Battle and Blessing

October 11, 2020/Genesis 32:22-30

What is it about those middle-of-the-night hours?  What is it about the still darkness that allows our imaginations to run wild, in all the wrong directions, that fosters thoughts of gloomy outcomes and dire endings.  Why is it that everything looks worse at two in the morning?

Here’s Jacob, well off by any man’s standards.  Two beautiful wives, numerous children, servants and herdsmen, fine flocks of sheep and goats and camels.  Acting on a message from God, he has packed all his worldly goods and set out with this great company to return to the land of his birth.  To say he had mixed feelings would be putting it mildly.  He had garnered his father, Isaac’s, blessing through trickery and deceit, but the blessing wasn’t enough to protect him from his twin’s anger.  He had fled with little more than the knapsack his mother packed for him.  Now he headed home, but with a good amount of fear about how he would be greeted by Esau.

Strange, considering his fears, that Jacob would send his wives, children, servants, and flocks across the stream ahead of him.  Strange, that he would camp there, by himself, in the darkness.  Maybe he needed a little time apart to build up his courage.  Maybe he thought Esau would be impressed, or at least distracted, by all those people and animals.  But Jacob would not pass a peaceful night by the waters of the Jabbok.

“Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him.”

Well, not really a man.  God in human form, perhaps.  Perhaps God, in God’s wisdom, took the form of a man such as Jacob would face when he finally met up with Esau.  Perhaps God “tends to take on the features of others with whom we struggle in the day.”[1]  Whatever the reason, there, in the dark night of Jacob’s fear, God wrestled with him.

It is an interesting struggle.  Interesting that God does not simply strike Jacob a glancing blow and drop him where he stands.  “The man did not prevail against Jacob,” we learn, until he struck his hip, knocking the joint from its socket.  Yet even that blow does not end the battle.  Like a dog with a rabid fox caught in its jaws, Jacob clings to the man, refusing to let him go without first receiving a blessing.  God instructs Jacob to release him, not out of concern for God’s own well-being, but because God knows that Jacob will die if he sees God in the full morning light. 

Clearly, Jacob recognizes the holy One with whom he has wrestled, and we know how he feels about blessings.  He urgently presses for this second blessing, “willing to risk death for the sake of the divine blessing.”[2]  But God doesn’t immediately grant Jacob’s request.  First, he grants Jacob something he has not sought, nor asked for – a new name.  “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”  This new name “affirms a divine commitment to stay with Jacob in the struggle.  God will be caught up in this relationship.”[3]

Even with this new name, Jacob is not satisfied.  “Please tell me your name,” he entreats the man.  God does not answer, but instead now confers the blessing Jacob has sought.  This blessing serves to confirm and realize the earlier blessing received so deceitfully at the hand of his father, Isaac.  “The blessing spoken here by God enables the promises to be realized in Jacob’s life.  In fulfillment of the promise, God will go with Jacob into future dangerous moments.”[4]

Jacob will leave this nighttime encounter with God with a new sense of who he is and of the God who accompanies him.  God has challenged him at one of the most challenging moments in his life, and Jacob has come through the contest with a lasting injury but also with a deep assurance of the promises God will fulfill through him.

“Such struggles might be viewed as divinely initiated exercises in human becoming, of shaping and sharpening the faithfulness of the human beings involved for the deep challenges to be faced.  God’s engagement in such moments in people’s lives is always a gracious move, informed most basically by faithfulness to promises made, and in the interests of health, peace, and well-being.  God watches for openings, for opportunities, to enhance the divine purpose in Jacob’s life.”[5]

Perhaps you have engaged in wrestling matches of your own with God.  Perhaps you’ve wondered why you’ve been gripped in such battles, with the overwhelming sense of power pushing you in ways you did not want or choose.  “When it comes to struggles in daily life, we can count on God’s mixing it up with us, challenging us, convicting us, evaluating us, judging us.”[6]  All of those things make us intensely uncomfortable.  We like to believe we can chart our own course, direct our own futures.  A wrestling match with God can pull us up short, reminding us quickly, we are not masters of our own fate but children of a God who calls us to a servant life – a life in the service of others rather than ourselves.

In the words we read from Mark this morning, we see even Jesus engaged in a wrestling match with God.  As the time drew near for his arrest and crucifixion, he pleaded with God to “remove this cup.  Yet not what I want, but what you want,” he prayed.  Jesus’ words remind us, even as we wrestle with God, to pray not for our own way, but God’s way to be made manifest in our lives.  That may mean, like Jacob, facing the things in ourselves that have brought us to an uncomfortable reunion with family or friend.  It may mean wrestling with our own “stuff” – our biases and dislikes, our preferences and unspoken longings.  It may mean loosening the purse strings we’ve held so tightly, desiring to build up for ourselves rather than opening our hearts and wallets to the needs around us.  But once we’ve wrestled, once we’ve done the hard work of seeing ourselves as we really are, perhaps we, too, can move into the promises God has in store for us – wounded but blessed for God’s service.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: Genesis, 267

[2] Terence E. Fretheim, “Genesis,” NIB Vol. 1, 566

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 567

[5] Ibid., 568, 569

[6] Ibid., 570

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