Wrestling With…? - Reflections on Genesis 32:22-31
by Dr. John Holbert on Monday, July 31, 2023
I am fully aware of the enormous literature that has arisen in the myriad attempts to understand this marvelously enigmatic tale, an apparent kind of climax to the long tale of the patriarch, Jacob. He has bested his wily uncle Laban by running from Haran with both of Laban’s daughters, eleven children from those women and their handmaids, and nearly all of the finest animals from Laban’s flocks. By any measure, Jacob, the clever trickster, Grabber, is a wealthy man, the head of a huge family, possessed of a vast entourage, a man truly to be reckoned with. Still, his story lies heavy upon him, despite his obviously powerful self-presentation.
He has tricked his brother out of the right of the firstborn, and with the aid of his mother and the blindness of his father, has stolen the patriarchal blessing (Gen.27). He has wheedled from YHWH, his God, the divine blessing of land and progeny, though his response to the gift is grudging and pitifully small (Gen.28). He has deceived his uncle Laban out of his children and his wealth, after he himself was deceived by his uncle into a 14-year service. But in the end, it is Jacob who is triumphant in all these things; Grabber has grabbed again and again and has come out victorious. Yet, when told that his brother, Esau (Hairy), is coming to meet him (Gen.32:6), being told that “he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him,” his first thought is that Esau is in fact still enraged at his deceptions, and that he must scramble to avoid his annihilation at his brother’s hands by providing rich gifts in the attempt to buy him off (Gen.32:7-21).
Just before that fateful confrontation with his brother, Jacob finds himself at the ford of the Jabbok River, an east-west tributary of the Jordan River. Jacob is heading south from Haran for home, while Esau heads north from Edom to intercept his brother. Grabber first sends his wives, his children, and his large retinue of animals across the Jabbok, and finds himself alone. And now the story becomes very strange indeed.
“A man wrestled with him until dawn,” but just who this man may be is much disputed. We often know this tale as “Jacob wrestles with an angel” or “Jacob wrestles with God.” Yet, neither of those identifications are found in the story. Jacob’s opponent is merely a “man”. To be sure, he is an odd man, fearful of seeing the dawn appear, as he demands that Jacob let him go before the sun rises (Gen.32:27). Is he Dracula, who will melt away with the rays of the sun? More likely he is a river troll, a product of folklore; at least that may be one level of the tale. After all, the troll does not defeat Jacob, but instead announces that his name will no longer be Jacob (Grabber), but rather Israel, because “he has wrestled with God and human beings and has won” (Gen.32:30).
And in that statement, I think, we may find a clue to what the story is getting at. Jacob has in fact wrestled his whole life and he has in fact won each bout. He grabbed Esau’s heel at birth; he has wrestled with Esau for birthright and blessing; he has wrestled with YHWH for the divine blessing; he has wrestled the huge stone off the well in order to impress his future beloved Rachel; he has wrestled with Laban in multiple events. And in all these he has won! Jacob is the poster child for amazing triumph. Standing at the Jabbok, amidst the glow of the rising sun, he announces that he now has “seen God face-to-face and has come out alive” (Gen.32:31)! I know all too well that many sermons follow the famous Buechner address that names this tale “the magnificent defeat,” claiming that Jacob’s limp after the fight is a sign that God-wrestling always leaves its mark, that God is always finally the winner in every bout. That may be common and decent theology, but somehow I find it all too simple for this astonishing story.
Jacob’s claim to have seen God face-to-face is simply not true. Many have named the story “God wrestling,” but only Jacob makes that claim, and since he is one of the least trustworthy figures in the Bible, why should we believe him when he says it? I would suggest that Jacob does not in fact see God at all until he confronts his brother where he announces, quite grandly and quite wonderfully to Esau, that “seeing your face is like seeing the face of God, since you have received me with such grace” (Gen.33:10). It is in the end Esau’s grace that opens Jacob’s eyes to God, that same Esau whom we all wrote off earlier in the story as a dupe and dolt. I say that the wrestling match at Jabbok cannot be fully comprehended without the subsequent meeting of the two brothers. It is there that God is fully revealed.
So, just who is the “man” at Jabbok? I heard a student sermon years ago that suggested that the man was in reality more than one figure, but was instead the procession of figures with whom Jacob has struggled his entire life: Esau, Isaac, Laban, God, a struggle that Jacob apparently “won,” but a struggle that in his final meeting with Esau was subsumed under the overwhelming and amazing gift of his brother’s grace. May each of us experience such grace in our lives, a grace that quiets those myriad wrestling matches that tend to consume us and force us to win to survive. We learn here that we survive by grace, not fighting, not wrestling.