyond the promises of prosperity preaching and tired cliché religion: it is often hard, it is often a struggle, and it might even bring us some hurt. But the One whom we wrestle with is the One whom wants to see us grow, to see us flourish, to see us redeemed, the One who loves us beyond all comprehension or understanding.
Or as Charles Wesley put it in his great poem “Wrestlin’ Jacob” (“Come O Thou Traveler Unknown” in The United Methodist Hymnal, 386-87):
Yield to me now—for I am weak,
but confident in self-despair!
Speak to my heart, in blessing speak,
be conquered by my instant prayer:
speak, or thou never hence shalt move,
And tell me if thy name is Love.
'Tis Love! ‘tis
Love! Thou diedst for me,
I hear thy whisper in my heart.
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
pure Universal Love thou art:
To me, to all, thy mercies move—
thy nature, and thy name is Love.