Jacob is utterly alone. He sent his wives and children ahead of him, across the river on their journey to back to Canaan and he spends the night alone on the Jabbok River. It is one thing to be alone during the day, or even at night in the comfort of your own bed—but out in the wilderness with nothing familiar, cut off from everything and everyone—no comfort, no conversation—with only your roiling thoughts and regrets to keep you company. That’s alone.
But Jacob is not left alone for long. A man comes and wrestles with him until daybreak. Who is this man and what did he really want? Is this a real man nearby? Another vivid dream like the ladder with angels? A real angel or, actually God? A clear answer is not revealed, inviting our imagination to wrestle with the possibilities.
Maybe Jacob’s opponent is a real man, like Jacob’s brother, Esau, surprising him in the darkness to get the upper hand. Jacob bargained Esau out of his birthright and tricked him out of their father’s blessing as the eldest son; then Jacob fled to his Uncle Laban’s to escape Esau’s wrath. Now, after building family and wealth, Jacob sent a message with gifts to Esau that he was on his way back, so perhaps this jilted brother is ready to take his vengeance. Jacob left him with half his inheritance, so surely, Esau might still be angry enough for an all-night wrestling match. Even if it is not his intent to kill Jacob, perhaps Esau just wants to anonymously see Jacob experience a good measure of the fear, suffering and misery Jacob caused him.
Perhaps this midnight wrestler is not made of flesh and blood, but rather powers and principalities. The shadows of the night reveal the shadows in Jacob’s own soul; being alone invited them out for an honest reckoning. The real reason Jacob is alone, apart from his family, is because he is a coward. He really did fear Esau would kill him, and he knew Esau was headed his direction with 400 men. But instead taking the lead at the head of his family and facing his brother, he put his wives and children out in front of him to save his own skin. Maybe Esau would spare his wives and children; or at least he would be tired of the slaughter and will have exhausted his wrath by the time he got to Jacob at the back of the entourage. Either way, Jacob’s cowardice means he has placed his whole family in harm’s way to save himself. Maybe through this long night, Jacob wrestles with this deep fear of death, and his urge for self-preservation that even love for family does not overcome. Like a dark night of the soul, this fearsome wrestling match gives Jacob a way to confront and conquer this crippling fear and devastating character weakness.
Maybe this wrestling partner really is an angel visitor in the night, confronting Jacob with his fierce self-reliance and inability to trust God. Twenty years earlier, God promised Jacob security, success, and a return to his homeland—and that promise has come to pass with children, large flocks, and this night of his return journey. But Jacob has built his wealth through trickery. Jacob always has a scheme or a plan to get himself ahead—but God wants more than a self-reliant, scheming, successful man. God calls him to bear the covenant God made with Abraham and Isaac and through them, all of creation. Jacob carries a calling that is bigger than himself, a calling that requires him to fully and finally put his trust in God and to be the leader this covenant demands. Jacob needs to conquer his relentless independence, cunning and self-reliance that denies a deeper relationship with God. This wrestling match is Jacob’s Garden of Gethsemane—that moment when he has to learn to declare, “not my will, but Thy will be done.”
As the day began to dawn and the struggle nearly over, Jacob asks passionately for a blessing. At this moment, there is no cowardice, no fear, no trickery, no scheming—just a desperate, clinging request to not leave the battle without a blessing, without something good coming from it. “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Jacob Would. Not. Let. Go.
The man asks Jacob his name. “Jacob Jacob, the supplanter; Jacob, the grasper; Jacob, the usurper. But this name is now too limiting for Jacob to move forward in the next stage of fulfilling God’s covenant. So Jacob receives not only a new name, but a new identity. “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
Jacob reveals a profound truth for all of us. We cannot move forward before we can name the blessing from the last battle—and until we get it, until we can see it, until we can claim something good from something awful, the best that we can do is to hang on. Some days, we survive by nothing more elegant than not giving up on ourselves and not giving up on God.
That’s what Jacob does—as he wrestles with his past, himself, and with God—he hangs on and he does not give up—he clings to the moment and demands that goodness, holiness, life, and blessing arise from the pain somehow. Jacob demands transformation, a kind of resurrection. And he receives it.
Israel—the name of a new man and a new nation—which literally means to strive or wrestle or contend with God. This God wants us to hang in there and never give up. Through wrestling, Jacob transitions from fearful schemer to role model. Jacob invites us to cling to God and demand a blessing even when it’s hard and painful to wrestle with our demons, to live with broken relationships, to confront our character weaknesses, and to submit our self-reliant, ornery selves to God’s will and purpose. Every loss, every divorce, every broken relationship, every diagnosis, every death of someone we love leaves its mark. Just like Jacob, we leave these life experiences with a limp in body or soul. Each struggle leaves a scar.
But with Jacob, we grab the mystery of God and hang on, even when we are tired, or in pain, or have doubts. We fight for our relationship with God. Faith is not a static, one-time gift from God; it is God’s lifelong pursuit of us and our lifelong pursuit for God. We may never have the complete answers but in the struggle to hang on to faith and to God, we become stronger, and grow and with Jacob, we become blessed and transformed into something more than we were before.
Right now, we all hang on together, refusing to let go of God until God’s blessing transforms us anew.
Image: Delacroix, Eugène, 1798-1863. Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, from Art in the Christian Tradition. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48070. Original source: www.yorckproject.de.