Wrestling matches with God can be part of a spiritual journey too.
The story of Jacob’s wrestling match at the river Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-32) is a puzzling and disturbing story. It raises more questions than the text answers. And yet I love this story, because it resonates so strongly with my own spiritual experience.
The match takes place at a major transition point in Jacob’s life. After cheating his brother Esau out of his inheritance, Jacob flees to his uncle’s house in Haran for refuge. He lives there 20 years, becoming a rich man. He also acquires two wives and 12 sons.
Jacob decides to return to Canaan to his father’s house. As the caravan approaches the river Jabbok, Jacob hears that his brother Esau is coming to meet him with 400 armed men. Jacob fears the worse. So he divides his caravan into two parties. On the night before the meeting he also moves his whole household across the river, but crosses back to the other side to spend the night alone.
Jacob Wrestles with a Figure of Mystery
The text says that there Jacob wrestles with a man all through the night. Now this is one of the puzzles. Who is this man? Where does he come from? The text does not say. It leaves us with a mystery. That has fed lots of scholarly speculation.
One suggestion is that the man stands in for Jacob’s guilty conscience. What Jacob wrestles with all night are all the anxieties he has as a legacy of his bad treatment of his brother 20 years before.
Another popular suggestion is that the man is really an angel. Jacob wrestles with this numinous figure of superhuman strength. So people often refer to this story as Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel.
Another suggestion is that in this story we see the biblical writer adopting and adapting an ancient folk tale that saw demonic figures as guardians over river crossings. These demons could be malevolent and cause serious mischief.
The Blessing Conferred on Jacob
As I say, the text gives little clarity as to who this man is. But he is a figure of superior strength. But so is Jacob. They wrestle all night, but the man cannot vanquish Jacob. As dawn approaches, he begs Jacob to let him go. Jacob refuses unless this numinous figure blesses him.
The blessing turns out to be a change of Jacob’s name. The figure says that Jacob will no longer by called by that name, with its associations of deceit and betrayal. Instead his new name will be Israel, “because you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28)
This name change signals that Jacob is entering into a new spiritual status, a new self. His life will not be the same. For the rest of Genesis, Jacob will never again deceive and betray. Instead he will be the victim of deceit and betrayal.
Jacob asks the man’s name, but is denied that knowledge. Here is an odd clue to the mysterious figure’s identity. In the ancient world it was believed that if you knew a person’s name, you gained power over him or her. Jacob can exercise no power over the mysterious figure because he remains nameless.
But Jacob guesses at the figure’s identity. He names the place of the wrestling match Peniel, saying “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” In some mysterious way, Jacob surmises that he has been wrestling all night with none other that God, and he extracts from God the blessing he wants.
An Extraordinary Insight into the Divine-Human Relationship
It is an extraordinary way to describe the relationship between God and a human being–a wrestling match. A wrestling match in which God gives way to Jacob. But Jacob is not left unaffected. The wrestler will put Jacob’s hip out of joint, and Jacob will walk the rest of his life with a limp. Both have striven together, and both experience a change in the relationship.
Now it is this detail what resonates so strongly with me. Sometimes we can experience our relationship with God as a wrestling match, too. We can wrestle with God’s demands and expectations for us. We can wrestle with God’s inexorable love, that hound of heaven that pursues us even when we do not want to be pursued. We can wrestle with God in coming to accept our sins, our flaws, the shadow sides of our personality, coming to forgive ourselves as God forgives us and loving what is unlovable in us as God does.
I say that because that has been exactly my experience numerous times in my spiritual journey. There have been times when I wanted to say to God, “Buzz off. I’m tired of dealing with you. I want to be alone.” Yet God has not let go. I cannot vanquish God.
At the same time, there have been times when I was tempted to throw God overboard, but something inside me could not make that final break. I wrestled on, sometimes for years, experiencing terror and despair. But I could not let go until I received the blessing. And in many ways I have.
I believe that God’s intentions for us as for the whole world are fundamentally and essentially good and loving. But let us never underestimate the depth of God’s love. It is determined and it will not let go until God has conferred the blessing that God has always held in reserve for us.
But the journey to that blessing can be one that involves many social, psychological, and spiritual battles. These battles are the story of divine transformation at work. We can be surprised to find when the wrestling is all done that the demons that we thought we were fighting are none other than angels of blessing.
Photo credit: Matthias Kabel