Having reassigned Jacob’s Ladder two weeks back, you might be expecting me to pour scorn on the idea of Jacob wrestling with God in today’s reading. But not a bit of it.
It’s all true.
A story so strange, obscure and bizarre simply has to be true! If you were cooking up a tale about a renowned ancestor’s encounter with God – their big moment – why on earth would you come up with something so preposterous?
And, make no mistake, this is a big moment. Just as when Abraham stepped out of his tent, looked up at the stars and said under his breath, “One … God.” Or Moses looked at a bush and said, “Strange…” This is the moment when God’s chosen people receive their name, “Israel”. And it seems that Jacob had to wrestle it out of God.
So what is God up to? Well, a big event like this in the Old Testament is usually called a “Theophany”. I’m not expecting you to have heard the word, but I’m confident you can rise to the challenge of working out what it means.
Yes, you’re right; it’s like mixing the first half of “Theology” with the last half of “Epiphany”. You end up with “God-shining” and that’s pretty much it. A vision of what God is up to before it comes to completion. A trailer to the main event – which is Incarnation.
Here, beside the river Jabbok, Jacob is left alone – having sent all his family and possessions ahead of him. He’s on the way to meet his brother Esau who (whom?) he had swindled and deceived, and he’s taking a deep breath, as it were, before facing the music.
Out of nowhere comes a man who wrestles with him – maybe in sport, maybe in anger – but it seems to fit Jacob’s mood. He’s already wrestling on the inside. If he’s going to be faithful to the God who promised him as many descendants as the specks of dust, he’s got to face up to having stolen his brother’s birth right and try to square things with him. A wrestling match may have been the perfect therapy.
But God is doing more. He’s calling out from Jacob that extra grit, that strength of will that Jacob doesn’t even know he has. Remember Jesus’ words to the Canaanite woman, “It’s not right to take the children’s food…” Jesus is doing the self-same thing – calling out from the woman the precious faith and steadfastness that she needs. And here is God, taken aback by Jacob’s tenacity – as Jesus is taken back by the faith of the centurion….
This is a Theophany, a glimpse of the Incarnate Word, before the birth of Jesus. God (who refuses to be named and who appears in every way to be like a man) draws out the faith that is utterly crucial in every human being, if they are to be their true selves. Jesus (God, named) does exactly the same in every, every, every encounter. Did you think that the loaves and fishes were about full tummies?
Physically speaking, Jacob comes off relatively unscathed after a night of wrestling. He might consider a dodgy hip in the days before titanium replacements to be a bit of a bother, but the transformation on the inside more than compensates for his disability.
Jacob and the Jabbok are left behind. “Israel” is his new name. With a meaning somewhere in the region of “The Face of God”, but not really meaning that. Meaning instead, “Encounter with God”, or better still, “The stumbling and hesitant beginnings of a people who journey into a deeper and deeper encounter with God, mostly falling flat on their face, but occasionally shining out with the message of what is to come.”
“Israel” is shorter – and the message of what is to come? “God with us”.