Text: Genesis 32:22-31
There is a story deep in the later chapters of Genesis. It’s not a story that we know particularly well, but, it’s a story worth telling, and a story worth listening to. Would you believe it’s a wrestling match… and not a nice one either? This is not the kind of WWE soap opera style “SmackDown” that we might come to expect from the sports entertainment industry… this is a real fight… a fight where lives are at stake. One of the combatants is Jacob… the other one… we don’t know… but it could be God.
We know at least where this story started: Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah, eventually had two sons of his own: Jacob and Esau. When they were growing up, Jacob had tricked both the first-born Esau and his father to gain the blessing and birthright that was so important to their early cultures. Needless to say it created a bit of a rift, and Jacob had fled fearing the wrath of his brother.
Over the next number of years, Jacob lives in exile, becoming prosperous in his own right… and learning some very profound lessons about himself. Eventually, he realizes that God was calling him to return home, to be reconciled with his brother. Jacob is understandably nervous, the last time that he saw him, Esau was screaming something about having his head on a pike.
I don’t know about you, but that’s a pretty vivid image of a rather bitter parting.
Before his arrival, Jacob is so nervous about meeting his brother for the first time in nearly twenty years, that he sends a wide array of gifts in order to appease him… not the least of whom were his own wives and children. Before going to meet his brother, Jacob takes his wives and children, sending them across the river at the ford of Jabbok. In the silence, and in the darkness of the night, Jacob finds himself alone… but not for long:
24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
As I said before, this was not play fighting. This was not the WWE kind of wrestling for show. From the Hebrew, this was an out-and-out knock-down drag ‘em out kind of brawl. Jacob was fighting for his life… hard enough that his hip is dislocated in the midst of the fight… and he still keeps going.
Not only that, we really have no idea who his opponent is. There’s no description… no distinguishing marks… The fight is in complete darkness, and it keeps on going… Jacob refuses to yield, but neither is there a clear winner. The mysterious stranger says “Let me go, it’s almost dawn!” Before the light comes up, before the sun casts rays over the horizon and this opponent is revealed… He says, “Let me go!”
But Jacob says, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
I will not let you go until you bless me.
Now we’re getting somewhere. For all of his life, Jacob has tricked and cheated his way into blessings. He is afraid to return to his brother, because he knows fundamentally that he had tricked him, that he had cheated him. The blessing that his father gave rightfully belonged to Esau, and Jacob had taken that from him. Jacob is struggling with how this encounter with Esau might go, he is struggling with himself, with the guilt that he feels for what he has done.
In some ways, Jacob is going through a mid-life crisis. It’s a simple analogy, but it works. The struggle for purpose, for meaning in our lives is something that virtually all of us go through at some point in life. It often happens when we get to a particular milestone, and then we compare it to the great dreams that we had when we were younger. When they don’t match up, we begin to struggle with our identity. What is our purpose, what are we here for?
The mysterious stranger asks him, “What is your name?”
This is more than just a casual introduction. This is more than just, “hi! who are you?” Jacob has been struggling valiant with this stranger all night, and only now are they getting around to introductions? No… it’s a bit more profound than that.
He replies, “Jacob.” My name is Jacob… it means liar and cheater. It means that I’m no good… I took something valuable from my brother and my father a long time ago… and now… I… Jacob’s voice trails off… and suddenly he realizes that for all of his life he has struggled with his own identity, over who he was.
The stranger’s arms become less of a grapple and more of an hug. He says to Jacob, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Jacob is not who you are anymore… you are no longer a liar and a cheater… but someone who wants to be whole again.
Name changes are important… this is the first time in the whole Biblical story where we hear the name “Israel,” a name that literally means “God prevails.” Jacob blinks… not quite knowing what this means… He has struggled his whole life with who he is, and who he has become… and now he is becoming someone different. Whoa… It’s beginning to sink in.
He turns back to the stranger and asks.
“Who are you? What’s your name?”
The stranger smiles, and says back to him… “You haven’t figured that out yet, have you? Why do you need to know?” And then without saying another word, he blesses Jacob… and suddenly he is gone.
It is only after the fact that Jacob realizes who his opponent was. He drops to his knees, stunned by the revelation of who this was. He realizes that he has just had a face-to-face encounter with God, and yet he still lives… it is a blessing that he has neither tricked or cheated his way into… it is a blessing that finally, after many years, he has earned on his own.
This story of forgiveness and reconciliation… before Jacob can be reconciled with his brother, he first finds reconciliation with God… without truly knowing what he was wrestling for, he finds reconciliation with God… Jacob is transformed for something new. Jacob comes away from this encounter forever changed… no longer is he the slippery trickster, but truly someone who will carry on the tradition of his grandfather Abraham… in wrestling with God, in wrestling with himself, Jacob becomes Israel; and comes away from this encounter forever changed.
This is one of these instances where we are tempted to put Jacob up on a pedestal… of one who encountered and wrestled with God… We call him a shining beacon of faith. Yet we forget that Jacob himself never thought of himself that way. He never thought of himself as being particularly extraordinary. In fact, he didn’t feel overly special at all, so much so that he felt he had to trick and cheat his way into the family blessings. He wrestled with his own sense of identity, his sense of who he was, and he wrestled with God… and who God called him to be.
No longer was he the trickster… the cheater… Now he would be someone entirely new: Israel… the one who strives with God. At the end of this struggle, Jacob comes away changed. He’s already tried out getting rich, the fast camels, swindling his friends… all that stuff that he finds doesn’t work for him anymore. He wants to be honest with himself and who he is… and through this struggle he finds God’s blessing that is truly his.
Through this story we find that we have a lot more in common with Jacob than we first thought. Through this story, we find that Jacob is a human being, who has struggled for purpose all his life. Through this story, Jacob finds meaning in his struggle with God… a second chance at forgiveness, and a hope of starting something new. Jacob’s struggle is our struggle. His second chance is our second chance. It’s a second chance that God gives to all of us… and in that we find hope.