Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Wrestling Jacob

The story of “Wrestling Jacob” in Gen 32 is a staple of evangelical piety. Interpreted as being about prayer, and tied in with the account of the “importunate widow”, it has been the basis for much teaching about perseverance in intercession, and the need to wrestle with God until he blesses us. 

I don’t want to question all aspects of that kind of teaching, although I have some doubts about elements of it. But I am sure that it is not really the subject of this passage. The problem is that when we attach a bit of popular piety to a passage, we end up not hearing what the text is really saying, and fail to take the shock or strangeness of the passage seriously. We read it through the spectacles of popular piety, rather than wrestling (pun intended) with the text. 

Interaction with non-evangelical readings can be helpful here, as they often hit us harder with the force of the text than do smoothed-out Sunday School bowdlerisms. As an example, although I really dislike Rachel Held Evans’ conclusions regarding the “Sacrifice of Isaac” in Gen 22, I seriously love the way she wakes people up to the stark horror of what is going on. We daren’t lose the shock of the text!

Gen 22 is shocking, and so is 32. What we have here is not a friendly bout of tag, a tussle between macho chums, even a moment of Old Testament horseplay. It is an alarming, even terrifying attack on a man who is already at the end of his resources, alone and afraid. It is the stuff of horror movies, and we domesticate it at our peril. How is it possible to avoid that domestication, to avoid contorting and squeezing the text, and at the same time treat this passage, as with all the Old Testament, as a book about Jesus, as he himself saw it (Luke 24)? 

When looking at narrative, it is good to be alert to any markers in the text itself as to what the writer thinks is significant. Not every biblical narrator does this, and not in every account, but where such markers crop up we would be foolish to ignore them. In the account of “wrestling Jacob” we have several elements that scream that Israel ought to remember what happened. We have two name changes (place and man), and we have an ongoing food taboo which would remind every Jew of this account as he/she butchered a carcase or roasted a joint. These elements tell us that what happened here is formative. Immediately we are alert – and perhaps looking for something deeper than “our nation got its name because our ancestor once spent all night praying.”
This passage is about the fundamentals of Israel’s (and our) relationship with God. Jacob’s own name means “heel grabber” – he has been wrestling since birth. There is a play on his name, the verb to wrestle and the name of the stream here – Jacob is jacobbing by the Jabbok. He has always tried to fight for his rights – and more than his rights, at times. He wants to win by his wits, by his cunning, by his deceit. 

Now he finds himself in a fearful situation. Behind him is Laban, the uncle from whom he stole, and to whom he can never go back. Ahead of him is Esau, the brother he cheated, who terrifies him. He has split all his wealth into two so as to cut his losses if Esau swoops to attack, and he has tried to sweeten his twin with gifts as they draw closer together. 

With all his family, people and possessions on the Esau side of the stream, Jacob finds himself alone, scared and weak. And in the darkness he is attacked. All night long, he fights for his life, until suddenly, when he finds he “cannot win”, the man who attacked him makes absolutely clear with just a touch that he can disarm, disempower, destroy Jacob at will at any time, and could have done so all along. All of Jacob’s strength and cunning, all his trickery and self-reliance, are overturned and shown to be utterly valueless in this terrifying encounter. The self-made man becomes the met-his-match man. With a lurch in the pit of his stomach he learns that, if he has appeared to do well for a time, it is only because his appalling adversary has come down to his level. The mystery attacker has allowed him to win, as a dad allows his three year old to beat him in a race. There is no true parity of power here, no close call, no photofinish. The fighters seem well-matched, but fleetingly, and only because one has chosen to limit his power. Jacob thought there was a contest – but actually, there is no contest, and he perceives who the Enemy is that has attacked him in the night. 

The horror of the encounter is obvious, but the shock of the passage comes in the tail end of the fight with that touch. And the striking thing is that, in the light of what it reveals about Jacob’s attacker, the surprise is then NOT in the sudden touch of power but in the fact that Jacob appeared to be holding his own at all. THAT is the mystery here: Infinity has robed himself in Finity.

Jacob is beaten and he knows it, but still he hangs on. He has met someone far more frightening than Laban and Esau, and yet he is alive! He even appeared to have had the upper hand for a while. This Adversary has chosen to come in weakness! So Jacob, defeated and knowing it, holds on and asks for a blessing. And he is blessed. For that is why this Mighty One attacked him. God, the Mightier Wrestler, has come vulnerably, to overthrow Jacob’s cunning self-reliance once and for all, and so to bless him truly.

If I were filming this, I would close with a huge zoom, dawn shot. As the massive sun comes over the horizon, it silhouettes Jacob, Jacob limping away from the scene, a changed man. That limp will always be with him – and with his people via the culinary reminder built into the passage. But the limping man is no longer simply Jacob, the Cunning Wrestler. He is Israel, the Limper who met the Conquering God and was blessed.

Here is the heart of the story, and the reason why it is formative for Israel as a people and normative for their understanding of God and his gospel. It is about their forefather, the self-reliant schemer, reaching the end of himself. He reaches the end not because he has just run out of steam, but because he has been attacked and overthrown by God. (This is the real, authentic God – Jacob has other gods – he has stolen Laban’s… was that purely for monetary value or as yet another way of hedging his bets, a clever move in the wrestling ring of appeasing possible divinities? ) In this power encounter with the Living God, in his overpowered weakness, Jacob has at last found true blessing, a changed identity, even a new beginning.

This self-reliant schemer is not just anyone, nor is he an Everyman. He is a patriarch, a nation-founder. As with his father and grandfather, his experiences are Israel’s experiences. What happens to him, happens to all, and all are to learn from it and live by it.

The Old and New Testaments are different. There is a discontinuity between them. But there is also massive continuity – that is the understanding of the NT authors and of Jesus himself. And this formative story for OT Israel is still a normative account for us. For what happens to Jacob in Gen 32 is still the shape of the gospel. This account is not to teach us about one (albeit crucial) element of piety. It is about the fundamental nature of our relationship with God. We can’t safely encounter him with our cunning or our strength. We can’t come with our clever arguments and self-justification. And we certainly can’t come with a few idols in our baggage as back-up!

Who is the most frightening person in the universe? The one who will judge the living and the dead, that’s who! He is coming... but he has already come, and at our size, vulnerably, woundably, even killably. For in that meeting, we did kill him. But he rose! When we perceive who That Man is and what he will do, we see our defeat. Like those who killed him, convicted of the horror of Christicide at Pentecost, we cry out, “What shall we do?” “Hang on in there”, says Peter – “Believe on this same name, and you will be blessed, you will be forgiven!"

What is a Christian? Someone who, awed by the power, majesty, holiness and justice of God in Christ, admits defeat, discarding their “goodness”, their strength, their cunning, their self-reliance, and clinging to the Saviour in powerlessness and yet the assurance that he has come close to bless us. That is what Jacob had to learn – and the whole nation in him. This moment was formative – normative – for him. The Cunning Wrestler was renamed after his Conquering God. The only hope of Israel, and us, is consciousness of weakness and awe in his presence, and thus confidence in his power alone, and in his desire to bless and save. Are you clinging on to him in defeat?

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Years ago when I began working on this story, I found some help from the commentaries, but it was only at the end of the process, when looking for hymns, that I realised how close Charles Wesley’s great hymn Wrestling Jacob is to the theme as I perceive it. Isaac Watts apparently said of this hymn “that sin­gle po­em is worth all the vers­es I have writ­ten.” It is a towering achievement as a religious poem, but best of all, I think it gets right to the heart of Genesis 32 as read in the light the New Testament.


Come, O thou Traveller unknown,
Whom still I hold, but cannot see;
My company before is gone,
And I am left alone with thee;
With thee all night I mean to stay,
And wrestle till the break of day.

I need not tell thee who I am;
My sin and misery declare;
Thyself hast called me by my name;
Look on thy hands, and read it there;
But who, I ask thee, who art thou?
Tell me thy name, and tell me now.

In vain thou strugglest to get free;
I never will unloose my hold:
Art thou the Man that died for me?
The secret of thy love unfold;
Wrestling, I will not let thee go
Till I thy name, thy nature know.

Wilt thou not yet to me reveal
Thy new, unutterable name?
Tell me, I still beseech thee, tell;
To know it now resolved I am;
Wrestling, I will not let thee go
Till I thy name, thy nature know.


Yield to me now, for I am weak,
But confident in self-despair;
Speak to my heart, in blessings speak;
Be conquered by my instant prayer;
Speak, or thou never hence shalt move,
And tell me if thy name be Love.

'T is Love! 't is Love! Thou diedst for me;
I hear thy whisper in my heart;
The morning breaks, the shadows flee;
Pure, universal Love thou art;
To me, to all, thy bowels move;
Thy nature and thy name is Love.

My prayer hath power with God; the grace
Unspeakable I now receive;
Through faith I see thee face to face;
I see thee face to face and live!
In vain I have not wept and strove;
Thy nature and thy name is Love.

I know thee, Saviour, who thou art,
Jesus, the feeble sinner's friend;
Nor wilt thou with the night depart,
But stay and love me to the end;
Thy mercies never shall remove;
Thy nature and thy name is Love.

The Sun of Righteousness on me
Hath risen, with healing in his wings;
Withered my nature's strength; from thee
My soul its life and succor brings;
My help is all laid up above;
Thy nature and thy name is Love.

Contented now upon my thigh
I halt till life's short journey end;
All helplessness, all weakness, I
On thee alone for strength depend;
Nor have I power from thee to move;
Thy nature and thy name is Love.

Lame as I am, I take the prey;
Hell, earth, and sin with ease o'ercome;
I leap for joy, pursue my way,
And, as a bounding hart, fly home;
Through all eternity to prove
Thy nature and thy name is Love. 

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