You could say that this week’s reading from Genesis is one of the most pivotal moments in the story of Israel, especially since it recounts how the name “Israel” originated. It’s an episode full of tantalizing puzzles.
After years of separation, Jacob is about to meet his brother Esau, who might still be angry enough to kill him (27:41). Jacob had, after all, swindled Esau out of his inheritance, living up to his own conniving name—it literally means “Heel-Grabber.” He’s spending one last night all by himself. What happens next is hard to describe, apparently, because the writer keeps switching viewpoints and terms.
Jacob finds himself wrestling. In Hebrew (which originally had no vowels) there’s some clever word play happening here: Jacob (y’qb) wrestles (y’bq) at the river Jabbok (ybbq).
Jacob wrestles in darkness with a mysterious presence he at first takes to be a man but later takes to be God. Or maybe it’s the writer who can’t decide how to describe Jacob’s wrestling partner. At first we are told in no uncertain terms that “a man” wrestled with Jacob until daybreak. But then this “man” says things that imply he’s actually God, and later Jacob says things that also imply this was God.
So let’s say this is God. But notice, this God remains unnamed. “Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’” Jacob gets named, as we’ll soon see, but not his wrestling partner. He’s in the presence of mystery.
This mysterious presence can’t win the wrestling match. Apparently this writer hasn’t read any cut and dried systematic theologies about omnipotence. (That word has often been taken to mean “all-controlling,” which doesn’t work here, but it can mean “all-empowering,” which might work here.)
When the “man” realizes he can’t win, he resorts to fighting dirty—literally hitting below the belt! Incidentally, the very next verse after this reading (32) explains that this is why it’s not kosher to eat the “thigh muscle” of an animal. Some scholars think that “thigh muscle” is a euphemism for another organ. Rocky Mountain oysters are off the menu (I’m OK with that).
This “thigh muscle” grab brings the wrestling match to a halt, but notice: Jacob still isn’t letting go (still living into his own “grabby” name, I guess), and the stranger apparently can’t get away until he does.
The stranger’s need to get away has something to do with the approach of daybreak. Is it because seeing the stranger’s face could prove deadly for Jacob (Exodus 33:20)? We’re not told why, and later Jacob says otherwise, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” Anyway, for some reason the stranger needs Jacob to let go.
But Jacob won’t let go without a blessing: “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” And lo and behold, he gets one! The most interesting part of the blessing involves the name change, from Jacob to Israel.
Of course, these aren’t just names; they’re descriptions. “Heel-Grabber” (Jacob) aptly describes Jacob’s whole conniving way of life up to now. But now it’s time to raise that description to a whole new level: “God-Wrestler” (Israel). “You shall no longer be called Heel-Grabber, but God-Wrestler, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
That’s some blessing! Notice, it’s not just the blessing of one person but God’s blessing of God-wrestling. There are times when our faith‘s awakening to God’s inescapable presence drives us to kneel in reverence at the unnamed, incomprehensible mystery that God is. But there are also times when that very awakening drives us to insist on the inherent dignity God has given us as God’s children. That insistence, that God-wrestling, is what God is blessing in Jacob and in all his descendants, including us, his spiritual descendants.
These days, I can’t think of a better occasion for God-wrestling than right now. This virus is not disappearing. Hatefulness is on the rise. Every hopeful way forward we try to imagine seems to teeter on the brink of disaster. What better time is there to grab onto the mysterious presence who won’t let us go and cry, in turn, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me”? You have no less than God’s blessing to do just that.
Will things go better when we’ve done that? In some ways, of course they will. Jacob and Esau peaceably reconciled that very day, much to Jacob’s surprise. But the story doesn’t end there with “happily ever after,” not for Jacob and not for any of his descendants, including us. And Jacob himself doesn’t emerge from this encounter without a limp.
All I can say is that I have found this wrestling to be worth it, not because things have gone better (they often haven’t), but because they have gone deeper, reinforcing my resolve to keep limping forward. That’s one blessing we can count on. Let’s not let go until it happens.