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Genesis 32:22-31

22Now he arose that same night and took his two wives and his two maids and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream. And he sent across whatever he had.

24Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he struck the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob’s thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him.

Okay, some context; Jacob is getting ready for a confrontation he’s been avoiding for decades. When he left Canaan for Syria, he left in secret with nothing but the clothes on his back, because he was afraid of how Esau would take it when he learned that Jacob had stolen the blessing of the firstborn. But now, Jacob has also burned the bridges behind him up in Syria, by ending things with his uncle/father-in-law, Laban, on a less than positive note. He doesn’t expect this coming meeting to go well, so he hedges his bets; sends gifts ahead of him which should, more or less, be roughly equivalent to the firstborn inheritance rights which he stole. Then he organizes his family into groups, and sends them forward in order from lowest status to highest status, putting his favorite wife and son last in order so that if there is an attack, they are the most likely ones to survive.

Crossing the river is the most dangerous part of the journey, the part where an attack could most easily ensnare them, so Jacob undertakes the crossing in the dead of night. He knows Esau is coming to meet him with “400”, but in ancient semitic languages, round numbers like that usually indicate family or military units rather than precise amounts; 10’s being families, 100’s being clans, 1000’s being tribal divisions, and 10,000’s being tribes. But, those round numbers can represent either the whole force of that unit, or just the delegation of leaders and their personal bodyguards. So Jacob knowing ahead of time that Esau is coming with ‘400’, only tells him that his brother is either coming to meet him with the full fighting force of four clans, a number which could potentially be much, much higher than 400 men; or it could mean he’s leading a diplomatic delegation with no more than their personal guard and attendants, a number which may be fewer than 50 individuals. So Jacob has as much reason to be careful as he has to be optimistic.

So Jacob sees that his whole family makes it across safely, but then he doubles back and spends the rest of the night by himself on the other side of the Jabbok. Why? Not clear; possibly he was suspicious they were being watched, and he wanted to make sure that if he was the target of an ambush, then his family had an opportunity to run. Possibly he just wanted a few more hours of quiet to deal with the mess of emotions he was likely experiencing. Or maybe this is one last act of cowardice, and he’s placed the entire enticing collection of everything he owns on the other side of the river, so that if they’re attacked, he can still escape.

Regardless, when he gets back someone does indeed attack him, and wrestles him to the ground. Jacob intuits that this is not a normal person he’s encountering, and not just because normal people don’t pick fights with random strangers for no reason. But Jacob’s not a normal person either, and he fights back like a man who has everything to lose.

The figure can’t disengage with Jacob, so he hits him in the ‘hollow of the thigh’; more commonly known as the groin. Jacob gets hit so hard in the groin that he walks with a limp for the rest of his life, and it makes such an impact on his descendants that they change their dietary habits because of it. But even after that Jacob won’t let go:

26Then he said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” But he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28He said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.”

29Then Jacob asked him and said, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And he blessed him there. 30So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.”

The word translated ‘God’ here is the general term for spiritual being: ‘el’. It is not entirely clear here whether Jacob is fighting with an angel, or that mysterious ‘angel of the Lord’ figure who shows up on occasion in the stories of the patriarchs. It may even be possible that he’s fighting an actual, bodily theophany of God himself. Remember, El and Elohim are words which describe a class of beings characterized by their immortal, spiritual nature; Hebrew writers never use them as names, because there is a god named El in the Canaanite pantheon, and it would be beyond problematic to identify YHWH with that god. Elohim is most often translated big ‘G’ God, or small ‘g’ gods, but the more accurate translation in some instances would simply be ‘Spiritual being’. So just the text calling this being ‘el’ in the story doesn’t tell us anything other than that they weren't human.

Regardless, the effect is the same, as morning begins to dawn, the spiritual being realizes that if Jacob witnesses their unveiled face in the full light of day it will do him harm, so they become increasingly aggressive in their attempts to get Jacob to let go. But as aggressive as the being gets, Jacob matches them.

Finally the being says ‘fine, whaddaya want, eh?’ To which Jacob replies; ‘Bless me.’ I’m going to come back to this in a sec, but we only have a couple verses left, so let’s finish the reading:

31Now the sun rose upon him just as he crossed over Penuel, and he was limping on his thigh. 32Therefore, to this day the sons of Israel do not eat the sinew of the hip which is on the socket of the thigh, because he struck the socket of Jacob’s thigh in the sinew of the hip.

So here we are, the stage is set for Jacob to finally face his past mistakes; and on the night before he is to do it, he finds himself alone, wrestling with God; or more likely the Angel of the Lord, though that doesn’t exactly clear things up either. And this man who’s been grabbing at the heels of a blessing his entire life; trying to take what God had always planned on giving him, begs one last time; “please, just bless me.”

God has blessed Jacob multiple times now; his confrontation with his father-in-law ends in a blessing upon his house; his father, albeit unknowingly, blessed him, and confirmed the blessing even after he realized he was tricked. Even so, Jacob’s entire adult life has left him feeling cursed, alone, and hopeless; largely because of the consequences of his own actions. So, the insecure patriarch begs for a blessing again. And the blessing he gets this time is a new name.

Jacob, the heel grabber; the man desperate for a blessing from birth; a man who would defy social norms, moral standards, and anything else that got in his way must now put the heel grabbing behind, but not the fighting spirit which motivated it. He is no longer ‘the heel grabber’; now he is ‘the one who wrestles with gods and men, and overcomes’. Jacob’s new name doesn’t tell him to stop fighting, on the contrary, it tells him to keep fighting, but to change tactics; putting away the deception and shenanigans. In giving Jacob this name, God is inviting him to keep wrestling. And Israel isn’t just Jacob’s new name, it’s the name his children will be known by. God’s chosen people will be characterized first and foremost by the fact that they keep wrestling with Him.

I want us to consider this for a moment in light of Jesus’ experience in the Garden of Gethsemane. In that story, Jesus also finds himself left alone, in great distress, and wrestling with God the Father. The day after these events, Jacob will cross through the river Jabbok, out of the fears and regrets of his past into a new life founded upon a moment of reconciliation and repentance. The next day after He wrestles with the Father in Gethsemane, Jesus will be limping down the streets of Jerusalem carrying a cross upon his back. And then He’ll pass through death into a new life.

In Jewish tradition, passing through a body of water symbolizes passing through death. When that water is a river, a source of ‘living water’, then the passage is out of death into the Garden life; the source of all blessings, of all living water in Genesis 2. It’s implied here at the crossing of the Jabbok, it's implied at the crossing of the reed sea in Exodus, and again at the crossing of the Jordan in Joshua.

When Jesus passes through death into resurrected life, He fulfills the promise which these earlier events merely point forward to. And when Jesus passed out of death into new life, He marked out the ford for us so that we might join Him in crossing that river through baptism. When we rise out of the waters of baptism, like Jacob, we cross out of a life characterized by fear, regret, desperation, and deception, into a life characterized by reconciliation, repentance, and renewal.

But also like Jacob, while we are invited to leave behind the evils which we committed in our wrestling, we are yet called to bring that fighting spirit forward across the river with us. We are invited to continue wrestling with God, not as those anxious and desperate for a blessing which we have already been given, nor as those given to destructive, self-serving tactics, but instead as those who will never be satisfied with knowing anything less than the full glory and wisdom of our Lord.

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