Jacob wrestles with God – a Sermon on Genesis 32:24-30


“Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. (25) When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. (26) Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” (27) So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” (28) Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” (29) Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. (30) So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.””

Real growth experiences always involve struggle and pain.

That’s as true for the butterfly that has to fight its way painfully out of it cocoon before it can use its wings as it is for the human being who has to fight her way out of a suicidal depression before she can form meaningful relationships. Real growth experiences always involve struggle and pain.

This is true to our experience, and so it should not be surprising to find that when societies have ritualised growth stages in life, the rituals always involve pain.

Robert Bly, in his book ‘Iron John’, tells of an aboriginal tribe that used to take all the boys, when they reached a certain age, to a special place where they would tell them the ancient stories of their forefathers and where they would point to a distant tree where their great forefather (an Adamic figure) used to sit and where he lost a tooth in a fight with some demonic creature. And while they strain to look at the tree, the adult males come by and knock out one tooth from each of the boys. And then the boys return home as men.

In our white Australian culture of course we have no ‘coming of age’ ritual for boys or girls, though, as some of you know, I’m doing my best to establish one (for boys at least). I do everything I can to encourage young boys, as they reach the ages of 16 and 17 to start training for a fight. Some say “but what if I get hurt?” I say, “If you don’t get hurt, you didn’t fight.”

Why am I so keen for these guys to fight? Because I know how much my first fight did for me.

There’s nothing quite like it – climbing into that square ring, where all the normal rules of society, that aim to restrain us from violent involvement with each other, are (virtually) ignored. The women folk and children are pushed back at a distance. You stand in the middle of the ring, under the spotlights, in your underwear. You stare across that short and painful space at your equally ill-clad opponent, knowing that you have only your arms and your legs to defend yourself with. And the bell rings and your heart pounds and fist hits face and everything becomes a blur. But when the final bell goes, and you make your final walk back to your corner, to be greeted by the embrace of your brethren who are waiting to receive you, you know that you’re a man.

Real growth experiences always involve struggle and pain. And so Jacob, at the turning point of his life, wrestles all night with a dark and shadowy figure by the river Jabbok. He struggles. He fights. He is wounded. He is blessed. In the morning he limps away from this violent spiritual encounter as a new man with a new name, saying, “I have encountered God face to face, and have survived.”

The great Rabbi Maimonides saw the whole episode as so impossible that he said it had to be a dream. Or if not a dream then perhaps Jacob wrestled with his brother Esau, or if not Esau could it perhaps have been that Jacob wrestled with himself? For how can a human wrestle with God?

The one thing that seems clear to me from the story is that, as far as Jacob was concerned, it had to be God that he was wrestling with. For it is this wrestle that makes sense of Jacob’s whole life.

Do you remember the story of Jacob’s life up to this point?

During Rebekah’s pregnancy with Jacob and his twin brother Esau – apparently it was so painful and problematic that she thought she was going to die. The children, we were told ‘were wrestling within her’.

When Jacob is born he comes out second, grasping his brother’s heel, and so they call him ‘Jacob’ meaning ‘grabber’, and as he grew up he made it his habit to go on grabbing everything he could for himself, especially those things that belonged to his brother Esau.

Jacob, as I read him, was a nasty child and he became a rather nasty man. Yet he was also the ‘child of the promise’ through whom God had promised he would make a great nation. Jacob knew that, and it would appear that his wheeling and dealing was his attempt to achieve for himself that destiny that he had already been promised by God. But he had to do it his own way.

Jacob struggled with Esau and stole his birthright. He struggled with his father and fooled him into giving him Esau’s inheritance. Then he left town because Esau wanted to kill him, and he went and struggled with his uncle Laban in a far away land, who turned out to be a bigger grabber than he was. In the end Jacob wrestles from Laban most of his wealth too, and Laban joins the growing list of persons who would like to see Jacob dead.

So Jacob heads back home with all the wealth and his women and his children and the servants that he has managed to acquire through the grabbing and grasping and wrestling techniques that he had perfected over many years. As he nears his homeland, with Laban behind him, he hears that his brother is coming out to meet him with an army of four hundred men – a force that is clearly greater than anything Jacob has with him. And so Jacob realises that all his grabbing and grasping and cheating and wrestling is all about to come an end.

So Jacob sends on ahead of himself gift and offerings aimed at appeasing his brother. He divides up his entourage into two groups, so that one might hopefully escape while the other is destroyed. Finally he sends all the women and children across the river in front of him, in the hope that, presumably, even if they don’t sway Esau’s sympathy, at least Esau’s arrows might hit them first. And he spends the night alone on the other side of the river – alone perhaps for the first time in many years. Alone with time to think, to plan, to pray perhaps. But God jumps him!

It seems clear to me that in all Jacob’s wrestling and grasping, his issue had always really been with God. He knew he was the ‘child of the promise’. His mother had been telling him this since he was a tiny tot, so he figured that it was his destiny to be a millionaire by the age of 30. And so if he wasn’t raking in the millions from the word go, it must be somebody else’s fault.

It was his dumb brother Esau’s fault, or it was his dotty old dad Isaac’s fault, or it was his conniving uncle Laban’s fault. Because he had a right to his millions, and he had a right to all the women he wanted, and he had a right to good health, to good relationships and to constant happiness, and if he didn’t have all these things then it had to be someone else’s fault.

Yes, there’s something very contemporary about the character of Jacob, and we know full well what he’d be doing if he were growing up today in this society. He’d be suing everybody – divorcing his parents, taking out AVO’s against the rest of his family, entering into pre-nuptial agreements with his women, and tying up all his assets in trust funds.

Jacob spent most of his life grasping for the destiny that God had promised to provide for him anyway. OK, maybe God’s vision for Jacob was a little different from Jacob’s vision, but the bottom line is that God had always intended to give him the good stuff without him having to go around grabbing it from everybody else. So when God finally gets Jacob alone, He jumps him. And God doesn’t just sit Jacob down and talk to him about it. God belts him.

This is one story where a good knowledge of traditional wrestling does help quite a bit in your understanding of the story.

When Jacob and God wrestle, they’re not competing according to modern Olympic rules – looking for a shoulder pin and a count of three. They’re wrestling in the traditional style – an all in brawl that usually ends either in a submission or in death.

I suspect I know more than most people here about the history of wrestling. Let me tell you that most countries and cultures have their own traditional wrestling styles – from Silat in Indonesia to Jiujitsu in Japan to Sambo in Russia to the Pankration of the early Greeks. Each style has its own look and feel, but one thing they have in common is that they were all traditionally quite brutal.

I know one man who spent his teenage years wrestling his way through the sandpits of India, where every village has a slightly different style of wrestling from its neighbour. He told me how he stayed with a family of wrestlers in one town, where their style involved wrestling with a great metal spike attached to one arm. Apparently you were allowed one good shot with the spike when you got the other guy on the ground. Almost every member of the family was carrying some horrific wound – a missing eye or a great hold in the face etc. This is traditional wrestling.

When I was in Greece I saw a statue of Hercules and Atlas wrestling in a way that reflects the way the ancient Greeks used to wrestle. Hercules has Atlas above his head and is about to drive Atlas’ head into the ground. Atlas has hold of Hercules’ genitals and it ready to tear them off! This is the way the Greeks used to wrestle at the original Olympics! It was said of Ulysses that when he returned from Troy after twenty years of battle his own mother couldn’t recognise him, but when the winner of the Olympic wrestling returned home after the Olympics, even his own dog couldn’t recognise him! It was a rough sport.

Now this is obviously not far from the sort of wrestling on view in Genesis 32, because in that fight God only gains the advantage when He wounds Jacob with a shot to the inside thigh. Many scholars think though this may be a euphemism suggesting that he was wounded in the genitals – God applying a wrestling technique colloquially known as ‘the squirrel’. We don’t know for sure, but we do know that Jacob limps for the rest of his life.

This is not a comfortable image of God – the one who fights with his chosen people and both blesses them and wounds them with shots below the belt!

And this is where the rubber hits the road in this story, isn’t it? This image of the God who brawls with his chosen ones and wrestles them into submission is a long way from the gentle Jesus meek and mild that we might be more familiar and more comfortable with!

We live in an age where popular religion is about getting in touch with your spiritual side and it tends to be sugar and spice and all things nice, but with the Biblical God there is also a lot of blood and pain and struggle.

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”, says the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, and if you’re going to deal with this God you are going to have to deal with God on God’s terms.

Have you wrestled yet with this God? Have you gone beyond thinking about Him to actually come to grips with Him. Have you ever prayed as Jesus did, with the sweat coming down like drops of blood? Have you ever screamed at Him, unable to break his suffocating grip? Have you ever really thrashed it out with God and reached that point where you can limp away saying with Jacob “I have seen the face of God and have survived.”

Real growth experiences always involve struggle and pain.

I’ve wrestled with God on at least two significant points in my life. The first led to my conversion, but it cost me. I lost most of my friends through my conversion including my girl friend. I had to abandon my hopes for a quiet career as a barber in a seaside town!

I wrestled again with God after my first marriage broke down. Again I lost friends and family, and I had to come to terms with the loss of what I thought was the plan God had for my life. I was supposed to be a missionary in Thailand by this stage. I was sure that had been where God was leading me. I had been sure of so many things. I wrestled.

John Calvin, in his commentary on Genesis (published in 1554) makes the bold claim that “all the servants of God in this world are wrestlers”.

For “the Lord exercises us with various kinds of conflicts. Moreover, it is not said that Satan, or any mortal man, wrestled with Jacob, but God himself: to teach us that our faith is tried by him; and whenever we are tempted, our business is truly with him, not only because we fight under his auspices, but because he, as an antagonist, descends into the arena to try our strength. This, though at first sight it seems absurd, experience and reason teaches us to be true. For as all prosperity flows from his goodness, so adversity is either the rod with which he corrects our sins, or the test of our faith and patience. And since there is no kind of temptation by which God does not try his faithful people the similitude is very suitable, which represents him as coming, hand to hand, to combat with them. Therefore, what was once exhibited under a visible form to our father Jacob, is daily fulfilled in the individual members of the Church; namely, that, in their temptations, it is necessary for them to wrestle with God.”

Do we dare to wrestle with God? For Jacob it was the turning point, not simply to becoming a man, but to becoming a man of faith. Do we dare to make that transition ourselves by confronting God in our humanity? Will we dare to have it said of ourselves that ‘we wrestled with God and with men and have survived’?

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Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, August 4th, 2002

Rev. David B. SmithParish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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