Jacob has heard that his brother Esau is on the way to meet him with 400 men. Considering how Jacob and Esau last parted ways, with Esau planning on killing Jacob because of his deception, this is not good news. Jacob, as always, seeks to gain an advantage in this situation. For one, he begins to pray. But this is no pious prayer that God's will be done. This is an urgent pleading that God will remember his promises to Jacob. Jacob knows he is in trouble and he hopes that God will help him in a situation that he is not sure he can manage on his own. Jacob hedges his bets though in case God doesn't come through for him. He divides all that he has into multiple gifts for his brother while Jacob himself stays behind hoping to ameliorate Esau's anger before they meet face to face.
However, Jacob will have to meet a much more serious opponent face to face before he meets Esau. Not unlike the story of Jacob's ladder in Genesis 28, God again shows up in Jacob's life during the dark of night. We hear that they wrestle each other all night and that this God in human form must throw Jacob's hip out of socket in order to win the fight. Even then Jacob will not let his opponent go. He demands a blessing from his opponent before he will let him leave. As always, Jacob is seeking gain for himself. In fact, he even asks his opponent his name, yet another attempt to grasp control since knowing one's name was thought to be a form of power in the ancient world. God refuses to give his name but does give Jacob the blessing he seeks.
This story in Genesis 32:22-32 has to be one of the most intriguing stories in scripture. It raises all kinds of questions that our often simplistic, stale, black-and-white, easy answer approach to scripture can not answer. The most obvious question this text raises is how it is that Jacob, a mere man, is able to wrestle with God at all, much less all night and apparently wrestle God to at least a draw if not an outright victory for Jacob? Who is this Jacob who can pull off such a feat?
But I wonder if the most significant statement in this story is not one about Jacob but one about God; not that Jacob is able to wrestle with God but that God would wrestle with Jacob. This is a man who has shown no interest in God until confronted with the fear of seeing his brother Esau again. In spite of that, God keeps trying to get into his life. God blesses Jacob. He appears to him in a dream and binds himself to him with the same promises he made to his father and grandfather. But still Jacob is content to be blessed by God rather than really know God. But now, God wants to get into Jacob's life so badly that he shows up in human form and physically wrestles with him. Here is a God so desperate to get into Jacob's life that he is willing to take on human flesh and even be defeated in that flesh in order to be present in Jacob's life. Who is this God who would pull of such a feat?
Here we are, a people who are often less than righteous, less than completely honest, a people often seeking our own gain, going about our daily business, just trying to survive, seldom turning to God except in times of fear and desperate need. Into the darkness of our world steps a man whose identity we question only because we lack the light to see him for who he is; a man from whom we demand blessing, signs, and miracles only to have him remind us that it is we who need a new name and the transformation that comes with it. It is only after he wrestles with us, in our flesh and all its brokenness and weakness, even being willing to be defeated by us on a cross, that we come to realize that it is God himself with whom we have been striving and supposedly prevailed.
The God who wrestled with Jacob, who is Jesus Christ, is the God who continues to strive with us even now. Even as we are blessed by him, we often ignore him. Even as we ignore him, he still wants to get into our lives. So he waits for the quiet and still, maybe even those dark and fearful moments of our lives, and in the inky blackness the Spirit of God strives with our Spirit. Even as he grips our soul and we grasp blindly at him seeking blessing for ourselves, he remains hidden and unrecognizable, unable to be boxed in by our propensity to name and label and thereby limit, define, and control. Even as we seek to subdue this mysterious stranger who dares to insert himself into our life in this way, he reminds us that it is not more blessing but a new name, a new existence, a new birth that we really need. Like any birth, this one involves pain and even some scarring. Such an encounter with the living God will surely not leave our walk unchanged. It may even cause us to limp. But we will come away knowing the God who strives.