This story of Jacob wrestling at Jabbok says something to us about the human struggle with God, and our struggle with ourselves. Even in the middle of our struggles – with God, with ourselves and with others – God’s love and grace remain.
Not all human relationships are easy. We don’t get on with everyone we meet, and sometimes we even fall out with members of our own family. And there are times when we also struggle with ourselves – with who we are and who we want to be, with things we wish we hadn’t done and things we would dearly love to do. This story of Jacob wrestling at Jabbok says something to us about the human struggle with God, and our struggle with ourselves. Even in the middle of our struggles – with God, with ourselves and with others – God’s love and grace remain.
Jacob believed that he was special, that he was better than his brother and that he deserved what Esau was entitled to. So he felt entitled to take advantage of everyone around him. He tricked his father and his brother in order to get what he wanted, what he thought was due to him. By the time we get to this passage, Jacob has become rich and successful, and with his family has started on a return journey home. He hasn’t seen his brother Esau for many years, but he has learnt that he will meet him the following day and he is probably at the least anxious, if not terrified. He’s spent his whole life deceiving people, but his tricks aren’t working any more. Jacob sends his family ahead across the stream, and he prepares to spend a sleepless night alone. But this is not to be – he wrestles with a “man” until daybreak.
This raises lots of questions. Who is the man? Where does he come from? Why won’t he tell Jacob his name? From where does he get the authority to bless and change Jacob’s name? Why does Jacob’s new name become the name of the special family of God – Israel? Why do they fight in the first place? Who starts it?
It sounds as though the pair are physically fairly equally matched. They wrestle for a long time, and the man only gets away at the cost of giving Jacob a blessing. And actually, despite Jacob’s strength, he can’t wrestle from the man the one thing he wants – the man’s name and the key to his identity.
A couple of things stand out in particular. Firstly, Jacob’s new name shows something of his character. The name Israel comes from the verb sarah which means to strive or to fight. Jacob – Israel – is a fighter. He fights to get his father’s blessing. He fights to get the wife he wants. He is persistent.
Secondly, Jacob clearly sees the man he wrestles as God, or at least a representative of God. We don’t know why – the text only says he wrestles a man. People have suggested that it might be because the man seems to display superhuman strength, but this doesn’t really work as Jacob is a match. It’s also been suggested that it might be because of the manner of the blessing that is given at daybreak. But if we look earlier in Genesis to the story of Isaac’s blessing of Jacob, that blessing seems to be much more detailed and wordy.
Perhaps the answer lies in the new name. Who else but God would have known Jacob well enough to call him Israel? Who else would have been so bold as to call him “fighter with God”? Who else would have blessed a fighter with God – with the implication being that they have special and continuing relationship?
In this wrestling match it seems that God holds up a mirror to Jacob. In it Jacob sees his past, he sees himself as flawed and sinful. He knows how he deceived his brother and father. And he knows he didn’t part from his father-in-law on good terms. But in it he also sees the face of God. He acknowledges this in naming the place Peniel – the face of God. Jacob shows us the connection between our understanding of ourselves as we really are, and our recognition of God as God truly is. And in this we see what lies at the heart of the gospel. Jacob learns that God knows exactly who he is but loves and accepts him anyway. And the miracle is the gospel – that God meets us as we are and where we are. God calls us by name and saves us in order to transform us.
Jacob is left with a new name and something else besides. He is left with a hip injury that causes him to limp – a lifelong physical reminder of his encounter with God.
If we read on to Jacob’s encounter with Esau the message is reinforced. Jacob expects Esau’s anger and vengeance, but it doesn’t come. In Esau’s reaction to him, Jacob sees the face of God again. Jacob discovers grace in the face of the brother he has cheated and tricked and always considered inferior. The blessing Jacob receives from God is not for himself alone. It’s not given so that Jacob can have privilege over others, but for the benefit of others. And God keeps on turning up, not in the strong and victorious, but in those who seem weak, and in those who have been defeated and rejected.
Life is full of conflicts and struggles. We experience hurt and wrong and injustice, and we also inflict it on others. But God knows us intimately and exactly as we are, and God still accepts us and loves us.
We’re left with a challenge too. Can we be people who reflect the face of God? And are we open to see the face of God in others, even in the faces of rivals and enemies?
For further thought…