Jacob wrestled the angel of God, and Jacob won. I find myself drawn into this scene. Part of the attraction might be the same thing that happens when there’s a fight on the playground and everyone quickly gathers around to watch. I want to see what happens here, and already knowing that Jacob wins, I want to see how he does it and what happens afterward. But stronger than that is the draw of seeing a picture that I recognize well. There is something familiar here and something I find refreshingly honest and true to life. Jacob is wrestling with God. Not Jacob sitting quietly with God, not Jacob walking faithfully alongside God, not Jacob on his knees speaking and listening to God, but Jacob, a real live human being, wrestling, grappling, struggling with God from dusk till dawn. It’s a scene that resonates with my own experience, and I would imagine many others’ experience as well.
It’s a picture that has sparked the imagination of artists. It has been used in a political sense. It shows up in U2’s song “Bullet the Blue Sky” about the poor El Salvadorans struggle against the US military’s influence there in the 80’s. Bono sings, “Jacob wrestled the angel, and the angel was overcome,” implying that the gritty spiritedness of the poor could prevail against the stronger, overpowering god-like force of weapons.
It’s also been portrayed in a psychological-spiritual sense. 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, one woman has her hands folded in a praying position, one is looking off in the distance in a state of meditation. Overall they give off a sense of piety and reverence. And then, in the upper right hand corner, against a red background, is an angel and a human, engaged in a wrestling match. If you were to just look at that part of the painting you would get a sense of confrontation and strife, and maybe even anger. So it’s the “real” world, and the “imagined world” side by side, and it raises the question of which of these more accurately portrays what’s going on with these church goers. Is all calm and reverent as it appears, or is there a great struggle going on?
The Jacob story brings out into the open what is often experienced as hidden. It makes public and visible what can often be private and invisible — The human experience of wrestling with that whom we do not know, can’t understand, and can’t control. It’s quite common, and quite human, for us to do battle with those mysterious angels…and to come out on the other side with a blessing, and some bruises. We are engaged in what Sr. Joan Chittister calls “a spirituality of struggle.” She says, “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)
This scene of struggle happens at an important transition in Jacob’s life. He is on a journey, in between the land of Laban, his uncle, where he had lived his adult life, married and had children; and the land of Canaan where he is now headed, his place of birth. Jacob’s time with Laban had been productive. He came with nothing and had acquired wives, children, servants, flocks and herds, all the signs of wealth and prosperity of that time. But he and Laban were almost always at odds with each other, each trying to trick and deceive the other for personal gain. So Jacob is leaving and heading back home. To get home he will have to cross paths with his brother Esau. On this particular night Jacob is camping by the river Jabbok. His wrestling match with the angel that night will not be his first conflict or confrontation in life. The event serves as a sort of parable for Jacob’s life up to that point.
He had always been given over to wrestling – both by nature and by nurture. His poor mom Rebekah, pregnant with twins, had her womb turned into a wrestling ring before these kids were born. Genesis 25:22 says, “The children struggled together within her; and she said, ‘If it is to be this way, why do I live.’ Apparently Jacob lost the match, because Esau came out first, but Jacob wasn’t giving up as he was born grabbing onto Esau’s heal. Esau, the infant wrestling champion, had all the legal rights and blessings of the firstborn, but for the slightly younger Jacob, this was just round one. He would spend much of his adult life trying to wrestle for blessings. As a young man Jacob gets in a sucker punch against his brother to win round two. Jacob was cooking a stew at home while Esau came in from hunting, completely famished, needing something to eat. Rather than kindly handing him a bowl of soup, Jacob charges him a high price – Esau’s birthright. Starving Esau makes the deal, gobbles down his stew, and goes away with a newfound hatred for his brother. . Later in life, finding his mom in his corner of the ring and his dad in Esau’s corner, the Jacob/Rebecca tag team manage to wrestle away the blind and dying father Isaac’s blessing that was supposed to be for the first born. The blessing had ritual and legal significance, so this was a big prize. When Esau finds out he is furious and vows to kill Jacob after their elderly father dies. Rebeka arranges things for Jacob to run away to her brother Laban, and start fresh there with a new life. Round three goes to Jacob as he flees the scene with his hard earned blessing. Being the second born, Jacob is like the short guy on the basketball court who has to compensate for his lack of height by being quicker, smarter, and sometimes sneakier than anyone else. Different sport, similar situation.
So now he is leaving Laban with all the blessings he gained while with him and facing up the fact that he will soon be encountering Esau. At the river Jabbok, Laban is behind him, Esau is just ahead of him, and Jacob gets jumped by God.
Part of the mystery of the story is the ambiguity around who Jacob is wrestling. Is it God? An angel? a human being? Is it himself? All of these are possibilities. From a modern psychological perspective it’s easy to read this as an internal battle within the anxiety ridden Jacob. Quite possible. The text identifies the opponent as “a man” in verse 24, who then later tells Jacob that he has wrestled with human and divine beings. Eventually, Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.” The line is blurred here between the struggle with another human being, like a brother Esau, an inner psychological struggle of confronting your own demons, and the struggle with God’s own self. These kind of distinctions are ones that the text leaves unclear. What is clear is that Jacob sees his very real, physical struggle as an encounter with God.
We can relate this to any kind of wrestling match we may be involved in, in our psyche, in our family or friend relationships, in our struggle to promote justice and peace, in our quest for physical and spiritual healing. All of these encounters are, in hind sight, encounters with God, seeing God face to face.
Jacob wins not because he pins his opponent, but because he simply won’t let go. He holds on for dear life and refuses to loosen his grip until he gets a blessing. His victory comes at a cost. He gets bruised up. From now on he will limp through life, bearing the scars of his encounter. He’ll never quite be the same, and visibly so. He also never gains complete control over his wrestling partner. Naming plays a very significant role in the Old Testament, similar to many other cultures. To name something or someone is to capture the essence of that person. Naming also can imply having power over a person. If you can name something, you have a kind of authority over it, sort of like us diagnosing and naming a certain disease so we know how to try and gain power over it. Jacob tries, but never gets to name his opponent. The creature remains unnameable.
But Jacob does get his blessing and he gets a new name — Israel, roughly translated as “God-wrestler.” It captures his character. It’s also the name for the nation that came out of his descendants that continued receiving blessings and bruisings through its wrestling with God, and the name that the New Testament gives all people willing to enter the ring with this God. We too are children of Israel and are God –wrestlers.
This is a service of healing and so far there are just as many bruises as there are blessings. The words, “Let’s get ready to rumble” are usually not the first ones people think of when they think of the healing process. But maybe they should be. Maybe confrontation and aggressiveness are part of what makes us whole human beings. Maybe we participate in our own healing in an active way when we get assertive about the blessings we want instead of just passively accepting whatever comes our way. Maybe second born Jacob did us all a favor by refusing to accept his lot in life and demand some of those first born blessings. Not in an arrogant way, but in a spirited way that won’t accept no-blessing for an answer. If you wrestle, you can win a blessing.
So if you find yourself in a wrestling match, or if you see that you may have some wrestling to do in the near future, or if someone close to you is in a great struggle, you will be invited to come forward after the sermon and receive a blessing for yourself or someone else, a touch of anointing oil to the forehead and a short prayer of blessing. But there’s one more thing to note.
Jacob wrestled with the angel the night before he was to meet his brother Esau whom he had fought with his whole life. His servants had told him that Esau was coming toward him with four hundred men, the size of a small fighting force. Still trying to salvage his blessings, Jacob lines up his family with his most beloved wife and children all the way at the rear, furthest from Esau’s reach. He sent out a company of servants with gifts to lavish on Esau and his men before they reached him in order to appease him. Having taken as much precaution as he could to get past the wrath of Esau, and having secured his blessings to the best of his ability, with his most prized blessings being most protected, this is what happens: Genesis 33:3 (Jacob) himself went on ahead of (his family), bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. 4 But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and (threw his arms around) his neck and kissed him, and they wept…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 (blessing) 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.”
So, for all his wrestling and struggle, the greatest blessing for Jacob is one for which he did absolutely nothing. He gets blindsided by an unexpected, undeserved, gift of grace from his brother. And both realize that they have all the blessings they need. And again, maybe even in a deeper way now, Jacob has seen the face of God.
So wrestling and struggle are only part of the story. Blessings also come in the form of unexpected, undeserved, gifts of grace that God hands out generously. Reconciliation with an estranged family member, the healing of a memory, or the healing of a body, or being given peace of mind about an illness that isn’t going to go away any time soon. This is what theologians simply call grace, and it’s something that happens beyond the wrestling ring with all our striving and sweating and holding on for dear life.
So as we move into this time of prayer and singing, you’re also welcome to come forward for a blessing of grace. No heavy lifting required, no bruises this time, but a blessing that comes in unexpected ways. You are welcome to come forward for yourself, on behalf of a friend or family member.