Remember a time, a few years back, when the Internet, instead of arguing about masks and viruses and protesters, instead argued about a dress and whether it was white and gold or blue and black? Sigh… good times. Besides harkening to a slightly different internet age, this is an example of what psychologists call “motivated perception”—that our biases reflect how we see and interact with something—like a picture of a dress.
I bring this up because it seems like there are parts of Scripture that operate in a similar manner—we read into a passage what we want to hear. This week’s Old Testament passage seems like one of these stories: another commentator observed there is an “an embarrassment of riches for homiletical possibilities” on this passage, and a huge amount of interpretations to be gleaned from it. I’m not casting judgement about that, merely inviting us to examine what biases we bring to the table.
For example, I bring a bias toward an extreme dislike of the character of Jacob—he did Esau dirty and ran away before he could be held to account. Then chose a sister based on looks, then married the other sister, and the concubines… sigh. To the modern feminist theologian such as myself, it is not a good look for him—cultural context and all. So when I come to this passage, I have to see it in the context of the entire Jacob story arc.
Previously in the chapter, Jacob sent ahead all his possessions (which included aforementioned wives/concubines and children) across a stream, in the path of what he assumes will be a murderously angry Esau (Genesis 32:23). The twin, if you’ll remember, from whom he stole both a birthright and a blessing. Now, using your family and possessions as a sort of human shield can be read as a move that, on its surface, reads a bit cowardly (but perhaps that’s my bias). Alone on the far side of the stream, he meets a man. Upon meeting that man, they wrestle.
“Wrestling” is a verb that has found quite a home in the Christian lingo—as Christians, we often speak of wrestling with things like anger, sin, doubt, anxiety, and fear. It indicates struggle and difficultly—perhaps even pain and suffering. Difficult emotions in which people often struggle to experience God. Personally, I haven’t heard many people speak of wrestling with happiness. Or joy. Or peace (wrestling for peace, certainly, but not with peace). Easy emotions that, perhaps, are comfortable to connect to God.
So the question must be asked, with what or whom is Jacob wrestling when he meets that man?
Perhaps Jacob wrestling match with the Divine is also his reckoning with his own past. He knows he is about to meet the brother he betrayed; he knows that he is known as the heel-grabber, the supplanter, the trickster: He is Jacob. With all the associated baggage.
But it seems he doesn’t want that identity any longer. He knows he is experiencing a supernatural event, and so he refuses to let it end until he earns a blessing of his own—a new name and a new direction in life. He becomes Israel.
And the next day, he goes out in front of his family and possessions—the people that he loves—and he puts himself in the line of the man he still believes will kill him on sight. He is ready, finally, to face the consequences of his actions. Jacob is a character I have trouble getting behind; Israel I like much better.
It’s difficult to know what Jacob wrestled with that night—we have our own motivated perceptions driving our interpretation. My perception is that his wrestling match was against something powerful and holy: his past, his fears, his perceptions of himself, his desires for the future. Things that God is present within, even if God is not directly responsible for.
Wrestling is a part of life and God is present in our wrestlings, no matter what it is we wrestle against. There is no anger or fear or grief or doubt that God does not fully inhabit and embody with us. And when we recognize the Divine’s place with us, we walk away from that experience changed—sometimes with the mark of a new name, a new trajectory, a new identity. Sometimes with a limp that will take time to heal—if it ever does.