The text doesn't tell us who Jacob wrestles — but we know, just the same.
That night Jacob took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and sent them to the other side of the river Jabbok, along with all of his possessions.
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him all night long.
When the man realized that he couldn’t overpower Jacob, he struck his hip as they wrestled, knocking it out of its socket.
Then he said, “Let me go; it’s nearly day break.” But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go, unless you bless me.”
“What is your name?” he asked.
He said, “Jacob.”
The man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with both divine and human beings, and have prevailed.”
Then Jacob said, “Please, tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why would you ask?” And he blessed him.
So Jacob called the place Peniel “because,” he said, “I have seen God face to face, and survived.”
The sun rose as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
Who was it, there on the riverbank? Jacob genuinely encountered somebody (or Somebody) that night, but it isn’t clear who (or what). He could not see his attacker, for it was dark — that astonishing desert darkness nearly unknown in our modern earthlit skies: the unending abyss of infinite stars that draws us nearer, as if we might fall off the earth and tumble into eternity, mere grains of sand in the vast universe. It is a powerful, profound darkness.
Weary from the long day’s journey, anxious for what lay ahead, Jacob fought blindly, desperately. He had no warning, no weapons, no armor, no allies — only his own resolve. All throughout the night he battled a fiercely determined, unseen enemy. Only at dawn did the battle cease, with the coming of the light.
Jacob insisted that he wrestled with God that night, but the text leaves it an open question, describing his opponent as “a human being,” while the Being says that Jacob has struggled against “divine and human beings.”
I think the answer is: We’ll never know for certain — and yet we all know exactly what went on there.
Truly, who among us hasn’t been right where Jacob was — perhaps not on a windswept riverbank, but feeling just as vulnerable and anxious in the shadow of eternity? Who hasn’t spent a long, dark night seemingly alone, yet wrestling with a very real force?
We’ve all encountered — and struggled against — yearnings and temptations, desires and regrets; emotions that threaten to overpower us, forces too strong to dismiss and impossible to ignore. These are as real as any human person, as strong as any angel — or any demon. And they have a positive knack for showing up when we’re tired or low in spirit, and clinging to us with grim ferocity.
So we struggle. We fight to hold our ground. We spend nights in combat with these disrupters of our rest, these assailers of our conscience, these enemies of our peace who attack us when our defenses are down. They confront us with concerns we’ve tried to hide, issues we’ve left unresolved, needs we’ve ignored, regrets we cannot shake — it can seem as if there is not just a single opponent against us, but a whole army lurking in the shade!
But I wonder. Are these enemies hiding in the shadows — lying in ambush, waiting to spring out with a “Gotcha!”? Or are they allies trapped in the darkness, yearning to be set free?
Perhaps these midnight invaders appear when they do in order to be seen as they are, undisguised by our rationales, denials, and elaborate excuses. In the darkling silence their voices can be heard, speaking difficult truths, offering correction, inviting consideration; challenging us, confronting us — fighting for recognition. These are not monsters, but messengers.
The weapons they wield are of our own devising: the lies we tell ourselves, the excuses we make, the anger we repress, the longings we deny, the wounds we inflict…. These do not entirely disappear, but return to us in various ways; like psychic boomerangs.
We human beings have a talent for ignoring what we don’t want to see; we’re masters at avoiding the obvious and denying what we find distasteful. As the story of Adam and Eve reminds us: we’re exceptionally good at justifying our actions and absolving ourselves of any wrong — and there’s always someone we can blame! It often requires a nighttime assailant to call us to account, to hold us to our promises, to confront us with reality — to wrestle us into groundedness.
Our darkwing visitors are not enemies but allies — if we choose to befriend them; if we welcome them without fear or defensiveness and listen to what they have to say. However, we must be cautious.
These communications are often delivered so emphatically as to be alarming. Perhaps because they come in the still of the evening, perhaps because they carry repressed energy, the messages can feel intense, insistent, anxious, as if we must do their bidding immediately, as if we must take action this very instant. But remember that they come to advise, not to administer; they can assist us in making wise decisions — not decide for us.
We must never forget, too, that these visitors are weighty, strong, and tough; we are engaged in an encounter that tests our mettle, our reserve, and our strength. These are wrestling matches, not tea parties; our opponents conduct themselves accordingly. They know our weaknesses and do not hesitate to strike where we are most vulnerable.
Finally, there is letting go. The nightlong wrestling match ended only when Jacob released his hold. (We might say that he had “come to grips” with the issues.) At daybreak, his opponent asked to be set free; now Jacob was in control of the encounter, and he refused to surrender unless he received a reward. But Jacob wouldn’t accept any old reward; he insisted that his opponent confer upon him “a blessing.”
Now blessings are funny things; according to the Ancient Scriptures, they can go any number of ways: they aren’t necessarily unreservedly positive. In fact, many seem to slide toward what we would call “mixed” blessings — and this one seems to fit that category.
The Being replied to Jacob’s demand by giving him a new name. “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with both divine and human beings, and have prevailed.”
Israel: an identity that was both descriptive and predictive: this was a man who had faced dangers and challenges, troubles and trials — some of which he brought on himself! — and endured. With his new confidence and, we may guess, deeper self-understanding, Jacob/Israel would go forth to do more. But he didn’t live “happily ever after;” he would still struggle. As we all do.
Jacob prevailed: he saw the struggle through to the finish — but he didn’t “win.” Neither vanquished nor victor, he was changed in character and body. He left that place limping, apparently bearing a permanent injury.
We do not walk away unscathed from our encounters with our shadows; we are changed, re-formed — perhaps even reformed. Perhaps awe-struck, perhaps bearing wounds, perhaps baring our wounds, our truthful wrestling with what we hide and disguise creates in us a new spirit: kinder, more compassionate, more forgiving …. we prevail, but we do not “win.”
Ultimately life is not about winning, but about prevailing: engaging in life-as-it-is with courage, integrity, and faith. Life is complicated. Only amoebas slide through their existence untroubled (and even they may have their share of challenges), as for the rest of us, we are called to follow the Lord and, who knows? along the way we may encounter angels, unaware.
May God’s grace and joy illuminate your path and fill your heart,
When fierce notions trouble you, what disguised or hidden concerns are you being asked to wrestle with?
What blessings can you take from these encounters?