It is one of the most unusual stories in all of Scripture. Jacob and his God wrestled on a dark night by the river Jabbok. And Jacob prevailed-or did the God-man prevail? With an economy of words, the author tempts us to enter into the mysterious conflict through our imaginations. Along the way we will encounter important Biblical themes-rebirth, naming, intimacy, wounding, blessing, struggle, and mysterious wonder. For writers, poets, and artist, this story is a gold mine of reflection. What follows are short passages from a variety of authors on the subject.
By John A. Sanford, Paulist Press
And now we come to the strangest part of our story. While Jacob was alone at night by the side of the stream Jabbok, a being suddenly leaped on him. The Bible simple says, “And there was one.”
(Genesis 32:26) who wrestled with him until daybreak. Some kind of spiritual power, a seeming adversary, suddenly seized Jacob and wrestled with him in the darkness. We must use our imaginations to realize what great psychological strength and spiritual courage it took for Jacob to wrestle with his nightmarish adversary throughout that long night, for this was no ordinary mortal who struggled with him, but a numinous being from the Unknown. A lesser man than Jacob might have died of fright, or pleaded for mercy, or tried to flee, but Jacob hung on, and all night long the two of them struggled together...
“I will not let you go until you bless me,” Jacob declared to his numinous antagonist. (Genesis 32:27) Jacob refused to part with his experience until he knew its meaning, and this marked him as a man of spiritual greatness. Everyone who wrestles with his spiritual and psychological experience, and no matter how dark and frightening it is, refuses to let go until he discovers its meaning, is having something of a Jacob experience. Such a person can come through his dark struggle to the other side reborn, but one who retreats or runs from the encounter with spiritual reality cannot be transformed...
The meaning of the encounter between Jacob and the angel lay in the struggle itself, and the purpose of the Adversary was to change and test Jacob, not destroy him. The wound Jacob received is the mark a person carries who encounters spiritual reality as deeply as did Jacob. A person who has an experience of this psychological depth is always wounded by it. It is a way of saying that someone who encounters these things can never go back and be the kind of person he was before. The experience is indelible and changes us forever. It becomes like a wound, constantly reminding us of the spiritual reality we have known, and forcing upon us a recognition of the finite nature of this little ego of ours in relationship to the awesomeness of God. (page 40-42)
By Athol Dickson, (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003)
A moment ago, I was reading about a literary character’s struggle with God in an old book. Now, somehow, I have been drawn into that struggle myself—really drawn right in, right here, right now. In an instant, five thousand years have disappeared and I am there on the riverbank with Jacob and the ‘man,’ there with the sand and the stones and the grunts and sweat and the barest glimmer of a golden dawn on the horizon. I have him in my grasp, this enigmatic man; the sinews of his shoulders strain against me, but I have him, he will tell me now. I am sure of it. He will tell me what I need to know.
Then, with a touch, he is free; the class is over and I lie panting for breath beside the river.
I close the Torah and stare at the cover, overwhelmed. What is this thing that lies before me? It looks like a book, but what is it really?
How did it do that? (Pages 66-67)
By R. Paul Stevens, IVP 2003
What happened that dark night by the Jabbok Brook is emphasized by a play on three words that have a similar sound: “He struggled/wrestled” is closely related to the word Jabbok and probably even the name of Jacob. At Jabbok, Jacob jacobed. It is a fight, a wrestling match with intimate embrace as each tried to gain the advantage. Does Jacob that night review his whole life, especially his relationship with Esau, and his own dissembling, role-playing, inauthentic performance? Does that struggle externalize a personal and spiritual battle within, one in which Jacob must come to terms with himself? But with whom does Jacob wrestle? The narrative is deliberately opaque and mysterious, as Jacob himself apparently does not know at first who has confronted him in the dark by the brook, who is grabbing the heal grabber.
The reader knows, and Jacob himself gradually comes to know, that it is the Lord himself who is wrestling with Jacob. In Scripture “the angel of the Lord” (though it is not a term used in this text) always refers to God being present in some physical, personal, and touchable way. The angel of the Lord anticipates the full coming of God in the flesh of Jesus Christ. It may well be the Son of God engaging Jacob. Consequently, Luther makes Jacob say, “Oh Thou Heavenly Father and Lord!” God wants him. God comes to him.
Through the night Jacob has been fighting God without knowing it. But God wounds him, touching the socket of Jacob’s hip. Now he knows it is God he is encountering. He wants God with all his heart. Mysteriously the God-man attempts to leave. Jacob will not let this moment pass, nor let this personal presence disappear he says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Gen 32:26). He is passionate for God…
We now come to the climax of the struggle. The man asked Jacob, “What is your name?” This is the question Jacob has been avoiding for twenty years. It is also a question many people spend their life avoiding…
It is all wrapped up in his name given at birth. The name derives for the root akov, which means crooked, indirect. It will be his characteristic always to have a plan, to lead from behind, to get in by the back door, to choose the way of the snake. Jacob defines himself as Esau’s shadow, the one who comes from behind, the one with the blurred identity. Zornberg call him “a frivolous player with identities.”
In the narrative Jacob does not use his own name for twenty years- it seems deliberately, ominously, lucidly, provocatively- and this is a powerful hint that Jacob is not willing to admit who he is, that he has an incomplete, fragmented identity, that he is inauthentic. God wants to bless Jacob but cannot bless him until he will admit his own name. The evasion seems deliberate. In the story this requires twenty years of reality therapy.
God’s plot is to bring this man to himself in order to bring him to God and life itself. There can be no blessing ultimately for a trickster since there is no authenticity, no real person to bless. One who enters the world of seeming, of performance, of assumed identities cannot know God, because he cannot know himself…
The God-man does more than bless him. He gives him a new name indicating his identity and his vocation: “Your name will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” (Gen 32:28) Jacob wants the messenger’s name. The angel of the Lord replies, “Why do you ask my name?” (vs. 29), as though to say, “Jacob, don’t you realize who I am?” The angel does not say his name lest it be abused (Compare Ex 20:7; Judg. 13:17-18). This is Jacob’s rebaptism into Israel, the leader of the nation. The precise etymology of Israel means “El (God) fights,” but popular etymologies generally take the form of a play on the name rather than an exact translation. So Jacob became the one who has triumphed in his struggle against men (Esau and Laban being conspicuous examples) and, most surprising of all, against God!
There is great mystery in this. Jacob struggles with God but it is God who allows Jacob to overcome. This story sums up the national destiny and experience of Israel- fighting with God but winning and being won. Jacob “wins” and so does God! Israel fights God, and both Israel and God win! (Pages 105-109)
Excerpt from Son of Laughter by Frederick Buechner
Out of the dark someone leaped at me with such force that it knocked me onto my back. It was a man. I could not see his face. His naked shoulder was pressed so hard against my jaw I thought he would break it. His flesh was chill and wet as the river. He was the god of the river. My bulls had raped him. My flocks had fouled him and my children had pissed on him. He would not let me cross without a battle. I got my elbow into the pit of his throat and force him off. I threw him over onto his back. His breath was hot in my face as I straddled him. My breath came in gasps. Quick as a serpent he twisted loose, and I was caught between his thighs. The grip was so tight I could not move. He had both hands pressed to my cheek. He was pushing my face into the mud, grunting with the effort. Then he got me on my belly with his knee in the small of my back. He was tugging my head up towards him. He was breaking my neck.
He was not the god of the river. He was Esau. He has slain all my sons. He had forded the river to slay me. Just as my neck was about to snap, I butted my head upward with the last of my strength and caught him square. For an instant his grip loosened and I was free. Over and over we rolled together into the reeds at the water’s edge. Then I was on top. I knew that they were not Esau’s arms. It was not Esau. I did not know who it was. I did not know who I was. I knew only my terror and that it was dark as death. I knew only that what the stranger wanted was my life.
For the rest of the night we battled in the reeds with the Jabbok roaring down through the gorge above us. Each time I thought I was lost, I escaped somehow. There were moments when we lay exhausted in each others arms the way a man and a woman lie exhausted from passion. There were moments when I seemed to be prevailing. It was as if he was letting me prevail. Then he was at me with new fury. But he did not prevail. For hours it went on that way. Our bodies were slippery with mud. We were panting like beasts. We could not see each other. We spoke no words. I did not know why we were fighting. It was like fighting in a dream.
He out weighed me, he out wrestled me, but he did not overpower me. He did not overpower me until the moment came to overpower me. When the moment came, I knew that he could have made it come whenever he wanted. I knew that all through the night he had been waiting for that moment. He had his knee under my hip. Then the moment came, and he gave a fierce downward thrust. I felt a fierce pain.
It was less a pain I felt than a pain I saw. I saw it as light. I saw the pain as a dazzling bird-shape of light. The bird’s beak impaled me with light. It blinded me with the light of its wings. I knew I was crippled and done for. I could do nothing but cling now. I clung for dear life. I clung for dear death. My arms trussed him. My legs locked him. For the first time he spoke.
He said, “Let me go.”
The words were more breath than sound. They scalded my neck where his mouth was touching.
He said, “Let me go for the day is breaking.”
Only then did I see it, for the first faint shudder of light behind the farthest hills.
I said, “I will not let you go.”
I would not let him go for fear that the day would take him as the dark had given him. He was my life I
clung to. My enemy was my life. My life was my enemy.
I said, I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Even if his blessing meant death, I wanted it more than life.
“Bless me,” I said. “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
He said, “Who are you.”
There was mud in my eyes, my ears and nostrils, my hair. My name tasted of mud when I spoke it.
“Jacob,” I said. “My name is Jacob.”
“it is Jacob no longer,” he said. “Now you are Israel. You have wrestled with God and with men. You have prevailed. That is the meaning of the name Israel.”
I was no longer Jacob. I was no longer myself. Israel was who I was. The stranger had said it. I tried to say it the way he said it: Yees-rah-ail. I tried to say the new name I was to the new self I was. I could not see him. He was too close to me to see. I could see only the curve of his shoulder above me. I saw the first glimmer of dawn on his shoulders like a wound.
I said, “What is your name? I could only whisper it.
“Why do you ask me my name?”
We were both whispering. He did not wait for my answer. He blessed me as I had asked him. I do not remember the words of his blessing or even if there were words. I remember the blessing of his arms holding me and the blessing of his arms letting me go. I remember as blessing the black shape of him against the rose colored sky.
I remember as blessing the one glimpse I had of his face. It was more terrible than the face of dark, or of pain, or terror. It was the face of light. No words can tell of it. Silence cannot tell of it. Sometimes I cannot believe that I saw it and lived but that I only dreamed I saw it. Sometimes I believe I saw it and that I only dream I live.
He never told me his name. The Fear of Isaac, the Shield of Abraham, and others like them are names we use because we do not know his true name. He did not tell me his true name. Perhaps he did not tell it because he knew I would never stop calling on it. But I gave the place where I saw him a name. I named it Peniel. It means the face of God.
The sun’s rim was just starting to show over the top of the gorge by the time I finally crossed the Jabbok. Bands of gold fanned across the sky. I staggered through the rock shallows, one hip digging deep at each new step and my head bobbing. It is the way I have walked ever since.
From that day to this I have moved through the world like a cripple with a new name the Fear give me that night by the river when he gave me his blessing and crippled me.
By Kenneth Bailey, IVP, 2003
Within the world in general, and within the world of Jubilees and of the sages of Israel in particular, Jesus tells a new story that follows the outline of the old. He creates the parable of the prodigal son following the story line of the saga of Jacob. Like the writer of Jubilees he takes liberty with the old story and like the sages he uses old paints to create a new picture. But what is truly startling is that, unlike the writer of the Jubilees and the sages, Jesus writes himself into the drama as its hero and main character. Jesus is the good shepherd, the good woman and the good father. The good shepherd is built on Psalm 23, Jeremiah 23:1-8, and Ezekiel 34:1-31, as has been seen. The tale of the good woman mirrors the good shepherd and has behind it various texts in the Hebrew Scriptures where God is described in female terms. The parable of the good father and his two wayward sons borrows from and reshapes the saga of Jacob. Building on the past provides the potential for re-creation for the present and for the future.”
“It is easy to forget that the creator of a great story has the freedom to choose where to begin. Jesus sees himself as the divine presence in the community with the task of calling Israel back to God. Israel is ‘lost in exile” and needs to be brought back. To philosophize like Philo will not do. He must tell a story; and to be effective the new story must resonate with a time-honored tale out of the past… the Jacob story is a tale of life at home followed by exile and finally return. The saga of Jacob has the necessary outline, and Jacob is Israel. Perfect! Jesus deliberately chooses this story out of all the other major stories available to him and reshapes it into an account of who he is, what Israel’s predicament has come to be, and how he has come to bring her exile to an end.”
“These three parables show Jesus responding to a challenge from his contemporaries. He takes a story about a particular tribe and it’s self-understanding and transforms it into a drama that relates both to the nation as a whole and to the human predicament. The heart of the new story, built on the old, climaxes on a particular divine intervention of costly love into that predicament. As seen Jesus presents himself as the agent of that divine intervention as the good shepherd, the good woman, and the good father. To repeat N.T. Wright’s choice phrase, Jesus offers “significant variations on the parent worldview.”
As he creates the parable of the good shepherd, Jesus rewrites Psalm 23. In the parable of the compassionate father and the two sons, he presents a new version of eight chapters of the Torah with himself at its center. The centuries-old Latin saying is correct- this parable contains the gospel within the gospel.” (Pages 212-215)