January 4, 2016 • Life for Leaders
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”
Today, we return to Genesis, where we left off with Life for Leaders in mid-December. Now that Advent and Christmas have passed, it’s time to return to our meandering, devotional walk through Genesis.
As you may recall, we had come as far as Genesis 32. In this chapter, Jacob, having said goodbye to his father-in-law, took his family and all that belonged to him in order to make the trip home to Canaan. En route, he heard that his brother Esau was on his way to meet him along with four hundred men. Jacob was understandably afraid because, when he was last with Esau, Esau hated him. Jacob believed his life and the lives of all with him were in dire jeopardy.
In the midst of this crisis, Jacob experienced something very strange. Alone in the wilderness, he wrestled with a man throughout the night, until daybreak (32:24). Though the mysterious man had the power to injure Jacob, he did not decimate him in their wrestling match. In fact, he allowed Jacob to hold onto him without letting go. When Jacob demanded that his opponent bless him, the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (32: 28). The man would not tell Jacob his name as Jacob had demanded, but instead blessed him before disappearing. Jacob named the place “Peniel,” explaining: “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” From that time onward, Jacob walked with a limp because the man had injured Jacob’s hip.
Such an odd story, yet one with such suggestive power. According to Jacob’s naming of the place, it’s clear that he believed he had wrestled with God. Hosea 12 notes that Jacob “strove with God” and “strove with the angel and prevailed” (Hos 12:3-4). Though there is much that remains mysterious, it’s clear that in some way Jacob had spent the night wrestling with a physical representation of God. God did not instantly defeat Jacob; nor did God allow Jacob to prevail. In the end, God both wounded Jacob and blessed him, giving him a new name, Israel.
Much could be said about this passage. Indeed, throughout the centuries, interpreters have written volumes trying to make sense of it. What I want us to reflect upon today is fairly simple to understand yet perplexing to experience. Our relationship with God is sometimes like that of Jacob in this passage. We can experience God as our opponent at times, yet God does not destroy us. God allows us to hold onto him, even though he could easily break our hold and depart. God makes himself known to us, yet not completely or unambiguously. God says no to some of our prayers, yet graciously responds to others. Through our encounter with God, we are changed, in some ways wounded while in other ways healed. Though we often experience God’s tender embrace, sometimes it seems as if God is wrestling with us.
The story of Jacob at Peniel invites us into the mystery of a surprising, intimate, demanding, unsettling, transforming encounter with the living God. When we meet God in this way, like Jacob, we will never be the same.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
Was there a time in your life when it felt as if you were wrestling with God? What did you learn through this “wrestling match”? What was the outcome of this experience?
What do the mystery and complexity of this story tell us about a relationship with God?
What in this story resonates with you?
Gracious God, today’s story reminds me that I mustn’t think I have you all figured out. There is much about you that remains mysterious. Given my desire to master everything through knowledge, this is a valuable reminder.
Thank you, Lord, for choosing to encounter us, to engage with us in a deeply personal way. Yes, sometimes it seems as if we are wrestling with you. Yet you do not defeat or destroy us. You let us hang on. In reality, you hang on to us as well.
O Lord, today I am bold to ask, like Jacob, that you bless me. Bless me most of all with the inestimably valuable gift of a genuine, intimate relationship with you. Amen.
P.S. – Several years ago I wrote a book called No Holds Barred: Wrestling with God in Prayer. This book focuses on the psalms as God’s way of teaching us to pray. The fundamental metaphor for the book, of course, is inspired by the story of Jacob in Genesis 32.