The sun is just starting to come up over the hills in the distance, and he can see the figure of the angel walking away into the mist of the early morning dew. Lying battered and bloody, Jacob lays beside the river, exhausted. He’s wrestled an angel of God all night, and survived, but what’s the cost? What does it mean for his future? How did he get here?
To understand the story of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, we must look at Jacob’s story before.
We know that while they were still in the womb, that Jacob and his brother, Esau, struggled against each other, causing unpleasantness for their mother Rebekah (Gen. 25:22) to the point that she prayed to God and asked, “Why would God make this so hard for me?” And God’s response is that the younger would be stronger than his brother, and the elder would serve the younger.
We know that in the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, something must’ve happened to upset the apple cart, the natural order of how birthright and favor look: why else would a second son be the one included? [Abraham was his father's first son; Isaac was Abraham's first... legitimate... son.] Apparently, God knew from before they were born– working against the natural order, the expectations of what was valuable, both in what God would choose and in knowing it in advance!
We know that Jacob was… a mama’s boy. While Esau was out doing the necessary things that a tribe needed, hunting, fishing, gathering, etc., Jacob stayed at home where he gained his mother’s favor. Now, we’ll get to real favoritism next week with Joseph, but note this: Isaac picks Esau and Rebekah chooses Jacob as her favorite– this is bound to cause problems, is it not?
So we arrive at our first crucial point for Jacob and Esau, when they’re teenagers. We know that Esau came in hunting, that he has the animals he’s killed but that they’re not ready to eat (Gen. 25:27-34). In a flash, he trades over a bowl of Jacob’s bean soup for his birthright, for whatever it would be that Esau would receive from Isaac as the firstborn. Esau wants the immediate, what feels good, the payoff– Jacob is already looking at the big picture.
Fastforward to Isaac’s old age, when Isaac calls Esau in, tells him to prepare a well-hunted meal, and that he will give him his blessing (Gen. 27:1-29). A blessing to Isaac’s family that was part-will and testament, part-prophetic. To them, the words of Isaac would be more than well-wishing or a toast at a banquet; these were the words that the people of Isaac’s family would believe were life-giving, determining the success of his children.
But Rebekah, remember, she who chooses Jacob first, whether it’s because of the time she has spent with him or because of the word she received from God or both- she interferes and steers Jacob into a plot that involves disguises and deceit. Jacob steals his brother’s birthright, deceives his father, and moves from deal broker/swindler into liar/cheat territory. Sure, it’s a slippery slope, but it’s one that Jacob slides down pushed by his own mother! Norman Bates he’s not, but this is the same type of critical family dysfunction that’s been going on since Adam blamed Eve and Cain killed Abel over some butter beans.
Of course, the fall out is almost immediate. Jacob is blessed; Esau gets the scraps. Rebekah has won; Isaac is dying anyway. But Jacob must run because Esau promises to kill him once they are done mourning his father. Again, Rebekah intervenes, sending Jacob away to her brother’s home “until Esau’s anger cools and he forgets what you have done to him” (Gen 27:41-45). Seriously? Not only does Rebekah naively (?) think that this will somehow be swept under the carpet but she practices that wonderful super power of manipulators everywhere: she pretends like she isn’t the one to cause all of this!
Off goes Jacob to ‘visit’ with his uncle. He heads back toward where Abraham would’ve come from, back where everyone from Abraham’s family stayed except for Abraham and Sarah who had been called out by God. It says that he arrived at a holy place and lay down to sleep, resting his head on a stone (Gen. 28:10-18). It’s the dream of the stairway to heaven made so famous by Led Zeppelin (I joke, I joke). But too often, I’ve skipped to the dream or vision and missed the setting.
Jacob puts his head on a stone. It doesn’t even say that he takes a stone as a pillow. Either way, it can’t have been comfortable- and it certainly wasn’t the kind of trip that you could find on Travelocity. No, it seems that Jacob was sent away in such haste that he didn’t pack, that he didn’t have the normal tent and bedroll that his people would’ve taken to travel, and when he arrives at this holy place, he collapses against the altar there.
The journey has been exhausting, the euphoria of the blessing has worn off. Jacob is alone, frightened, probably ashamed, and frankly, wondering why a game of dress up has ended with his running from the scene of the crime. And yet, while he sleeps, God speaks.
The LORD of Abraham and Isaac speaks and says, “I will give to you and your descendants this land on which you are lying. They will be as numerous as the specks of dust on the earth. They will extend their territory in all directions, and through you and your descendants I will bless ALL nations” (emphasis mine).
This isn’t too tricky, right? Other than skipping the firstborn, God is saying the same thing he told Abraham.
But the LORD continues, “Remember, I will be with you and protect you wherever you go, and i will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done everything I promised you” (Gen. 28:15).
Now, that’s terrifying to Jacob. Not that he’d have a vision. Not that the LORD would speak. But that the LORD would speak here when he and his people believed that so much of what they knew about the gods of their day was locational. And the LORD shows up … here. Wherever here is. After all that Jacob has done. Like the LORD was really with him.
So, when Jacob wakes up, he makes a vow: “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.”
Still, the deal broker, isn’t he? Still working the system to wind up in his favor. He makes his obedience and his worship conditional, like so many of us do, ‘if God, you will do this, then I will do that.’ He’s still trying to give a dollar and get back ten, still trying to figure out how to make the best of the situation like he’s the one calling the shots. But apparently, he’s been paying enough attention to the family story, to the way he’s been raised, to know he should give God a tenth of what he has. It’s ingrained, learned behavior, but that doesn’t mean he actually gets it yet.
Short version of the next fourteen years: Jacob gets to his uncle’s house, works for seven years to marry the pretty daughter and gets the ugly one instead, works another seven years to marry the one he actually loves, outsmarts his uncle to take a bigger portion of the cattle herd than he would’ve gotten, and slips away in the middle of the night, knowing that his uncle wouldn’t have let him leave.
But for the first time in his life, we see Jacob initiate prayer with the LORD (Genesis 32:1-21). Now, he does devise a plan for how to make things more palatable for Esau, to try to grease the wheels of forgiveness, but he also puts it all before the LORD: “God of my grandfather Abraham and God of my father Isaac, hear me! You told me, LORD, to go back to my land… and you would make everything go well for me. I am not worth all the kindness and faithfulness that you have shown me, your servant… Save me, I pray, from my brother Esau. I am afraid–afraid that he is coming to attack and destroy us all… Remember that you promised to make everything go well for me and to give me more descendants than anyone could count, as many as the grains of sand along the seashore” (Gen. 32:9-12).
In response, the LORD appears… or at least sends an angel in the form of a man to Jacob. And they wrestle (Gen. 32:24-32). Now, of course, every time I’ve thought about this story, I’ve thought of something principled, something… somewhat gentle. Like my boys wrestling, or even something like Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling. Something with rules.
But the longer I look at this story, and the longer I consider what it looks like in my own life, the more I think this is more like MMA (Mixed Martial Arts). The more I think it is devoid of nice, or mercy, or … rules. I think that Jacob and this man did everything they could from the setting of the sun to the rising of the sun the next morning to defeat, beat down, control, manipulate their adversary. I think this was the microcosm of what Jacob’s whole life had been about- trying to figure out who he was in the world by whatever means necessary, whether it was fair or not.
In the end, it says that the man could not beat Jacob, so he cheated. Or at least, it seems like he cheated. But if there are no rules…? The man did what he needed to do to give himself an advantage, and caused Jacob’s hip to be thrown out of joint (Gen. 32:25).
And Jacob still will not let him go. Jacob, exhausted, beaten, bloodied, sore, alone, and terrified will still not give up.
Whenever I preach on Jacob, I’m teased about how my name is synonymous with a cheater and a deceiver and a coward. But somehow, Israel, he who has wrestled with God and men and not been overcome, that sounds pretty good! Because Jacob was relentless in his pursuit of the blessing, single-minded in his desire to be made right with the LORD. He took everything that his family, his personality, his enemies, his situation, and the LORD threw at him, and shouted into the abyss:
“YOU CAN’T STOP ME!”
So, Jacob, born second and meant for a life of leftovers, rose to the top spot, became a friend of God, became the third notary in the trinity of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and … walked with a limp for the rest of his life.
How many of you have ever broken a bone? Have arthritis or tendonitis?
There are not many, if any, moments where you can forget that. You might have times where you feel better, but the ache doesn’t ever really go away. Kind of like a hip joint that has been put out of place, may be put back into place… but it will still ache.
I know that when it rains, the leg that I broke playing soccer aches. I know that when I am stressed, my jaw grinds at night, and locks in the morning. And I remember.
But what does Jacob remember? Jacob remembers that he was in a dogfight for his life, physically and spiritually, and that he was rewarded because he did not give up. He was ultimately blessed by the LORD because he held on.
Jacob didn’t build an ark. He didn’t name all of the animals in the garden. He didn’t move his family from his ancestral homeland out of honor for God.
Jacob didn’t give up. He held on. He believed in the promise.
Jacob was broken in spirit by life’s tricks and turns, but he held on.
Jacob was broken physically by wrestling with God, but he held on.
Jacob could have given up, tapped out, cursed God, abandoned his faith, fled in the opposite direction, but he held on.
Jacob was broken but he let God put him back together. Jacob let God form him as he’d promised first to Rachel, and later to Jacob. But the breaking had to happen first, the melting down of the pride of the deal maker and the cheater and the deceiver. Jacob’s personality wasn’t lost but the place he put his trust had to change.
When I think of that reshaping, that refining fire of God on and in us, I think of the parable of the potter’s house that God tells Jeremiah (Jer. 18:1-4). The LORD tells Jeremiah to go to a potter’s house, where clay is made and formed. Jeremiah sees the potter working at the wheel, but the pot becomes misshapen, and he has to reheat it and reshape it. And the result is good.
This image of clay gets revisited by Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:7-11: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.”
We are fragile, made up of flesh and soul, and we break. Sometimes we are misshapen by our sins, and our choice; sometimes we are misshapen by the sins of Adam and Eve played out through our bodies and the world, of original sin; sometimes, we receive the bloodied lips and bruises from the free will misused by others. We have the scars from our wrestling matches with others, with ourselves, with God.
But if we will just hold on, if we will not give up, if we will remember that the LORD who promised to be forever with Abraham and Jacob, who promised us much through the death and resurrection of Jesus, then we will overcome. We will receive the inheritance of God’s promise, whether in this life or the next.
We are the reminder to those who are broken, to those who have not yet been broken, that the world is not the way it will forever be. That we believe in a world with no suffering and no pain and no war and no sickness and no evil. We believe in a world where the power of the risen Christ is the only light we will need.
Sometimes, some days, when I struggle to see that in my petty problems, I remember:
-the people who sit through hours of chemotherapy and believe that God sits with them.
-the people who have been divorced or lost a spouse who believes that God hasn’t written the end of their story yet.
-the people who have taken the abuse they’ve received, the pain they’ve endured at the hands of others, the tears they’ve shed, and turned them into ministries and caring for those who would suffer the same fate.
-the times when God showed up in the midst of my darkness and said, “just hold on, I’ve got this, you are not alone.”
This is not trite or simple or easy. This hurts sometimes. But it is the truth of our reality, the here and the not yet colliding, that we believe, and we hope, and we pray for that day when God will make all things new.
We may walk with a limp, we may need the help of others to help us get up, but we will celebrate with the body of the risen Christ, once broken and left bloodied itself, that we have been adopted by the great God of the universe, and we can shout into the abyss of our doubts, our fears, our frustrations, our enemies, our anxieties, our inner demons, with the assurance of God:
“YOU CAN’T STOP ME!”