by Ellen Sims
The story of Jacob the trickster continues. Having deceived his hungry brother Esau into giving up his birthright, having deceived his father into giving him his brother’s blessing, having deceived Laban into giving him the best sheep of the flock . . . Jacob returns to face the brother he deceived so long ago and who surely hates him still. Coming upon the liminal River Jabbok, he sends his wives, cattle, slaves and possessions on ahead. Jacob is alone, awaiting the next day’s meeting with Essau. Surely he remembered that other night, years before, when he fled his brother’s wrath and dreamed that strange dream of a ladder to heaven. As on that other lonely night, Jacob has another God-encounter.
The scripture says Jacob wrestles an angel in the night, but since angel literally means “messenger from God,” we’re not sure exactly what form that messenger took. The text in one place clearly says the opponent is a man. But the story also says that Jacob fought with God. In addition, some scholars root this story in ancient Near East folklore about river demons that attacked travelers at river crossings. Modern psychology might suggest Jacob struggles within himself as the memory of his mistreatment of Esau floods back. We can imagine many possibilities for the identity of Jacob’s opponent: an angel? a man? a demon? God? Jacob’s memory of Esau? Jacob’s own divided and tormented soul?
Here’s another possibility. What if another very human traveler stumbled upon Jacob’s campsite that night, shared the campfire, listened to Jacob’s story, and then relentlessly pounded Jacob with the kind of questions that held him accountable for his past deeds and made him face into his sacred responsibilities. What if their conversation began this way?
“So, my new friend,” says the stranger. “What brings you to these parts?
“I’m going home,” says Jacob.
“How long you been away?” asks the stranger.
“Long enough to acquire two wives, two concubines, eleven children. Long enough to become rich with flocks and herds and slaves.”
“Long enough to worry if the mess you made years ago is still waiting for you? Long enough to wonder if the folks you left years ago might forgive you?”
“Hey, you know nothing about me.”
“Then tell me, friend, why a rich man beds down at the ford of the Jabbok all alone, no servants or family. Why an innocent man startles as if every ordinary night-sound is an assassin’s footfall. I have till break of day to hear your story. Tell it true. Tell it all. If you tell the painful parts, you might be able to walk away from here in the morning feeling the old wounds but able to limp on ahead into some hope.”
It’s important for me to hold open that kind of interpretation because I’m likelier to hear God’s message from a flesh-and-blood stranger than from an angelic apparition. Of course, however the message was delivered, the story’s point is the same: sacred messages can come to us in ways that are both scary and heavenly, both scarring and healing.
At daybreak the stranger is ready to move on. But Jacob now can’t bear to be alone and holds onto the other for dear life. Jacob begs him not to go without giving him a blessing, unaware he’s probably already received it. So the stranger confers upon him a new name with a counterintuitive meaning: Israel— “the person who struggles with God wins” (Gen. 32:28). Most religions have gods whose chief quality is might. But Jacob’s God lets the weak ones win. To lose in a wrestling match with this God is really to win. It’s like the contest my daughter and I used to have over the wishbone after a meal of baked chicken. We’d each hold one end of the wishbone, make a silent wish, and then pull the two prongs of the bone until it snapped somewhere near the middle. Superstition says that whoever winds up with the bigger piece is the winner. Though I never told her, my wish was always that she would have her wish. My wish always became a prayer for her. My child never ever lost the contest. Wrestling with God might be like that. Or not like that. Wrestling with God means we do lose what we were wishing for in order to gain something better. We must lose our life to find it.
Israel—“the one who struggles with God wins”—became the name for all of Jacob’s descendants. I see that legacy partly in the Jewish midrash tradition, a way of reading scripture that encourages devout people to question the scriptures, and partly in some of the words of the Psalmist, who sometimes rails against God. I go as far as Marcus Borg in saying we can honor the spirit of the Bible by sometimes saying the Bible can be wrong. Sometimes we see meanness attributed to God and we have to admit that although the overarching sweep of the biblical story is saving, not every biblical writer and redactor over the course of many centuries always got everything right. And if we don’t fight back and name the wrongness, if we don’t wrestle with the Bible, we will lose the possibility of being blessed by these very scriptures.
Richard Rohr says, “Wrestling with God, with life, and with ourselves is necessary. . . . The blessing usually comes in a wounding of some sort and for most of us it is an entire life of limping along to finally see the true and real blessing in our life.” [i]
Sure. Some folks struggle through life and never are blessed with a deeper sense of God’s priorities, God’s presence, God’s vision. Some people never struggle with scripture or with their own wounds or with life’s deep questions and so never receive the deeper blessings. Some continue to grasp tightly at false certitude and possessions and self-images—never opening themselves to better blessings.
But God’s grace can take life’s inevitable wounds and convert them into blessing.
Maybe you’ve held on until a loss or sorrow or disillusionment opened you to a deeper layer of reality, a more authentic way of living in this world, a blessing. Maybe you had to leave some things behind on the other side of the River Jabbok before you could move forward in blessing.
Maybe you’d like to share from that experience of a wound that became a blessing . . . .
[i] from Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, July 30, 2011, Center for Actions and Contemplation. https://mail.google.com/mail/?hl=en&shva=1#search/Center+for+Action+and+Contemplation%2C+the+blessings+usually+comes+in+a+wounding/1317a13368fcc6b2).