Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 3, 2014

2014.08.03 “Stories from the Family of Faith: Jacob Wrestles with God” – Genesis 32: 22 – 31

Central United Methodist Church

Stories from the Family of Faith:

Jacob Wrestles with God

Pastor David L. Haley

Genesis 32: 22 – 31

August 3rd, 2014


But during the night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He got them safely across the brook along with all his possessions.

But Jacob stayed behind by himself, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he couldn’t get the best of Jacob as they wrestled, he deliberately threw Jacob’s hip out of joint.

The man said, “Let me go; it’s daybreak.”

Jacob said, “I’m not letting you go ’til you bless me.”

The man said, “What’s your name?”

 He answered, “Jacob.”

The man said, “But no longer. Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it’s Israel (God-Wrestler); you’ve wrestled with God and you’ve come through.”

Jacob asked, “And what’s your name?”

The man said, “Why do you want to know my name?” And then, right then and there, he blessed him.

Jacob named the place Peniel (God’s Face) because, he said, “I saw God face-to-face and lived to tell the story!”

The sun came up as he left Peniel, limping because of his hip.” – Genesis 32: 22 – 31, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson


The “fight-or-flight” response, it’s called. At some time or another, we all experience it. Perhaps we were startled by a stranger, or in a car accident, or called to defend ourselves. or our family. A few years ago, we rented an apartment in Stockholm that had a life size mannequin just inside the door.  For the first few days, ever time we opened the door and saw that mannequin, I experienced that “fight-or-flight” response.

The fight-or-flight response is an involuntary physiological reaction triggered in your body in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to your survival. In an almost instantaneous response to the threat, your adrenal glands release a hormonal cascade of catecholamines, specifically epinephrine and norephinephrine. Your heart and respiration accelerate, making it feel like your heart is beating in your throat. Peripheral circulation is diverted, shunting blood to vital organs, making your hands cold and clammy. Your hands and your body may shake, in response to the dumping of epinephrine. The pupils of your eyes dilate, to facilitate maximum vision. Without conscious effort, your body is prepared to do battle, or take flight, which is why it’s called fight-or-flight.

I know you’ve experienced it, I just hope it was not in a real situation like an assault or accident or combat, where you actually had to use it. When I worked as a firefighter /paramedic, I used to get it often, especially when we would get those calls of a fire or crash with people trapped, or possible fatalities. The five-minute response time to get to the scene could feel like an eternity.

Whoever we are, it is still there, inside our body, for the time when we might need it.  The force of it can be surprising; it’s what leads to stories of mothers lifting cars off small children.  Evolutionary biologists would say that it is a physiological response from earlier in the history of our species, when we were less protected, and threats were more prevalent, necessitating real “fight-or-flight” situations. Think “Naked and Afraid.”

Nowadays, for most of us, the closest we come to such “fight-or-flight” situations is in our dreams. In our dreams, our fear and response are equally real, but mercifully, the connection between minds and bodies is for the most part, disconnected. Otherwise our spouse would have a most unrestful night, with bruises to show for it in the morning.

If we have experienced how intense the “fight-or-flight” response feels, we are more able to experience today’s text, at the center of which is Jacob’s wrestling all night in the dark with a unknown assailant. What happened that night to Jacob at the River Jabbok is one of the most mysterious and most intriguing stories in the Bible. Let’s explore further what may have happened, and its meaning for us today.

Previously, here’s what has happened.  Jacob has been a trickster since his birth (Genesis 25), which is what his name means, “Grabber.”  Because he cheated his older brother Esau out of his birthright and father’s blessing, he had to flee for his life, from his own brother.

Last week, we saw how when Jacob finally met his Uncle Laban, the tables were turned and Jacob the schemer got scammed. He wound up in the tent with the wrong woman, Leah not Rachel whom he loved, and would spend 14 years of his life working off his debt for his two wives, Rachel and Leah. Then, in a final last act, he would cheat Uncle Laban, taking his two wives, his two maids, and his 13 children and running for it.

Except, on the way, he receives troubling news.  With Laban behind him, ahead of him is his brother Esau, with 400 warriors. As Eugene Peterson puts it, “Jacob was scared. Very scared.”

What to do? Always able to scheme his way out of everything so far, he divides his caravan, thinking if he loses one half, at least he’s got the other.  He prays, like we pray, when we are between a rock and a hard place: “O God, deliver me please, from the hand of my brother.” In case that doesn’t work, he sends ahead to his brother a gift of livestock: “For he thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterwards I shall see his face; perhaps he will accept me.”

Finally, he even sends on ahead his family: his wives, his maids, and children. (After you, my dear!) What kind of man would do this?

Having sent everyone on ahead, now alone, he hopes for a good night’s sleep, because, whatever happens, he has a big day ahead.  But that was not to be, as often the case when we have a big day ahead. Did you know that the night before Charles Lindbergh flew non-stop across the Atlantic, when he needed sleep the most, he couldn’t sleep a wink? So it was to be with Jacob.

Because, suddenly, out of the dark, it happened: Jacob was attacked by unknown assailant, with he would wrestle until the sun came up. Remember that fight or flight response? That’s what Jacob experienced.  Suddenly, for all his scheming, his life is reduced to a physical struggle in the darkness, where Jacob translates his spiritual and emotional struggle into visceral strength, straining and groaning for his life.

Finally, when his assailant determines that he cannot get the best of Jacob, he dislocates Jacob’s hip, a painful and debilitating injury.  “Let me go; says the man, “It’s daybreak.” Even then, says Jacob, “I will not let you go until you bless me.”

The man said, “What’s your name?” He answered, “Jacob.” The man says, “No longer. Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it’s Israel (God-Wrestler); you’ve wrestled with God and prevailed.”

Whoever it was, when it was over, even Jacob knew that somehow, he had wrestled with God. And so he named the place Peniel (God’s Face) because, he said, “I saw God face-to-face and lived to tell the story!” As the sun comes up, Jacob limps away to meet his brother.  Is his new name, indicative of a new man?

It should be noted that when Jacob finally does meet his brother, Esau, it goes better than he anticipated.  Because as it turns out, if Jacob is no longer exactly the same, neither is his brother, who is now more kindly disposed. Jacob, marked by the night, exclaims: “For truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God-since you have received me with such favor” (33:10).

Because of the scarcity of details, the story raises more questions than it answers, and allows considerable latitude in interpretation. With whom was Jacob wrestling? Himself? Esau? An angel? God? All the above? Was the one with whom he was wrestling, adversary or advocate, or both? Don’t you find it interesting that it happened the night before he was to meet his brother Esau, who he hadn’t seen in fourteen years, and he had last seen him, Esau had threatened to kill him? Is it true, as Jesus said, that our relationship with God is inextricably linked to our relationship with our brothers and sisters, and vice versa. Is it possible that Jacob could not go home again, until this was resolved.

And isn’t it interesting that it happened at night?  Isn’t this the same thing that still happens to us, still, at night? People have always dreamed, but it wasn’t until Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1899, that we began to understand what’s going on.  Freud’s theory, put simply, was, in the day our preconscious prevents our unconscious from spilling into our lives.  But at fight, when we’re asleep, our preconscious relaxes, allowing our unconscious – the things that trouble us – to spill over into our dreams. Carl Jung went it further and said it is not just our unconscious, but the collective unconscious of the whole human race.

So it is that if not in the day, it is at night that we wrestle with that which we fear.  And – as with Jacob – in our dreams it is never exactly clear with whom we wrestle:  ourselves, our fears, other people, even God.  In the same way that all of those things together trouble us, it may also be true that we are not able to return to whatever home it is that we seek – any measure of peace and serenity – until some of these deep underlying issues are resolved. And even then – like Jacob – the process of resolution – whether mental, emotional, or spiritual – is almost certain to leave us both scarred and blessed.

What and whom do we wrestle with? What is it that needs to be resolved, with whom do we need to be reconciled, that will allow us to return to whatever home it is that we seek?  Do we, in our life so far, feel both scarred and blessed?  Or just scarred?

What does all this mean? It is not only a story in which Jacob wrestles, but one with which we wrestle.  I have wrestled with it all week.  After I got home from the wedding reception last night, I worked on it more, then went to bed early.  As you might expect, I didn’t sleep well, and continuing to wrestle with it in my dreams.  I had this dream – as I often do – about a fire truck, specifically a ladder truck, and power lines – and getting yelled at.  I was glad to wake up.  Because maybe it wasn’t about a fire truck at all, and who really was yelling at me?

Nathan Aaseng is the Pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Eau Claire, WI.  In 2007, he struggled with this text, and wrote:

“I had seen many creative efforts to explain what could possibly be meant by a story in which a human fights with and prevails against God. I had tried several, myself.

It is such a ridiculous premise that even the best efforts fell short of providing me with a satisfactory explanation.

On the day that I was struggling with this text, I received a free copy of the premiere issue of a magazine called Our Iowa.

Inside was a story about a high school wrestling match between Ogden and Humboldt. Humboldt had a senior on their team with Down syndrome. He was not capable of wrestling at a competitive level and posed no challenge at all to any wrestler. But the coaches asked if anyone on the Ogden team would at least give the boy a chance to get out on the mat.

An Ogden wrestler offered to take him on. He not only wrestled him for the entire six minutes, but allowed his opponent to beat him on points. He gave the Humboldt kid the thrill of not only competing, but of raising his arms in victory. Both wrestlers got a standing ovation, and there was hardly a dry eye in the gymnasium.

And for the first time, I understood what that Genesis story of a man wrestling with and prevailing against God was about.

The unique message of Christianity is that God is not an impersonal force, or a terrifying presence to whom we cannot relate in any meaningful way. God is not a person who expects only praise and sacrifices and groveling from us and has no further use for us. God is ready and willing and eager to get down and dirty with us.

We are the spiritual descendants of Jacob. We are the people who wrestle with God. It is not presumptuous of us to make this claim. God was the one who gave that name to God’s people. That’s who God wants us to be.

Of course God could squish us like a bug in a nanosecond. But for our benefit, God is always available to wrestle with us, at whatever level we are capable of wrestling.

God sent Jesus into the world to wrestle with us, and Jesus allowed himself to get pinned to a cross. That’s what it took for us to experience the love that flows from God . . . .

If the story is told right, there should not be a dry eye in the house. Not because of how I tell the story, but simply because of what God has done.” (Nathan Aaseng, “Wrestling with God,” Working Preacher, December 18, 2007)

Thus ends the lesson of Jacob, and what happened at the River Jabbok.  In our wrestling with God, may we – like Jacob – be both wounded and blessed.  Amen.



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