Wrestling Jacob

by Rev. Dr. David D. M. King

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13A
Genesis 32:22-31

Worship 2 August 2020

Jacob wrestles with God and wins.

Posted by Forest Grove United Methodist Church on Sunday, August 2, 2020

The passage that we have from the Book of Genesis this morning is such a good story.  There are some bible passages that are good because they contain really good doctrine, really good theology. There are some bible passages that are good because they are really touching and emotional. There are some bible passages that are good because they are beautiful poetry. This passage, though, whatever else it may be, is a really great story.

Jacob is alone. After he had cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright, and after he stole his father Isaac’s blessings, he was terrified, and he ran away to his mother’s family. He spent 20 years there, working for his uncle Laban in Padam-aram, earning the right to marry his cousins Leah and Rachel. In that time, he became father to 11 children, and he acquired numerous slaves and animals.

But now he’s coming back. He’s coming back to face the past that he had fled. He’s coming back to face his brother, Esau, whom he had cheated, who last they met wanted to kill him. He’s coming back to face the dishonor of having run away from his family. He’s coming back to face himself, the choices he has made, the wrong steps he has taken, the person he was and the person he has become. And he is afraid.

But first he has to cross the river. Jacob sends messengers, several of them in turn, each bearing gifts of animals for his brother, Esau. He separates all of his possessions into two groups, so that if Esau attacks one, the other will have a chance to escape. And he sends all of these across the river ahead of him. Last of all, he sends his wives, his concubines, and his children.

But Jacob himself stays behind. He spends the night alone. And while he’s there alone, some unknown person shows up and wrestles with him all night long.

See what I mean, it’s a really good story. Sex, violence, deceit, scandal, mystery, action, suspense. And now there’s a strange supernatural element coming in. It’s a good story.

Charles Wesley thought so too. The first great hymn writer of Methodism devoted 14 verses to it. He titled the song “Wrestling Jacob,” but it appears in our hymnal as Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown. Betty Pritchard and Alisa Hampton were kind enough to record it for us.

1 Come, O thou Traveler unknown, whom still I hold, but cannot see!
My company before is gone, and I am left alone with thee.
With thee all night I mean to stay, and wrestle till the break of day;
with thee all night I mean to stay, and wrestle till the break of day.

So, who is this mysterious figure who meets Jacob and wrestles with him all night, the one that Wesley calls the unknown Traveler. The narrator of the story is pretty evasive. They use the generic Hebrew word for man: אישׁ. But we aren’t told where this person came from. We are not told anything about how he appeared. Jacob clearly thinks that he has wrestled with God in the flesh. The stranger says obliquely that Jacob has struggled with God and with men and won. So who is he?

2 I need not tell thee who I am, my misery and sin declare;
thyself hast called me by my name, look on thy hands and read it there.
But who, I ask thee, who art thou? Tell me thy name, and tell me now.
But who, I ask thee, who art thou? Tell me thy name, and tell me now.

A number of artists have tried to tackled this scene. Let’s see what they suggest about who Jacob’s wrestling opponent is.

[1] The first is by French artist Gustave Duré. You can see that he has clearly decided to portray the stranger as an angel. Jacob seems to be working hard, but the angel seems fairly unconcerned. The whole world seems to be spread out before them as the two figures wrestle on the mountaintop.

[2] The representation by Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn is much more intimate. We see only the two figures. Again, Rembrandt has decided that Jacob’s opponent is an angel. But these two hardly seem to be wrestling at all. It’s almost as if the angel is cradling Jacob in his arms.

[3] With French artist Léon Bonnat, we get much more of a sense of the struggle. There’s also significantly less clothing. Both wrestlers seem to be working hard. Jacob has even got the angel off his feat and unbalanced.

[4] Another Frenchman, Paul Gauguin, gives a much different perspective. The wrestling match is in the background. In the foreground, we see Jacob’s family looking on.

[5] Here is my favorite, though. And I can’t seem to find who the artist is. The mysterious stranger remains mysterious. The features are obscured by a flowing blue robe. And if you notice, the arms seem to come out at strange angles. The head is completely lost. This wrestler is otherworldly and mysterious.

3 In vain thou strugglest to get free, I never will unloose my hold;
art thou the man that died for me? The secret of thy love unfold;
wrestling, I will not let thee go till I thy name, thy nature know.
Wrestling, I will not let thee go till I thy name, thy nature know.

That’s pretty bold of Jacob, isn’t it? And pretty bold of Wesley, as well. Here he is, wrestling with God, and he absolutely will not give up. I won’t let you go until you bless me. I won’t let you go until you tell me your name and nature.

Sometimes people say that it’s not right to struggle with God, that it’s somehow sacrilegious. If we have faith, then we shouldn’t ask any questions. We shouldn’t have any doubts or second thoughts. No, we should just believe. No questions. Just trust that everything is always God’s will. Everything is always just as God has planned it, and there’s no reason to try to understand why.

But that idea of unquestioning faith doesn’t seem to match our biblical models very well. Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Miriam, Naomi, David, Elijah, Peter, Mary, Martha, Paul—they all questioned God. They all talked back to God. Sometimes they even called God out. And just like the rest of them, in this story, Jacob stands up to God. He literally wrestles with God.

And in the process, God changes Jacob’s name. His name is changed from Jacob to Israel. Now, Jacob means grasper or supplanter. That’s been the story of Jacob’s life. He’s always trying to take what isn’t his. He’s been trying to take the place of his older brother, Esau.

His new name, given to him by God, is Israel. Israel translates to Struggles-with-God. We could just as easily say Wrestles-with-God. God’s new name for this patriarch emphasizes his adversarial relationship with God.

And, of course, Israel becomes the name associated with all of God’s faithful people. Israel becomes the name of God’s chosen people. Even within the Christian tradition, we sometimes refer to ourselves as Israel. Which means that it is part of our spiritual identity to be those who struggle with God.

4 ‘Tis all in vain to hold thy tongue or touch the hollow of my thigh;
though every sinew be unstrung, out of my arms thou shalt not fly;
wrestling, I will not let thee go till I thy name, thy nature know.
Wrestling, I will not let thee go till I thy name, thy nature know.

Did you notice that God cheats in this story? It’s true. God isn’t able to win the match fairly. And Jacob just keeps going. So in desperation, God throws Jacob’s hip out of socket. It’s the only way that God can end the match, because Jacob will just not relent. God has to cheat to get free.

Wesley matches that sense of unrelenting struggle with God. “’Tis all in vain to hold thy tongue.” It’s no use trying to keep hiding your name from me. I will make you speak it. “or touch the hollow of my thigh.” Even with your cheating, underhanded tactics, I will not give up. “Though every sinew be unstrung, out of my arms thou shalt not fly.” Though every sinew be unstrung, out of my arms thou shalt not fly.

That is a powerful image. That is incredible determination, grit, and yes, even stubbornness. Our model of faith is not someone who never questions God. Our model of faith is someone who refuses to let God go.

5 Yield to me now, for I am weak, but confident in self-despair;
thyself hast called me by my name, be conquered by my instant prayer.
Speak, or thou never hence shalt move, and tell me if thy name is Love.
Speak, or thou never hence shalt move, and tell me if thy name is Love.

Speak, or thou never hence shalt move. Let that be our model! God, I will not let you go until my questions are answered. I will not let you go until you reveal yourself to me. I will not let you go until I have a blessing.

There is a blessing in the struggle. When we struggle with God, we grow closer to God. You saw it in the art. Yes, there was conflict, but there was also intimacy. When we struggle with God, we learn more about God. We discover more about who God is and how God works. When we struggle with God, we are more likely to hear what God has to say. When we keep coming with questions, sometimes we actually get answers. They may not be the answers we expect, but they are God’s words. When we struggle with God, our faith can adapt to new circumstances. When things change, and our faith doesn’t make sense any more, it is through struggle with God that we develop a faith that meets our new reality. When we struggle with God, we develop our spiritual muscles. Our faith actually becomes stronger because we are actually using it, we are actually putting it to the test.

So let us claim that name for ourselves. Let us claim the name of Israel. Let us not be afraid of that identity: Struggles-with-God.

6 ‘Tis Love! ’tis Love! Thou diedst for me, I hear thy whisper in my heart.
The morning breaks, the shadows flee, pure, Universal Love thou art.
To me, to all, thy mercies move; thy nature and thy name is Love.
To me, to all, thy mercies move; thy nature and thy name is Love.

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