Reading the story of Jacob in Genesis always puts me in mind of what was easily among the most memorable incidents of my teaching career. I was grading midterm exams one year and the pile I was reading was just as unremarkable as every other pile of midterm exams I read over the years—I taught Intro to the Bible about twenty times. Unremarkable, that is, until I came across the essay that began with the following sentence: “Jacob was a good Christian Man.” I don’t remember how I responded—perhaps I banged my head on the desk in utter frustration; perhaps I yelled.
Why was I so upset? Well, of course Jacob wasn’t a Christian—he wasn’t even a Jew. His story preceded by hundreds of years the development of either Judaism or Christianity. Even worse, he wasn’t good. I had spent a couple of days in class pointing out the flaws in Jacob’s character, and that a student could still see him as a positive moral example is clear evidence of how we all tend to read into biblical stories the values and lessons we want to receive, rather than allowing the biblical text to challenge us. It was also an important lesson in humility—that we might think we’re doing a good job in the classroom or from the pulpit—but that for whatever reason, the message we think we’re sending isn’t received.
The story from Genesis is one of the most familiar in all of scripture. It is also one of the eeriest. It reads almost like a ghost story as Jacob is confronted by a being that can’t quite be described. The tradition calls that being an angel although the text itself calls him a man. It is only at the very end, and only by Jacob, that the being is called God.
To get a handle on this rich and enigmatic story, we should remind ourselves of some of the larger story of Jacob. Jacob was a trickster, conniver, con man. He was always looking out for himself, trying to figure out how he might profit from the situation. He came out of the womb clutching his older twin brother Esau’s ankle. For the biblical writers that fact reflected Jacob’s character. He cheated his older brother out of his birthright, not once but twice, and fled from home fearing for his life.
He went to his uncle’s home, where he met and fell in love with his cousin, Rachel. But in turn, his uncle tricked him into marrying his older daughter Leah. Having worked seven years for his uncle to gain the right to marry Rachel, now he worked for another seven years. But during that time, he made a bet with Laban and manipulated the breeding of the flocks, so that at the end of his indentured servitude, he owned the greater part of Laban’s wealth. But this angered Laban, so Jacob and his family had to flee. They fled back to Palestine, where Jacob thought his angry brother still wanted to kill him after all these years.
Now word had come that Esau was coming out to meet Jacob with a large entourage. When he received this news, Jacob sent all of his family, servants, flocks and herds out in front of him. And he spent the night here, at Peniel, alone.
So this is the scene. Jacob has nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. There seems no way to work this situation to his advantage, no way to escape Esau finally. All of his conniving has come to an end. He has sent all of his family, all of his possessions out in front, perhaps in an effort to placate his brother? As a bribe? As a sacrifice, so that Esau will take them and leave him alone? Whatever his motives, Jacob is all alone left to wonder what will happen the next day. During the night he is visited by a man and they wrestle till morning.
The way the story is told practically begs us to interpret it psychologically as Jacob finally facing his demons, forced to confront everything he had done throughout his life, all the ways he had harmed his brother. We’re tempted to read this as Jacob wrestling with those demons, wrestling with his past. And that’s a fine interpretation. But as rich as that interpretation might be, there’s more to the story than that.
It’s also about naming, the power of names. In the ancient world, names were more than convenience, chosen for their popularity or individuality, how they sounded or looked on a page. Names were more than a marker of identity, they reflected the character of the person. Thus Jacob received his name in the first place because it said something about who he was. It means he takes by the heel or supplants, a clear reference to Jacob having grasped his brother’s foot as they came out of the womb.
Now, at the end of the night’s struggle, again Jacob refuses to let go of his opponent, demanding a blessing from him. The man gives him a new name, at the same time identifying himself, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” And from this point on, Jacob will be a different man. No longer the trickster, the con man, he becomes a faithful man of God, still with his character flaws, of course, but that’s for a different occasion to talk about. But for the rest of his life, he will also bear the mark of that struggle with God. From then on, Jacob will limp; most significantly as he approaches the ominous confrontation with his brother, he will be wounded, and presumably exhausted by the experiences of the night. He will be weak.
“You have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Now we begin to see the longer arc of this story’s meaning. For when Jacob is renamed Israel, it becomes evident that the story is not just about a single man, but about a whole people, the people of Israel, who are shown, throughout the Hebrew Bible, to have striven, fought with God. Their story is a story of faithfulness, sin, and repentance, a story of struggle against the God who called them. It is a story, in the end, of a return to that God. But the struggle is not only between Israel and God, it is also a story of struggle within the community to understand and make sense of the God in whom they believed.
We have inherited that struggle, as members of the long Christian tradition and as individuals who have been called by God. We wrestle with God in all sorts of ways. We wrestle in our attempts to control, to grasp, to confine God to our narrow human assumptions and expectations. We hold on, demanding a blessing. We wrestle with God in the midst of the dark nights of doubt and suffering.
Sometimes, after our wrestling matches with God, we walk away limping, wounded, uncertain of who we are, faltering in our steps, changed by the encounter. Sometimes, we escape the struggle at the end of the night, only to experience a similar battle the next night. Sometimes, after wrestling with God we emerge new creations, with new identities and new hopes, with faith forged in the conflict, faith unimagined in the midst of the battle. Sometimes, often, after God has finally escaped our grasp, God’s absence and elusiveness overwhelm us, but still we may sense the traces of God’s presence and say, with Jacob, “Surely the Lord was in this place!”