May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Tonight’s reading from Genesis reminds us of a time when God’s relationships with his people were very definitely ‘hands on’ – you can’t get much more hands on than a wrestling match, after all! So, how do we get to this situation?
Jacob is returning to Canaan after 20 years away, and he knows that he and his extended family will be met by his brother, Esau, who’s lining up with several hundred men to meet him. The ‘family argument’, you may remember, stemmed from Jacob deceiving his father, Isaac, in to giving him a blessing that was intended for Esau.
This isn’t a welcoming party; Jacob is concerned that his brother is out for blood, and splits his party for safety. He’s also sorted out a gift of livestock for Esau, and has spent time praying. He sends the gifts ahead of him, and tells those taking them that they should say to Esau that ‘His servant Jacob is following’.
At the start of tonight’s reading we see Jacob and his immediate family crossing the Jabbok, a small river running in to the Jordan, by a ford. He sends on his possessions, and stays alone to ponder his fate.
In this anxious and worried state, I think it likely that Jacob did some serious praying – maybe he prayed for a miracle to save him and his family, or maybe he prayed that God would somehow change Esau’s mind about fighting him. We don’t know; all we’re told is that he suddenly finds himself in a wrestling match with a strange man. Jacob struggles with this stranger all night, and in doing so he realises that this isn’t a man; this is God himself wrestling with him.
Jacob isn’t a stranger to struggle; with his brother, then with Laban, and now, as he’s about to re-enter the promised land of Canaan, he finds himself doing hand to hand combat with God.
There’s a little word play here in the original Hebrew text. ‘God wrestled’ is ‘ye’abeq, Jacob is ‘ya’aqob’ and Jabbok is ‘yabboq’. Whoever wrote this part of the Genesis story clearly loved to play with words as they told this intriguing story of how God came to Jacob in a form that Jacob could wrestle with – not in a dream, or a vision, or with words – but as a physical form that Jacob could hold his own against – perhaps as a physical manifestation of Jacob’s own struggles with faith at the moment in his life. He is wrestling with God, who holds Jacob’s destiny in his hands.
Jacob holds his own and the night progresses, and eventually the stranger touches Jacob’s hip and in an instant disables him. God has shown his power in a subtle, meaningful way. He’s not destroyed Jacob, but has inflicted pain on him, and certainly in the short term has lamed him in such a way that makes Jacob more reliant on God to get through the coming struggle with Esau. In case you’re wondering, there’s no indication in scripture that the injury was permanent.
Even in pain, Jacob still hangs on, demanding a blessing, and is given one; he will henceforth be called Israel – ‘one who has struggled with God and who has prevailed’. When Jacob asks the man’s name, he’s not given an answer, but is blessed. Jacob realises that, he has seen God and lived.
Verse 32 refers to a dietary requirement still in place today. The ‘sinew’ is believed to be the sciatic nerve and associated ‘bits’ and is called the gid hanasheh. The hind-quarters of an animal are not allowed to be eaten – i.e. is not Kosher – without the removal of all of this sinew (as well as removal of fats). This process – Nikkur – is possible but complicated – learning to do it takes at least 5 months and the process itself is incredibly difficult and labour intensive, so the hindquarters of animals tend to go to the ‘non-Kosher’ meat trade.
What happens next? Well, Esau comes to meet Jacob, and Jacob goes out to attempt to appease Esau, by throwing himself to the ground in front of Esau in submission. Whereupon Esau greets Jacob as his brother – God has removed the thirst for revenge from Esau’s heart – and Jacob tells Esau that God has been gracious to him, referring to the blessing that he received from God after the wrestling.
Do we wrestle with God? I know I do; in my life I’ve gone through times of trial when I begin to wonder what can go pear-shaped next. It doesn’t mean I’m fighting with God in a sense of trying to defeat or work against him, or doubt him. It means that I’m wrestling with what God wants to do with me and, if he so wills it, for me. It might not be what I think I need at that time. I think that Jacob probably wanted a peaceful night’s sleep to build his strength for what he saw as the coming fight with Esau, and that wrestling God was the last thing he wanted to do.
But God’s blessings on us come in unusual ways; God could have simply softened Esau’s heart (as he did) and no more. But he wished more for Jacob – and that extra came Jacob’s way only through intimate contact with God.
When we wrestle:
Our persistence will be rewarded. Jacob finds himself suddenly set upon and fights back; we may find ourselves praying and encountering issues we’d not thought of before. Do we ignore them? Do we deny them? If we’re reading and struggling with scripture, do we gloss over the bits we’re uncomfortable with? Or do we persist and work through them? When God challenges us through prayer or scripture, hang on in there. Jacob hung on in pain to ensure he got that blessing – sometime, we need to do the same.
We may be injured. We may not walk away nursing a physical injury, but we may find that we carry a spiritual wound away from our match. We may not physically limp, but we might well find that wrestling with God leaves us feeling a little less smart and a lot more humble as well as blessed.
Our identity may be changed; we’re not the same after a close encounter with God. We know of the faith that we’re baptised in to, just like Jacob knew the faith of his father and grandfather. But for that faith to become HIS faith, he had to fight for it. And after this struggle, he was no longer Jacob, the deceiver, but Israel, who has struggled and prevailed with God.
Our own wrestling matches with God will be those moments that help define us as a Christian, and allow us to take our faith in Jesus Christ closer to our hearts in a more personal way. We may limp at the end of the bout, but if we do, we can be sure that, like Jacob, God has seen fit to be bountiful in his blessing.
Joe Pritchard – Reader