But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke.
I’m tired of fighting God.
The past week was a struggle. We’ve either been without power or on island wide generators. The electrical line that powers most of North Carolina’s Outer Banks was severed in a construction accident late last week. Since that time, our islands were evacuated. Local restaurants and hotels have lost thousands of dollars. Other industries and businesses connected to the life on the islands (mechanics, grocery stores, and veterinarians) have all suffered as well. Neighbors are fighting with neighbors about who really counts as a resident. Life has been one big fight. Whether a fight for power, air conditioning, a working cell phone, a plan to compensate workers, food, ice, or countless other items; we are wrestling with reality.
Along comes Jacob. Jacob the Patriarch of Israel is making the final stages of his journey home. Our struggle has been nothing compared to Jacob’s. I feel for him. After crossing the river with his wives and servants; he is ambushed. In the text, that is how quickly this struggle begins. There is no segue, setup, or transition. This wrestling match comes out of the blue. He helps his family across. Jacob stays apart. The fight begins. There is no warning or preparation. God jumps Jacob.
Are you ready for a moment of total honest? I’m tired of fighting. I’m worn out. I certainly don’t want to fight with God. I don’t know about you but God is the last person I want to wrestle with after the week I’ve had. Why do we need to fight with God in the first place? I’m tired of fighting. Above all, I do not want to fight with the God.
We fight. We jump people in the dark. Humanity sinks to the lowest common denominator; just look at our Facebook pages. God’s supposed to bigger than our petty foibles. Surely God, in this of all weeks, you can understand our frustration and fatigue with fighting. Today’s not the day for an all night wrestling match.
As I mentioned earlier, Jacob’s in no mood to struggle. That’s why he fights back. He’s hungry, tired, and ready to get home. Jacob doesn’t have time to stop. He needs a moment (this is why he steps away, goes apart) for his own piece of mind. This anonymous wrestler invades his ability to seek a moment of isolation while still moving forward.
If anyone, be they man or God, tries to inhibit his progress; he will treat them as an obstacle. Whoever this is that’s stopping him is delaying his eventual goal: reconciling with Esau.
Jacob must have been one hell of a wrestler. To hold his own (against God) was an amazing accomplishment. Remember, Jacob didn’t know the identity of this assailant. I wonder if God was taking it easy on Jacob or was in truly no holds barred. Was God playing by some heavenly WWE rules?
It turns out God wasn’t playing by any rules. This is probably the most disturbing aspect of this story. God cheats. God can’t beat Jacob outright. So God cheats. I’ve never liked or been comfortable with this aspect of Jacob’s encounter. After the ten days I’ve had, I’m even less thrilled with the notion of God whose sense of fair play seems to be well out of bounds. I know that opens up a can of worms. Does God have to play fair, especially by our standards of fairness? But where do our ideas of fairness originate?
Traditionally, these notions of right and wrong are traced through ethics and philosophy back to theology and the Judeo-Christian tradition; that is to say, Almighty God. What happens when God violates God’s own rules of fairness?
Here’s what I mean, “When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him.” Again, the man (who was God) could not beat Jacob outright. So he cheats by tearing a muscle in Jacob’s thigh. What would we say if that happened in anyone of our middle or high school sporting events? It wouldn’t be good. At the least, the athlete would be disqualified. We’re holding high school athletes to a higher standard of sportsmanship than God. Something isn’t right here. It’s not fair. God cheats when God cannot win. God injures Jacob through his cheating. God sets out the terms of morality and alters them in such a strange and capricious manner. It seems like such a useless struggle and burden to lay on an already wounded soul.
Honestly, it’s hard to answer questions about some of these familiar Old Testament stories because there are no good answers. Sadly, the picture of God painted in Jacob’s story is a well-known image to many Christians and non-believers alike. Through our thoughtless actions, compromised theology, and aggressive evangelism techniques; the world has come to see God as a shadowy figure who ambushes, attacks, and harms people for no good reason. God is the middle school bully who takes your lunch money and demands respect. There is no love in Genesis 32:22-31. The absence of love is palpable. If God isn’t love, God isn’t God.
This is why Jacob isn’t wrestling with God. We can’t read this story literally. Despite the writer’s allusions to the attacker’s divine identity, Jacob isn’t wrestling God. Who then, was Jacob wrestling with, especially if we’re taking this parable at face value? This is a story about a man at war with his own reality. It is, in some ways, what has to happen, before we go any further. Jacob must fight himself. He is his own worst enemy.
It seems so real. This appears to be God. It is not; it the darker version of himself. The deeper truth of this scripture is about what happens when we meet the worst reflection of our own subconscious. We want this attacker to be God. Why? We need someone to blame for the death, delays, and poor decisions accumulating around us. Who better to blame than an aggressive supernatural deity who exhibits the worst aspects of our own personality? God has always made a convenient scapegoat for our own moral shortcomings. If it goes wrong, it must be God’s fault-that’s the easy excuse of the part time agnostic.
Jacob is led by God to confront the realities caused by the rupture in his family after he cheated Esau of his birthright. The deep truth of God’s involvement with Jacob (and his family) is reconciliation, renewal, and restoration. Every part of this story has moved the reader (and Jacob) in this direction. If what you’re reading isn’t part of the forward movement of those three aspects (reconciliation, renewal, and restoration) it’s not God driving the action. Reality will seem real but it’s not. We have to learn to tell the difference. When the focus of the story changes; the meaning of the story does as well. If Jacob isn’t fighting God, if he’s fighting himself; why would the writer of Genesis want to confuse us about God’s motivations when it comes to wrestling with Jacob? For that very reason: Jacob’s motivations aren’t God’s, they’re Jacob’s. Jacob doesn’t know what he’s doing. Is he after revenge, restitution, forgiveness, or is this a suicide mission? Does he believe and even hope Esau will kill him and take this lifelong burden from his soul? If that’s what he believes and there’s plenty of evidence of Jacob’s death wish; that makes him a garden variety nihilist. He believes in nothing beyond himself; certainly not his wives, family, or anything else he’s worked so hard to achieve. Jacob’s wound is self-inflicted. It’s an attempt to do what he hopes Esau will finish.
God is there, in the background, giving Jacob the space to work it out. God isn’t wrestling with Jacob. God is in the empty space, the void in between the stones. It’s in that space, an area shaped by God, where we gather this morning. We are like Jacob, working out our own lives. Esau’s various shapes, fashions, and forms are out there waiting for our arrival. Our alienated lives precede us. The Good News is this: Grace is ahead of the brokenness. God is in our story; driving it forward with reconciliation and love past what we deserve towards an embrace we can yet imagine. We wrestle. God guides. Know the difference.