A reading from Genesis, the thirty-second chapter.
22 The same night [Jacob] arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 24 And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh. (Genesis 32:22–32 ESV)
We have here what may very well be my most favorite story in all of the Bible.
Jacob is the trickster, the younger son (of twins) who cheated his older brother Esau out of his birthright and his blessing. Esau was the strong brother, mighty, a man’s man, hunting and fishing and farming and doing all those that strong men have always done. Esau is his father Isaac’s favorite.
Jacob stays inside — maybe he’s clever and bookish and probably a bit of a sissy. He’s certainly a mama’s boy. He is not a man’s man. He has lived by cunning and trickery most of his life (Jacob and his uncle Laban struggled hard to get one over on each other), and now he’s on the road — meeting all sorts of heavenly characters along the way — and he has decided to take his chances with his brother Esau.
Jacob has, after a fashion, done well for himself. And maybe the years of having to try and keep one step ahead of each attempt by his uncle to cheat him have finally gotten to him. “I have sent to tell my lord [Esau], in order that I may find favor in your sight,” he commands his servants to tell Esau.
But he’s scared. He stole everything from Esau. We speak of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Esau. This man is the recipient of the promise of God not by birth, but by fraud. “Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come to attack me …” Jacob prays as he sends his wives and all his children away on separate path so that he may meet Esau alone.
With his offering.
“Perhaps he will accept me.”
Alone, Jacob meets a man, and they fight. That man grabs hold of Jacob, and Jacob grabs back. And the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob… So he fights dirty. And Jacob still doesn’t let go. “Give me a blessing,” he demands in what has to be excruciating pain.1 “Tell me your name. Give me a blessing!”
And wounded, in pain, Jacob does not let go.
This, sisters and brothers, is faith. Our faith. We have come to identify the man — this stranger — as God himself. “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” God meets us in moments of fear, in the pitch black darkness of night, when are most alone and vulnerable, ambushes us and grabs hold of us.
And we grab back. Not knowing who or even what we’ve got ahold of.
But notice … God cannot prevail. The almighty cannot beat us. Omiscience and omnipotence and omnipresence cannot defeat us. Cannot prevail over us. Cannot win in his struggle with us. God himself has to resort to trickery, and even that fails to shake us. We do not let go. “Give me a blessing,” we say of this God who grabbed us in the middle of a dark night, who ambushed us when we were at our weakest, when we were at our worst.
This is faith. To grab hold of God when God grabs hold of you. To not let go. To demand to know who’s got you, to demand a blessing. And realize, God fights dirty. God wants to make the struggle stop.
And yet, frighted and wounded and alone in the inky black darkness, we don’t let go. We don’t give up. We prevail. Over God.
That, sisters and brothers, is our faith.
- In seminary, I recall reading a Jewish physician and sometime scripture commentator noting this wound was either physically impossible or such that Jacob would have been in so much pain that he would have been utterly incapacitated. The physician suggested the description of the act itself — putting the hip joint out of it socket — was a euphemism, and that God was possibly raping or attempting to rape Jacob. Which is truly fighting dirty. This is speculation. But consider for a moment what it might mean for God to fight that kind of dirty against us. ↩︎