Week 42, Day 3
Reflection on Genesis 32
“Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak”. Gen. 32.24
Here’s a midrash on Genesis 32.
Jacob cheated and stole from his brother, Esau—twice; took from him what could never, ever be paid back. He conspired with his mother to deceive his father and then ran for his life to his Uncle Laban’s house to escape his brother’s murderous rage. Over the ensuing years he marries four women (two sisters and two slaves), fathers 11 sons and who knows how many daughters.
Uncle Laban, an accomplished cheat himself, almost gets the best of Jacob. But only almost; Jacob is too smooth an operator even for Laban and he comes away, years later, an immensely wealthy man.
But now he is going home; and he knows there will be consequences to face.
A day or two out from his father’s house, Jacob gets word that Esau is coming with an “army” of 400 men, and his heart freezes. All he has for defense is 4 wives, a bunch of kids and a few slaves.
But he does have large herds of very valuable livestock. Hoping to appease Esau he sends ahead waves of animal gifts. Then he divides his family into two companies, thinking if Esau attacks one the other might escape. He sends them across the River Jabbok.
And then he is alone.
Alone in the deepest darkness he has ever known, his rampant fear and his jabbering conscience convince him that he deserves what is about to happen to him and his family.
“Go home”, God had told him, “and I will be with you”.
And this is what he comes home to. A silent God and a brother on the rampage.
God looks down and says to no one in particular. “This won’t do. I’ll go to Jacob. I’ll be with him in the dark. I’ll put my arm around him and let him know he’s not alone; that the darkness isn’t so dark after all”.
God touches Jacob’s shoulder and the skittish man, leaping to defend himself, spins into God’s arms—where he is held secure; against his will, to be sure, but safe. He doesn’t know what is happening. He doesn’t feel safe. But he is.
God holds him all through that long night as Jacob wrestles with himself—wrestles with his fear, with his guilt, with the recognition of all that he has lost; all he has wasted; all that might have been but now won’t be. All. Night. Long.
There is a raw agony to this interminable night of wrestling. Maybe you’ve known such a night yourself; not knowing that you, too, were being held safe. Jacob feels this agony deep in his bones. He fights so hard and feels it so deep that when the day finally begins to break, he breaks too; he becomes dis-jointed. He can no longer carry this load. He has lost the fight. He has to let go.
And when he lets go, God blesses him with an ironic new name—Israel. A name that means “He who wrestles with God, and prevails”.
So, it would seem, the only way to prevail with God is to lose. To save your life, Jesus said, lose it; or as the poet Denise Levertov has written “fall into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace, knowing no effort earns that all-surrounding grace (1)”.
Prayer: Our best effort earns us nothing. Generous Spirit, let us fall into that deep embrace that holds us safe. Make us content with the loss. Resolve our failure by your grace. Amen.
1. ("The Avowal", from The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (New York: New Directions, 2013)