Sunday 2 August 2020
What do you think of when you hear reference to “wrestling”?
Do you think of the razzamatazz of the various iterations of professional wrestling that take place in large stadiums, with exotically costumed male and female competitors, with all sorts of bizarre names and personalities, acting out rivalries in front of frenzied, screaming fans?
Or, do you think of more restrained events that you probably only see during highlights packages of the Olympic Games?
I would suggest that you would be better served keeping this second form of wrestling in mind as you consider the event described in the reading from Genesis this morning when Jacob wrestles with an angel, who we later learn to be God. The event is commonly referred to as Jacob wrestling with God.
Wrestling of this sort is an ancient test of strength and strategy and does not involve any of the parading around that professional wrestling exhibits. One of the key elements in the more ancient form is the proximity of the competitors to each other. Critically, once the contest begins, the competitors are not free of each other’s grasps and grips until one is forced into submission.
We live in a world where battles are fought at great distances from each other – either by combatants using others to engage in proxy wars for them, or by the use of technology which allows someone’s car to be blown up by a drone operated from who knows how far away in some other part of the world.
Traditional forms of wrestling do not allow for such distancing. The contest is immediate. The contestants can smell and feel each other.
As we make meaning of this biblical contest then, perhaps we need to take seriously that Jacob’s encounter with God is wrestling – not conversing, not observing. It is sinew and muscle against sinew and muscle. To encounter God, there is a need to be totally committed to the engagement; to be totally present to it; to be absorbed in it and by it.
Another interesting feature of the encounter is that it appears that Jacob wins. It is expressed a little clumsily though – “When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob”. In fact, we are left to wonder who did actually win the contest because Jacob is the one who leaves with his hip out of joint.
Perhaps the claim of victory was a little premature. Perhaps it means that we cannot leave a really close encounter with God the same as we came to it. Perhaps when we seriously turn to God in prayer, when we “wrestle” with God, we leave weaker than we were prior to the encounter. And perhaps we have to resort to Paul’s words in his Second Letter to the Corinthians to understand our new predicament:
“Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2Cor 12.7-10)
Jacob demands from God a blessing for his efforts and so God asks Jacob his name which he tells him. This is very curious as well, because to know someone’s name in Hebrew culture tends to mean that you have power over them. So it seems that the God whom Jacob wrestled into submission is the one who then has the power over Jacob because he gives him his name. You will note that God does not return the compliment when Jacob asks his name. Despite his apparent victory, Jacob still does not have power of God.
And another event that takes place is that God gives Jacob a new name. In the scriptures, the giving of a name is generally associated with the giving of a new mission. Abram who becomes Abraham is a clear example. So, Jacob’s wrestling with God results in his coming away with a new name, Israel, and a new role to play in the plan of God. No longer will he live away from the promised land. Now, he will settle and raise his family, the twelve tribes of Israel in the land that represented the promise of God to Abraham.
And so, our reflection on this event in the life of Jacob leaves us with several conclusions.
Wrestling with God, really engaging in relationship with God through prayer is not something distant, but rather involves immediacy, total presence with the divine.
It leaves us more aware of our frailty and weakness which only God can turn to strength.
Only when we give our lives over to God and admit our need for God’s power do we stand in right relation to God.
And when we wrestle with God, we have to be prepared to receive a new calling; to venture out anew into our daily lives commissioned as witnesses to the God of love who is lord of all and creator of all.
Let us pray for the courage to engage in the holy contest!
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen