One of the things that happens, at least for me and maybe you too, is that there are some stories in the bible that are so familiar that you can recite them in your sleep. Noah and the ark, the exodus, Jesus feeding the five thousand with two loaves of bread and two fish. And one of the things that happens when I am so familiar with a story is that I stop actually reading the words on the page, because I think I know what it says.
So, inevitably, when I finally spend time reading the actual words on the page, I almost always find something surprising, that I haven’t noticed before. And this week’s surprise came in that story we all know so well—Jacob wrestling with God.
Except, we don’t know at the beginning of the story that it is God—Jacob only says afterwards that he has seen God and lived. All it says at the beginning of the reading is that this is a man.
We don’t know who he is, or how he got there, or why they’re even wrestling in the first place. Did this man sneak up on Jacob and tackle him? Did he say something to start a fight? Did Jacob pick a fight, as he’s been known to do? Genesis just says that “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak”—matter-of-fact, like this is the most normal thing in the world.
This is, not, normal.
In fact, it seems like Jacob spends the entire story doing things, and asking questions in the wrong order.
Jacob wrestles until daybreak with a man he doesn’t know, and then is wounded. He clings onto him, and refuses to let go until the unknown stranger blesses him. It’s only AFTER the blessing, where he receives a NEW NAME that Jacob bothers to ask the most basic of questions:
Please tell me your name. What is your name?
SURELY this question, this last question is the one that would have been plaguing Jacob’s mind all night: who is this? What is your name? Are you an angel? A demon? A human of extraordinary strength? God? And if you are any or all of them, are you my friend or my enemy?
What is your name?
What’s clear in this moment is that Jacob wants something out of this stranger. Whether he is an enemy or ally, friend or foe, Jacob wants a blessing, or perhaps even a curse or just a declaration of why all this is happening. Why are you keeping me up all night, exhausted, on the riverbank? Why are we even wrestling if I don’t know who you are and what you want?
He refuses to stop fighting, to stop holding onto this stranger, clinging onto him, in exchange for a new name.
A blessing, a new name.
Perhaps Jacob has realized, in this night of wrestling, that this stranger has the power to change his life. Perhaps he thinks this unknown man on the riverbank is his last hope for redemption before an encounter with Esau, his brother—an encounter which Jacob expects will go badly. Perhaps dying in an encounter with a stranger is better than facing up to the names that he’s been known as before.
Jacob the usurper
Jacob the thief
Jacob the younger son
Jacob the one never quite in the spotlight, the one who cooks while his brother hunts
Jacob the lawbreaker
Jacob the one who can’t quite do anything right
Jacob who doesn’t say the right things, doesn’t impress the right people
Jacob who spends the whole night wrestling with an unknown stranger, for no particular reason.
Jacob who only asks this stranger’s name after hours of breathless panting, covered in mud and sweat. Who only asks who this stranger is after being wounded, after desperately clinging onto him to ask for a blessing.
Jacob who asks for a blessing from a person who has wounded him, kept him up all night, whose name he does not know.
What is your name?
And at the outset, it doesn’t feel like we have a lot in common with Jacob. Surely we would never fight with someone without knowing who they are. Surely we would have the sense to know when to give up, when to let it go. Surely asking who this person is would be our first question, rather than our last one.
But the more I think about it, the more I wonder about all those times in my life, and perhaps yours too, where I wrestle with a thought, or a question of what I should do in particular situation. We wrestle with questions of ethics: is it “right” to do this thing, or that thing? We wrestle with questions of relationship: will I hurt my friend if I say this truthful statement? Perhaps, we are wrestling now, more than usual: we are grappling with the life and death implications of going to the store or meeting a friend. We are sitting with isolation and loneliness, or for those families among us, no time to be alone at all. We are asking questions about our complicity in the oppression of people who don’t look or act like us. We are watching as many of our country’s leaders refuse to adopt laws and policies which would save lives, and wondering what we can possibly do now.
What makes all this more difficult is that some of these questions aren’t easy to answer, and for those answers we feel like we have, putting them into action results in a whole new set of difficult choices and decisions. If I go to a protest, or take direct action against racism and white supremacy, will I get sick from COVID? If I spend time with a friend to alleviate my loneliness and sense of isolation, even taking the proper precautions, there’s still a chance that one of us could get sick—am I willing to take that risk? If I stay home and self-isolate, is there really anything useful I can do to push back against racism and oppression by those in positions of power?
Perhaps, like Jacob, we feel that we are wrestling in the dark, coated in mud on the riverbank, unable to let go of the question, or the person, we are struggling with. Perhaps like Jacob, we wonder when this is ever going to end. AND perhaps, like Jacob, we refuse to let go, to give up, until we have a blessing, an answer, a new name.
Because that’s really the point of the story, isn’t it? Despite the fact that Jacob can’t even figure out who his opponent is, despite the fact that he’s just the wrong sort of person—a thief, a usurper, a guy who can’t even get married without something going wrong—despite all of this, Jacob is stubborn, and refuses to give up, even when things seem impossible.
This is, Jacob’s virtue. There aren’t many—he’s not the kind of guy you want your kids to grow up to be, really. But his persistence, his stubbornness, shows us a faithful response to a question or a problem that won’t let go of you—a problem that tackles you on the riverbank in the middle of the night, or wakes you up from sleep, or haunts your daydreams and waking thoughts. And it’s tempting, isn’t it, to let go. To pretend that the problem doesn’t exist. To say that poverty or racism or public health isn’t my problem. It’s so easy to say “calm down” or “let’s deal with this another time”. It’s so easy to become the Israelites who God condemns in the book of Jeremiah, the people who “have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace”.
What is your name?
It’s only after a night of agony, and a realization that this person, this stranger is worth asking a blessing from, that Jacob gets to this question. Because, ultimately, Jacob realizes that he already knows the answer to this unanswered question. The stranger’s response is “Why is it that you ask my name?”. The stranger never answers the question, never says his name. And yet, Jacob names the place “Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’”
Somewhere, in that night of agony, that night of unanswered questions, Jacob figured out that this stranger was God. And the only reason he knew this was out of stubbornness, a refusal to let go, to give up on the wrestling.
As we, like Jacob, face a host of new and old questions that refuse to go away, I hope our faithful response is this—to wrestle with them, to sit with the discomfort of not knowing answers, to stick with it for as long as it takes, until we too, receive a blessing, a new name, a new way of being God’s people in this world. Until when we ask of our question “what is your name”, we already know that the answer is God—the God who wrestles us, the God who calls us new life and dignity, the God who asks us what our name is, and who blesses our wrestling with a future we have only begun to imagine.