September 15, 2019 — Rich Westley
Today’s reading from Genesis presents one of the most captivating and powerful images in all of Scripture: Jacob wrestling his angel, although the original text calls the angel simply ‘a man’. I have always had, and I’m thinking many of us have likewise experienced, a visceral response to hearing this passage because it expresses something that touches the spirit directly. What this is exactly has remained for me mysterious and somewhat inarticulate. I thought for years of trying to unpack the image but always left it for another time…that is, until Paula asked me to think about presenting a reflection to you–now it would be utter hubris for me to claim I could compose an actual sermon. Still, I decided that now would be a good time to challenge myself to return to Jacob mid-struggle in order to describe what might be going on in this contest. And so, let us pray that whatever stumbles I make this morning are redeemed by a genuine effort to discover for ourselves the wisdom of the Genesis author.
The wrestling is a symbol, of course, that occurs at night, the time of dreaming–you know, Jacob is often seen dreaming as his story unfolds, just as his son Joseph will do later in Genesis. And yet, as we have all experienced, dreams can be as vivid, compelling and real as any waking experience. By placing the wrestling match at night when Jacob is by himself, the Genesis author is emphasizing that it stands for more than itself–much more. We intuitively grasp this; we feel it in our spiritual gut, as it were. And I would like to offer an explanation about what lies beyond the literal meaning of this episode. Jacob, who the Genesis account makes clear is a very human person indeed, grapples with a divinely appointed opponent, perhaps even with God. Here the sacred and the secular, the sublime and the mundane, become intimate companions. Jacob and the angel exist in this unity of struggle for as long as the contest might continue. And the Genesis writer suggests that it would go on forever if the dawn had not come. The two combatants are as close to each other as any two persons can be, except perhaps for two people making love–I would offer, looking at this experience through a modern lens, that this contest seems also to be one of attraction.
Some of you know that I am the third of four brothers all born consecutively a little more than a year apart. My sisters Clare and Ruth were born 9 and 11 years after me. Now four boys will sorely try any mother and father and we boys certainly did our best to do so. One of our more profane activities was to wrestle with each other in pairs–no doubt we got the idea from the tag team wrestling matches we saw on TV featuring classic wrestlers like Dick the Bruiser, Andre the Giant and others. But we had to wait until my mother went shopping or ran errands to engage in this proscribed behavior. We would begin by taking off all the couch cushions and placing them on the living room floor to serve as mats. Then the wrestling would commence; my oldest brother John, who was husky as a bear and just about as strong, would pair up with my youngest brother Rob in order to take on my slightly older brother Tom and me. This was a pretty fair contest with the result being that John usually, but not always, defeated Tom while I creamed my brother Rob, although occasionally I would let Rob pin me so he wouldn’t lose interest. Round Two consisted of my brother John, the oldest, paired with me, Tom and Rob mustering their resources in what appeared to be a mismatch. But because John had expended so much energy trying to overcome Tom in Round One, he would sometimes falter in Round Two, thus allowing Tom, who was quite lithe and wiry, to pin him, and sometimes pretty quickly. Rob and I mostly fake wrestled during this round in order to conserve our energy for, you guessed it, Round Three. Now none of us were particularly gifted in math but we knew that four brothers could be paired up in three distinct combinations, and so we proceeded to end our wrestling match with the two older brothers taking on the two younger brothers. It was always a slaughter–even a tired John could pretty much throw me down and drop the full weight of his body on top of me. It could be difficult to breathe at those times. Rob fared no better–we younger brothers instinctively understood our role was to be sacrificed on the altar of our older brothers’ physical superiority.
In the years I’ve told this story as an adult, I am often asked why my brother Rob and I agreed to such an arrangement. Sometimes I shrug; other times I say, “O, we had no choice” or “Gee, I really don’t know.” But I actually knew the reason even then and I’m sure you can grasp it too: Rob and I wanted to be close to our older brothers, as close as we could get. On bikes, Tom and John easily pedaled beyond Rob’s and my smaller wheels and shorter legs, leaving us far behind. And in the foot race that ensued every time “Boys, dinner!” was called out to us, Tom inevitably came in first, John second with Rob and me lagging behind them. We younger brothers were constantly being left behind or left out altogether as John and Tom pursued whiffle ball or tag with other kids in our neighborhood. But when we wrestled, Rob and I were included; I mean, Man, we were there. We belonged. We actually got to touch and feel directly our older brothers’ superior size and strength. We got to admire it, emulate it and try to make it our own. And come to think of it, they got to know Rob’s and my vulnerability and weakness, but also our unrelenting effort and need to be recognized, to be with them. We may have been slaughtered in Round Three, but we were graciously slaughtered and gratefully slaughtered. I see that clearly now.
Applying this story to Jacob, I would note his deep need to grapple with his own spiritual nature, his faith, but also his need to be close to God–this is one meaning of the angel-man present in his nighttime contest. The angel and its sacred realm are superior to Jacob, who represents what Mircea Eliade called the ‘profane’ plane of human experience, where Jacob’s pride and vanity are on full display in Genesis. Remember too this contest takes place the night before Jacob will meet his brother Esau for the first time in many years–for the first time since Jacob got Esau to exchange his birthright for stew, for the first time after Jacob stole his brother’s blessing from their father Isaac through deceit. These suspect and sinful actions gave Jacob preference over Esau in terms of their social standing and inheritance–and even over whom God favors more. Jacob feels guilt over what he has done–but he also knows his older brother is now more powerful than he is (Remember John and Tom?). Esau has, it seems, many more sheep, goats than his brother. He controls a great deal of land in Canaan for grazing his flocks whereas Jacob has left behind any chance to receive land in Haran from his uncle Laban. More ominous, however, is the fact that Esau has four hundred men with him willing to carry out whatever he commands.
So another way to understand Jacob’s wrestling is to view it as his attempt to obtain forgiveness from God for his previously sinful actions, even before he receives it from his brother. In this sense, Jacob seeks to prove himself spiritually worthy. He struggles mightily because he does not want the divine nature of the angel to overwhelm him. Likewise the angel cannot allow its divine origin, its sacred reality, to be bested by a human being, a profane creature. According to the Genesis account, the angel touches Jacob’s hip, dislocating it. But Jacob , like my brother Rob and I, doggedly continues to hold on and wrestles as strongly as before. The angel senses he has gotten more than he bargained for and at dawn asks Jacob to release him, prompting Jacob to give what I believe is a truly exalted reply, a response that demonstrates Jacob’s awareness about who he is really grappling with and why: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Thus, Jacob’s encounter with the angel results in his receiving a new identity and a new name, ‘Israel’, which actually means ‘God contends’.
This time Jacob receives the angel’s blessing, not Isaac’s, and this time he has obtained it authentically, through his own spiritual striving, not through any stratagem or deceit. The result, as the Genesis author shows us, is that Jacob now acts again as the chastened and humbled younger brother. When he first sees Esau in the distance, Jacob bows seven times to him; he calls Esau ‘my lord’ and gifts with him with flocks of goats and sheep. For his part, Esau immediately hugs his brother, a loving embrace with no contending in it. Esau weeps with joy to be reunited with Jacob and fully reconciles with him–perhaps Esau has wrestled an angel of his own? In this manner the sacred enters the profane plane of humanity, through love divinely ordained at its source. Occasionally this source will be a wrestling match with the divine itself, with God.
I’d offer one more thought here. As Christians we often wrestle with the paradox of Jesus being both divine and a human person. It seems to me that Jacob’s encounter with the angel is a helpful way to apprehend the meaning of the divine-human paradox. In the case of Jesus, however, the divine and human do not contend with each other–and the unity of the sacred and secular spheres of life are completely joined and they are forever joined. The Jacob story offers us that ideal too.
The point of any Scripture narrative is to see ourselves in it, to inhabit the persons and place of the biblical account we are considering. Surely we all can think of a time in our own lives when we wrestled an angel, contended with God, consciously striving to reach the higher purpose and plane of the sacred realm, where our troubles, our faults, our misdeeds from the past are left behind in an outworn self that was perhaps selfish or envious or angry or controlling, maybe even all of these. It doesn’t matter. Contending with God transforms us into more humble and loving persons. When we wrestle with the divine, we directly touch and connect with that sacred place of being in us all. So let me just say, thanks be to Jacob; thanks be to the Genesis writer; thanks be to John and Tom and Rob; and thanks be to God.