By Debie Thomas
I don’t know if I’d still be a Christian if this week’s Old Testament story — the story of Jacob’s epic wrestling match near the river Jabbok — wasn’t in the Bible. To call the violent encounter between an ominous stranger and a lying trickster my “favorite” Bible story doesn’t feel quite right, but I am indebted to it, nevertheless. More than any other story in Scripture, Jacob’s story has helped me to hang on as a Christian. It has given me permission to bring my whole turbulent self before God, and to engage with the Divine in ways that feel contentious before they become consoling. In this essay, I want to share how and why. How Jacob’s experience shapes my view of God, and why a wrestling match has become my portal into faith.
As the story begins, Jacob is returning to the place of his birth after twenty years away, and steeling himself to reunite with Esau, the brother whose life he ruined through deceit and manipulation. Jacob has no idea how Esau will receive him, and he’s afraid. After sending his wives, his concubines, his children, and all his possessions ahead, across the river, Jacob decides to spend the night alone. Scripture doesn’t tell us why, but of course we’re free to speculate. Maybe he wants to pray and beg God for help. Maybe (as is his wont) he wants to scheme and strategize for a while before facing his brother. Maybe he’s overwhelmed by anxiety, and wishes to hide. Or maybe he’s a coward who needs his family to run into Esau first, and smooth things over for him.
We don’t know. All we know is that Jacob is isolated and vulnerable in a way he hasn’t been for a long time. On this lonely night, he can’t hide behind his vast wealth, or his many servants, or his large and complicated family — they’re all gone. He is alone in the dark in a desolate place — until he’s not. Until a nameless, faceless stranger leaps out of nowhere, and throws him to the ground.
Already, the story resonates for me personally. Perhaps it resonates for you, too. How often have you found yourself alone in the dark in a desolate place? How often, in that menacing darkness, have you done solitary battle with something you won’t recognize as God until much, much later?
Scholars have debated for years about “what’s really happening” in the Jacob story. Is he attacked by robbers? Does he have a panic attack? Is the stranger really Esau in disguise? For me, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because all of the epic battles of our lives — our battles with guilt, shame, fear, doubt, grief, or unforgiveness, our wrestling matches with family, friends, enemies, community, church, or creed — are ultimately battles with and about God. It is with God, and in relationship to God, and in God’s all-encompassing presence that we fight the fights that bend, break, and remake us. It is in God’s company that we face down the demons within and around us. It is God alone who brings us to the ragged edges of our own strength so that finally, finally, we’ll surrender, and allow ourselves to be saved. Whether we recognize the stranger as God or not, God is always the one we struggle with. God is always the one who battles with and against us — not for our detriment, but for our transformation.
Jacob and “the man” wrestle, the text says, all night long. They wrestle until Jacob is almost sure he will prevail. They wrestle — their limbs entangled, their eyes fixed on each other — until the darkness breaks and they see the dawn.
Here again, the story speaks to me powerfully. I was six or seven years old when I first learned Jacob’s story in Sunday School, and it terrified me. A violent man leaping out of the darkness? A pitched battle that lasted for hours? God, in the guise of an angel, or a man, or a demon, or a something, dislocating Jacob’s hip and abandoning him by a river? The whole narrative struck me as ominous, the stuff of horror movies and nightmares. What kind of God did such creepy things? Wasn’t God supposed to be loving? Protective? Safe?
Well, no, he’s not. At least, not in the ways I tend to define “loving,” “protective,” and “safe.” The God who goes toe to toe with Jacob is not a God whose first priority is our ease and comfort. He’s not a God who maintains a polite distance, minds his manners, and “makes nice” to keep us happy. No, Jacob’s God is wild and mysterious, unpredictable and strange. Jacob’s God doesn’t hesitate to muck around in the mud for several hours to bring Jacob to his knees. Indeed, the Hebrew word for “wrestle” means “to get dusty.” To get dirty. This is no dainty, breakable God. This is a God of dust and sweat and blood and tears. A God who is willing to “become dirty” to lift us out of the dirt.
If you’re like me, Jacob’s God is not the God you grew up with. As a child and a teenager, I thought of God as terribly fragile. Easily offended, easily upset, easily put off. My job as a good Christian girl was to obey the rules and keep this delicate divinity happy at all costs. One false turn, one impertinent question, one sullied bit of doctrine — and God would shatter like a fine china teacup knocked off a table.
What a contrast to the God who spends an entire night by a muddy river, duking it out with Jacob. This is a God who wants to engage. A God we can throw ourselves against with the full weight of our thoughts, questions, ideas, and feelings. A God who invites our rigor, our persistence, our intensity, and our strength. This is a God who doesn’t let go.
As the night wears on, and the stranger sees that Jacob has no intention of giving up, he strikes Jacob on the hip socket, dislocating his hip and causing him to limp. In “The Magnificent Defeat,” a beautiful sermon on this story, Frederick Buechner describes the pivotal moment like this:
“All the night through they struggle in silence until just before morning, when it looks as though a miracle might happen. Jacob is winning. The stranger cries out to be set free before the sun rises. Then, suddenly, all is reversed.
“He merely touches the hollow of Jacob’s thigh, and in a moment Jacob is lying there crippled and helpless. The sense we have, which Jacob must have had, that the whole battle was from the beginning fated to end this way, that the stranger had simply held back until now, letting Jacob exert all his strength and almost win so that when he was defeated, he would know that he was truly defeated; so that he would know that not all the shrewdness, will, brute force that he could muster were not enough to get this. Jacob will not release his grip, only now it is a grip not of violence but of need, like the grip of a drowning man.”
We live in a culture that celebrates success and scorns defeat. But sometimes, defeat is a mercy. Defeat is what saves us. What I carry away from the story of Jacob’s wounding is the troubling but rock solid truth that blessing and bruising are not mutually exclusive in the realm of God. We can limp and prevail at the same time. We can experience healing in brokenness. If I want to engage with God, then I must expect that I will be changed in the process — and not always in ways that are painless or comfortable or easy. I can’t dictate the terms of blessing. I can’t say, “I want the blessing but not the limp.” Sometimes, the blessing is the limp.
As dawn breaks, the stranger asks Jacob to disengage, and Jacob, tenacious as ever, says no: “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” I love this line. I adore it. I want to make it my life’s mantra, because it assures me that sometimes, “winning” involves nothing more sophisticated than not giving up. Sometimes, the spiritual life is about little more than hanging on for dear life to a God who feels mysterious, nameless, opaque, bewildering, and frightening. Sometimes the whole of Christianity comes down to saying, “There’s so much I can’t wrap my head around, but I know that there’s a blessing in this mess somewhere. I will hang on until I find it.”
So Jacob hangs on, waiting for something good to happen, and the stranger consents to his request for a blessing. But first, he asks Jacob the terrible but essential question upon which blessing is predicated: “What is your name?”
Why “terrible?” Well, consider the last time in the story that Jacob is asked this question. He is twenty years younger, and standing in his disabled father’s tent, wearing his brother’s clothes. Isaac, wary and suspicious, is afraid. He senses… something. He knows the immense power of blessing, and he doesn’t dare bestow it on the wrong person. So he asks once again who is standing in his tent. And Jacob — trickster Jacob, manipulative Jacob, deceitful, selfish Jacob whose very name means “heel grabber” or “go getter,” — looks into his father’s failing eyes, and lies. “I am Esau, your firstborn son.”
Twenty years later, the heel grabber gets a do over. Still groaning in pain, he hears the question leave the stranger’s lips: “What is your name?” What is your identity? Who are you?
I wonder if this is a question God asks us, too, each time we wrestle with him. Not because God doesn’t know who we are, but because so often, we don’t. Or, we do, but we don’t want to face what we know. What is your name? Who are you? No, who are you, really? At your core?
What Jacob learns that night by the river is that the big, terrible, life-changing questions we dodge and skirt and evade and ignore return to us again and again and again until we find the courage to look them in the eye and answer them honestly. I’m pretty sure that if Jacob had lied to the stranger yet again, the battle would have continued for another day and night. Or for many days and nights. God would have challenged Jacob’s destructive self-deceptions over and over again until he finally surrendered to the uncomfortable truth: “I am Jacob. The heel grabber. The deceiver. The schemer. The trickster. I am the man who lied to my father, cheated my brother, manipulated my father-in-law, and abandoned every disaster I created. I am Jacob.”
It’s only when we name the worst that we can relinquish it. It’s only when we confess the ugliness within and around us that God begins the holy work of transformation.
“You shall no longer be called Jacob,” the stranger tells his weary opponent. “You shall be called Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” I don’t know about you, but this moment in the story makes me cringe and laugh at the same time. This is the blessing Jacob receives? This? A new name that essentially guarantees him a lifetime of holy struggle? “You shall be called Israel.” Meaning: you shall spend the rest of your limping life wrestling with God. Battling with God. Contending with God. Say goodbye to the Trickster. From here on out, you are the Wrestler.
What sort of blessing is that?
Not a bad one, actually. Not a bad one. Wrestling, as it turns out, is not an irreverent thing, because it’s the opposite of apathy, the opposite of resignation, the opposite of quitting, the opposite of complacency. It’s even the opposite of loneliness. To fight is to stay close, to keep my arms wrapped tight around my opponent. Fighting means I haven’t walked away from God, and God hasn’t walked away from me. It means we both have skin left in the game.
This is both a challenge and an invitation to those of us who think our relationship with God has to be smooth and pretty all the time. It doesn’t. The God of Jacob delights in those who strive with him. The opposite of loving God isn’t fighting him. The opposite of loving God is not giving enough of a damn to fight. So don’t worry if you’re wrestling. Wrestling is our best protection against spiritual apathy. Wrestling keeps God relevant in our lives — it keeps him personal and a force to reckon with, rather than a dusty relic we stick on a shelf.
After all, in my human relationships, I don’t bother getting worked up when I don’t care. I don’t fight with people I’m passionless about. To wrestle with God is to insist that God matters.
As the story continues, the sun comes up, and it becomes Jacob’s turn to rename the place of his wounding. He calls the muddy wrestling ring, “Peniel,” saying, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
From this detail, I understand that it’s important to remember and to name the places where God shows up and contends with us. These “Peniels” where God meets us in the darkness. These places where we lose and find our true names. These places where Mystery wrestles us towards salvation. These places where we exhaust our own strength, and finally collapse into God’s.
These are the holiest of places, the places that leave us blessed and limping all at once. May we brave these places over and over again, because God is in them, ever ready to meet us. May we prevail over them each time the night fades and the sun rises. May our aches be the testaments to our joy.
Debie Thomas: email@example.com
Image credits: (1) University United Methodist Church of Tulsa, Oklahoma USA; (2) Pixels.com; and (3) Chabad.org.
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