Wrestling with God: Jacob

Genesis 28:10-17  

Genesis 32:22-32  

We continue our reflection on Encountering God with the story of Jacob, the trickster, the biblical embodiment of the art of the deal.  Some folks are unexpected mystics, and Jacob fits this category.  From the moment of his birth, Jacob sought to get the upper hand on anyone he met.  He held onto to his older brother’s heel, trying to get out the womb first, and receive the blessings of being the first born son.  As a young adult, he tricked his rather dim-witted older brother Esau out of his birthright, trading a bowl of lentil soup for Esau’s future inheritance. When it came to receiving his father’s blessing and the power that came though it, Jacob once again supplanted his brother.  In collusion with his mother, who loved him best, he dressed in fur to impersonate the hairy, hunter Esau and cooked a savory meal, to gain his father’s blessing. In the wake of his trick, he fled from the rage of the brother he cheated, only to meet his true love Rachel, and then literally fleece his father-in- law out of fortune in young sheep.

Yes, Jacob was a deal maker, but every deal was to his advantage and left his business associates angry, alienated, and a little poorer after dealing with him!

Who would have expected God to choose Jacob to be a blessed one, to make a covenant with him, promising that from his line, this grandson of Abraham, a great nation would rise?  But grace is strange – you might say “amazing” – it comes to us, often when we least deserve it.  It accepts us, when are farthest away and running in the opposite direction from God’s love.  Grace embraces all of us – each one of us is a child of grace – and some us receive God’s grace not by deserving it, but out of the pure loving kindness, the tender mercies, of the One who mothers and fathers us all.

After all his running, Jacob was tired, and he lays down with just a stone for a pillow. He’s feeling uneasy for he knows that Esau wants to kill him. Perhaps, it’s the place, or his weariness, or his uneasy conscience, but the doors of perception open and he dreams of a ladder of angels ascending from earth to heaven and then back down to earth.

Jacob awakens, filled with awe and more than a little terror, and stammers, “God was in this place and I did not know it.”  He takes a breath, builds a shrine, and then calls the place “Beth-El,” the gateway to heaven.

Years pass, and Jacob, after years of estrangement, is about to meet his brother Esau.  What will Esau’s intention be?  Will he try to kill his dishonest brother, the one who claimed his mother’s love and his father’s blessing? Or, will he seek a new beginning?

Once again, Jacob goes to a lonely place, and in the course of the night encounters a stranger with whom he wrestles till dawn.  The stranger wants to slip away, perhaps, to avoid recognition or because if Jacob were to see him – the Holy One – Jacob would die.  Jacob refuses to let go, and has one more deal to make, “I will not let you go until you bless me.”

Once again, Jacob is blessed, this time with a new name, Israel, “one who has wrestled with God and overcome.” Jacob shuffles off with a limp, a reminder of this moment, and an invitation to a new kind of deal, working on behalf of God.

What are we to make of these strange encounters? Do they have a word for us or are they just relics of a more gullible past, a past when people believed God walked among humankind and was not imprisoned in a faraway heaven or supernatural irrelevance?

I think Jacob’s encounters have a few things to say: First, God comes to us in a variety of ways. In Jacob’s case, God came in a dream of angels and a nocturnal wrestling match.  The ancients and many today believe that dreams are God’s messengers to humankind. In dreams, God speaks to us through the unconscious with sighs too deep for words, giving us wisdom that may elude us in the busyness of conscious life.

Where have you experienced wisdom in dreams?

When you have a dream, pause and notice.  Ask for guidance.  Some dreams are just scary or fun, but others are messages of wisdom and truth, inviting us to explore new horizons of ourselves and our world.

Second, Jacob stammers, “God was in this place and I did not know it.”  Isn’t that the point of life – to discover that God is in this place, to know that God is with us, guiding us, inspiring us, and constantly giving us wisdom in every encounter.  Every place we go is “Beth-El,” the gateway to heaven.  The angels are here, wisdom abounds; when we ask, seek or knock, we will find what we need to serve God, reach out to our neighbor, and enjoy the beauties of the world.

Finally, God is found in the wrestling.  Faith can be challenging.  Doubts and questions emerge, and we may want to take the easy path and accept the instant answer.  But, in the wrestling is the finding.  If God matters enough for you to challenge or doubt and struggle, you will find your path.

Some of us are “once born,” as philosopher William James says. Faith comes easy and we never have second thoughts.  Others of us are “twice born,” to quote William James, and faith comes in the struggle, the doubt, the question, and the unanswered prayer.  Tempted to give up, we keep on looking for a path forward until a way is made.  We may never see the far shore, but our hard-won faith gives us a path toward the future one step at a time.

Today, go forth with Jacob.  God’s grace has no minimal qualifications. Simply say “yes” to God’s love for you, regardless of the past.  Listen to your dreams, trust those deep messages or hunches that come from the unconscious, and don’t give up, wrestle with God, and you will receive a blessing, a covenant, and a future.