I'm not sure where this story ranks among the Bible's most memorable, but I trust it is towards the top. while we can read it as one man's story, full of life and metaphor, we cannot ignore the etiological nature of the Jacob narratives: Why don't we eat this? Why is this named as it is? Why do we do this? Why don't we do that?
But these narratives are also a remarkable mix of details and gaps. Details: In the earlier part of chapter 32, we learn that Esau - the betrayed and duped brother, the brother who threatened to kill his twin - is coming, not just with a large group but with 400 men. We get a careful accounting of the animals Jacob is going to give Esau and learn that after dividing his entire entourage into two groups he then subdivides the lead group into three herds (though more may have followed as well). He spent the night in camp but then got up in the middle of the night and moved everyone to the other side of the river to be safer, which may say something about how threatened he truly felt to move such a group across a river in the middle of the night.
But then the gaps. While there are many, let me highlight a few. After that middle of the night relocation, Jacob goes off to sleep by himself. Why? Even a novice traveler knows it's foolish to go off and sleep on one's own. Was this an effort to protect his family out of his fear of Esau? Was he perhaps hoping for another dream like one a few chapters back with the ladder? He was certainly hoping for a little good news! Was this a spiritual or existential pause before the confrontation with Esau, a chance to prepare himself? Was this just a random choice? Why go off by himself?
And of course, there is the man. Who was he? Where did he come from? Why did he come to fight? Jacob had been congenial with plenty of angels up to now - why this? And if the man is God, why did he have to severely injure Jacob to end the fight? His hip pain, the torn thigh muscle, is no joke. Was this just to explain the dietary prohibition against hip meat? Or was the disabling so much more? And if so, why is it never mentioned again after this passage? Shouldn't we hear something about the limping patriarch? Or was this the shift from these messy, complicated individuals, chosen by God, to the messy, complicated people and nation that becomes Israel?
Perhaps most profoundly, when Jacob receives his new name, he is declared to be Israel: he who wrestled with God and won; he who wrestled with God and prevailed; he who wrestled with God and, even though finds himself with a disability, endures, perseveres, thrives. Except that, that's not really what his name means explicitly, that he won or prevailed; his name only means that he wrestled with God. And that's the name of the people, of the nation: those who wrestle with God.
Good people, we know something about that, don't we? Who among us has not wrestled with God, especially in this painful season? For some, the wrestling in this season has been physical, literally gasping for breath. For others, it has been vocational, striving to serve yet another patient, call yet another family, push through yet another day, with no sense of when it might end. Or maybe wrestling with whether there is good work to do, how the next bill will get paid.
For so many, we are wrestling with how we will live safely in light of these new realities. What will school be like, theater, sports, dining out, dancing with friends, singing with community, shopping, going to a doctor or a dentist. How about work places?
And how can we do these things in ways that are more inclusive? More appreciative of the diversity of who God who has made us to be? More attentive of those most vulnerable among us - those marginalized for centuries?
For some, the wrestling has been with truth - wondering what to believe, astonished at what others will believe, struggling to grab hold of what is actual fact and what is hyperbole or conspiracy while others wonder when so many seemed to have collectively lost their minds, giving over the objectivity of science to the creativity of the latest persuasive social media post, refusing to let go of a passionately held idea until relationships with friends and family are disjointed, perhaps irreparably.
For most of us, we are wrestling with the very idea of who we are as a nation, as people of different races, backgrounds, ethnicities. Why can't white people understand that African Americans have a whole list of protocols that white folks never have to think about? Letting your son go for a jog. Walking out of a store without worrying about a group of police officers pinning you to the road even to death. Sitting in our home without having to worry that the police might burst in at any time.
And still for others, this wrestling strikes to the very heart of our relationship with God. We wrestle like the psalmist: how long, O Lord? How long? And perhaps even more painfully, why? Why this? Why now? Why, God? Why?
Ask anyone who has participated in competitive wrestling and they can tell you it is a sport of body, mind and spirit. This is not the kind of wrestling that involves costumes and diving from ropes or smashing people with chairs. These are simply two bodies grappling with each other, each trying to pin the other, in a match that usually lasts only six minutes.
Compare that to Jacob's wrestling match which was at least half the night, hours of wrestling, matching the man whom he believes was God, move for move. And this is all in anticipation of what he fears will be a confrontation with his estranged brother Esau the next day. Make no doubt, the heel-grabber is not a quitter. Jacob is going to hang in there for the blessing, because he knows something about blessings. And because God behaves just like God, the blessing is so much more than what Jacob had in mind.
Over the last few months, I have spoken with so many clergy colleagues - pastors, chaplains, spiritual directors, professors - all of whom are exhausted. They have wrestled through this dark night. The rules of the fight seem to be entirely the purview of the virus, the latest alert in the media. They have wrestled with the constructs of racism and white privilege, wondering what can be done, what should be done, and just how much a soul can take. They are heartbroken, for the ways that are used to doing their work that seemed to have vaporized right before their eyes. Staring through windows or screens, longing to simply hold the hands of people they have been called to serve. Years of developing best practices for spiritual care, for worship and music, for mission and outreach, gone. Just gone. With no sense of when it might return if at all. I wonder if Jacob knew that with the dawn his fight would come to an end, one way or another.
What is the dawn of our new day? Dare we hang on and demand a blessing before we let this go? And who will we be on the other side of this? What becomes of our world? How will we sing in that foreign land?
Bill Gaventa, referencing Julia Watts Belser [Gaventa, B. (2019). Genesis 32:22-32. Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology, 73(4), 386-388], notes that many have tried to make Jacob's wrestling and the resulting injury to his hip a kind of comeuppance, that the injury is a punishment for his sinful life, which would seem to imply that we, too, as a globe are being punished by God through this dreadful time.
But Gaventa notes that this is more profoundly a story of blessing. No mention is made of Jacob's sins; nor does he repent. No, true to form, he fights all night. And in the morning, even as his muscle is torn, his hip put out of joint, he demands his opponent's blessing. And while the text does not mention his limp after this passage, it is in this body that has been wrestled into a new shape that Jacob becomes Israel, the father of a people.
And maybe this is where we are as well. God has not sent us a virus to punish us for our sins. God has not opened a portal of protests across the world as retribution. God is ready to offer a blessing, one that will transform who we have been, what we have feared, our deepest sense of who we are as a people, so that we might be formed for that which is to come.
We don't know what that is, but God invites us to fight on: to wrestle with every fiber of our being, trusting that there is indeed a blessing on the other side of this, believing that around the world we are being reformed, compelled to limp into our new reality - one that just might lead to reconciliation, to new forms of community, to becoming yet again the people God has longed for us to be.
May it be so. Amen.