Today we are skipping from the story of Abraham and Sarah and the birth of their son, Isaac, to the story of their grandson, Jacob, and we are coming in right in the middle of the story to boot. There’s a lot of story that has happened in between these two accounts, but we’re going to skip over some of this and have a crash course on what has happened in Jacob’s life to get him to the point where he is physically wrestling with God. Some of this may be familiar to you from Sunday school lessons, but please bear with me as I put today’s story into some context.
Jacob and his brother Esau were twins, born to their mother, Rebekah, and their father, Isaac. They were fraternal twins, the Scripture tells us, because when they were born, they looked very different from one another. As the two grew up, their personalities also became very different: Esau enjoyed going out and hunting, while Jacob liked to stay home among the tents. Once, Esau came home from the hunt and had gotten nothing, and, hungry, he asked Jacob for some of the lentil stew he was cooking. Esau was the older of the two brothers, and he was in line to inherit the greater portion of what Isaac owned. So, Jacob said that Esau could have a bowl of lentil stew if he sold Jacob his birthright. Esau, thinking only of his empty stomach, did so.
But then, when Isaac was old and could no longer see very well, he decided he wanted to give Esau his blessing before he died. So, Isaac told Esau to go out and hunt game and then prepare it the way Isaac liked, so he could eat it and then give his son his blessing. Once Esau had gone out, Rebekah called Jacob and told him to prepare goats, disguising it to taste like the game that Esau was to hunt, and bring it to Isaac. Jacob then disguised himself and deceived his father, Isaac, into thinking that he was Esau, and Jacob received the blessing. When Esau came home and found out about the trick, he was furious—angry enough to commit murder. So, Rebekah and Isaac sent Jacob off to stay with Rebekah’s brother Laban until Esau’s temper cooled off.
Along the way to Laban’s home, Jacob has his first encounter with God, in a dream where he sees angels ascending and descending on a ladder, and the Lord promising him that God would give Jacob and his descendants the land where he was lying, numerous offspring, and that God would be with Jacob until all of those promises were fulfilled. Jacob named the place Bethel, which means, “house of God”. Jacob then arrives safely in his mother’s country, meets Laban and his family, and stays there for many years. He marries Leah and Rachel, Laban’s daughters, and through these two women and their maidservants he has many children. Then, as friction develops between Jacob and Laban, he decides that now is the time to return home and to confront his brother Esau.
And this is where we find Jacob in our story today: he is close to home and has received word that Esau is coming to meet him and is bringing 400 men with him. Well, of course Jacob is afraid; he remembers that he did not leave Esau on good terms and he is afraid that Esau still holds a grudge. Jacob then takes steps to protect his family: dividing them into two companies, so that if Esau attacks one, the other might escape. And Jacob then begins to pray, reminding God of the promises that God made to be with him until God had fulfilled all the other promises that God had made to him. He also sends a multitude of gifts to Esau to hopefully appease him. And then, during the night, Jacob wrestles with an unknown man; all night long. Neither can get the advantage over the other, but the unknown man strikes Jacob, giving him a limp to remember the wrestling match by. And Jacob gets a new name: Israel, which means either “the one who strives with God,” or “God strives”, thus revealing the identity of the unknown man.
This story of Jacob wrestling with God is a profound metaphor for our faith life, so let’s take a look at some of the deeper meaning of this account. When Jacob fled to get away from the murderous rage of his brother Esau, he only had the clothes on his back, and he was alone. While he was with Laban, he gained livestock, he took wives, he and his wives had children, and he grew into a large family. Now, as he prepares to meet Esau and to face his past that he once ran away from, he separates himself from his family, sending them on ahead, and confronts his fears and his past alone. This is a time of reflection for Jacob as he remembers all of the things that he has done to get to this point and perhaps acknowledges that things may not turn out all right, after all.
I would like to focus for a moment, though, on Jacob’s name change in this story. One thing that doesn’t always come across in the English is the meaning of the names Jacob and Israel in Hebrew. The name Jacob means “heel” or “he grasps the heel” and comes from the fact that when Jacob and Esau were born, Jacob was hanging on to the heel of his brother Esau. So even from birth, Jacob was a wrestler: he struggled with his brother Esau, he struggled with his uncle Laban, deceiving his uncle and being deceived by him; he even struggled with his wives as they vied for his love. Now, Jacob is physically wrestling with God, or God’s angel, whoever it was; and in the end, when the unknown person asks Jacob for his name, Jacob gives it, owning up to his identity: he is a heel, which in English slang means just about the same thing as the Hebrew meaning. He’s not a character that we want to emulate; he’s a liar, a cheat, and a trickster—in other words, he’s a heel. But what God does by naming him Israel is to make Jacob’s wrestling nature holy: Jacob/Israel will wrestle even with God and will not let go until God gives him a blessing.
And this is the message that we should be taking away from this story. Too often, people come to faith looking for it to give them peace and tranquility in their lives. And faith often does that, and this is a good thing: treasure those moments when they come. But here’s the thing: more often than not, faith is a struggle. It’s a holy questioning: ok, God, what do you want me to do now? It’s that moment when you or a loved one get a terminal diagnosis, and you wonder where God is and why God has allowed this to happen to you. There may be no answers to our struggle, but the struggle is real. But what faith does is this: like Jacob, faith does not let go of God during the struggle. The struggle may involve anger with God; it may involve not talking to God for a while; but it does not let God go. That is a relationship with God, and just as God made Jacob’s struggle holy by renaming him Israel, God, too, makes our struggle, our relationship, holy, by claiming us as God’s own.
And here’s another thing for us to note: Jacob leaves this encounter with God with a limp, from where God wrenched his hip out of joint. (And by the way, I translated this from the Hebrew once for a class in seminary, and the Hebrew words for which part of Jacob’s anatomy God struck are difficult to translate into English. My own suspicion is that God may have kicked Jacob in a more sensitive part of the anatomy than the translators of our Scriptures want to admit.) But the larger point is this: just as Jacob walked out of his encounter with God with a limp, we, too, may be scarred from our wrestling with God. That scarring may come as some illusions we had about our beliefs come tumbling down, and we search for a way to still believe, even with the new information we have. The scarring may come from how other Christians, being their sinful human selves, may have hurt us, and we search for a way that we can still be part of the community even with the hurt that we carry. The truth is, like Jacob, we will always walk our walk of faith with a limp. We are the walking wounded, but we still trust that God can work God’s purposes through us and will not leave us without a blessing.
So, don’t be afraid to question your faith and wrestle with God. After all, Jesus did it in the garden of Gethsemane before he went to the cross for us, and if Jesus can do it, then it’s okay if we do it, too. Ask those questions like the one I got this week, “What’s up with Jonah and the large fish? Did that really happen?” Or questions like, “God, is this really what you want me to be doing with my life? Or is there something more?” Or even questions like, “God, who am I, really?” God welcomes those questions; even when you are doubting, they are still signs that you are engaging with God and wrestling with God, working out how you should live out your faith. God doesn’t want people who mindlessly show up to church each week because that’s the thing that you’re supposed to do. God wants people who wrestle and struggle. God loves those questions and remains by your side through the wrestling and the struggling and the anguished pleas and even the rejoicing. So, wrestle. Struggle. Doubt. And don’t let go of God, because God will bless you in the struggle. Amen.