One of the best stories in the Old Testament is told in just seven verses of Genesis 32. It begins:
So Jacob was left alone.
You might relate. Most of us feel alone and the feeling torments us.
What’s more, the pandemic weaponized the loneliness built into our society. Our “freedom” to be “independent” turned on us. We need to feel connected.
Then a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
Jacob fled his home and his brother at sundown. He returns at daybreak. The point of this post will be, “I hope you also lean into your dawn as you wrestle.” Each of us is changing all the time and the process often, if not always, feels like “wrestling.” Now the whole world is struggling toward a post-pandemic life. We’re all wrestling.
When the man saw that he could not defeat Jacob, he struck the socket of his hip so the socket of Jacob’s hip was dislocated while he wrestled with him.
When they heard this story, people started setting apart the hip ligaments of slaughtered animals to honor the unknown, supernatural being who humbly wrestled with Jacob all night, even though he could have killed him with a touch.
Robert Alter says this being with whom Jacob wrestles is the “embodiment of the portentous antagonism in Jacob’s dark night of the soul. He is obviously in some sense a doubling of Esau as an adversary, but he is also a doubling of all with whom Jacob has had to contend, and he may equally well be an externalization of all that Jacob has to wrestle within himself.” [Strangely good price on Alter’s translation]
So many of us are furious with God for our dark nights and the wrestling that seems “forced” upon us. We think of our limps as signs of shame. But Jacob, whose original name could be construed to mean ”he who acts crookedly” is permanently bent by his wrestling match in order to stand before his betrayed brother in truth and stand (as you will see if you finish the story) in unexpected grace. If you are not marked by wrestling in the dark, you probably have minimal spiritual awareness and you are likely bound up psychologically. Wrestling does not always come to good, but no good comes without it.
Then the man said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.”
“I will not let you go,” Jacob replied, “unless you bless me.”
The way Frederick Buechner tells the story, after he was made lame Jacob says,
“I could do nothing but cling now. I clung for dear life. I clung for dear death. My arms trussed him. My legs locked him. For the first time he spoke.
He said, ‘Let me go.’ The words were more breath than sound. They scalded my neck where his mouth was touching. He said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’
Only then did I see it, the first faint shudder of light behind the farthest hills. I said, ‘I will not let you go.’
I would not let him go for fear that day would take him as the dark had given him. It was my life I clung to. My enemy was my life. My life was my enemy. I said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ Even if his blessing meant death, I wanted it more than life.”
The man asked him, “What is your name?”
He answered, “Jacob.”
“No longer will your name be Jacob,” the man told him, “but Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have prevailed.”
Jacob’s prevailing, and ours, means taking the risk to be alone with God in the dark and staying with the process of transformation, no matter what, until the day breaks.
Then Jacob asked, “Please tell me your name.”
“Why do you ask my name?” the man replied. Then he blessed Jacob there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, explaining, “Certainly I have seen God face to face and have survived.”
He did not get the power of handling the name. And we won’t get the power we crave, which does not belong to us, by defining and labelling things and people, either. But he did get the blessing of being named and having an experience that ended up with a face-to-face glimpse of God that felt like coming from death to life.
Unlike when Abram becomes Abraham, the story continues to primarily use “Jacob,” not “Israel,” when he is named. In subsequent poetry, when the nation is named, it will often be called Jacob in the first line and Israel in the second. I love how the Bible is so honest about who the people of God are! We are all Jacobs who limp with the memories of our sin and stumble with the death that stalks us in the night. We have all betrayed those we love and have been afraid we would be killed. We wrestle. But, if we prevail, we are also all Israels who get to the dawn with a new name and an astounded outlook. We face God and gain enough courage to get across the next river and so welcome the miracles that accompany intimacy with our Creator and reconciliation with others.
Lately I have felt like I am again wrestling on the other side of a “Jabbok,” my crossing-over place. In the darkness I have yearned for a blessing and resisted the necessity of becoming one in a new way. I can feel both movements in my heart at the same time, of course. I am likely to fear what is on the other side of the river even as I am delighted with how Jesus is leading me through it by the hand!
Today I am glad to receive the gist of the story of Jacob coming home as a call to stick with the process. Don’t think you know everything about what all this wrestling is about. And don’t be too surprised when you realize it is already dawn. Those touches of pain are usually the very places God is suffering with us to make us fit to be a blessing in whatever is coming next.