Fighting with God
Bible Text: Genesis 32:3-13, 22-32 | Preacher: Rev. Alex Peterson | I struggle with today’s scripture. First, there’s the weird implication here of the Almighty getting into a WWE-style wrestling grudge match. If the Lord didn’t walk the Earth in human form until Jesus, then how exactly is Jacob wrestling a spirit here? Moreover, how is it that Jacob seems to have actually won the fight? There wasn’t even a guy with a chair from the sidelines charging in to help him: Jacob just flat-out declares he’s put the Almighty into a submission hold! Then again, we’re never directly told it is the Lord wrestling here. Jacob is the only one directly saying he fights God here. And as we’ll see in a bit, Jacob is not the most trustworthy fellow. But that question doesn’t bother me much, because I don’t see it as the main thing this author of Genesis wants us to focus on here. Whether this wrestling is metaphorical, literal, spiritual, or something else? I don’t think the writer really cares on logistic details like that. I don’t think the how of this wrestling scene is a big question to the author. The important question on the author’s mind instead is: why? Why does Jacob get this direct battle against God?
After all, Jacob was not a good man. He earned his name being born second in a pair of twins. His name Jah-acov translates from Hebrew to something like “follows at your heels,” since he was born holding onto the heel of his brother. That origin sounds cute today, but in Hebrew “being at the heel” was an expression for backstabbing, overreaching, or betrayal. And Jacob certainly does those things. He overreaches to steal the inheritance and blessing of his twin brother. He betrayed his father with lies. He backstabs his father-in-law by conning him out of his herds of sheep and goats. Even now—as Jacob answers God’s call to return to the twin he betrayed all those years ago—even now Jacob is deceitful, for his division of his herds, servants, and family into separate camps that will advance in waves toward his twin… is all designed to manipulate his brother towards mercy. Jacob is not a good man, so why does he wrestle God here? He certainly didn’t earn the blessing of God’s presence. Perhaps God is calling on him to change his ways? Perhaps Jacob’s sin sparks this battle. But I think that answer alone is likewise insufficient. For if God truly has a problem with Jacob, there are easier ways to smite him or change his ways than a midnight wrestling match.
This fight is also surprising because Jacob is not a brave man. He’s kind of a coward. Jacob first sets out on his own, after stealing his brother’s inheritance and blessing, Jacob ran away, because he feared his twin’s revenge. After cheating his father-in-law out of his herds, Jacob overhears his brothers-in-law complaining and also receives a vision from God to return home to reconcile with Esau. Yet Jacob leaves by sneaking away while his father-in-law is out tending to his herds, avoiding a messy goodbye for fear of a fight. Even as Jacob answers God’s calling to go back home, again Jacob is cowardly. Hearing Esau is coming out at Jacob’s peace invitation, Jacob is horrified to then learn his twin comes not alone but with 400 men. Like many such gatherings to this day, Jacob fears this family reunion may become a bloodbath. Only this is more than Aunt Janet cussing out Uncle Frank over his complaints on her potato salad. And so—coward he is—rather than face Esau directly, Jacob sends his servants, his herds, his wives, and his children all in front of him to confront Esau first. At best they’ll calm his brother’s wrath or—at worst—killing them will distract Esau long enough for Jacob to run away. And most people who personally interact with God in the Old Testament—Moses, Isaiah, Elijah, and so on—most avert their eyes from the Lord, knowing that to look upon God directly is to be burned out by his awesome holiness like moths to a bug zapper. But here? Cowardly Jacob not only claims to have confronted God face-to-face: he says he’s put the Lord in a choke hold! How does this cowardly man all of a sudden claim such courage? If God wanted to wrestle, if the Lord was interested in testing someone physically to reflect their spirituality, I could see God tangling with a warrior like Gideon or Samson or even a courageous youth like the shepherd boy David. Jacob the coward claims he’s wrestled with God directly. Why?
I think God wrestles with Jacob because Jacob is a man who wrestles God already. In this Genesis 32 chapter, our focus tends to fall on the wrestling match because it’s so bizarre. But notice the prayer that comes before it in verses nine through twelve. It’s a model prayer for us today as much as the Lord’s Prayer. Jacob begins naming the God to whom he prays: “O God of my ancestors Abraham and Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good.” On the eve of reuniting with the twin he wronged so long ago, Jacob makes sure he’s praying to the God of his ancestors and recalls his own past history with God. For us too, every prayer should begin by naming who exactly we’re praying to, our past experiences with God, that we might recall why we have the courage and claim to pray so. Yet this triggers unhappy memories in Jacob, as he recalls his many past sins and flaws. So I believe it is here his wrestling truly begins, as he unburdens himself before God. “I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and faithfulness you have shown your servant…” Confession of sins, struggles, and shortcomings is an essential part of prayer. I see this as the first part of his struggles: this worry that I am not good enough for God to listen, not worthy enough for God to care. At last Jacob arrives at the heart of his prayer, the request: “Deliver me from the hand of my brother, for I am afraid of him.” Jacob’s fear causes him to doubt, to question, to tremble. And his fear is justified, for the brother has justice and righteousness on his side should he attack Jacob, for Jacob is guilty. Jacob fears death from brother, yes, but moreover I think Jacob fears his own guilt, his own shameful past, his own sins that he cannot escape no matter how far he runs across the pages of Genesis. Ending this prayer, Jacob tells God he can ask all this—despite his wickedness, despite his cowardice, despite his doubts and fears—because “You have said, ‘I will surely do you good and make your offspring as numerous as the sands of the sea.”
Yes, Jacob physically wrestles God at the end of today’s text. But in this prayer, Jacob wrestles the Lord in the ways every faithful believer inevitably shall. God, you guided my parents: will you guide me now that I’m the one in charge? Lord, you promised to love me: are these sins of mine too much for that to remain true? God, I know what you said, but I look around me and see so many reasons to doubt, to despair, to give up, to walk away. Are you there? Lord, I fear my own death or ache over the loss of my dear loved ones. Will you be faithful to your promises even in the grave? Jacob wrestles God in body, yes. But here in these early verses Jacob wrestles God with his soul, asking the questions we all ask, the fears we all hold, the uncertainties and tremblings every Christian gets.
Here’s the problem. We all face such doubts and worries. Every Christian will. But the problem is that—in American Christian culture especially—we do not admit such problems. We cannot admit we wrestle with God for fear we’ll be kicked out. We don’t tell others about our doubts for fear of the gossip that will get around town, around church, around our Bible study. We bottle up these emotions and questions, leaving them unexpressed and unaddressed. And then we’re surprised when these pressured bottles of our souls explode. Wrestling with the Lord is not a bad thing. As Christian blogger Jonathon Acuff explains: “Wrestling with God is a sign of intimacy. You can’t wrestle with someone you’re far away from.” …You cannot wrestle someone from far away. If you have these challenges to your faith—and every believer will—you cannot overcome them by running away or bottling them up. If you have problems, doubts, or questions about God… the only way you can deal with them properly… is to hop into the wrestling ring with the Lord. Because if you’ve got issues with God… you need to hash them out. And you can’t wrestle someone while being far away. Why do you think so many of the Psalms are basically shouting at God to do his job already? Why do you think the Book of Lamentations exists? Why do you think depressing books like Job and Ecclesiastes were written? These Biblical books and poems of despair, anger, and doubt are there because every faithful believer struggles in their faith at times. But to endure? You need to actually address the matter at hand in your soul. You need to actually bring them up to God. You need to get close to God to wrestle, whether it be through scripture, through prayer, through trusted friends who can keep your secrets. You need to wrestle with God over anything and everything that might impede your journey of faith. Faith can handle sorrow, can handle anger, can handle doubts. What it cannot handle is apathy. When our wrestling stops, faith can stagnate.
In the wrestling scene, one thing I love is how Jacob doesn’t know whom he’s fighting at first. Initially we’re told “a man” battles Jacob until dawn. Then when the opponent dislocates his hip in one strike, we realize this man has power: he might be an angel or prophet. Then when Jacob gets his new name, we learn this figure might be the Lord after all when the being says, “for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Only at the end, when the stranger refuses to share his name and then departs, does Jacob reflect: “I have seen God face to face, yet my life is preserved.” Now, there’s debate over whether “struggling with God” refers to the wrestling match or that prayer earlier. But either way, it’s similar same with us. As we wrestle with God—bringing up our anger, our doubts, our worries, our sorrows—we don’t always know at first what it is we’re fighting about or whom we’re battling. But slowly God’s grace reveals the truth to every disciple.
The story ends with a name change, which is a big deal in an ancient culture where names were windows into the soul. Jacob, Jah-achov, “the one at your heels,” the betrayer and overreacher… is renamed by God to be “Israel,” which means either “God strives” or “he struggles with God,” depending on how you parse it. Jacob—the man whose very name is cunning and deceit—has been renamed and reformed into Israel—who fights with God, yes, but who also relies on God to fight his battles and who no longer relies on his own strength. And ever in the Bible until the days of Jesus, the people of God are most often termed “the Israelites” or more literally “the children of Israel.” Which is to say that God’s people in the Bible are most commonly labeled as the ones who fight with God… and on whose behalf God fights. Through Jesus, the promise of God’s grace extends to all nations—not only those children of Israel—but even so, we can learn from his example. Jacob—Israel—was a believer with a shady past, one haunted by his crimes and fearful for his life. But God chose this man who wrestled with the Lord and for whose sake the Lord would fight. For us today, amid our own weaknesses and imperfections, may we likewise hear that call to return to the Lord, to lead lives of faith that aren’t lax or indifferent… but rather ones that wrestle mightily with God, bringing our joys and our burdens, our anger and our fear, all of ourselves however we are… knowing that God welcomes those who honestly wrestle with him seeking his grace.
I’ll end by paraphrasing a 1600-year-old joke. St. Augustine’s Confessions, the first Christian autobiography, reads: “Some ask: ‘What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?’ And some answer, ‘God was preparing hell for those who ask stupid questions.’ I do not say that, however. It’s one thing to know an answer and another to laugh as those asking questions.” Augustine goes on to explain that—while some answers may escape us—there is nothing wrong in sincerely wanting to know more about God, with sincerely wrestling with those questions and uncertainties that every believer gets. And so my hope is that we—in our doubts, our anger, our fears, or whatever else may trouble us—may likewise bring those questions to the Lord. For wrestling with God gave the Israelites their name. For wrestling with God is a sign of intimacy. For wrestling with God is a sign of life. I would trade a thousand indifferent souls… for one troubled believer who nonetheless struggled and fought to find the Lord. May we likewise strive and struggle to find the Lord, who ultimately wins the day on our behalf. Amen.