I love the vividness of this story, but most importantly for the wonderful metaphors it offers us about life with God. How many of us have spent nights wrestling with questions of the future, of purpose, of self-worth, of hope? How many of us have avoided these wrestling matches, afraid of confronting God or other wild, untamed truths? How many of us have avoided wrestling matches thinking we must simply submit? Genesis 32 suggests that such wrestling matches can actually be faithful, holy activities.
Several months ago, I wrote a blog post about how troubling I find the account of Isaac's near sacrifice in Genesis 22. With Jacob's account in Genesis 32 as a lens, then perhaps that struggle with the very text of the Bible is another example of wrestling with God and can be seen as a holy activity. In preaching, in Bible study, and in conversation with other Christians, I think our grappling with the Bible is an important and faithful thing to do.
One of the defining characteristics of wrestling that makes this episode so vivid to me is that wrestling is a full body exercise. Unlike Abraham, Moses, or Job, Jacob doesn't debate God; he throws his whole body at God. Wrestling is an act of desperation, of using all you are. In that way, this can be a great metaphor for following God, too. After all, if God asks us to love with "all your heart and soul and strength" (Deut. 6:5), doesn't it stand to reason that we will at times resist with all that we are?
Tim McGraw once sang "I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying." I see echoes of that song in this passage. Instead of a blissful, peaceful stroll beside still waters, living with God is also an act of desperation and urgency. And maybe that's good news, because my life rarely feels totally peaceful or simple, so if that were the mark of perfect faith, I'm failing. But if God is present in my struggles, then maybe I'm not as off track as I might think.
In fact, one of the fascinating details of this account is the new name that Jacob is given in verse 28. God renames him "Israel," which means "struggles with God." Not only does Jacob wear this name as a badge of honor, but the Jewish people eventually use the word to name their nation. In contrast, the term "Islam" means "surrender" (as in, surrendering to God's will) and Christian means "little Christ" and we who are Christians often define ourselves as "disciples" (literally: "students") or "followers" of Jesus the Christ. But imagine daily saying, "I'm one that wrestles with God." How might that shape our faith and understanding of God?
Of course, one of the key details of Jacob's wrestling match is that he doesn't win (and his hip is knocked out of joint -- oooouuuuch!) because, hey, it is GOD that he's wrestling. But in the morning, his adversary blesses him as Jacob asks. Likewise, wrestling with God may leave us wounded and almost certainly leave us defeated, but it will also leave us blessed.
“I get up from the canvas swinging like I think I might just win.” -Jars of Clay, “After the Fight”