Wrestling with God

jacob-wrestling-the-angel-of-godOne of the most interesting stories in the Old Testament is found in Genesis 32. There we hear the story of Jacob wrestling with God. Or is it the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel? Jacob had to face his brother Esau the next day. His anxiety comes through even in that ancient account. The text says that Jacob wrestled “with a Man.” But this is not the end of the matter. They wrestle throughout the night. Jacob has a grip on the Man and refuses to release him.

“I will not let you go until you bless me!” he says.

The Man injures Jacob, “knocking his hip out of joint” (possibly withering it). But Jacob does not release him. The Man asks, “What is your name?” Jacob answers. And then he is told, “Your name will be ‘Israel,’ for you have wrestled with God and with man and prevailed.”

Jacob asks for the Man’s name. “Why do you ask my name?” comes the reply.

And the story concludes by telling us that Jacob named the place, “Peniel,” (“Face of God”), “because,” he said, “I have seen God face-to-face and my life is preserved.”

It is an amazing story. It is not the first time in Genesis that a story shifts between the identity of a man (or angel) and God himself. The same dynamic occurs in Genesis 18 (the hospitality of Abraham). The story, as told, allows for the plausible denial that Jacob wrestled with God. But Jacob himself is under no illusion. “I have seen God face-to-face,” he says and the story only makes sense if we allow that meaning.

And that brings us to the first problem: how can a man wrestle with God?How can the text suggest that Jacob sees God face-to-face, much less holds him in an unbreakable grip throughout the night? I don’t know, but it does.

And this is the striking character of the Biblical witness. What some would dismiss as primitive nonsense, the Bible presents as an unvarnished account. The God of the Christians can not only enter into a wrestling match, He can lose!

Passages such as this should not be taken as some extreme anthropomorphism. They should be taken at face value and allowed to speak the mystery with which they were written. This story was told, and no editor’s hand throughout the centuries has ever sought to fix it or make it more palatable.

Of course, the God of Jacob is also the Incarnate God/Man Jesus Christ. He is not only susceptible to wrestling, He is capable of being nailed to a Cross and suspended above the earth.

And this is so much the point. As one who has spent plenty of time in the middle of the night pondering my life, God, and everything else – I can say that those things worth considering are never just vague generalities. I have never wondered how I might love mankind, but I have agonized more than once over how I might love a single person. We never wrestle in general – real wrestling is quite personal, particular and face-to-face.

The spiritual life, rightly lived, is a constant movement towards the particular. It becomes more specific with every moment. Modern religious thought is rife with vague words. It tempts us with generalized associations and abstract loyalties. At its worst, it marries itself to utility and seeks to “do good” and “help” people – and measures its goodness and help with the yardstick of some vague and noble goal. Utility is the measuring stick of the infernal regions. The generalities of Utilitarianism breed pride. The arrogance of modern man is found in the absurdity of his broad designs: “The War on Poverty.” “Take Democracy to the World.” “Equality, Fraternity, Liberty.” But it is the intricacy and intractability of very specific human persons and their struggles that humble us.

This pattern of action is seen in God Himself. For God, not even a single sparrow falls but He knows it. The hairs of our head are numbered, and He calls us each by name. God cannot be avoided by hiding in the crowd, for He seeks us out and challenges us to wrestle. He waits for us to seize Him and hold Him and demand His blessing. He longs for us to grip Him in such a manner that He can wither a thigh and change our name.

It is specifics that leave us sleepless. Generic Christianity has very few wrestling matches beyond the demands of civility. I recall that my own struggle in becoming Orthodox was deeply driven by its specific demands. “Is this really necessary? Is it not enough to just agree with it and maybe hang a few icons?” But Church is never, properly, a vague generality, a loose associational preference. It is a terrible demand, crushing in its refusal to compromise. Our modern tendency towards generalities, including within the topic of Church, is born of a false set of practices that rob the soul of every edge and boundary. Carried far enough, even God cannot get a good grip on us. Our souls become slippery, able to slip out of every contradiction and inconvenience.

But it is the true God who lies awake at night and troubles the sleep of the anxious and sets the conscience on fire. God is ready to wrestle with us, and even delights Himself in losing.

For the LORD has chosen Jacob for Himself, Israel for His special treasure. (Ps 135:4)

25 comments:

  1. Thank you for this reflection Father. For me, this was not a vague generalization but it hit me in a way that was quite personal, particular and face-to-face.

  2. “…in my thoughts I raise myself and survey every place on earth to see how many sons of men have left their senseless wandering in sleep and met with the One Who Is, who is far distant from senseless sleep….The holy ascetics in their monastery cells and hermitage caves have risen, and have already been conversing with You for a long time. These holy monastics have risen, whose soul never lies down, but like a candle burns upright before You day and night.” St. Velimirovic
    It’s good to know that other Jacobs still wrestle with God and prevail.

  3. Wonderful insight, father. That story has always puzzled me. It is always those troublesome and seemingly contradictory things that will lead us into a rich mystery if we don’t give into the temptation to just brush them aside.

  4. Thank you for this post Father Stephen. These past months it has slowly been dawning on me, that the loss of any sense of Sin in the church is precisely because of this lack of specificity. ‘God’ and ‘neighbour’ have become so vague in our atomised, individualistic, and anaesthetised culture. We don’t speak of Sin for we have lost any sense of the concreteness of The Other, God or Brother.

  5. I like this idea of wrestling with God. I’m so submissive to Him, I’ve never thought of challenging Him. The thought of standing up to Him, hasn’t been my place. I’m one of the meek. Maybe I will include some questions when I pray He might be waiting for my soul to speak to Him.

  6. Father, your message today is like a glass of cold water to drink before I enter the wrestling match that I have been anticipating all day; it will start soon, I have been the procrastinator ! But I have had them before, and it is good for my soul, just so tiring….

  7. “I have never wondered how I might love mankind, but I have agonized more than once over how I might love a single person. We never wrestle in general – real wrestling is quite personal, particular and face-to-face.”

    I have agonized about how I can love broadly and in general … and it really ruined me! A good many things begin at home.

  8. For me this story in one in series of Biblical stories;I am reminded of the time Abraham challenged God telling Him: “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” The kingdom of God is taken by violence indeed.

  9. Fr. Stephen
    Moses also was very bold in his struggling with God asking for the people of Israel to be forgiven…if not, that his own name be blotted out of God’s book. Ex.32:32

  10. Peniel

    It is dark — and I am unknowing
    whether you be man or divine.
    My family awaits, safe, God willing,
    on the other side — aware of this
    our grappling and struggle?
    And I sense that here is my life
    and the life of all I call mine,
    but it is tiring work and no headway
    is apparent, no progress, no movement.

    There are many moments when I want to cry
    “Just wound me! End this and touch the thigh!”

    I’d rather hobble and bear in my body
    defeat and death than wrestle anymore.
    Somehow, I don’t understand, the end will be
    a blessing — but I still won’t know your name —
    Mine, through weakness, shall be revealed.

  11. I take issue with that translation of Genesis 32, 28. The Septuagint which is always referred to by the ‘Neptic Fathers’ on this most important and richly symbolical image rather says:

    “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with God, and because of this you shall also be strong amongst men”

    It shows that the internal, night-time, very “hesychastic” struggle to be blessed by God is what eventually ‘spills over’ to the external life too (and not the other way round).

  12. Wrestling with God. How that phrase reminded me of my struggles to accept that God was calling me out of the Episcopal Church. I had been a missionary for over twenty years. Whenever I returned to the states and friends filled me in on its trajectory, I replied, “I was born an Episcopalian and I will die one. I will go down with the ship.”

    God had other ideas which I fought over the course of several months, all the while still serving as a missionary. Finally one day, I sat down and wrote out 10 reasons why I couldn’t become Orthodox. I held up the paper to God and said, “See! What are you going to do about these?” In the silence that followed, I heard that still, small voice say, “I want your heart.”

    Most of the time when I tell people about my wrestling with God over this issue, they are aghast. Me, I always believed that He honored my honesty. And I relearned something I learned in missionary training. God gives on-the-job training to sustain you where He wants you.

  13. In “The Idiot”, Karina (I think that’s her name) says:

    Abstract love of humanity is nearly always love of self.

  14. Lina,

    I admire your struggle. It is good to wrestle – and it is also good to know when you’ve been bested.

  15. I had studied this passage the other day, and wanted to know more about it. I was with you to the very end in much agreement. However your last sentence threw me :
    “God is ready to wrestle with us, and even delights Himself in losing.”
    Could you explain how you substantiate
    “ God….. delights in losing”?
    This seems quite presumptive and even borders on arrogance to me.
    Where and how do you come to that conclusion?

  16. Dionysius,
    The statement is simply grounded in reality. If God, being God, did not delight in losing, then we would never “win.” Of course, “winning” is nothing other than our salvation, which might very well look like “losing” to others. The answer lies in the irony of wrestling with God in the first place.

  17. Hello,
    Thank you for your reply! Is there a way I can communicate with you privately so as not to vomit up my ideas and expose my weaknesses? I have a few questions and am going through much turmoil angst and confusion as to just where is God in all my increasing troubles. I have been Orthodox since Jan 1 2011 and it has been easily the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life. I’ve had so many increased troubles including much physical pain, 6 major surgeries, 4 hip dislocation, mitral valve replacement, prostate cancer. My wife had Breast cancer, a masectomy, Mersa, other infections, then complete reconstruction and a long recovery for about 2 years. She finally got through all that and was on the mend and then was hit by a car, after Vespers one evening, and 3 months in the hospital. The woman who hit her got off scot free and we weren’t able to recover anywhere near the financial recompense we expected. It’s very difficult and discouraging, and we ask where is God in all of this?

  18. Great reflection Father! I was actually reading this biblical passage and was trying to understand the symbolism of this profound story. What do you think is the sybmolism behind God dislocating Jacob hip? Did the Church Fathers see a special significance in dislocating the hip in particular? Scripture says that this is significant enough that the ancient Jews won’t eat the muscle of the shank in remembrance of that event.

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