This has always been an intriguing story to me, one that poses more questions than answers. First, a little background on how Jacob came to be in this particular place and state of mind. Jacob’s story begins in Genesis 27, and it’s a great story. It beats any soap opera or reality TV series I’ve ever seen.
Many years earlier, Jacob and his mother Rebekah conspired to trick Jacob’s twin brother, Esau, out of his inheritance. Esau was rather understandably upset, which caused. Jacob to flee from the area in fear for his life. While on the road, Jacob has a dream in which he tries to cut a deal with God: You bless me, and I’ll serve you. Jacob spends the next couple of decades with his mother’s relatives, who live a safe distance away from his angry brother, but finds his Uncle Laban to be an equal match for his own devious mind. Jacob the cheater often finds himself cheated. Eventually he decided that he’d be better off taking his chances with his brother than with his uncle and cousins, and heads for home, taking with him everything he owns. Hoping to placate his brother, he sends an impressive selection of gifts ahead of him, which I always imagine as something like the scene in Disney’s “Aladdin” where Prince Ali enters Agrabah preceded by all the dramatic showmanship Genie can imagine. Despite all his careful scheming and planning, Jacob doesn’t really know how things are going to turn out. No wonder he had a sleepless night!
Who was the mysterious man who wrestled with Jacob until daybreak? Was it God? Jacob certainly seemed to think so. If it was God, why did God need to cheat to win? Couldn’t God have quickly and easily overpowered a mere human being? Why would God have to ask Jacob to let him go, and actually concede defeat? What does it mean for God to rename Jacob Israel because “you have struggled with God and with man and have overcome”? What did Jacob overcome? Was it really God, or something in himself?
This story only makes sense to me when I understand it as a mental rather than a physical wrestling match, but I don’t think it really matters. Whatever actually happened that night beside the Jabbok, Jacob was forever changed by the encounter, and to me, that’s the most important outcome. As J K Rowling wrote, “Just because it happens in your head doesn’t mean that it’s not real”.
What this story says to me is that first of all, God meets us where we are. If our own efforts and errors have left us mired in the metaphorical mud of the River Jabbok, God is willing to get down in the mud with us. Jacob was not a particularly admirable character. He was a schemer, a liar, and a cheater who seemed to think he could play tit-for-tat with God and win. His very dysfunctional family seemed to have picked up on most of his least admirable traits. Despite karma repeatedly coming back to bite him, he never really seemed to learn its lesson. Still, God continued to reach out to him, even when it must have been awfully inconvenient and seemingly futile. This is comforting to me, because I have made, am making, and will make plenty of mistakes in life. God doesn’t wait for us to get everything right before initiating a relationship. He is with us, in spite of us.
Secondly. it’s OK to wrestle with God. I appreciate the long Jewish tradition of arguing with God. In this passage, the very origin of the name “Israel” is apparently attributed to this kind of boldness, and it didn’t start or end with Jacob. Abraham argued with God about the number of righteous people needed to spare Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction, Moses argued with God on more than one occasion when it came to an appropriate punishment for the recalcitrant Israelites in the wilderness, and Job actually wanted to take God to court and sue for unfair treatment! Many times when it comes to life, not to mention theology, there are questions that don’t have easy or pat answers. God seems to take questioning and doubting in stride. Not only does God not mind; the struggle often leads a person to see God more clearly. At the conclusion of his struggle, Jacob receives God’s blessing. Job rebounds from despair to proclaim “My ears had heard of you (God) but now my eyes have seen you”. “Doubting Thomas” cries “My Lord and my God!” when Jesus invites him to see and touch his resurrected body.
I don’t know exactly what all was going on in Jacob’s mind that night as he wrestled with God. I do think he’d agree with me that doubts, questions, and struggle are not opposed to faith, but part of it. And that’s good news to me.