“Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 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. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
There is no growth without pain. That’s as true for the butterfly that must fight its way painfully out of its cocoon before it can use its wings as it is for a young woman who has to fight her way through a suicidal depression before form a meaningful relationship. Growth always involves struggle and pain.
This is true to human experience, and so it should not surprise us to find that when societies have ritualised growth-stages in life, their rituals have always involved blood.
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 terrible demon. And while the boys strained to look at the tree, the adult males come by and knock out a tooth from each of the boys. And then the boys return home as men.
In our white Australian culture, we no longer have official ‘coming of age’ rituals for boys or girls any more, though, as most of you would know, we have done something to address that deficiency in our Fight Club, where I actively encourage young people, as they reach the ages of 16 and 17, to start training for a fight. Some ask, “but what if I get hurt?” to which the proper response is “If it doesn’t hurt, you didn’t fight!”
Why are you so keen to see young people fight? Even though I’ve been teaching boxing and the martial arts for more than 25 years, I still get asked that question quite a lot because it still seems so incongruous to some people that a so-called man of peace should be teaching young people to do something as ostensibly violent as to belt one another in the face! And the answer, of course, is ‘because it works!’ (as indeed, it worked for me)!
There is nothing quite like it – climbing into that sacred space, where all the normal rules of civilised society that try to prevent us from tearing away at each other are suspended for a few intense minutes! The ropes around the ring – people assume that they are there to keep the fighters in, but I think their main function is to keep civilisation out (at least for a moment), lest anyone should try to climb in and interfere!
What goes on in there is sacred! While their friends watch on from a distance, the fighters stand centre-ring, under the spotlight, all but naked, staring across that short, deadly space at their equally ill-clad opponents, knowing that they only have your own limbs with which to defend themselves. And then the bell rings and your heart pounds and fist hits face and everything becomes a blur until that final bell, when you walk back to your corner, bruised and bleeding, to embrace your mentors, who welcome you back into the human community.
Real growth always involves struggle and pain. And so, Jacob, in our reading from Genesis 32, 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 his violent spiritual encounter as a new man with a new name, saying, “I have encountered God face to face, and I have survived.”
The great Rabbi, Maimonides, believed that this whole episode was so impossible that 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 was wrestling with himself? For how can a human wrestle with God? And yet the one thing that seems clear to me from this story is that, so far as Jacob was concerned, it had to be God that he was wrestling with, for it is this violent encounter with the Almighty that makes sense of Jacob’s whole life
If you know the story of Jacob you know that his whole life was characterised by struggle – indeed, that the violence started before he was born! Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, had twins, and we’re told that the birth was so painful, she thought she was dying. The children, we’re told ‘were wrestling within her’.
When Jacob was born he came out second, but grasping his brother’s heel, and so they called him ‘Jacob’, meaning ‘grabber’, and as he grew up, his name increasingly became his personality, as he went around grabbing and grasping everything he could for himself, especially those things that belonged to his dumb older brother, Esau.
Jacob, it seems, was a rather nasty child who grew up to become a rather nasty man, and yet he was also the ‘child of the promise’ about whom God had given an undertaking, that through Jacob He would build a great nation!
Jacob had no doubt been told from an early age that he lived under this promise, and it appears that all his wheeling and dealing was his attempt to achieve for himself that very destiny that he had been promised. It’s as if Jacob couldn’t trust God to take care of it but had to grab it all in his own way!
Jacob struggled with Esau and stole his birth right. He struggled with his poor old father and fooled him into giving him Esau’s inheritance. He then had to leave town because Esau (understandably) wanted to kill him, and he went and struggled with his uncle Laban in a faraway land.
Laban, if you know the story, turned out to be an even bigger grabber than Jacob was, though in the end Jacob wrestled away from Laban most of his wealth too. And so, uncle Laban joined the list of persons who would have liked to have seen Jacob dead, which brings the scene we read about today.
Having made himself even more unwelcome in his uncle’s house than he was in his father’s house, Jacob left his uncle’s land and headed home. He took with him all the wealth he had acquired through his years of wheeling and dealing, along with the women and children and servants he had acquired, along with everything else that he had managed to grab and grasp and wrestle away from people who had more rights to it than he did. And as he nears home, with Laban pursuing him from behind, he hears that his brother Esau – the original victim of his conniving – is coming out to meet him from up ahead, along with four hundred men – a force that was far greater than anything Jacob had with him. And so, it would seem, Jacob was finally going to get his comeuppance!
It’s curious, isn’t it, that after all Jacob’s years of wheeling and dealing and grabbing and grasping and stealing from his uncle Laban and particularly from his brother, he still couldn’t stand up against either of them in a straight fight? Despite all that Jacob had gained, Esau was still stronger than he was. Jacob didn’t have 400 mates to stand beside him. He didn’t even have the strength to stand up against Laban!
So, Jacob sends on ahead of himself gifts and offerings, aimed at appeasing his brother, Esau. And then he divides up his entourage into two groups, in the hope that, if push comes to shove, one group might escape while the other is being destroyed. And then he sends the women and children across the river in front of him, in the hope that, presumably, even if they don’t sway his brother’s sympathy, at least Esau’s arrows will strike them first.
And Jacob spends the night alone on the far side of the river – quite possibly alone for the first time in years – alone with his own thoughts, with time to think, to reflect, to pray perhaps …
And yet Jacob is not alone. There is another figure there on the far side of the river with him, lurking in the shadows – a dark figure who has always been there, moving about in the background, a figure with whom Jacob has always avoided a direct confrontation. This shadow-dweller waits as He has always waited – waiting until Jacob is finally totally alone, and then He assaults him!
This is one of the few stories in the Bible where having a good knowledge of traditional wrestling does help quite a bit in your understanding what‘s going on. 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 – in an all-in brawl that can only end in either submission or death.
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 Greeks. Each style has its own look and feel, but one thing they all tend to have in common is that, in their traditional forms, they were all quite brutal.
I know a man who spent his teenage years wrestling his way through the sandpits of India, where every village had its own distinct style of wrestling. He told me how he stayed with a family in one town where their style involved wrestling with a large metal spike attached to one arm. Apparently, you were allowed one good shot with the spike when you got the other guy to the ground. And so almost every member of the family was carrying some horrific wound – a missing eye or a great hole in the face. This is traditional wrestling!
When Ange and I were in Greece many years ago we saw a statue of Hercules and Atlas wrestling in a way that reflected the way the ancient Greeks used to wrestle. Hercules has Atlas in the air and is about to drive his head into the ground but Atlas has hold of Hercules’ genitals and was ready to tear them off! This is the way the ancients wrestled at the original Olympic Games! 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 wrestling returned home after the Olympics, even his own dog couldn’t recognise him! It was a rough sport, and this is akin to the sort of wrestling on view in Genesis 32.
We are told in Genesis 32:25 that when God saw that He couldn’t get the better of Jacob in the fight, He delivered him a shot to the ‘inside thigh’. Presumably this is a euphemism. The image we are given, I believe, is of Jacob receiving a hit to the groin. God was applying a wrestling technique colloquially known as ‘the squirrel’, giving Jacob an injury that would leave him limping 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! This is an image of a God who brawls with his chosen ones and beats them into submission, which seems a long way from our more familiar and comfortable images of gentle Jesus meek and mild!
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 God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, there is a lot of blood 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, for if you’re going to deal with this God you are going to have to deal with God on God’s terms. That may not be the whole of the Good News of the Gospel, but neither is it the whole of the Good News to give testimony to how we came to Jesus and He solved all our problems. For a lot of us, our problems never really began till we started following Jesus!
Have we wrestled with this God? – that is the question. Have we gone beyond thinking about God to actually coming to grips with God? Have we felt the fingers of God sink deeply into our own flesh? Have we screamed, unable to break God’s suffocating grip? Have we thrashed it out with God and reached that point where we limp away, damaged, and yet saying with Jacob ‘I have wrestled with God, yet I am still alive.’
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 step into the ring with God? For Jacob, it was the transition 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 and thrashing it out with Him until we too become true men and women of faith? Will we dare to have it said of us that we wrestled with God and survived?