Wrestling with God
by Isaac Villegas
August 2, 2014
It is night, and Jacob is alone. “Jacob was left, alone,” it says in verse 24.
This is only the second time in the book of Genesis that someone is said to be alone, the first time since the beginning of creation, when God spoke about Adam, the first human being, and said, “It is not good that he should be alone” (2:18).
And now Jacob is also alone, with his family and possessions on the other side of the stream. By himself, his mind swirls with memories of the past, of his struggle with his brother, Esau. Jacob knows that his brother is waiting for him, waiting with armed men to kill him. That’s what Jacob’s messengers said — this is a few verses earlier in chapter 32, they said: “We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him” (32:6).
Jacob drags the night on as long as he can, because he knows that, at daybreak, he will have to face Esau, Esau and an army. Jacob can’t sleep, because ghosts haunt the darkness, ghosts of Jacob’s past, a past full of trickery, full of deception, full of hurting people, wounding friends and family.
Alone, in the dark, Jacob knows that he isn’t a good man, that he has done wrong, that he gets what he wants no matter what, no matter who suffers along the way. It’s no mistake that his name is Jacob, Ya’aqov, which means “deceiver” and “heel catcher” — he’s a trickster, he’ll trip you when you’re not looking. He’s sneaky and devious, tenacious in his deceit.
By himself, with the campfires of Esau’s army flickering in the distance, someone jumps out from the shadows, and Jacob finds himself in a wrestling match, a struggle with God. Jacob lives up to his name. He’s a tenacious wrestler. He won’t let go as God and Jacob struggle through the night, two bodies bound together, in each other’s embrace.
When I was kid, I would spend a lot of time with my grandparents, especially on weekends, if my parents had to work. I remember watching a lot of boxing on T.V., with my grandpa, despite the protests of my parents. For some reason, my scrawny grandpa loved the sport, and he was an expert at picking the winners.
Now, if my grandfather was watching the Jacob vs. God match in Genesis 32, I’m pretty sure he’d put all his money on God. I mean, it’s not a fair matchup. God is in a different weight class. Nonetheless, Jacob does pretty well for himself, fighting against all odds, wrestling for as long as he can, holding on, staying in the match, not tapping out.
Jacob is fighting like a champ, but as daybreak approaches, God strikes below the belt and wounds Jacob’s hip, trying to break free before the sun comes up. God dislocates Jacob’s hip, and demands to be released. Even with the pain, Jacob refuses to let go. “I will not let you go,” Jacob says in verse 26, “unless you bless me.”
And here’s the payoff of the story, at least what I get from the story — it’s that Jacob wins by holding on. Jacob doesn’t win with a knockout. He doesn’t win by putting God in a submission hold, or some painful, arm-twisting pin. Jacob doesn’t overpower God. Instead, Jacob wins by hanging on. Jacob hangs on; he hangs on to God. “You have striven,” God says to Jacob, “and you have prevailed” (32:28).
He prevails by struggling, by hanging on, by staying locked in an embrace with God. And, at the end of the match, God changes Jacob’s name to Israel, which means, “the one who strives with God.” Jacob will be remembered as a person who struggles with God, who wrestles with God, who stays close to God, never letting go. And that’s what faith is all about.
Faith is a struggle with God, a commitment to stay with God, to fight, to argue, to stay bound up in a wrestling match, interlocked in a struggle, a struggle for God to change our world, to change our lives, to hold God to God’s promises, promises of justice and healing, promises of peace — peace for Gaza, for the families who have lost loved ones, with 1,766 Palestinians dead, peace for the parents of the 398 Palestinian children who have been killed, peace for parents and sisters and brothers as they figure out how to go on, without them, and peace for the family members of the 3 Israeli civilians who have been killed, and for the families of the 64 Israeli soldiers who have died in Gaza. Faith is a struggle to hold on to God, in a world of violence, and to pray, to pray for healing, healing for people in West Africa, who are suffering from an outbreak of the Ebola virus.
There’s so much to pray for, so much to pay attention to, so much to ask God to pay attention to, including ourselves, our lives, because we need peace too — peace in our strained relationships, peace with ourselves, and healing, healing of our wounds, where we’ve been hurt, peace and healing so we can go on, as we work through a life that isn’t what we expected, that isn’t what we planned for, that is much more complicated than we ever imagined.
We are like Jacob, wrestling in the dark, hoping for a blessing, praying for goodness, goodness for our neighbors, for our friends, for ourselves, a blessing, an act of God’s healing power, restoring us, strengthening us, giving us life again, renewing our spirits, as we struggle like Jacob, in the night, sometimes alone, abandoned, yet wanting to believe that we will see the face of God, here, in our world, in our lives, a face that reassures us with love, with joy, with hope. “I have seen God face to face,” Jacob says as dawn begins to break.
A few minutes ago I said that Jacob gets a new name, Israel, and his new name means “the one who strives with God.” The name can also have a second meaning. His new name also means “God strives,” God strives with this one, with this person, with Jacob. The name is a promise, a promise that God won’t stop wresting, that God is committed to our struggle, that God will hold on forever, that God will be locked in an embrace with Jacob, with us, with you.
That’s the good news, and I should end there, but there’s one last point I should make, a part of the story that we should notice, because it’s also good news, even if it’s good news that challenges us.
After God leaves Jacob, after Jacob receives his blessing, after he rejoices because he has seen God face to face, as the sun begins to rise, Jacob sees his brother marching in the distance, Esau and his army headed toward him. Listen to the first verse of chapter 33, “Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him.” It’s an ominous scene, terrifying.
So Jacob walks slowly, with a limp, to meet his brother, his brother who has become his enemy. But when Esau sees Jacob in the distance, Esau starts to run, he runs toward Jacob, and when he makes it to his brother, Esau grabs him and kisses him. Shocked at Esau’s love, Jacob turns to his brother, looks at him, and this is what he says, what Jacob says to Esau: “to see your face is like seeing the face of God” (33:10). To see your face is like seeing the face of God.
Esau bears the likeness of God. When Jacob comes face to face with his enemy, he sees God. When Jacob meets his brother, he finds God. And if Esau looks like God, then maybe so does your enemy, maybe so does your family member, and maybe so do you. To wrestle with your enemy is to wrestle with God. To struggle with your sister or brother is to struggle with God. To see your face is like seeing the face of God.