“Wrestling at the Olympic Games, London, 1948” (National Media Museum)
22The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.
24Jacob 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.” (Genesis 32.22-30 NRSV)
Jacob is a dubious character.
Jacob experienced God in significant ways … That dream with the ladder stretching from earth to heaven with those angels making their way up and down … God reminding Jacob that he was Abraham’s grandson and Isaac’s son, an heir to the promise of land, family, blessing … God offering extra promises that wherever Jacob went God would be with him and some day God would bring Jacob back to his family’s home.
And the story Gerrits read about wrestling and blessing and a new name – Jacob doesn’t look too bad in these stories.
Then there are the stories where Jacob looks appalling.
Jacob had a knack for manipulating people and situations to find the angle that was most beneficial to himself. He was plotting. He was conniving. A schemer. In a way, Jacob’s life was one, long wrestling match. Not necessarily the kind of wrestling match we just heard about. It was more wrestling of wills and wits.
The wrestling started before he was even born.
Jacob had a brother, Esau. They were twins – born at the same time, but their looks and their personalities weren’t anything alike. Even in the womb they made their mother Rebekah miserable with their struggle.
When the twins were born, Jacob was wrestling, trying to be the first-born, he couldn’t manage to get ahead then. Easu was born first, and Jacob was a close second, as he was born he was holding onto his brother’s heel with his hand. In Hebrew, Jacob’s name supposedly means “heel grabber” or “supplanter.”
Jacob and Esau couldn’t have been more different. Esau was an outdoorsman, he knew how to hunt. Jacob was a “Quiet man who stayed in the tent.” Isaac loved Esau most because he enjoyed eating the meat from Esau’s hunting trips. Rebekah loved Jacob most. (That sounds like a formula for family tranquility if I ever heard one!)
The wrestling continued as they grew up.
Jacob tricked Esau out of his older brother/firstborn birthright. Later, with his mom’s help, Jacob conned his elderly father into giving him the blessing intended for Esau. Jacob kept coming up with these crazy schemes to take for himself what should have been Esau’s. Esau hated Jacob. Esau was so angry he could have killed Jacob. Jacob ran away to his uncle Laban’s to lay low.
Jacob wrestled with his uncle.
Laban was actually a lot like Jacob. He could find the angle that would be most beneficial to himself. Jacob and Laban made an arrangement that after Jacob worked for Laban seven years, Jacob could marry Rachel, the woman he loved, who also happened to be Laban’s daughter. After the seven years, somehow, Laban pulled a switch-a-roo and Jacob wound up marring Rachel’s sister Leah (– I’m not really sure how Laban accomplished that one, but somehow he did). When Jacob realized he had been tricked into marrying the wrong woman – he worked out a new agreement – if he worked for Laban another seven years he could marry Rachel. After fourteen years of working for Laban, finally, Jacob was able to marry Rachel, the one he loved. (You can imagine that Laban’s tricks didn’t set his daughters up for martial happiness.)
There was a lot of wrestling between Leah and Rachel for Jacob’s love and attention.
Leah had children first and she gave her sons names that contributed to the wrestling match. Leah named her first son Ruben, which scripture says means “Because the Lord has looked at my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.” (What a bummer for Ruben!) Rachel and Leah and their maidservants had something like a race to see who could give Jacob the most sons – Rachel named her first son Joseph, which scripture says means, “May the Lord add to me another son” – another child marked by the wrestling match.
Joseph got fed up of working for Laban. Around the same time, God spoke to Jacob saying it was time to return to the land of Jacob’s ancestors and God would be with Jacob. Leaving Laban turned out to be another wrestling match. Jacob was stuck between Laban, Esau, and the promise that God was with him and that one day Jacob would return home to his father’s land. Jacob finally left Laban without telling him goodbye. When Laban heard Jacob had snuck away, he chased Jacob down – but God spoke to Laban and told him not say a word, nothing good or bad to Jacob. Laban, followed God’s instructions. They worked out a deal. They made a pile of rocks and agreed that if Jacob treated Leah and Rachel well and if neither Jacob or Laban crossed to the other’s side of the rocks, they could live in peace.
Now Jacob had to worry about Esau’s wrath.
Jacob made some plans. He separated his family and possessions into groups. He planned on being less risky with the group that included Rachel, his favorite wife and Joseph, his favorite son. Jacob sent messengers ahead of the group. When they returned, they warned him that Esau was coming to meet them with 400 men. Jacob was distressed. He was afraid. It looked like a wrestling match he couldn’t win. He made more plans. He prayed. He separated his livestock – he intended hundreds of goats, sheep, camels, cows and bulls and donkey’s to be a peace-offering for Esau. He sent the gifts ahead. He took his wives, his maids, and his children across the Jabbok river and he spent the night alone.
I bet it was one of those nights with not much sleeping and lots of worrying. At home Esau was mad enough to kill him. Still, God said to go back home and that God would be with him. Those 400 men were coming his way. But, God said to go back. Jacob was stuck. Maybe this one was too intense for Jacob to plot and manipulate his way out of.
There was some of the mentally exhausting and sleep depriving kind of wrestling.
But there was also physical wrestling.
This mysterious figure showed up.
The wrestling match has a sense of significance and urgency to it, there are parts that are remembered so vividly, but at the same time it is mysterious and even vague.
Jacob and the man struggled all night.
Jacob held on tight. He walked away with a blessing and a new name, Israel, the one who struggled with God and with people and prevailed. Jacob walked away, but after all this he walked differently, his hip was wrenched and he walked with a limp.
In the morning, Jacob bowed and limped his way to Esau. Esau completely surprised him – Esau ran to meet Jacob. Esau bear hugged him. Esau kissed him. They both wept. Jacob said seeing Esau’s face was like seeing God’s face – God and Esau had both given Jacob such grace.
God kept the promises he made to Jacob.
God stuck with Jacob … even though Jacob kept making so much trouble for himself.
God brought Jacob home.
There is a lot of wrestling that happens in our lives.
It’s not necessarily the kind of wrestling where we put on singlets and get thrown all over the gym floor mats. (Incidentally, one time I made the mistake of calling a “singlet” a “onesie” to a real wrestler … don’t ever do that … they don’t like that.)
The wrestling in our lives is more like the kind of stuff that keeps us from sleeping at night.
Wrestling with how in the world we are going to have that difficult conversation with our family. Wrestling with just how to tell our boss about the problems at work. Those decisions that seem like they have no good solution. Those predicaments we find ourselves stuck in and just can’t seem to find a way out of. It is those consequences we know we deserve, but at the same time seem too big to work through.
Life is full of wrestling.
Maybe our biggest and most significant wrestling match mirror’s Jacobs struggle with God … We wrestle with how the promises of life and blessing and peace in Christ, really could be when everything around us seems to testify to the opposite.
In Jacob’s life, God kept the promise that God would be with Jacob, wherever Jacob wound up. God never abandoned him, even when Jacob did all these selfish and hurtful and unfaithful things. God was there. God was embracing him, but Jacob didn’t seem to be hanging onto God all that much. He was always making his own plans … concocting schemes … hanging onto what he could do … calculating how he could turn something to his own advantage. That night by the river, when everything looked so dark and hopeless, after Jacob had done everything he could imagine to save himself, when he was all alone, that night, we finally see Jacob holding onto God for dear life. Finally, by the river Jacob embraced God, and wouldn’t let go.
I’m curious, if as dubious as Jacob was, could this story gives us a picture of the faithful life.
What would it look like if we allowed ourselves to be embraced by God while at the same time holding onto God with all the strength we’ve got. God promises to be with us wherever we find ourselves. God promises us life, and forgiveness, mercy, and justice in Christ. What does it look like in our lives to hold onto these promises even when there are so many voices and situations and obstacles that make the promises seem so unlikely.
What does it look like to hold onto these promises even when the world screams around us that things can’t change, or we aren’t good enough, or it wouldn’t make a difference anyway.
Maybe wrestling is what it looks like to live faithfully as people who are embraced by God and who hold onto God’s promises with everything we’ve got.
Could life be one, big, long wrestling match where we are held tightly by God and we do everything we can to live faithfully in God’s embrace?