“The same night” as what?
This week’s scripture begins by saying, “The same night [Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.” We’re led to ask, “‘The same night’ as what?” Earlier in the chapter, we learn that Jacob, the great patriarch of Israel, is afraid. He is afraid of his brother Esau seeking revenge. If you remember the story, Isaac — the child of promise, born of Abraham and Sarah, and nearly blind at the time — had been tricked into giving his inheritance to his younger son Jacob instead of his older son Esau to whom the inheritance was due. For this treachery, Esau hated Jacob, and Jacob fled to the land of his uncle Laban (Gen 27).
In this week’s focal scripture, Jacob has come out of hiding and has sent messengers to his brother Esau. When Jacob heard the report that Esau was coming to meet him along with 400 men, “Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed (Gen 32:6-7).” Out of his fear, Jacob confesses to God, “I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies”…but not quite 400 men. He continues, “Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, “I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number (Gen 32:9-12).” After his plea to God, Jacob and his family set up camp for the night; and he sends another set of messengers — this time with many animals as gifts to Esau…and to the 400 men (Gen 32:13-21)! That brings us to the beginning of our scripture. Jacob goes to bed, but sometime during that same night, “[Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok (Gen 32:22).”
Fording the Jabbok
The Jabbok River is located about twenty miles north of the Dead Sea and flows into the Jordan River. Sometimes crossing a river is just that: another body of water that must be traversed to get to one’s destination. But this crossing seems to be symbolic of the watershed moment that is to come. We Christians know something about such moments; it’s why we build baptismal fonts; it’s why we gather on the banks of rivers for baptisms. Sometimes water symbolizes those threshold moments when change happens. For Jacob, this night crossing of the Jabbok represents more than simply getting wet.
The story continues: “[Jacob] took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone.” Perhaps Jacob was sending his family away to keep them safe. Perhaps he thought both he and his family would be safer if he were not with them since he would be harder to find on his own than in the company of many others. Whatever his intent, the departure across the river of everyone and everything Jacob knew, left Jacob alone.
Persevering for a blessing
By himself at night on the bank of the Jabbok, “a man wrestled with [Jacob] until daybreak.” Suddenly and unexpectedly, he is wrestling with a strange man until dawn. The Bible doesn’t record the blow-by-blow details, but it was probably wasn’t like the wrestling we’re used to seeing. It likely had neither the flare of the professional wrestling’s “Monday Night RAW,” nor the strict rules of Olympic wrestling. Whatever form their wrestling took, it was no-holds-barred. Their grappling was serious enough that “When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him (Gen 32:25).” Some commentators claim that Jacob’s dislocated hip was the ancient writer’s way of saying that Jacob had injured his thigh muscle, which often happens in wrestling matches. That Jacob suffered a serious blow to this thigh muscle is much more persuasive since it would be unlikely that Jacob could even limp away in the morning with a dislocated hip.
Even after sustaining such a serious injury, Jacob does not give up. The melee continues until Jacob’s opponent says, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob says, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me (Gen 32:26).” Jacob does not have his opponent in pain, demanding that his opponent say “mercy” before he will release him. Jacob does not have his opponent pinned, but, even if he can’t “win,” he can at least hold on. And refusing to give up seems to be a threat in itself.
His opponent seems concerned at the first signs of sunrise. Curiously, Jacob says he will only let go in exchange for a blessing. That Jacob perceives his opponent as someone capable of blessing him is the strongest indication yet that this is no ordinary wrestling partner. The unidentified stranger responds by asking Jacob’s name, and then saying, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed (Gen 32:27-28).” The name change from Jacob to Israel fulfills the foreshadowing at the river as a watershed moment. It also confirms that the figure with whom Jacob has been wrestling is not simply a “man.” It appears that Jacob has spent the night striving with God.
If this is true, then what does it mean that Jacob has “prevailed” in his wrestling match with God. All of the English versions that I have checked, translate the Hebrew here as “prevailed,” and the sense of the word seems to be that Jacob was the one who was “greater in strength or influence,” the one who “won.” We know that Jacob prevailed earlier in stealing his father’s blessing that was meant for his older brother Esau, but what does it mean to prevail against God in order to get a second blessing?
Do we want to be able to prevail against God? Is God’s blessing to Jacob, a “well done, good and faithful servant” — or does Jacob’s “win” mean that God is a loser? What would that mean about God? A God who takes the form of a human — a God who is humble enough to have self-limited power in order to meet humans on a level playing field. This seems like an odd sort of deity.
It also indicates that God will continue to strive with and for Israel, God’s own namesake. “Isra-EL” means “God strives,” and “EL,” the last syllable of the word literally means God — the shorter version that you sometimes as Elohim (“EL-ohim”). You can also see this same etymology reflected in the naming that Jacob himself does at the ford of the River Jabbok to commemorate his encounter with God: “Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved (Gen 32:30).’” Just as we have heard “ELohim” and “IsraEL”, we now have PeniEL.
Primitive, Spiritual, or Literal?
One way of understanding Jacob’s “face to face” wrestling match with El — with God —is to see this account as a primitive, unevolved, simple, crude, or unsophisticated account, implying that looking back we know that such things just don’t happen that way. A corollary to this approach is spiritualizing the text. First, you deconstruct the text as primitive, then you reconstruct it as spiritual. In other words, Jacob was wrestling with God in his heart in preparation for his upcoming physical encounter with Esau. That’s not necessarily a bad interpretation, but any good text can yield more than one reading. At least for this week, I wasn’t satisfied with writing off the text too quickly as “primitive.” I wanted to wrestle with the scripture longer, just as Jacob had wrestled all night with God.
But eventually the wrestling match ended and so must the interpretation, at least for now. We read that “The sun rose upon [Jacob] as he passed [“Penu-EL”], limping because of his hip (Gen 32:31).” Jacob leaves the fords of Jabbok wounded and prepares to face his brother Esau. But, in the words of the theologian Henri Nouwen, the hope is that Jacob, having wrestled with God, leaves Jabbok as a “wounded healer,” not as a wounded wounder. The hope is that he will learn from his injury and use his experience to heal others, not to wound them out of his woundedness.
As we read in the epilogue to this story, that hope is not in vain. After this night alone, Jacob rejoins those who crossed the river ahead of him: “Jacob walks bravely in front of his family, bowing himself to the ground seven times until he came near his brother [Esau].” Jacob has learned to humble himself to those he has wronged instead of running away. The story continues with the reconciliation of the estranged brothers: “Esau ran to meet [Jacob], and embrace him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept (Gen 33:3-4).” Jacob responds, “truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God — since you have received me with such favor (Gen 33:10).” And Jacob should know since he has just spent the night wrestling with God face to face!
Wrestling with God Today
Jacob, who was renamed Isra-EL, became the father of twelve sons, who, in turn, became the namesakes of the twelve tribes of Israel. The Hebrews, who are now the Israelites, have embedded in their very name that they are a people who strive—who wrestle—with God. As the church today, we have inherited, for better or worse, this role of being a peculiar people called out from the world to wrestle with God.
Just as Jacob first understood his wrestling partner to be human and not divine, today we find that God is often elusive. This is not the logically consistent God of Greek philosophy, neatly divided into categories of omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. As we have seen, it’s not so clear in the Bible that God is consistently “omni-anything” — much less unchanging, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent. The Bible often speaks of a God who is much more radically free than the God of the philosophers.
James Kugel, author of the book The God of the Old, emphasizes the changing understandings of God from the writings of the Hebrews to the writings of the Greeks — with Christians often being influenced more by the Greeks than the Hebrews. Kugel writes:
A certain paradox was built into the cosmic God…. Huge, remote and utterly alone, [God] had unlimited power. But precisely for that reason, [God] was also more predictable — even, in a way, more controllable…. The interaction [between God and humanity] would henceforth be clear: You are the only God and I will be subject to You every minute of the day in every way. But “every minute of the day in every way” meant, in another sense, never in particular; never in high gear at least, never careening this way and that way out of control.
…the way you might out of control in a wrestling match. For those accustomed to reading about the God of Greek philosophy, encountering the God of the Old, the God that initiates wrestling matches in the middle of the night, is like living near Mount St. Helens as the seemingly dormant volcano threatens to erupt.
A living, active volcano has the possibility of erupting anytime — without notice and without warning, which is how God starts his wrestling match with Jacob. This is not the God of the Greek philosophers, but perhaps it is the God we know, the God free to encounter us: the God, who challenges us to wrestle — not only when we’re in our Sunday clothes and gathered in the sanctuary, but also in the middle of the night, when we’re alone, when family and friends are angry at us and our lives are in a mess.
The theologian Amy Laura Hall writes that,
When we consider the seamless beauty displayed in Martha Stewart’s magazines— the happy, well-coifed guests, well-behaved children, the clean white tablecloths and clean, white people — it is easy to become bewildered by our comparatively soiled lives. Her prescription is clear. Find the right votive candle set, omelet recipe, shawl pattern, simple-yet-elegant hairdo, and life will become better. Trained to want a life that is well-ordered and efficient, a portrait worthy of her cover, we despair over the fragile, flawed, drooling, limping, but blessed lives that are our own.
This quote from Hall takes on new meaning since Martha Stewart has been to jail; her stressed-out, imperfect picture on the cover of news magazines; her life has devolved at times into the kind of mess we can relate to. The God who wrestles with us in the mess of our lives and leaves us “limping, but blessed” is good news for us today. As Christians, we know the God, whose “thoughts are higher than our thoughts and ways are higher than our ways” (Jer 55:8-9); but we also know the God, who wrestles with us on our level — a God will to wrestle with us until daybreak.
1 “Jacob had injured his thigh muscle” — see The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Old Testament 60, fn 32:32.
2 “Wounded Healer” — see Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society.
3 Kugel, 198-199.
4 “Amy Laura Hall” — I was unable to location the original source for this reference. I believe I originally saw this quote on a handout from Dr. Hall herself for a lecture she gave at the Duke Youth Academy in the summer of 2003.