One of the things we often talk about in church is our relationship with God. We talk about God as a companion on our journey – one who walks with us as we grow and develop and change in our faith life. Some of us enjoy that image because the image recognizes the ways that our relationship with God evolves over time. We talk about God as one who is in dialogue with us – one who needs us to listen as much as we talk. Many of you have talked to me about how often you forget the listening part of your relationship with God, not realizing how your prayer life has become more of a monologue than a dialogue. We talk about God as one who requires vulnerability – one who wants not just the glossy versions of ourselves that we present to the public, but also the messy, angry, and sometimes ugly versions of ourselves that we rarely let anyone see. Some of us have felt a sense of comfort and freedom in vulnerability, while others of us have found vulnerability too challenging. But rarely do we talk about God as sparring partner – a prize fighter, capable of leaving real physical scars, leaving us marked visibly for others to see.
That is the image we get from our Old Testament lesson today. In order to understand how Jacob comes to wrestle with God at the Jabbok, we need to go back in Jacob’s story. Jacob is a twin, the brother of Esau and son of Isaac and Rebekah. Jacob receives his name because the name Jacob means, “the one who takes the heel.”[i] Because he grabs on to the heel of his brother as he follows Esau out of the womb, he is named Jacob. The name turns out to be quite appropriate. Jacob will be grabbing and grasping for much of his life.
Jacob’s life unfolds like a soap opera. When Jacob is older, we are told that Jacob manipulates Esau out of his birthright. Then, Jacob tricks his blind father Isaac into believing that he is Esau so that he can cheat Esau out of the blessing due to him as the firstborn male. Jacob flees for his life from his angered brother Esau, returning to his family’s homeland. There he meets Rachel and falls in love. Unfortunately Rachel is the younger of two unmarried sisters, and the tradition is the eldest is married first. In a twist of fate, Jacob is on the receiving end of deception when he is tricked into marrying the older sister Leah. He has to continue working for Laban to get Rachel too. But not to be outdone, Jacob manipulates Laban, and manages to trick Laban into giving Jacob most of the family’s livestock before Jacob flees yet again with his large family and wealth. But Jacob can only run so long before fate finally catches up with him. Some twenty years since leaving home, Esau is in hot pursuit of Jacob. Scared, Jacob sends some gifts as an attempted bribe for Esau. But he hears that Esau is approaching with 400 men, and so Jacob splits up his family and sends them ahead of him, leaving Jacob alone at the Jabbok in the dark of night.
This is where our story picks up today. The story is a bit confusing, but basically Jacob wrestles with God all night long.[ii] We are told that the two seem to fight as equals, but at the end of the scuffle, God strikes Jacob in the hip, leaving Jacob with a limp. Jacob asks for a blessing from God, once again grabbing in life. God asks Jacob his name, and instead of lying to God like Jacob lied to his father, Jacob comes clean. “Jacob,” he says. Now this part may sound simple enough, but God is not simply asking for and getting Jacob’s name. Jacob is confessing. “I am Jacob – grasper of a heel. I have grabbed my whole way through life: cheating, conning, scheming, plotting, and taking what does not belong to me. I am thoroughly psychologically broken, and now you have broken me physically. So please, give me, cheater that I am, a blessing.” And what happens next is a total transformation. God gives Jacob a new name, “Israel.” God names Jacob, “Israel,” because Jacob is one who struggled with God – yisrael. No longer will Jacob be known as the grasper. Instead Jacob will be known as one who struggled with God – and though marked by a limp, is one who came out a new person – Israel. With his new name, “Jacob enters into a new future, and passes his name, faith, and future on to his descendants, who bear that name even unto this day.”[iii]
The reason why I tell you the whole of Jacob’s story today is because we cannot fully understand the metaphor of wrestling with God until we understand Jacob as a person. Jacob, father of the people of God, is by no means a shiny example of faithful living. From birth, Jacob seemed destined for a life of manipulation, attempts at control, a willingness to deceive for personal gain, and constant scheming. And though we would like to wag our fingers at Jacob, the truth is, there is a little bit of Jacob in each of us. The reason we disapprove of Jacob is because at some point in our lives we have been a grasper of heels. Perhaps we have not deceived on such a grand scale as Jacob, but we have certainly tried to manipulate situations toward our own personal gain.
I am reminded of the movie Mean Girls. The movie chronicles the ways that high school girls manipulate, lie, and maneuver to become and stay popular. At the center of the movie is a character called Regina George, the most popular girl in school, who is simultaneously loved and hated by her peers. Most of the characters despise her, but oddly also find themselves drawn to her and want to be like her. By the end of the movie the entire charade collapses, and all the girls come to an unspoken agreement to stop pretending, manipulating, and scheming, and simply be themselves. Regina manages to redirect her aggressive ways into sports, and the satisfaction mellows her in the rest of her life.
Though Regina’s transformation was not a spiritual one, her change is as dramatic as Jacob’s – a total change in the way she operates, but not without the scars of the past. I would imagine if we asked either Jacob or Regina if they would give up a limp caused by God or scars from high school, both would say, “no.” The battles were necessary for the complete transformation of both – and the lingering injuries help remind them to never go back. The reason they would say no is because the wrestling, the battle, the sparring has transformed them into something new and wonderful. No amount of limping could detract from the new blessed lives each of them can now live.
The same is true for us. There are parts of our lives that cannot simply be healed or gently be brought to God in prayer. There are parts of our lives that we are going to need to enter into battle with God for in order to transform them. The wrestling is necessary because the wrestling forces us to push through whatever is separating us from God and who God calls us to be. And for those of us who are particularly stubborn or prone to grasping, the wrestling is required to break down our wills enough to get us to the place of being able to confess – confess who we really are to God. Then, and only then, will we find our transformation – a renaming of who we are so that we can be fully who God invites us to be. But be forewarned – no one leaves the ring from a match with God without a few scars. Amen.
[i] Denise Dombkowski Hopkins, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 6.