The Wrestling Match

In his wrestling match there alongside the river, Jacob didn't pull any punches.

Genesis 32:23-30
as told by Deborah

Preparing for a confrontation with Esau and his troops, Jacob sent his family across the river, along with all of his possessions, but he spent the night by himself — and a man wrestled with him until dawn.

When the man realized that he couldn’t overcome Jacob, he struck him on the hip, spraining it. Then he said, “Let me go; it’s nearly morning.”

But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go, unless you bless me.”

So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”

“You will no longer be called Jacob,” the man said, “but Israel, for you have strived with God and with people, and have prevailed.”

Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.”

And he said, “Do you need to ask?” And he blessed him.

So Jacob called the place Peni-El (Face-of-God), saying, “Because I have seen God face-to-face, and survived.”

Photo of a flower

Reflection by Deborah Beach Giordano
August 7, 2017

Prevailing

After their lengthy (and inconclusive) wrestling match, the man conferred upon Jacob a new name. He would no longer be Jacob, but Israel: having “contended against both God and human beings and prevailed.”

Jacob Wrestles with the AngelJacob didn’t win the bout, but he wasn’t overcome, either. It is enough, apparently, to wrestle with God and survive.

I’m reminded of the aeronautical credo: “Any landing you can walk away from is a success.” And so we can say that Jacob succeeded. Even though he limped away.

It was, in truth, an act of supreme courage — born out of supreme terror. There in the darkness, bracing for the arrival of Esau and his 400 troops, Jacob knew he was facing an impending disaster; possibly the wholesale slaughter of his family and his own painful death at the hands of the brother he had cheated those many years ago.

And so he prayed. I imagine he prayed as he had never prayed before: with panic-fueled earnestness and blatant honesty.

There were no humble supplications, no sugary endearments and whinging pleas, no false proclamations of faith, but a fierce, gritty, sweaty, utterly authentic encounter with That Which Is.

Jacob confronted God with his anguish, his confusion, his fears, his regrets; he grappled with God over his real-life lived situation, unvarnished, unadorned. “Here is how it is with me. Now, in the midst of all that is, where are You?”

The Question

This is a cry and a challenge — as daring as that of the Israelites who will later demand, on their long journey through the wilderness, “Is God with us, or not?” (Exodus 17:7) It is a scary question, a frightful question, a risky question; one we hardly want to know the answer to.

Is God for us or against us? The wandering Israelites merely say out loud what we all wonder from time to time: Where is God in this? Is God in this? Is there a God at all?

We struggle with our belief in a “good God,” in the face of suffering, disasters, disease, illness, poverty and despair. We recite encouraging Scriptures, we think hopeful thoughts, we look toward a bright new day (“maybe tomorrow”), we keep busy. Such acts can lift our spirits and accomplish many good things — but The God Question remains.

Jacob struggling with the angelEven if we could manage to ignore it, the challenge is repeatedly thrown out at us by those who doubt or deny a Greater Source: “Why didn’t your God prevent this?” “Where is this loving God you talk about?” “Why didn’t He heal that illness?” “Why does your God allow the innocent to suffer?”

Good questions, one and all.

In response we can speak of free will, of the human capacity to choose for good or ill; we can proclaim the mystery of faith: that, in some unfathomable way and unknown place and time, all will be well. The fact is: in many cases — in all cases — we simply do not know why things turn out as they do. And, in our humanness, we grieve, we suffer, we weep, we worry.

And sometimes we scream and cry and curse the day and shriek and rage at God.

And that’s ok.

Meeting Our Match

God cannot be broken or beaten or chased away. Honest, earthy, ferocious truth-speaking will not surprise or shock or offend the One Who Knows Us. In fact we might say, based on Jacob’s experience, that our most passionate, authentic prayers — spoken from the depths of our being — bring us nearer, as if we are wrestling with God. It is as if the Holy One is struggling with us, intimately, skin to skin, muscle to muscle, as if with one accord.

Jacob wrestling with the angel

That’s essential to remember when we enter into prayer: we needn’t be afraid to tell the truth. The Beloved will not turn away, no matter what we say, no matter what we’ve thought or imagined or dreamed or done. Our faith is revealed in our prayers; in our willingness to trust God enough to speak honestly, in our willingness to wrestle with the tough issues.

And God will be right there; holding on to us.

Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,

Deborah 

Suggested Spiritual Exercise

Pray honestly.