Over the course of the night, Jacob arose, took the entire caravan, and crossed the ford of the Yabbok River. After Jacob had crossed with all his possessions, he returned to the camp, and he was completely alone.
And there, someone wrestled with Jacob until the first light of dawn. Seeing that Jacob could not be overpowered, the other struck Jacob at the socket of the hip, and the hip was dislocated as they wrestled.
Then Jacob’s contender said, “Let me go, for day is breaking.”
Jacob answered, “I will not let you go until you bless me.”
“What is your name?” the other asked.
“Jacob,” he answered. The other said, “Your name will no longer be called ‘Jacob,’ or “Heel-Grabber,’ but ‘Israel’ – Overcomer of God’s – because you have wrestled with both God and mortals, and you have prevailed.”
Then Jacob asked “now tell me your name, I beg you.” The other said, “Why do you ask me my name?”- and blessed Jacob there.
Jacob named the place Peniel—“Face of God” – “because I have seen God face to face, yet my life was spared.”
At sunrise, Jacob left Peniel, limping along from the injured hip.
Genesis 32:22-31, inclusive transation
In this week’s lectionary passage Jacob is wrestling with someone- an adversary—on a riverbank before dawn. Described in the text as “a mortal,” tradition has called this mysterious stranger an angel, or God in human form. The original Hebrew dialogue is dizzying and almost completely lacking in proper names. Instead, each line merely begins, “and he said” thus leaving the reader without a clear indication of who is speaking. Are Jacob and the Other merely mirror images of one another? Is Jacob wrestling with himself? Is he wrestling with God or merely with his own fears related to the next day’s encounter with his twin Esau, whom Jacob cheated out of their father’s blessing twenty years earlier?
These are not questions we can answer. Yet the text continues to draw people in: artists have painted a thousand portraits of this scene, academic and priestly commentary could fill all of our bookshelves, and endless blog posts await the online reader. Indeed, one can get lost in the sea of reflection on the intersection between pain, essence, wrestling match, and God. Clearly, we relate to the struggle.
Our goal is not to strip all of layers of questions and complexity of competing interpretations in order to pursue some “true meaning” of the text.
No– it is the very ambiguity of the text which relates so well to the ambiguity of life.
Who hasn’t passed a night wrestling and been unclear as to an adversary’s true identity? Anxiety, fear, our false self or shadow-side—these all make fierce opponents. The voices of others infect our head and trouble us. Deep yearnings for wholeness or nagging needs for changes— these are visitors easier to ignore by daylight. Demon, angel, ego, — who hasn’t prayed to God for clarity after a night like Jacob’s? Who among us has not tasted river bank grit in your mouth and pleaded for a blessing as the morning dawns— grasping for some good come out of a night of struggle.
The story leaves me wondering– where is God when we struggle with our fears and yearnings? Could it be that God’s face is somehow more easily recognizable after a night of honest engagement with these shadows?
This week we take our turn in the parade of meaning makers drawn to this ancient source. Join us Sunday for the conversation and for a chance to thank our outgoing board members: Ross, Kristin, and James for two years of faithful service to the community.
Community Meeting Sunday 10AM
The board invites everyone to an important meeting to elect new board members, review updated financials, and discuss church opportunities. Questions or electronic vote: contact Ross email@example.com or Kristin at firstname.lastname@example.org