John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme.
Genesis 32: 22-31
When Jacob left Isaac and a very angry Esau to go to Haran to find a wife, the God thing seemed remarkably easy for him. In the middle of the night, at Luz, he has a dream of such awesome but comforting power that he senses that a corner has been turned, that despite his treachery against his elder twin and his father, God will be with him to bless him. He sets up a pillar, a holy menhir; Luz becomes Bethel – the house of God, and Jacob its proprietor.
Twenty years later, he’s on his way back to Canaan, and it’s all very different. Again in the night he encounters God, but not in a comforting dream. He encounters a human presence with whom he struggles all night.
These are stories and like all good stories they are open to many interpretations. There is no one way, yet alone one true way, of understanding them. But they are stories to which the people of God keep coming back, especially, I think, to the struggle at the Jabbok. For though some find the God thing easy, straightforward, assuring and reassuring, for others it is always a matter of struggling, wrestling in the dark.
I have spent a lifetime in the struggle with God. It is not over. I have spent large parts of a lifetime trying to escape God. But God will not let me go. In the darkness, God returns to struggle with me.
I also know something of what it is to be Jacob. Jacob can be characterised as a cheat, as deceitful – the very name means cheat (according to one of the Bible’s explanations). I know what cheating feels like: it is like being a glittering façade behind which it seems there is no substance. But knowing that is also part of the struggle. And naming the struggle is honesty. There is deep truth in some words preached nearly 60 years ago by that great German theologian Paul Tillich that have resonated deeply throughout my life:
Even if theologians had to give up theology as their vocational work, they would never cease to ask the theological question. It would pursue them into every realm. They would be bound to it, actually, if not vocationally. They could not be sure that they could fulfil its demands, but they would be sure that they were in its bondage.
And we are all in bondage to God if we are asking the question: who is this with whom we struggle in the dark?
What is it like to spend the night struggling in the dark with someone you do not know? What is it like to strive so hard and nearly prevail? What is it like to wrestle until your hip is put out of joint by an opponent who seems to like the dark, and still to carry on until you get to the point where he is forced to say ‘Let me go for the day is breaking.’ Who is this? Does this person even want to be known? Or is there ever to be a sense of mystery, a cloud of unknowing, around him? Jacob – surely like us? – wants to know, only to get the reply ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ There are shades here of the cryptic name which Moses, also seeking to know, was told: ‘I am who I am’. This wonderful story is so deep in layers of meaning, so intense yet so enigmatic.
Jacob never learns that name – perhaps because it would have meant gaining some control over the figure. But there are some things that Jacob does get out of this encounter.
Instead of getting to know the name of the one with whom he struggles, he gets a new name for himself. It is the name by which the people of God are to be known. And though the dreadful politics of the middle east have taken the gloss off it, I cannot forget that the New Testament is clear that we, the people of God called to be in Christ, are also called the Israel of God, the new Israel. And the name means ‘God fighter’, ‘the one who strives with God’, or even, conversely, ‘God strives’. If you have dark days, never forget that. It is in your name; and your name gives you your identity. Never forget that God strives with us and for us.
So he gets a new name and he also gets a blessing. Blessing is much more important than we allow it to be nowadays when blessing is reserved for priests and sneezes. But blessing is a serious matter. Blessing conveys power, enhances life, is a gift from the one who blesses and gives something of the blesser away. It cannot be revoked or recalled – this is the source of Esau’s bitter anger. Yet at the Jabbok it is as though Isaac’s blessing of Jacob is confirmed by God. Imagine what that meant – and means for us.
So, he gets a new name and a blessing; he also gets an understanding that he has seen God face to face – though maybe not, because it was in the dark. But it is a seeing, a knowing, that counters doubt, that gives hope and courage in the face of both spiritual darkness and physical danger – he still has to face his estranged brother, and though we know the meeting went well, Jacob had no certainty of that – quite the reverse in fact.
But this is not just about seeing – it’s about seeing and surviving. ‘I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved’. I think the reference here is not just to the Israelite belief that no one can see God face to face and live because of the utter holiness and otherness of God. I think it’s also about seeing God and living, despite the catastrophic mess of our own lives, despite the inner demons, despite the fight with God.
And in all this, Jacob discovers the intimacy of God. This is a God who is not remote from us or our concerns. This is the God who touches us, who grapples with us, who struggles with us. This is the God who, because God is struggle, becomes one of us.
And there is one other thing that Jacob gets. He gets a limp. His hip is not miraculously cured. Jacob limps away from the Jabbok, and limps on through the rest of his life. And some of us might feel that as a result of our struggle with God we have limps that will never go away.
That’s how I read wrestling Jacob at this moment in my life. I might read him differently in 2 or 12 or 20 years time. But I know that I shall never be free from the intimate presence of the struggle or the struggler who still calls me and calls me by name. I know that I shall always have the limp. I shall continue to know that I am blessed in that limp and can be a blessing to others.