Common English Bible (CEB)
22 Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River’s shallow water. 23 He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river. 24 But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. 25 When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. 26 The man said, “Let me go because the dawn is breaking.”
But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”
27 He said to Jacob, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel,[a] because you struggled with God and with men and won.”
29 Jacob also asked and said, “Tell me your name.”
But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. 30 Jacob named the place Peniel,[b] “because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.” 31 The sun rose as Jacob passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh.
The story of Genesis, as far as I can tell, is about a great many things, but one of the consistent themes is people trying as hard as they can to get out of trouble. We started at the beginning with Adam and Eve, and the first thing they do once they sin against God is to try to hide themselves from God. They don’t confront God, God confronts them, and when God does, it is not out of anger but disappointment that God acts. When Cain kills Abel, he doesn’t fess up, but instead shirks responsibility: “I’m not my brother’s keeper, am I?” When Abraham, called by God to leave his homeland, and encounters a foreign king, instead of standing up and defending his wife, he offers her to the king as a concubine, on the excuse that she’s not really his wife but his sister!
Over and over again, people in Genesis try to get out of the consequences of their actions. If we were to judge them based on whether they have the fight or flight responses, the overwhelming results would be flight. Which explains a lot, really. As soon as God made us, we’ve been trying to run away, make excuses, and avoid consequences. It also says a lot about yours truly.
I’ve probably told you all before that when it comes down to a crisis, I’m much more apt to avoid, to run away, to make excuses, than I am to actually face what’s going on. I really try not to, but I know who I am, and who I am is a non-confrontational person. I never got into fights growing up; I’d either be the one to back down, or crack a joke to break the tension. In some cases, this is a good thing; I’m nonviolent at heart, and if I can solve a problem without resorting to violence, then I will. It made me a better problem solver. At the heart of it, though, is fear. Fear that I’m not strong enough to face my problems. Fear that I might lose, get hurt, or worse. So instead of putting faith in my strength, I’d put my faith in my ability to get around a problem rather than to break through it.
All of which puts me in a similar place as the people who collected these stories and put them in one handy-dandy scroll and called it Genesis. Remember who the Hebrews were. They were, for a great part of their history, a homeless tribe. They were nomads, a smallish band of nomads for that matter. They didn’t have brute strength on their side, so what did they have? They had their brains. They couldn’t smash through their problems, so they thought around them. Suddenly the kinds of stories in Genesis start to make a lot more sense. The stories of their ancestors that they treasured were not about grand armies and military victories, but personal struggles of outsiders overcoming ridiculous odds. While this virtue of mind over matter has many pluses, it has pretty major downsides: cowardice, disobedience, and pride. All of which brings us back to our buddy Jacob here.
This is the last of my series in Genesis, and I wound up ending on probably the most important story in the whole book. I say this because this is the turning point in origin story of God and God’s people. This is where everything comes to a head, partly because God forces it into a head. First, some setup. Jacob is on his way back home with his new wives, his plenteous flock, and his household of workers. On the way he gets word from one of his scouts that his brother, Esau (you know, the one he cheated out of his inheritance for a BOWL OF LENTIL SOUP) is on his way to meet him. Oh, and he brought 400 soldiers with him too. All in all, things aren’t looking too good for Jacob.
In response, he divides up his herds and such, and sends them in two different directions; that way whichever one Esau finds first, he can take, and Jacob will still have half of his property left. Overall, not a bad idea, but it doesn’t solve the problem, does it? Just kind of lessens the potential damage. The problem still remains: Esau is after Jacob and wants to kill him. So Jacob sends his retinue ahead of him, and camps out by the river. Doesn’t say why, he just does. The text then says something remarkable, something that hasn’t ever happened to Jacob, or to anyone in Genesis for that matter. The text says that he stays behind, and “a man wrestles with him until daybreak.”
It really is remarkable that this is the first actual test of strength in the whole book of Genesis. Nobody has ever had to fight until this point. There’s been building, there’s been running, there’s been angry mobs and fires from heaven, there’s been a whole lot of swindling, but there’s been no fighting, no battles, no direct conflict almost the entire time. Now, we have this rather short, strange verse describing a wrestling match between Jacob and this mystery man. And yes, it is strange. It’s one of the strangest things in Genesis. It’s also the most meaningful; more meaningful than the fall of humanity from grace.
In the fight, it says the mystery man knew he would lose, and Jacob would defeat him. So what does the man (who we know is God) do to end the wrestling match? He grabs Jacob’s thigh and dislocates his hip, giving Jacob a permanent limp. Let that sink in. God knew he was losing, and he purposely injured Jacob to end the bout. First off, that’s a huge revelation about God, isn’t it? This is pretty far from the remote puppetmaster we imagine God to be. In fact, it kind of looks like God is being petty. On top of that, Jacob the liar, the swindler, the scoundrel, the runaway, has God in a headlock and will not let go. On the surface, this looks like Jacob has bested a not-that-powerful deity in a feat of strength. Either that, or God is not that good of a wrestler (which doesn’t seem that likely). That, of course is one way to look at it. As with everything in scripture, there’s always more to the story, isn’t there?
Jacob refused to let go until the mystery man gave Jacob a blessing—much like Jacob cheated his father out of a blessing so many years ago. All these things swirling around in the background come hurtling forth with this demand. Jacob has cheated, lied, and weaseled his way to blessing all of his life, and in this moment of triumph, he demands what he feels what he’s finally earned: a blessing. That’s all he’s wanted. That’s all he’s ever wanted. He always wanted what he felt everyone else had, and not him. Envy consumed Jacob, and in this moment, by rights, he feels he deserves this fair and square. He’s not relying on tricks this time. He’s not running away; he’s facing this obstacle head on. That’s got to be worth something.
God then responds: What is your name? Jacob, maintaining his chokehold, replies with his name, and all that implies. Jacob, the heel-grabber. Jacob, the supplanter. Jacob the place taker, the thief, the cheater. Jacob’s name is a dead giveaway for his character. People know who he is, what he is, as soon as they hear his name. So as a blessing, a reward for his facing that which has run away from, God gave Jacob a new name: Israel, the God-wrestler. And with that, a new identity, and even a whole new people, is born. The family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is no longer one known for its capacity to run away from God, to cheat and lie, but rather to face God head on and wrestle with the problems that face them.
Shortly after this, Israel leaves and confronts his brother, and the two, remarkably, made amends for past sins. The man who was Jacob is no longer burdened by his past; Israel is now a man who has a future, a future of faith that goes beyond his own strength, a faith that goes beyond his own craftiness. Israel’s faith is in his God, and the deliverance that his God has promised him.
This story leaves us in a bit of a strange place, though, doesn’t it? It seems to raise more questions than it answers. However, it also gives us an example from which we can live. Israel’s identity has been reborn, and so we are given hope for ourselves. This is a story of redemption. This is a story of a man who has a dark past, and now has a bright future. We too share in this bright future. We, in Christ, can have a faith that gives us a future, a faith that mirrors the faithfulness of God. We, in the promise of God, have a faith beyond disaster, reason, circumstance, strength, and anything else. We need not run from our past, or avoid our responsibilities or escape our obstacles. We have a faith that makes us stronger than anything. We have a faith that gives us a future. Yes we will struggle. Yes we will have to occasionally wrestle, and sometimes we need to wrestle with God. This is who we are. But we are also heirs to a promise that will transform us, and transform the whole world. Thanks be to God. Amen.