Wrestling with self
A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on September 22, 2019.
•Genesis 32:9–13, 22-30•
I wasn’t supposed to have an opponent for my first wrestling match of high school. The school we were competing against didn’t have anyone in the 100 pound weight class. Truth be told I was thankful. I thought it was my lucky day. Instead of having to wrestle, all I had to do is walk to the middle of the mat and allow the referee to raise my hand and I could claim victory in my first match. But as it turned out — luck was not on my side.
I still remember my coach coming up to me to tell me that the other school decided to move their 95 pounder up a weight class so we could wrestle with purpose. I remember the butterflies started immediately. I remember my sweaty palms. I remember trying to recall all the moves I had been taught. I remember the struggle of the next 30 minutes of preparation. And I still remember my disappointment when I walked onto the mat and instead of my hand being raised in victory it was extended to shake hands with my opponent.
The referee blew the whistle and my opponent surprised me by grabbing a hold of me immediately. His hand held the back of the neck and I have to say that I didn’t know my forehead could hit another person’s shoulder that many times in the eight or nine seconds I stayed standing. I am not entirely sure how we moved to the mat, but I do remember thinking this might have been the first time I actually got a really good look at gym’s ceiling. I remember looking off to the side just as the referee was slapping the mat signifying the end of the match. Afterwards, I remember thinking that was perhaps the longest 13 seconds of my life.
It was a very unsatisfying beginning to my high school wrestling career — a career that actually only lasted one more match. Wrestling as it turned out wasn’t my thing. But by our reading today it certainly seems Jacob has a real knack for it.
From the day of his birth, Jacob was a wrestler. From the moment he grabbed his brother’s foot he was figuring the angles to outsmart and outmaneuver whoever stood in his way. It started with his brother, Esau — whom he works a deal to swindle out of his rightful inheritance — then it is his dad Isaac, whom he tricks into giving him the family blessing. Finally it is his equally devious father-in-law, Laban whom he shakes and jockeys for economic advantage.
Jacob was a master operator, but as is often the case the day of reckoning was coming. After a long absence, Jacob was returning home, preparing to face his estranged brother Esau, whom he had defrauded.
Jacob had been traveling a while. As he approaches his home he sends loads and loads of presents ahead of him in hopes of appeasing his brother. Eventually he ends up sending his two wives, two maids and eleven children along with the rest. He sends the entire motley crew across the stream and Jacob finds himself alone. One can imagine the blessed moment of silence Jacob experienced as the fuss and noise of the entourage faded into the night.
But it was short lived, for just as I didn’t get to walk to the center of the mat and claim victory, neither will Jacob enjoy the moment of solitude for out of nowhere, Jacob is jumped by “a man” who “wrestled with him until daybreak.”[i]
Now I want to stop here for a moment and simply note that the Hebrew clearly says “man,” not angel, not God. And the man “wrestles” which in Hebrew would be pronounced ye’hbek, which sounds suspiciously close to Jacob’s own name y’acob.
Who is this man? Who is this one who wrestles with the rascal Jacob — the grabber of birthright… the swindler of blessing… the tussle of family and goods? If we are going with the word “man” then there are at least three possible suspects all of whom we have already talked about: Esau, Isaac and Laban. Jacob has already wrestled with each of them. In each case he appears to have walked away victorious and therefore each has a large reason to encounter him again.
Yet, we ought not overlook one other possibility — one I hadn’t considered until I sat across the table from my good friend Marci as we studied this text. She said she can not read this text without thinking that Jacob is wrestling himself. It is an interesting question: Could Jacob not be battling and grasping to understand and discover his own place in the ongoing story of Israel and God’s choice of them? At this point any of these four might prove to be a worthy adversary to Jacob.
And it had to be a worthy adversary for the match goes on much longer than the 13 seconds I lasted. This match ends up taking all night. “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.”[ii] Whoever the man is, as the sun begins to crest the horizon he realizes that despite his surprise attack he cannot best Jacob before morning. Jacob is too formidable a wrestler and so the man resorts to what must be seen as a dirty move. He grabs the ball of Jacob’s hip and rips it out of joint.
Unfortunately, Jacob will not be put off so easily. Jacob shows the tenacity of a survivor and refuses to let go. The man pleads with him, “‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’”[iii] One wonders what this unknown man’s issue is with sunlight. Is he actually a vampire and the sun will expose his secret to the world as we hear about in the Twilight novels? Who knows? Whatever the reason for the man’s pleading, Jacob seizes the opportunity as he always has and demands a blessing.
“So (the man) said to (Jacob), ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ 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.’”[iv] This sentiment has always been hard for me to understand. If it is God Jacob is wrestling — how in fact did Jacob win this match? At best it feels like a draw — yet, the man has announced the victory by saying that Jacob has in fact won against God and humans, and as a result will henceforth be known as Israel.
But Jacob still struggling to live into his new name wants more. “Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But (the man) said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him.”[v] The scene seems to end with Jacob extracting the blessing from the man, after being told that he has struggled and won no matter his opponents, divine or human.
Do much reading or listening to people expound on this text and you get the sense that people want Jacob to be the loser. I being one of them. Outside of the fact that Jacob limps away, when people identify “the man” Jacob wrestled with as God it becomes a tricky theological argument to have God losing the match.
But as I have reflected on the text this week I realize the reason I have always ascribed “the man” as God is because Jacob names the place Peniel, “saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’”[vi] But as my friend Marci questioned: why should we trust Jacob? Jacob has been shown to be a consummate liar throughout his whole story. The fact that the only witness we have to this wrestling match is Jacob, and Jacob says that the man declared him the victor in everything, against everyone, leaves me a little suspicious.
In the end, I am leaning more into the idea that Jacob’s real antagonist through the night was actually, himself. Who else would crown Jacob undefeated in all encounters, other than Jacob? Who else would give a blessing while still locked in combat? Who else would shout they have seen God face-to-face and survived?
Jacob will stand before God, face-to-face, but I am no longer sure it comes in this chapter. It seems to me to come in the next when his brother Esau, whom he expects to slaughter him, instead embraces him in massive hug, kisses him on the neck and falls into a messy emotional heap. Jacob didn’t wrestle with God throughout the night, but rather saw God in the most unexpected and unlikely place Jacob could think of — in the grace filled acceptance of his brother Esau.
We can’t separate Jacob’s long night from the following morning. The two moments must be held together. For in the night, it appears to me that Jacob shows up as he always has — self-assured of his own victories no matter the cost. And in the morning God shows up as God always does — full of grace and truth and love.
Now that isn’t to say God isn’t there, just that God isn’t the opponent. Of course, God wishes to walk alongside us in every encounter… every relationship… even the one with ourself. And while we may limp away from an encounter, we limp with God alongside.
And though Jacob somehow tries to turn the encounter into a victory over God — God is not one who yields. Rather after Jacob wrestles himself in the presence of God, God breaks him down and pins Jacob through the unearned and unexpected grace and love of his brother’s embrace.
I pray we each experience something of this in our own lives. For God continues to choose to show up in those places and people whom we do not expect God to be. Perhaps when we open ourselves up to this crazy possibility, we too may find ourselves encountering the living God in the light of day, rather than a god, shadowed in the shade of night made somehow in our own image. Amen.
[i] Genesis 32:24 (nrsv)
[ii] Genesis 32:25 (nrsv)
[iii] Genesis 32:26 (nrsv)
[iv] Genesis 32:27-28 (nrsv)
[v] Genesis 32:29 (nrsv)
[vi] Genesis 32:30 (nrsv)