Wrestling with God

The Old Testament reading in the lectionary for today comes from Genesis 32, when Jacob is camped out by the Jabbok River on the eve of meeting Esau, the brother he swindled so many years before. 

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I'm guessing he is nervous, maybe even afraid. 

He has already had an encounter with the supernatural a few chapters (and years) back, when he dreams about a stairway to heaven, with angels going up and down. Now, married to two sisters and with a retinue of children and servants, he spends the night alone, maybe to psych himself up to see Esau again for the first time in years.  

The last time they saw each other, Jacob stole Esau's blessing. Indeed, Esau had sacrificed his birthright for Jacob's stew, but the blessing of their father Isaac was stolen through deceit.  

Indeed, I'd be nervous, too.  

Jacob sends his wives, kids, and servants across the river to spend the night alone. Some say he is hiding behind them like a coward, and I'm inclined to agree.  

When I think about what comes next, I have to scratch my head. A stranger approaches Jacob and they begin to wrestle. How come? Was it a display of machismo? A good-natured tussle? Admittedly, it's weird how little we know about the circumstances of the encounter. 

Here's the text:

The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob's hip on the sinew of the thigh.

Genesis 32:22-32 (ESV)

Like I said, it's a weird story. Wrestling, hip displacement, hanging on for a blessing, asking about names. What's going on? 

Today, what I need to know is that Jacob's name was changed from one that means "deceiver, supplanter" to one that means "he who wrestles with God and prevails." 

Jacob was probably a bundle of nerves that night. The wrestling was probably a welcome distraction. And maybe I'm wrong, but I hear a tone of playfulness in the voice of the stranger--"Why is it that you want to know my name?" 

I was raised in Bible Belt East Texas, where good women submit to the men in their lives and don't stir up a fuss. I thought that's what being a woman of God looked like, too, for the longest time. So I sank into depression because I was angry and nervous and unable to fight it, like that was what accepting my circumstances as God's will was supposed to look like.

But then I encountered the anxious, nervous, cowardly Jacob who wrestled with God and prevailed. He wasn't scolded for what he did, wrestling with God like friends who reach fisticuffs. No--it's a mark of honor to wrestle with God, so much so that Jacob takes a new name, Israel, which means "wrestles with God." 

I used to hear annoyance and frustration the voice of the stranger at the petulance of Jacob. Now I hear a playful tenderness.  

"Amanda, why is it that you want to know my name?" 

Just to hear the voice of God as if he delights in me rather than being frustrated with me? It's a game-changer.  

God isn't after my subservience; he is after my heart--this fiery, anxious, love-filled heart of mine that loves a good fight.  

It is not lost on me that God's people came to be known by Jacob's new name, a people who wrestled with the God who wasn't above the fray, willing to let himself be drawn into relationship, into weakness and even defeat, into victory with the humans he made in his image. 

He is the God who wrestles with his people and lets us win. That is good parenting, confident parenting. It's a kind of love that sees who I am--fiery passions and fearful anxieties included--and lets me pick apart the arguments, question the theology, dismantle the systemic injustices, rage at the suffering of children--and develop my voice to share what I've seen, what I am learning, and who I have experienced God to be. 

I am not too much for God and he is enough for me. I've learned that through the wrestling.   

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not overwhelmed by my personality or my weaknesses. The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not ashamed that I fail at conforming to the subservient woman mold. It's not a mold he intended for me, and he comes to wrestle with me, to reveal to me that my body tells my story, just like Jacob's limp did for him and the generations that came after him. (O that my wrestling with God would change the way my children see food!)

Don't be afraid to wrestle with him. When you find yourself clinging on, ask for a blessing. Ask to know his name. And walk in the beautiful weakness that the struggle reveals in you, because the rest of us need your God story.