One of my favorite stories of the Bible takes place in Genesis 32:22-32, the wrestling of God with Jacob, which reads as follows: “And he arose that night and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed over the ford of Jabbok. He took them, sent them over the brook, and sent over what he had. Then Jacob was left alone; and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day. Now when He saw that He did not prevail against him, He touched the socket of his hip; and the socket of Jacob’s hip was out of joint as He wrestled with him. And He said, “Let Me go, for the day breaks.” But he said, “I will not let You go unless You bless me!” So He said to him, “What is your name?” He said, “Jacob.” And He said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked, saying, “Tell me Your name, I pray.” And He said, “Why is it that you ask about My name?” And He blessed him there. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” Just as he crossed over Penuel the sun rose on him, and he limped on his hip. Therefore to this day the children of Israel do not eat the muscle that shrank, which is on the hip socket, because He touched the socket of Jacob’s hip in the muscle that shrank.”
There is a lot that is going on in this passage, and it demonstrates the wide variety of insights that one can gain from a passage. Without intending to exhaust the meaning of this passage, I wish to at least point out some of the many layers that this text contains as a way of indicating just how deeply we can read the scriptures and put things together and come to insights about how God operates in our lives as He did in the lives of previous generations of believers. Let us begin our discussion by placing this story in the narrative context in which it exists. Jacob has heard that Esau is approaching with a large army and he is quite frankly scared for his life, which leads him to adopt various stratagems in order to survive. First, he sends a large bribe to Esau to calm his brother’s wrath about the birthright and blessing that Jacob had obtained from him. Second, he divides up his company in a way that everyone knows where they stand, with his two concubines and their children most vulnerable, Leah and his children by her next most vulnerable, and his favorite wife Rachel and Joseph most secure. It is quite possible that this experience was part of the underlying resentment felt by Joseph’s brothers towards him, given his favored status even at this time. Facing the prospect of a dangerous encounter with a brother not known for his gentleness and mildness of spirit, Jacob then faces God and the prospect of a sleepless night of struggle with Him.
Those of us who are fond of mystical literature are familiar with the idea known as the dark night of the soul, which contains a period (and not always a night in a literal sense) of struggle with God and with our relationship with God. The Bible itself contains many such examples of dark nights, whether we are looking at time spent in the wilderness or isolated from others, the prayer of Jesus Christ at Gethsemane, or this particular event, which happens to have been a literal night. One of the more curious and striking aspects of faith is that that God expects those who believe in Him to wrestle with Him in some fashion. To some extent, this wrestling is inevitable because of the difference between God and His perspective and knowledge and the limited state of mankind. Job, for example, was notable in contending with God in the Bible, and providing an example for later wrestlers with God, like Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and author of a play that puts God on trial. As is the case with Jacob, so too in many of these other examples God put limits on Himself and wrestled like a man. It would have been within God’s power to crush Jacob without mercy, but God wanted to wrestle with Him. So too after Job and his friends and Elihu go around and around concerning the justice of God and the righteousness of Job and how they can be determined from the events of our lives, God come out of the whirlwind to speak to Job man to man. If we are genuine servants of God, we can expect to have times where we wrestle with Him, where we seek to understand what He is putting us through, and where we are shaped by our struggle to have faith and hope in God’s providence in light of our difficulties and anxieties.
And Jacob prevailed. The end result of Jacob’s persistence in holding on to God and not letting go despite having a dislocated hip (not an enjoyable experience) was twofold. On the one hand, God gave him a new name. This was no small matter. The meaning given for Jacob’s name when he was born was supplanter or holder of the heel because of his behavior towards his slightly elder brother. Yet when he is renamed, his name is given as Israel, which means something like “Prince with God” or “One who has been strong against God,” both of which are much more noble titles. It is interesting that God would value those who were strong against Him in struggling, and would appreciate that sort of bravery and tenacity, and it suggests that God is far more fair-minded when it comes to dealing with opponents than many who claim to follow God. Generally speaking, people and institutions that follow God tend to have a low degree of patience and longsuffering with those who see themselves as being against them, which they in turn see as being against God. Yet God deliberately chose to wrestle against Jacob, and at least metaphorically wrestled with Job and others in the Bible as well. God expects His servants to be tenacious in their struggle with God and with their view of the justice of His action or inaction in their lives and times, and we would do well to view this tenacity and persistence with the same degree of evident fondness that God does.
The other effect of Jacob’s wrestling was less positive, but still notable, in that Jacob was given a permanent limp as a result of his struggle with God. This is something a lot of people can relate to. Our wrestling with God, however that wrestling takes place, carries with it consequences. We limp or we have wounds or scars as a result of that wrestling with God, and we may carry those consequences with us for the rest of our lives as Jacob did. Interestingly enough, there is a dietary restriction that follows from this particular experience that is not very well obeyed outside of Judaism. When the Bible records that the children of Israel did not eat the muscle that shrank, there is a particular type of steak that many people eat today that would be forbidden if this was considered to be a law, namely the sirloin. The question is, is this avoidance on the part of Torah-observant believers of the sirloin (and other steaks from that part of the cow) a matter merely of superstition, whether it amounts to honoring our father, or whether it is a law that is commanded by God. For what it’s worth, it is considered one of the 613 commandments of the Torah by those who comment on Jewish law.