There’s a radio program I really like listening to. It’s called “On Being.” It’s on WGTE, and you can listen to it or read the transcript on your computer or your phone. It’s an interview show, and the host, Krista Tippett, talks with people from many walks of life and ways of thinking about what it means to be fully human, with spiritual life as her starting point. I don’t think I‘ve ever heard an episode that I didn’t enjoy or didn’t learn something from, but there have been several that made a real impact on me. One that did was an interview with four respected representatives of the world’s major religions—the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the University Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, and Jonathan Sacks, who at the time was the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth.
The topic was “Pursuing Happiness.” Early in the interview, Krista Tippett asked the Dalai Lama this question: “How does your understanding of happiness encompass suffering and the hardness of life?” The Dalai Lama told of how he has dealt with the issue of losing his own country and being an exile. But it was Rabbi Sacks’ response to the Dalai Lama’s words that I have remembered for so long.
Rabbi Sacks said, “The definition of a Jew is one who struggles—wrestles—with God and with humanity and prevails. Jacob says something very profound to the angel. He says, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me.’ That is how I feel about suffering. When something bad happens, I will not let go of that bad thing until I have discovered the blessing that lies within it….Sometimes all the pain and the tears lift you to a much higher and deeper joy when you say to the bad times, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me.’”
That begins to get at what the story of Jacob’s wrestling match has to teach us, I think: that although we have times in our lives, as individuals and as a congregation, that cause us to struggle, it is worth it to keep wrestling until the struggle yields its blessing.
Things had been going well for Jacob. He had been living with his uncle, who had become his father-in-law Laban. There, over the years, Jacob had become very rich, with two wives, two concubines, eleven children, many slaves, and large herds of sheep, goats, camels, and donkeys. But, when some intra-family conflict arose, Jacob decided it would be wise to head home and, after a tense stand-off with Laban, that’s what he did. So, it looked like things were going to turn out pretty well for Jacob.
But things change pretty quickly. There had been that little matter of his brother Esau, whom Jacob had tempted into selling his birthright and then, with their mother’s help, had cheated out of his father’s blessing. Jacob had escaped Esau’s murderous rage with his Mom’s help by going to Laban, hoping that Esau’s anger would eventually subside. As Jacob neared his homeland, he sent gifts ahead to Esau as a peace offering. But his messengers returned with the grim news that Esau was on his way, accompanied by four hundred men.
This did not sound good. Jacob made another effort. He sent more offerings ahead with a message for Esau: that his brother was bringing up the rear of the parade of gifts. “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterwards I shall see his face; perhaps he will accept me,” Jacob said. But Jacob knows this is an iffy proposition. So, he sent his wives and his concubines and his children away with all his remaining possessions, knowing that Esau was likely coming to destroy him. In such a short time, Jacob had gone from having it all to the prospect of losing it all, including his life.
And then comes the wresting match. All alone, in the dark of night, Jacob finds himself pitted against a man in an all-night-long wrestling match. All night long, Jacob struggles with the man, insisting that he won’t let go until the man blesses him. Seeing that he’s not going to win any other way, the man strikes Jacob in the hip in such a way that Jacob is injured. Still, Jacob won’t let go and the wrestling match continues until, finally, Jacob receives the blessing he demanded.
It’s a pretty common scenario, isn’t it? At least we might say of Jacob that what goes around comes around, given how he had lied and cheated his way into success anyway. But, that drastic change from good to bad happens at some point to pretty much everyone, and not necessarily because they ask for it. The long marriage that seemed so happy falls apart at the seams when the children grow up and move out. A spouse dies or grows ill, and all the happy plans for many years together are thrown up in the air. The child who seemed so well-adjusted turns to drugs and alcohol, or is diagnosed with a mental illness, or both. The satisfying job that seemed so secure evaporates when the economy tanks or the company changes hands. The church that seemed to be on an upward trajectory is suddenly split by conflict. Just like that, a life that was going smoothly becomes a life of struggle.
Like Jacob on the banks of the Jabbok, we find ourselves without the resources we once had. We feel small and alone and frightened in the dark. We find ourselves in a struggle for our lives—if not physically, then in figuring out how we will keep going, figuring out who we are and who we will become, figuring out how we will put the broken pieces back together. We have to figure out how to ease the pain that the struggle inflicts on us—to decide whether we will let that pain limit us or if we can push through it or live with it.
And our struggles can last a long time. Three times, Scripture tells us how long Jacob’s struggle lasted: “A man wrestled with Jacob until daybreak,” it says. “Let me go, for day is breaking,” says the man. “The sun rose upon him as Jacob passed Penuel,” the story concludes. And, Jacob’s hip injury did not end the struggle; he continued on in spite of the pain he must have felt, which had to have made the struggle feel even longer. Any of you who have hip pain or something akin to it are probably cringing right now, imagining how hard it must have been and how unending the struggle must have felt to Jacob.
The most important and life-changing struggles of our lives are not easy. They can be long and exhausting, and in our weariness, we can long to just give up and allow the chips to fall where they may. The pain they inflict—physical, material, emotional, spiritual—are real, and they leave scars and aches as real as Jacob’s limp.
But as long and painful as Jacob’s struggle is, he doesn’t give up. He holds on to the man, insisting that he receive a blessing before letting the man go. In spite of the fact that he has been wrestling alone, in the dark, for hours upon hours, with an injured hip, he holds on. Because he knows that if he stops struggling, the opportunity to be blessed will be lost. So, he holds on and holds on, and finally the man blesses him.
And what an odd blessing it seems to be. It’s not a promise of greater wealth, more land, more power. It’s a new name: “Israel,” given to him (the man says) “because Jacob has striven with God and with humans and has prevailed.” Often a Biblical name change signals a change in who someone is, but not this time. This time, the new name acknowledges what has been true of Jacob all along. This name is given because in the struggle, Jacob has demonstrated who he is—someone who will not give up, someone who will hold on until he receives the blessing he seeks. Jacob is blessed by being assured that God knows who he is.
And there’s more to this blessing than meets the eye. The name Israel actually means “God prevails.” While Jacob appears to have won the wrestling match, his new name reminds him of who the ultimate victor always is. His new name reminds Jacob that no matter how what the struggle is, God is in it with him. Jacob is blessed with a permanent reminder that no matter how dire things seem, no matter how hard the struggle, God is present and God will triumph.
And, I think, there is a third blessing. After Jacob is blessed, he names the place of his struggle “Peniel” for, he says, “I have seen God face-to-face.” And yet, in the story, we are told that Jacob wrestles with a man. The Hebrew word the Scripture writer used is the word for a male human being. And Jacob wants to know the name of this man with whom he has contended through the night. There’s nothing to suggest that Jacob knew he was wrestling with God, or that this was a purely spiritual struggle.
The recognition comes, I think, when Jacob pleads again, “Please tell me your name,” and the man answers, “Why is it that you ask my name”? This reminds me of the encounter between Mary Magdalene and the risen Christ when, in the garden, Mary Magdalene didn’t recognize Jesus until he spoke her name. In the man’s question, Jacob realizes that in his struggle, he has encountered none other than the Living God.
This raises the question, of course, of why God would pick this fight with Jacob and why God would injure Jacob in the course of it. I couldn’t find any satisfactory scholarly explanation for this, and I don’t believe that our good and loving God ever inflicts pain or suffering on us. I don’t understand this piece of the story, and I don’t think the scholars do, either. So, here’s where I’ve landed. Jacob had things going on in his life that he needed to deal with. He had caused pain to others and done dishonorable things, he wanted to make amends but wasn’t sure how he would be received, he was alone and afraid.
We may have things in our lives we need to deal with—things we’ve brought on ourselves like Jacob, or things that came out of nowhere. But like Jacob, our struggle may have begun much earlier than the wrestling match itself. And as we struggle, God comes and enters into it, somehow letting us know, as Jacob knew, that blessing lies within it, and holding tightly to us to keep us struggling until we can receive it.
And the injury? That’s a tough one. But might it be that God as the Scripture understood him was a wrathful, punishing God, whereas we now know God as the one who loves us so much that he gave his only Son for us? And might it be that the injury Jacob sustained, which the Scripture writer attributed to God, came about simply because the process of struggle is often hard and leaves us with indelible marks? I don’t know. This is one I’m still wrestling with myself.
But I do know this. Like Jacob, we can be blessed through our wrestling with difficult things. The struggles—whether they are personal or communal—are real, and they are hard, and they often come when we least expect them. They can be long, and they can leave a mark. But if we can keep on wrestling with the hard questions, with the difficult situations, with heartache and challenge, there are blessings to be had.
In his struggle, Jacob wouldn’t let go of the man, but neither would the man let go of Jacob and we, like Jacob, will be blessed by seeing that God in Christ never abandons us. Jacob-turned-Israel realized that God knew who he was, and we will be blessed by knowing that we are also known—the sheep that Jesus calls by name. Like Jacob-turned-Israel, we claim a name that is a reminder of our always-triumphant God—the name of Christ, victorious over sin and death and the ground of our hope while we struggle. When the sun finally rises, we, like Jacob, with blessing in hand, will look back and know that in our struggle, we have seen God face-to-face. Amen.
Pastor Carol Williams-Young