Jacob is quite the character. From the moment he was born, he used his wits to get ahead, tricking whoever he needed to in order to get what he wanted. There’s the time he tricked his brother Esau into selling him his birthright for a bowl of soup—y’all remember that story? And then the time he put on a sheepskin coat and tricked his own father into giving him the blessing intended for his older brother. Then, after all that started unravelling the family and he fled to his mother’s uncle’s place to stay safe, he ended up tricking his uncle, getting rich off his ability to twist words to his favor.
And it made sense. Jacob wasn’t a big, strong guy. He couldn’t just use brute strength to get what he wanted. But he was smart. Really smart, actually. And he used those smarts to outwit people regularly. Until, that is, he got to this point in his life. See, the reading today comes from the time in Jacob’s life that was just after he’d left his uncle (the one he’d swindled) and before he met up with his brother (whom he’d tricked). He’s sent his herds, his slaves, his wives, and his children on ahead of him in such a way that the ones most important to him would be safe in case Esau did anything dangerous.
And now he was alone.
It’s where this weird encounter happens. And it’s always confused me how abrupt it is. Jacob is alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. Y’know, like it happens all the time. Where did the man come from? Who is he? Why does he wrestle with Jacob? Scripture is absolutely silent about any of those things. But what we end up learning is that this man is important. So important, in fact, that Jacob knows he has to hold onto him until he gives Jacob a blessing. He doesn’t have the option of outsmarting this mystery man. He can’t outwit him, or trick him, or pull the wool over his eyes. He wrestles with him, all night, even after his hip is put out of joint.
Then we learn that this man, it seems, was God. Jacob wrestled with God. And he didn’t let go.
For some of us, the concept of wrestling with God—of pushing back, of grappling, of refusing to submit or concede to God—is just something you don’t do. We have lesson after lesson that you submit to God’s plan, that when God does something, it’s good, so go along. You don’t question God. You don’t argue with God. And you certainly don’t demand anything from God. What this scripture seems to be suggesting is hard for some of us who grew up singing “Trust and Obey.”
But arguing with God is one of the hallmarks of scripture, and central to how our Jewish siblings relate to God. Jacob wrestles with God here. Moses just about got on God’s last nerve with all his pushback. Jeremiah resented God’s call and questioned its usefulness. And today, Jewish theology is shaped by argument—with scripture, with each other, and with God. Jacob’s all-night wrestle-thon with God is right in line with how scripture seems to understand how we should relate to God.
Because by wrestling with God, by not letting go until God blessed him, Jacob is showing an incredible amount of faith and faithfulness. Think about it: Jacob lived in a world filled with gods to choose from. Gods who would be easier for him to manipulate, gods who would be much happier giving him easy answers and telling him things he wanted to hear. But he knew, of all those gods, only this God whom he was wrestling with could give him the blessing he needed. And he knew God had that blessing for him if God would just give it to him.
Think of the certainty of faith it takes to say “I know you have what I need, and I won’t go to anyone else to get it.” Jacob made a bold demand, but in the boldness you can see how strong his faith was. He did not let go. He would not let go until God blessed him. He refused to give in, to walk away, to meekly accept something less than what God promised. He knew what God was holding out for him and he was determined to hold God to God’s promise to give him that blessing.
What if we were that bold? What if we took a cue from Jacob and wrestled with God, not letting go until God gave us the blessing God has promised us? What if we were so exhaustingly persistent that God would relent and did what God said God would do?
I think that kind of boldness might be necessary in this time. The kind of boldness that faces the terrible reality of a global pandemic, and doesn’t let God go until God has done something about it. The kind of boldness that demands God be true to God’s promises to make us one in Christ Jesus and heal the racism in our country. The kind of boldness that hangs onto God until God relents and beats swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. The kind of boldness that takes five loaves and two fish and expects God to feed thousands with basketfuls left over.
Jacob knew the promises God made. He knew the kind of hope he could have in what God could deliver. And he didn’t let go until he got exactly what God had promised from the beginning: the blessing that would bless the world. May we be as bold as he was. May we hold onto God, not because we think God owes us something but because we have heard God’s promises and we know God can fulfill them. May we wrestle until daybreak with the certainty that God will give us that blessing. And may we never, ever let go.
Thanks be to God. Amen.