Scripture Passage: Genesis 32: 24-30
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
So, for a little background, note that Jacob and his entourage are about to reenter the Promised Land. He has sent his entire caravan across the Jabbok, an eastern tributary of the Jordan about twenty miles north of the Dead Sea. And it is here that, for some reason, Jacob stays behind. And sometime during the night, he is wrestled to the ground. Jacob may well have thought it was Esau at first, who had threatened to kill Jacob for taking his birthright. He might have thought that he was finally getting his due for all those years as the trickster, that he had finally once and for all been “found out”.
The struggle goes on through the night and as daybreak approaches, Jacob is struck on the hollow of this thigh by his opponent. The blow has a crippling effect but Jacob retains such a hold that there is no escape. He demands a blessing for the release. You think about it—he had the birthright, he had everything in his life. But his greatest desire was to be blessed. So, somehow Jacob either knew or had realized that this was God with whom he was wrestling, because only God has the power to grant such a blessing.
Now remember that it was believed that God’s face would not be seen and if it was, the one who saw God would die. This says something about Jacob. He is willing to risk even death for the sake of the divine blessing. And God is willing to allow Jacob to wrestle, even to demand, even to seemingly take more of God’s time and God’s power than he really deserved. God gives the blessing and changes Jacob’s name to Israel, “God-wrestler”.
The story ends with a lot of ambiguity. I mean, there’s no clear winner. They just sort of walk away as the dawn breaks. But Jacob will never be the same again. He has looked not only God but himself square in the face and everything has changed. In a way, the old sages were right. Once someone looks into the face of God, they do indeed die. They have been made new, reborn. Nothing will ever be the same again. For Jacob, this act of wrestling has been one of transformation. And this trickster, this heel, this one who had spent his whole life trying to better his own existence, is renamed. He becomes Israel and he names the place Peniel, which means “I have seen the face of God.”
You know, it’s interesting to note that the New Revised Standard Version uses “Peniel” in one place and “Penuel” in the other to name this place where Jacob wrestled. They both essentially mean the same thing. The difference is that “Peniel” (with an “I”) is singular or first person. It means “I have seen the face of God.” “Penuel” (with a “u”) is plural. It means “We have seen the face of God.” So Jacob names the place for his own encounter, acknowledging that he knew that he had seen the face of God. By the time he leaves, though, the name is plural, opening up new possibilities to all of us having a similar encounter with the Holy and the Sacred.
The truth is, this wrestling match that Jacob had is not a story of persistence or winning; it is a story of redemption. Jacob was allowed to wrestle and wander and even doubt and, still, became the one he was called to be. The message of our Christian faith is not that God is some impersonal force, or a terrifying presence to whom we cannot relate. God does not expect empty praise and sacrifices and groveling from us. God is willing to wrestle, to get down into our lives, to know who we are, and to allow us to search for who God is to us. We are the people who wrestle with God. It is not presumptuous of us to make this claim. God was the one who gave that name to God’s people. That’s who God wants us to be. Of course God could squish us like a bug in a nanosecond. But for our benefit, God is always available to wrestle with us, at whatever level we are capable of wrestling. God sent Jesus into the world to wrestle with us, and Jesus allowed himself to get pinned to a cross. That’s what it took for us to experience the love that flows from God.
This season of Lent is our wrestling season. It begins in a wilderness and ends on a Cross. And God is there for each round of the game. Because only those who wrestle with God, those who let go of the armors that they have built around their lives, those who forsake their plans and ask for help, those who are vulnerable, those who wrestle with their guilt and their despair, can encounter God. The wilderness is a place of blessing. God wants us to wrestle; indeed, invites us to wrestle. That is the only way that we will come to know God and come to know ourselves. Faith grows in the midst of the struggle. Faith grows in the wilderness. That is the way that we will forever walk, perhaps even with a slight limp, with the mark of the Divine.
You must give birth to your images. They are the future waiting to be born. Fear not the strangeness you feel. The future must enter you long before it happens. Just wait for the birth, for the hour of new clarity.”(Rainer Maria Rilke)
Grace and Peace,