Read the text here: Genesis 32:3-31
Who Are You?
When we left off the story last week, Jacob had finally been able to marry Rachel after working for his Uncle Laban for 14 years. He now has two wives – the sisters Leah and Rachel who have born him 7 sons and a daughter; and 2 female slaves who have born him 4 sons – that is 11 sons and a daughter (a 12th son, Benjamin, is still to be born). But after all of this time Jacob is getting tired of working for his manipulative and exploitative uncle and decides it is time to return to his own home. There is some further trickery, and angry confrontation with Uncle Laban and a final reconciliation with him. But he no sooner bids Laban farewell then he receives truly terrifying news: Esau is on the march north to meet him, and he is bringing 400 (armed?) men.
When we last saw Esau it was right after his twin brother and mother had conspired to successfully deceive and betray their father Isaac, steal the blessing and heritage that was rightfully Esau’s. It is a passionate and painful story (Genesis 27). At its conclusion a hurt and angry Esau swears to exact revenge and to kill Jacob. And now – 20 years or so later – Esau is on the march to finally have this confrontation. And Jacob is terrified. He has not had any communication with his brother and as far as he knows Esau is still angry and still looking for revenge. Jacob then goes to great lengths to prepare for this meeting: he divides his property (which is quite extensive) into two separate camps in hopes that at least one will survive (note – everything in this story is in twos – 2 brothers, 2 sisters, 2 slaves, 2 groups of sheep and the struggles occur when a division is not possible – such as Isaac’s blessing which cannot be halved!); he sends his family across the river, he sends a series of extensive and expensive gifts ahead of him to Esau, but receives back no word from Esau, only confirmation that he is on the march.
So the stage is set, he will meet up with his wronged brother in the morning. There is no way to avoid this. And so, alone and afraid he camps for the night, but he does not sleep. Instead he wrestles all night with an unknown “man” whom he does not or cannot recognize. Jacob is not defeated, but neither does he win this wrestling match either. As dawn begins to break the match is a draw. “Let me go,” cries the assailant. “First, you must bless me!” Responds Jacob. This cycle has centered on the issue of blessing, and the receiving of blessings. But for Jacob a blessing is something to be taken by force or trickery or deception; for Jacob blessings are rare and are to be pursued. He tries to force a blessing in this situation, perhaps as a way of hoping that this will help him in his confrontation with his brother Esau. But the assailant counters with the central question of the story – Who are you? What is your name?
This is a good question and one that has come up before – kneeling before Isaac he is asked by his old father, “Who are you my son?” The response is a lie – “I am Esau, your firstborn.” But now he answers truthfully, “I am Jacob.” The name Jacob means “heel or one who struggles” indeed – Jacob means “the one who wrestles.” And certainly Jacob’s life has been one of constant wrestling for domination – with Esau, with Laban and now with the unknown assailant. “No longer will you be called Jacob, you shall be called Israel.” And the name Israel means: “God contends or God struggles.” And this new name constitutes the blessing Jacob receives, an insight into God, and into God’s own struggles.
God struggles! That is an interesting image for us isn’t it? We don’t often think of God struggling or God grieving or God experiencing loss. But yet, reading through Genesis to this point we get to see and to know a God who is constantly struggling to establish and maintain a relationship with the creation God has made and the humans to whom God has given the gift of creation. And God is rejected and thwarted all along the way. But God stays involved. God does not abandon the struggle in disgust but continues to look for new and unique ways of accomplishing this goal. And this culminates in Jesus, God incarnate – who is rejected and crucified but who is also raised to new life! God’s struggles are the abundant blessing with is freely and generously bestowed on Jacob and on Jacob’s heirs – which include us!
“And who are you?” Asks Jacob. Good question, and a question that is left unanswered. We are left to wonder along with Jacob who this mysterious assailant is. It is not an angel or one of God’s messengers, this is certain. Despite the popularity of artists depicting Jacob wrestling with an angel there is absolutely nothing in the text to suggest that the assailant is an angel or messenger (transplanted from the 1st dream – Genesis 28). So then who is it? There are all kinds of suggestions in the history of interpretation of this text. Some have suggested it is the spirit of Esau and the wrestling match is an anticipation of the coming morning confrontation. Some have suggested that Jacob is wrestling with himself since his entire life has been a life of wrestling and struggling and contending. And Jacob himself seems to believe that the assailant is none other than God – Yahweh. Maybe the assailant is all three. Note that when asked his name the assailant refuses to give it. God-Yahweh will finally reveal the holy name to Moses on Mount Sinai during the story of the burning bush (Exodus 3). But despite the refusal to give a name remember God-Yahweh has appeared to Abraham and to Jacob himself during the ladder dream.
Perhaps the most significant piece of evidence regarding the identity of the assailant is the fact that after wrestling the night away the match is nevertheless a draw. Neither Jacob nor the assailant is victorious. In fact, Jacob is injured. Jacob has always managed to some extent to be victorious, but the victories have often been hollow. Jacob is victorious over Esau in stealing their father’s blessing, but it has resulted in Jacob’s exile and the enmity of his brother – so it is a hollow victory. But if the assailant is God-Yahweh, then how is it that a human is able to emerge from this match undefeated? But remember, this is what God does. God sets aside God’s power and enters into human life and into the creation. God is born in Bethlehem as a weak and powerless infant. This infant grows into adulthood where he contends with the powers of the world and looses. Jesus is pinned to a cross and crucified for us. Yes ultimately God wins a decisive victory in the resurrection, but only after loosing, being pinned to the cross. And only after calling on those who would follow to also set aside power and take on weakness for the sake of the world - loving God and loving our neighbor – as God through Christ loves us!
God is struggling to continue to shower blessings upon the creation and we are called to wrestle as well; to struggle in this world for the sake of God’s love and grace and for the sake of our brothers and sisters. We are however not called to win, but simply to enter into the struggle knowing that like Jacob we may be injured but also out of the struggle we are blessed beyond words. In fact the struggle itself is part of the blessing!
Jacob awakes and limps now toward the final confrontation. He will meet up with his wronged brother Esau…