Struggling with God (Genesis 32:22-31)

[This is a guest post by Becky Frazier, who completed an M.Div. at Lipscomb University and is presently on staff at the Otter Creek Church of Christ in Brentwood, TN. This is the sermon she delivered at the All Saints Church of Christ on October 16, 2022.]

This evening, I want to focus most of our time on the text from our Hebrew Bible, the story in Genesis of Jacob wrestling with God. Let’s read it again together. Pay close attention and see what stands out to you from this passage: 

22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

27 The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered.

28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,[f] because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”

But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel,and he was limping because of his hip. 

Whew! There’s a lot to unpack here out of 9 short verses. Who is this man that Jacob wrestles with? In a lot of traditional art and church history, the man is called an angel, but in the text, he is simply called a man, until the very end, after he has left, and Jacob says that in wrestling with this man, he has seen the face of God. The text doesn’t say where he comes from, he just shows up in the narrative as wrestling with Jacob. Who started it? Why were they wrestling? What is happening here? And why does it not warrant a whole chapter and some details please! Why, Old Testament, do I need to know how old every man was and the names of all the sons he begot, but you won’t tell me who this man was, or where he came from, or why he was wrestling or why Jacob thinks this man is God!?

It’s so interesting to me that, even after what the text describes as an extended time of fighting, all through the night, after a point where Jacob’s hip has been pulled out of place, causing what must have been excruciating pain, he still clings to this man, entangling himself and not letting go. When the man cries uncle and asks Jacob to get off of him, Jacob refuses saying that he won’t let go until he gets a blessing. 

Why would he ask for a blessing? How does he know that this man even has the ability to bless him? 

To help answer this, let’s situate this story in the narrative timeline. Jacob at this point in the story has left his father-in-law, Laban’s, house and gets word that he is about to run into his brother Esau. Now, if you aren’t familiar with this story, Jacob and Esau are brothers, twins in fact, and there is some bad blood there. And come to think of it, Jacob seems to have a pretty long history of wrestling. While they were still in their mother’s womb, their wrestling with one another was so intense that their mother, Rebekah, cried out to the Lord, asking what in the world was going on inside of her. 

Esau was born first which meant that he would receive the larger inheritance. But Jacob was right on his heels…literally. He followed Esau immediately with his hand wrapped around his brother’s foot. Jacob means “heel grabber”. Later in their life, Jacob twice wrests away from Esau what belonged to him through trickery: his birthright and his father’s blessing. After receiving this ill-begotten blessing, Jacob hightails it out of there to a far away land, knowing his brother was furious and would try to get vengeance. 

Jacob settles down and gets married to two sisters and has children… a lot of them…and grows his wealth (using some trickery again). But now it’s time to leave off on his own and in order to do that, he has to first encounter Esau, his brother who he hasn’t spoken to in perhaps decades, and who may or may not still have it out for Jacob (understandably in my opinion). So Jacob divides his family and all his wealth into two parties, thinking that if Esau attacked one, he at least wouldn’t be left with nothing, and sends them off ahead.   

And here’s where we find Jacob. Alone and in the dark. Wait… did you catch that? The text says, and I quote “So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.” Jacob is alone and also wrestling with someone else. So…what’s going on here? In many Hebrew Rabbinic texts, they suggest that perhaps the person Jaocb is wrestling with, is himself. Jacob has been fighting his whole life. His brother (again and again), his father, his father-in-law. And now this man, all the while, demanding a blessing. He already had the birthright that had originally belonged to someone else and he already had his fathers blessing and he left his father-in-law with his blessing. And now here he is again. Desperately seeking another blessing. 

But here’s the thing. Jacob had already been blessed from the very beginning. When he and his twin were somersaulting in utero, his mom talked to God and God made it clear that there were two nations in her womb and that the older would serve the younger. He fought his whole life for what God had already given him. After fleeing his home in the aftermath of swindling his father and brother, God visited him in a dream and blessed him, saying that his descendents would be as numerous as the dust of the earth and that God would be with him in whatever he did and would never leave him. He had already been blessed. And blessed by God. 

I think that is one of the themes of the book of genesis and all of scripture. In Genesis 1, we read that God made humans in God’s image and called them very good. And then, not long after a deceiver comes in and makes the humans question what God had already told them was true. If you eat this, he said, you will be like God. So they stole something that wasn’t theirs to take and then lied and finger-pointed and hid in shame, when the truth was that they were already like God, having been made in God’s image. And haven’t we been doing the same thing all this time. 

I am more and more convinced that this is at the root of all of our sin. We do not believe that what God said about us is true. We do not believe that we have been blessed. We do not believe that we are worthy. We do not believe that we are God’s beloved. So we lie and we steal and we hoard resources.  We perform and we perfect and we pretend. We numb and chase highs and we lash out, all in an attempt to hide our unworthiness or prove our worthiness instead of resting in the blessing that God has said was true about us before we even drew our first breath. You are good. You are beloved. You are worthy. You were made out of divine dust. God dwells in you. 

And so we return to Jacob. Who, in the darkness and in the loneliness, was wrestling with himself. Who, for once, was perhaps willing to take a cold hard look at the darkest parts of himself. To stop pretending. To stop fighting everyone else. To let go of this need to seek approval and blessing from others and to find the blessing that already existed within himself. I can say from some experience that this is not a fun place to be. When we bring out into the light all the things that think we have been hiding from others and even from ourselves, it hurts. It’s painful. It’s exhausting. But it’s also necessary. 

In confronting himself, Jacob received a double blessing. In facing what he had done to his brother and his father, in facing the shadow side of himself and the person that he had become, he came away changed. Walking with a limp and a new name. Nevermore to be the same.

But Jacob also walked away declaring that he had also found God in the struggle. In wrestling with the darkness within, the very place that we assume is furthest from God, he actually ran smack dab into God. 

Thomas Merton writes “Therefore there is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him.”

So today, I bless you. May you struggle. May you wrestle. May you experience the pain and the loneliness that comes from being willing to truly face yourself. May you lay down the lies that you have believed about yourself and surrender to the truth that God has spoken over you. May you have the courage to face the darkest parts of yourself, knowing that God is with you in the wrestling and in the hurting and that nothing that you find there can invalidate what God has already said is true. May you walk away changed, even if it means you limp a little. And may you, at last, walk away with the knowledge that you have come face to face with God. 

Leave a Reply