Monday, December 21, 2009

Wrestling with God and Man: Part 5- Wrestles with God

Genesis 32:24-30 (NIV)
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, because you have struggled with God and with men 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."

[Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, By Gustave Doré, 1855]

Jacob felt that he could not live a truly blessed life until he faced his brother once again. Throughout his life Jacob wrestled with the deceptive part of his personality, yet that did not stop him, and his wife when they cleverly swindled more wealth and blessings from Laban before departing. I found it interesting to note that in verse 3 of chapter 31 the Lord said to Jacob "Return to the land of your forefathers and to your birthplace, and I will be with you." Was God not with him during his stay at Laban's? In the following verses Jacob stated that God had been with him and was protecting him from Laban's mistreatment. Yet I believe there is something deeper meant by this verse than just a restatement of God's promise (how many times does God have to repeat himself before we get the message?). I believe the verse sums up the yearnings, hopes, and fears of Jacob returning home to his family. God is found in the love of a restored family, reconciliation, and forgiveness. God will be with us when we humbly approach those who've we hurt with our words and actions. Whether God literally spoke to Jacob or not is no importance, Jacob knew deep down that he would receive true inner blessing by returning home to face those he wounded.

As he nears home, Jacob is approached once again by the Divine (Genesis 32:2): angels, as Rashi comments, who are to escort him home. Jacob sent the angels ahead of him with a message to Esau, and they returned with news that Esau was marching at the head of 400 men. I enjoyed Karen Armstrong's summary of Jacob's response.

Then he took refuge with his God. No longer confident of his own cleverness and subtlety, he felt unworthy, too small for the divine blessing which had enabled him to return to Canaan a rich man. Yet he realized that he must go forward to confront the past; he had to come to terms with the complexities of his youth in a way that his father, Isaac, for example, had never done. Jacob was the first of the patriarchs to make a return journey. Henceforth the whole notion of return would become an important symbol of integration and reconciliation in the faith of Israel. It was no longer sufficient to "get up and go". The patriarchs had to learn that no one could move forward creatively into the future without having made peace with the past. (In the Begining: A New Interpretation of Genesis. Jacob Agonistes.)

His prayers before and after his journey are a window into the struggle and growth Jacob had endured. On his way to Laban's, immediately after his encounter with the Divine at Bethel, Jacob cut a deal with God: if God would watch over him, Jacob would accept him as his God only after his safe return home. Now after years of service and running from his past Jacob offered a prayer of humility when all hope seemed lost.

10 I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. 11Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children.(Genesis 32:10-11)

An interesting Jewish interpretation I've come across states that Jacob wrestled with Esau's guardian angel, Samael, that night instead of God himself as has been interpreted by Christians. Jacob would then be both facing Esau on the spiritual and physical battlefields. An even more interesting interpretation states that Jacob was literally alone (32:24) and therefore wrestled with himself. Jacob had to conquer the Esau within before he could face his brother. The story of Jacob is an inner spiritual journey to discovery of the Self and reconciliation with his past life, and at the end of his journey he found God waiting to bless, forgive, and comfort him. However one may interpret the text, the heart of the tale is in the transformation of a man from a supplanter/deceiver to one who wrestled with both the physical and spiritual realms. Jacob could have easily lost to both the angelic being and Esau and his men, yet Jacob was given a new identity because he struggled. He was granted a new life (Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel...) to start over, another chance to undo the damage that had been done. Another chance for forgiveness and love.

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