Many people are surprised that the name of the people of God, "Israel," means to "wrestle with God". But, that was the name God gives to Jacob, who is a character full of faults and failures, and that became the name of everyone who are called God's people in the Bible ( Christians are called "new Israel" in the New Testament). So, in this episode, we will explore how Jacob received this name and how we are to understand the relationship between humanity and God.
This episode is also a milestone of sort, as it was it was originally meant to cap the second phase of the series (the first phase being the first season). As such, the episode will reference many of the key ideas in the past episodes.
P.S. If I sound somewhat different in this episode, it's because I'm currently recovering from Covid; so please stay safe and healthy, everyone!
0:00 The name, “Israel” means to wrestle with God
2:55 Overall recap of what “God speaks” means
10:25 Jacob’s ladder and God’s promise
19:05 Jacob’s life, struggling with family
25:09 Jacob's struggles and God's promise
31:57 Jacob wrestles with his fears and hopes
36:06 To live, is to wrestle with God
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“Israel” is the name of a nation today in the Levant, surrounded by Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and of course, Palestine. It is an old name—a name of a Hebrew-speaking people and their nation that once existed in that very same region from since 3300 years ago. The oldest archaeological record that we have of this name is from an inscription carved into stone more than 3200 years ago in Egypt. Called the Merneptah Stele, it presents an ancient propaganda of sort, celebrating the military victories of the Pharaoh Merneptah against Egypt’s enemies, focusing especially on Libya and its allies. But, near the end of that list of victories is a boast that “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.”
“Israel,” even more significantly, is the name of a people whose thousand-year journey with God is recounted in a book that has now become central to the lives of billions of people across the world: the Hebrew Bible, or the Christian Old Testament. Its account, you could say, is presented as a millennia long, inter-generational case-study of what a people will experience and learn when they relate to the whole of Reality as Who rather than a What, and do so for generations after generations. Yet, according to the very people who wrote this book, “Israel,” was a name of an individual who they consider as their ancestor—a man who was first given the name, “Jacob.”
And the meaning of the name, “Israel,” is rather surprising; it is not a name you’d expect for a man who’s supposed to have been blessed and loved by God, nor a name for a people whose millennia-long history is supposed to embody the depth of humanity’s relationship with God, and thus with all of Reality that unfolds around them.
“Israel” means “to wrestle—to contend and strive—with God.”
Then again, maybe that really is how it’s like. Maybe that really is the best description of those who truly engage with God. So, let’s explore this in this episode of …
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… "What do you mean, God speaks?" where we explore important ideas, insights, and stories in Christianity, for the skeptics who want to understand religion, to the Christians who have questions about their own beliefs, and everyone in between.
I am Paul Seungoh Chung, and this is our twelfth episode of the third season, “Israel: the one who wrestles with God—and prevails.”
[ / music ]
In our previous episode, Jacob, fleeing from his angry older brother Esau, and on his way to his relatives living in a distant land, had a dream where God speaks to him.
Now, this series has repeatedly explored the many levels of meaning to the seemingly simple two words: “God speaks.” So, let me go over an organized step-by-step recap; we’ll need it for what we will encounter by the end of this episode.
So, at the broadest level, all of reality is God speaking. But, I need to emphasize this for those who forgot the first episode of this series; I’m not saying here that there’s some entity “out there somewhere,” that’s magically storytelling our universe into existence. What I’m saying is that Reality, as a whole, including all its principles and laws, is like a kind of speech, and everything that happens—from the Big Bang, the formation of stars, evolution of Life, human civilization, and our own lives—unfolds like a story, or literally as “history”. This is how we can understand Reality as a whole, and what it means for Christians to believe that “God speaks forth everything there is”. And this is why this series initially defined “God,” not as some super-powerful being, but as the whole of “Reality,” at the widest and deepest level—so you’d know that when Christians speak about “God,” they’re not referring to some entity outside our universe that we can only “believe” is out there, but to the very reality that all of us are already engaged with, at all times. But, if we ended with just that, then “God” would just be one of the words that we use for “Reality,” and what Christians and people from other theistic religions believe would be no different from what even the most ardent atheists would believe anyway. So, obviously, there’s more. Just remember that this is where we’re starting from.
So let’s go a step further. All of reality is God speaking at the broadest level, but, there are many, many things about reality that we do not know and may never know; in terms of our metaphor, there are things that God speaks that we’ll never hear. So, at a slightly narrower level, every truth that we encounter is God speaking to us: every whole truth from every source. [ And again, we can learn and communicate truths about reality because Reality is like a speech. ] Now, “God speaking to us,” is different from “God speaking”; we are involved. And for us, there are some truths that are more important than others. I mean, the truths about, say, the varieties of beetles, or the cosmological constant, are great and all. But, what most of us are really concerned with are questions about how we are to live—what will make our lives meaningful, what will make our relationships loving, or our societies just. And all of that is hearing what God is speaking to us.
Let’s go even further. Christians believe that God speaks personally with us. So, among every truth about everything that Christians define as “God speaking to us,” are truths that we hear when God personally converses with us. How that happens and what it is like to experience such things, such as conversing with God, receiving God’s promises and witnessing them unfold—sometimes through miracles—is what this series so far has been exploring, especially since our episodes about Abraham. Yet, even then, we may still wonder if these experiences—including even the miracles—are just one-off fluke events, unless people who journey with God consistently experience something like this again and again. It is then that reality they are engaged with, begins to reveal a specific character—a personality, so to speak—through how everything continues to happen and unfold for them. Hence, the life journey of Abraham who spoke with God and saw God’s promises unfold continues in the next generation, with his son, Isaac, and then his son, Jacob, to be continued to his descendants.
And so, here we are; God personally spoke with Jacob, just like his father, Isaac, and his father, Abraham. And God spoke with him through a dream. Now, we covered why in our previous episode. Simply put, dreams belong to a kind of experiences, which include visions, or sudden inspiration, or even a thought that just “comes to you” from nowhere. And these experiences all unfold through some kind of unconscious process, which means we have no conscious control over its content. What that means is that if there is some truth beyond our thoughts and awareness that God is conveying to us, it would likely come through unconscious means. [We’re not going to go into the role of the Bible or some sort of holy texts here, because that’s a different question, and wouldn’t apply to Jacob anyway, since this was supposed to be way before the Hebrew Bible was written. ]
But, of course, this obviously does not mean that every dream is God speaking to us, any more than everything that we experience, or just think up, is true, and thus, God speaking to us. Most are not. So, there are a few more considerations about whether God is speaking through a dream. First is something we would all know. Let me ask a question: how many of you remember the dream that you had two nights ago, or even just last night? Most likely, you forgot them already; almost all our dreams are, frankly speaking, forgettable. Dreams can be confusing, or outright incoherent, and even when they are not, they just aren’t that memorable. But, some dreams are. These dreams can remain with us long after we wake up, and can even become very meaningful to our lives. I had a dream when I was four years old, for example, where an angel, dressed in traditional Korean robes of all things, appeared before me and said that my name will be “Paul.” I didn’t really know who Paul was at that time, but, guess where my English name comes from? Second is also something we also should know. So, you have a dream you still remember? Ok, what does it mean? If you dreamed that you were, say, sitting on a chair, smoking a pipe, and for some reason it was memorable to you, what does that dream mean? See, some dreams have clear and specific meaning. An angel telling me that my name will be Paul, is fairly specific and clear. Why is this significant? In the Bible, some dreams tell you things—clear, specific things—which then come true. That is crucial because remember, every truth—truth!—is God speaking to us. Of course, not just any random truth, but truth that brings life, that changes us for the good, is what God is speaking personally to us—but, truth is a minimum.
So, a memorable dream with a clear message that will turn out to be true: that is kind of dream that Jacob had.
[ Pendulum ]
In his dream, Jacob saw a stairway standing on the earth, with its top reaching all the way to heaven, and there were angels going and up and down that stairway. There have been many different interpretations to what the stairway means exactly, but they mostly agree on this: there is something that connects our world to the divine.
In the second season, we considered how the things that we see around us did not mean quite the same thing for the ancients as they do for us today. For us, “earth” is a planet, a spherical mass, and one of countless many in the cosmos, while “heaven” is our planetary atmosphere, and the vast, empty expanse of space beyond, where there are many, many other “earths.” But, for the ancients, there was only one “earth”. The closest concept in our time to how the ancient Hebrews viewed the “earth” is something like the “material universe”. They didn’t even think the “heavens” were really made up of same stuff as things here on earth. For the ancients, “heaven” wasn’t just physically far from the ground; it was a different realm altogether—made up of entirely different things, and following different laws and order. It wasn’t until the 17th century with Newtonian physics and the concept of universal gravity that we really thought of heavens and earth as following the same set of physical laws—that God spoke forth the same principles and laws for the stars in the sky and the rocks on the earth. For the ancients, heaven, the unreachable realm of the sun, moon, and the stars, stretching endlessly above, was how they imagined something that is beyond human power and understanding, limitless, and eternal. That is why they believed that gods dwelled in the sky. Because, really, can you think of a better imagery than the sky to describe these concepts?
So, what Jacob saw was something that connected the mundane, material world that he knew, to the unreachable divine realm of order, eternity, and limitless possibilities. And through this connection, angelic figures were climbing up and down on it. Now, the visions or dreams of this connection between our world to some greater realm beyond it seemed to be a universal religious experience—though obviously they come in diverse forms. Religious scholars like Mircea Eliade and others noted how different shamanic traditions tap into experiences of this very connection. There’s an example of how this connection is represented, that is well known thanks to Marvel comic movies: Yggdrasil, the cosmic tree that connects our human world to the world of gods and other beings. [ But, if you’re interested in these topics, you can look up the relevant works yourself; Jordan Peterson, for example, speaks about things like this extensively, if you follow his work that is. ]
To give you a sense though of how pervasive such experiences can be, here’s one. When I was six, I had a dream—yes, another one. In that dream, I saw a giant. He looked different from everything else, like a cave painting of a man that was somehow drawn above the earth. So, tall was this painted giant that everything else seemed like toys below him—even the hills and mountains only came up to his ankles. And I knew somehow, in a manner that only happens in dreams, that this was God. Then, I found that I was this ant-like creature that was climbing up on yet another great giant; and I again knew that this giant was in some way the same giant. Then the first giant spoke to the giant I was climbing. “It is time.” Then, the second giant replied, “Yes. It is time.” Then, I woke up. Don’t ask me what they meant by “it is time.” I don’t know. And this is a recurrent dream by the way; I had the exact same dream again in my teens.
I feel that Jacob’s dream about the stairway from earth to heaven felt something like this, but it had even more interesting features. Here’s one: considering what earth and heaven meant to the ancients, you’d think that God would be at the top of that stairway. But, that is not what Genesis recounts. The Hebrew wording is ambiguous, but what it reports can mean either that God stood beside Jacob, at the foot of the stairway, or that God stood above and beyond the stairway. This ambiguity is actually quite fitting. For Christianity, God is not an entity that exists in just some divine, spiritual realm. Heaven, and its limitless expanse is where God is, yes, but God is also somehow above and beyond even that; more importantly, God is also here, in our mundane world, standing where we are. All this is what it means to say that God is not just some super-powerful entity, but the whole of reality. But, it turns out that there’s a further twist to this.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus quotes this Genesis passage about the stairway between earth and heaven, word for word, and then applies it to himself, saying, “You will see heaven open, and angels of God going up and down the Son of Man.” So, the stairway in Jacob’s dream is Jesus. In the first season, we explored how the Gospel of John describes Jesus as the human embodiment of the Logos of God, or the speech of God that forms and orders the entire cosmos. So, all of reality is God speaking, and God that speaks is embodied in a human being who speaks every truth that brings life, who in turn is Jesus. And that is the stairway to heaven that Jacob saw, where figures were climbing up and down on it. Thus, the stairway itself is also God in some sense. This sheds a new light to my childhood dream, where I was climbing a giant, who somehow was the same giant that he was speaking with, and both giants were God.
Anyway, everything we considered so far about the dream is still just a set-up. Stairway Jacob saw, and God standing beside him—or beyond the stairs—establishes this one thing. Jacob is given a glimpse of reality. He sees the cosmos, with himself included, connected and in communion with God. This marks him as the one who will carry on the responsibility of engaging God in a way that his father, Isaac, and his grandfather, Abraham, have done. He will be the one to continue their journey. And so, God speaks these words to Jacob, “I am the God of Abraham your father and God of Isaac.”
Remember though what I said earlier in this episode? For God to speak meaningfully to someone in a dream, the dream needs to convey something fairly specific, which will turn out to be true. And in the case of Jacob, this again came in the form of a promise. God first repeats the promise that was given to his grandfather Abraham, and his father, Isaac. “The land where you are will be the land your descendants will inherit. You will have so many descendants, that they will be a nation. And through them and through you, all the families in the world will become blessed.”
Then, God makes a specific promise. For Abraham, it was that he will have a son. For Jacob, on the run, anxiously heading to a distant land, God speaks this promise, “Know that I am with you, and will watch over you, and bring you back to this land.”
Jacob then woke up from his dream and exclaimed, “Surely the LORD is here. This is the gate of heaven, the house of God!” And so, he named the place, “Beth-El,” which means, well, the house of God. Then, Jacob made a vow himself. If the dream he had turns out to be true—that is, if what God promised in this dream, does come true, so that he is able to make a living in that faraway land, and eventually come back home safely, then he will follow the LORD as his God.
[ Now, you may wonder about Jacob’s vow; he is offering in a sense, to accept God as the one he will personally worship, if God fulfills his promise. It may seem rather odd to say you’d “accept” God as your God. Yet, according to the Christian Bible, this is how we are like. It doesn’t matter whether the One that spoke to us unfolds all of reality, and speaks forth everything there is. What we care about is, whether the things that God will unfold will be good for us. It was the deep distrust and suspicion about what God will unfold in their lives that separated Adam and Eve from God, and Jacob is their child. Jacob is willing to follow God only if it really does turn out that God is on his side. ]
[ pendulum ]
Jacob’s life afterward was, to put it succinctly, one struggle after another. It seemed to begin in a promising way. He arrived in the town of Haran, near the borders of today’s Syria and Turkey, and met a young shepherdess. She turned out to be Rachel, who was the daughter of Laban, who in turn was the older brother of his mother, Rebekah— which makes him his uncle. “Uncle” Laban happily accepted Jacob into his family, but, Jacob found more than a welcoming new home; he found love. He fell head over heels for Rachel, his cousin, and wanted to marry her. [ Yes, marrying your cousins was quite normal then; after all, his father Isaac and his mother Rebekah were also cousins. It’s when you were trying to marry your sister or brother that it would cross the line—kind of. Let’s move on though. ] So, as it was custom then, he asked her father—and his uncle—Laban for permission. He offered to work for Laban for seven years if he could marry his daughter, and Laban agreed. Overjoyed, Jacob tended Laban’s flocks, and the seven years went by in a flash, because he was doing it for Rachel.
The problem happened after those seven years. On the wedding day, Jacob found that he was married to Leah, Rachel’s older sister. Angrily, he went to Laban to demand an explanation. “That wasn’t the deal!” he said. Now, remember how it was Jacob’s mom, Rebekah, who came up with the plan to trick Isaac and steal the blessing meant for Esau? Well, it turns out that this was a family trait, as Laban, her brother, was just as cunning and crafty, but now this was being used against Jacob. Laban replied to Jacob that younger sisters cannot get married before their older sisters, so if Jacob wants to marry Rachel, Leah needs to be married first. So why not marry Leah so that he can marry Rachel? But, Laban added smoothly, work for him additional seven years, and Jacob can marry Rachel next week. Having left with no choice, and experiencing what it is like to be on the receiving end of what he did to this brother—being cheated out of something that was promised him—Jacob agreed. He worked for seven years more.
During those seven years, another set of struggle erupted around him. His marriage with Leah was an unwanted one, and Leah found herself neglected in comparison to her younger sister. Genesis reports that God had compassion on Leah because she was being mistreated, and enabled her to become pregnant at every opportunity. Again, your children were considered your primary legacy in those days. Leah quickly gave birth to four sons in a row: she named them, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. The meaning of their names discloses a rather heartbreaking hope that Leah had that Jacob will come to love her because of these sons. Yet, by the time she had her fourth son, it seems that Leah instead became joyful that God, at least, seemed to love her, as she exclaimed, “now I will praise the LORD,” and named him, Judah, which means “praise.”
Apparently, in Abraham and Sarah’s family, your attractiveness is inversely proportional to your ability to bear children; Rachel remained childless even as her sister, Leah kept having sons. So, Rachel threw a temper tantrum at Jacob, saying, “Give me a child or I shall die.” Jacob angrily replied, “Do you think I’m God? I’m not the one keeping you childless!” So, Rachel did what Jacob’s grandmother, Sarah, did many decades ago. She had her maid, Bilhah, bear her husband’s children for her as a surrogate. You can sense her sheer combativeness in how she named Bilhah’s two sons. First was Dan, meaning judge, because she thought that his birth was God judging in her favor. She named the second son Naphtali, saying, “I’ve wrestled my sister, and I won!”
Not to be outdone, Leah gave Jacob her maid, Zilpah, who had two sons. Leah was delighted, naming them Gad and Asher, meaning fortune and happiness. Then God enabled Leah to have two more sons herself. Believing this to be another blessing of God that will have Jacob honor her, Leah name them, Issachar and Zebulun, the latter meaning, “honor.” Then, she gave birth to a daughter, and named her Dinah. Genesis reports that around this time, God heeded Rachel, so that she also became pregnant and gave birth to a son. “God has taken away my reproach,” declared Rachel, and said, “May the LORD add another son!” So, she named him Joseph, which means “to add.”
However, this sibling rivalry between Jacob’s wives was tame compared to Jacob’s continued struggle with their father—and his uncle—Laban. Jacob had now worked 14 years for him—the last 7 years being something that Laban basically tricked Jacob into—and he now wanted to go home with his wives and children. But, Laban had something else on his mind. He had done some fortunetelling—or, “divination,” as he puts it—and found that he was doing really well in his business lately because the LORD was blessing Jacob, who worked for him. So, continue to work for me, Laban said to Jacob, and you can name your price!
Jacob considered his offer, knowing that if he left now, he’d have no possessions of his own to provide for his family. So, he said, “Let me go over your flock later today, and you can give me all the speckled and spotted sheep and goats. This will make it clear and simple since if you find any sheep or goat that is not speckled, spotted, among my possessions, then you’ll know I’m cheating you.” Laban heartily agreed. But, that crafty old uncle was up to his old tricks. He immediately went through his flocks before Jacob could go take a look, and removed all the spotted or speckled animals and had his sons take them far away, so Jacob couldn’t get them.
[ Short pendulum ]
Jacob’s life among his relatives in Haran was one struggle after another. It was ironic in a way; he was here because he had deceived his father and cheated his brother out of what he was supposed to receive. Now, here he was, being repeatedly deceived by his uncle and cheated out of things he was supposed to receive.
Fortunately for him, the promise that God had given him in that dream at Beth-El years ago, was still in force. Despite Laban’s every effort, things unfolded in ways that favored Jacob. When Laban decided that speckled or spotted animals would belong to Jacob, the flock gave birth to more speckled or spotted animals. When he changed his mind and said striped animals would be Jacob’s, the flock gave birth to more striped animals.
Jacob also fought back in his own way. It seems he learned what Laban had done, so from then on, he made sure to take the animals that were supposed to be his, and put them in separate flock, far away from Laban. He also resorted to some kind of magical ritual—or superstition, the story is ambiguous on this one. He took several wooden rods, peeled white streaks on them, and set them around the flock’s watering hole. He would set these rods in place whenever the animals mated, and later, they would give birth to speckled, or spotted, or striped animals—whichever was Jacob’s wage at the time. And Jacob would do this only when strong, healthy animals mated, so that healthier new born became Jacob’s share, while feebler ones became Laban’s share.
Genesis does not say whether Jacob’s magical ritual really worked—that is, it does not say whether God brought Jacob fortune through the means of this ritual, or that God was doing this anyway, and what Jacob was doing was really a pointless superstition. I lean toward the latter because Jacob had a dream during the flock’s mating season, where an angel of God spoke to him and showed him that strong male animals that were mating were all speckled, spotted, or mottled. Then, the angel spoke these words of God to Jacob, “I have seen everything Laban has been doing to you. I am the God of Bethel where you made a vow to me.” But, the angel said nothing about the ritual. So, I’d say God was already helping Jacob, whether he was resorting to magic or not. But, what Jacob did speaks volume of the extent he was willing to go to get ahead.
After six years of this work, Jacob amassed a large flock for himself, and likely through trade, large possession and workers—that is, slaves—for his household. Soon enough, Laban and his sons became jealous of Jacob’s success, and were increasingly hostile to him. Then, God spoke to Jacob; Jacob would later report that an angel of God spoke to him in a dream. “Go back to the homeland, the land of your parents.”
So, Jacob called a family meeting, and reported what was happening to his wives. Leah and Rachel, also apparently fed up with how they were being treated—since, Jacob’s wages were their wages—agreed. It seems they were also unhappy that their father used them like bargaining chips to cheat their husband. “Is there anything left for us in this house? Isn’t he treating us like total strangers? He sold us and used up our money, so whatever you won from him is rightfully ours. So, do what God spoke to you!”
So, when Laban went away for a while on business—shearing sheep to be precise— Jacob took his entire family and all of his possessions and left for his home. When Laban learned of this, he called up his kinsmen to join him and chased them. So, the life-story of Jacob seemed headed to a violent confrontation between nephew and his uncle, and daughters and their father, until something else happened. This time, Laban had a dream. In that dream, God appeared—no further detail is given; perhaps, it was like that giant figure I saw in my childhood dream. Anyway, God then addressed Laban and spoke, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, neither good nor bad.”
When Laban met Jacob, he followed what God spoke, more or less. Laban upbraided Jacob for deceiving him by leaving without telling him, but added that though he had the means to bring him harm, God had spoken to him not to do anything to Jacob, good or bad. Jacob replied by angrily listing everything Laban did to cheat him, and pointed out that he was doing well only because God protected him from being so badly abused. Laban then replied he just wanted to send off his daughters and grandchildren. So, they had a farewell party, and then made a promise to each other. Neither Jacob nor Laban would harm each other, and, Laban emphatically added that Jacob must be faithful to his daughters and care for them even though Laban can’t see them anymore. Then, Laban kissed his daughters and grandchildren, and went home.
With this resolved, what God spoke to Jacob in that dream of the stairway years ago had come true so far. Here he was, back in his homeland, safe and reconciled to his uncle. Not only was he able to make a living all these years, but he was now wealthy beyond what he had hoped for back then, with four wives and twelve children. So, he took courage and sent word to his older brother, Esau.
His message to Esau really makes it seem that Jacob genuinely wanted to reconcile with his brother. It may be that his experiences of being repeatedly cheated by a family member made him understand just what he himself had done. In his message, Jacob called himself Esau’s servant, which is quite significant since Isaac’s blessing had clearly set him as Esau’s master. And Jacob called himself this not just to Esau, which would’ve made us suspect that he’s just flattering his brother, but to his own servant he sent to bear his message, “Tell this to my lord, Esau. Your servant, Jacob, has been living with Laban all these years and I have since gained many oxen, donkeys, flocks, and servants. I am sending my lord this greeting because I want to find favor with you.”
But, Esau’s reply would chill all of Jacob’s hopes for reconciliation. Esau was coming to meet him… with four hundred armed men. And this sets the stage of one of the defining moment of Jacob’s life story. His wrestling with God.
[ Pendulum ]
After hearing that Esau was coming for him, Jacob quickly prepared for the worst-case scenario. He divided the people with him and his flocks into two groups, so that if Esau attacks one group, the other group could escape. Then he prayed to God.
This prayer offers a glimpse into what was going through his mind: “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, ‘Go back to the land of your parents, and I will do you good,’ I don’t deserve all the love and faithfulness that you’ve shown me, for I left here with nothing, and now there are two large groups with me! Save me, please, from my angry brother, Esau! I am afraid that he’ll come and kill us all, me, the mothers, and their children. But, you promised me, ‘I will surely do good to you, and make your descendants as many as the sand of the sea’! ”
On the one hand, what God had spoken to him so far, since that dream long ago of the stairway connecting heaven and earth, had come true. He was blessed. He became wealthy, built a family and a people of his own, and God watched over him even as his uncle Laban tried to cheat him at every turn. It did seem that God marked him with a blessing that characterized the life of his father, Isaac, and his grandfather, Abraham.
But, on the other hand, Esau was coming with four hundred men. Why would he do that unless he planned kill him and wipe out his family? Yet, if he does that, wouldn’t that mean that what God had spoken to him would turn out to be false? Wouldn’t that mean God’s promise would not be fulfilled? But, he’s scared that maybe God has no reason to save him; he feels he doesn’t deserve God’s continued love and faithfulness so far that had granted him his family and his wealth. What he did, deceiving his father, Isaac, and his brother, Esau, weighs on him. Esau had reasons to want to kill him. What if God sides with him? Jacob had prayed that God would be on his side, and God had been, so far. But, would God still be on his side when Esau comes—the one that his father, Isaac really wanted to bless? Jacob is not sure.
The ambiguity of what is happening, the ambiguity of what reality is unfolding—what God is speaking forth—confronts him, as it did for his grandfather, Abraham, when he waited for God’s promise. Perhaps things will unfold favorably for him; perhaps God will save him. But, perhaps they won’t. There are reasons to be hopeful, and reasons to be fearful. And so, Jacob’s mind constantly sways from hope to fear, from God’s promise to Esau’s threat, back and forth, back and forth. And there was no reply to his prayer.
So, Jacob crafted his own plan to appease his brother. He took a large portion of his flocks, and separated them into different herds of livestock: goats, sheep, cows, camels, and donkeys. He then sent each herd separately to Esau, staggering their departure, so that he would encounter one herd, and then after a while, another. Jacob hoped that a series of gifts, arriving one after another, would chip away at his brother’s anger. But, even then, there was no guarantee. So, he sent his wives and children across a stream, and was left by himself during the following night. And he was once again alone. Like that night he had that dream, years ago, Jacob was alone again, with God.
Genesis then reports that a man wrestled with Jacob. No further explanation is given. Interpreters like the medieval Jewish scholar, Maimonides, or the Protestant theologian, John Calvin, believes that this was a vision of sort. Whatever it was, Genesis makes it clear that this man represented God somehow—either an angel of God, or for some Christians, a Christ-figure.
[ Full Genesis music – Remix 1,1,3,2,3 ]
And so, all through the night, Jacob wrestled with God.
Alone during that night, Jacob is confronted everything that is now unfolding in his life, which is to say, he is confronted with what God is speaking forth. And we are all afraid of what reality will unfold—what God will speak forth—in response to who we are and what we have done. That is why Adam and Eve hid from the sound of God. But, Jacob cannot hide anymore. It was now time—time to find what fruits his life has borne. So, he wrestled with God.
Jacob is aware—too aware—of his faults and failures, and how his past wrongs may yet bring retribution upon him and his family. All his life, he struggled and contended with other people—grasping at their heels to carve a share for himself. And now, he is afraid. After all, we are all afraid of learning the truths about who we truly are, of what we’ve been really doing, and what we should’ve done instead. We’re afraid of what God may be speaking to us, because there are things God may speak about us that we do not want to hear. That is why Cain turned away from God that spoke to him, and killed Abel, his brother, Abel. But, Jacob cannot turn away; he has once cheated his brother, but he now wants to reconcile. So, Jacob wrestled with God.
God had personally spoken with him, and gave him a promise, the same promise God spoke to his grandfather, Abraham, and his father, Isaac. And God has so far kept his promise. But, Jacob does not know God will continue to do so. After all, was God’s promise really meant for him? And those of us who have met God and spoken with him are afraid—we all have been—that God may not keep his promise to the end. That is why Abraham had to lay his son down, confronting his worst fears with his faith that God will keep His promise. But, Jacob is too afraid for that. So, he wrestled with God.
All night, back and forth, Jacob wrestles with his thoughts, his guilt, his uncertainties. And he cannot find peace. God does not answer him. God does not absolve him. God does not bless him. And finally, day breaks. The man, the one who represents God, wrenches Jacob’s leg joint from his hips, and says, “It is time. It is time to let me go.”
Jacob does not let go. Crippled and unable to win, he still holds on. “No,” Jacob says. “I won’t let go, unless you bless me!”
Maybe Jacob doesn’t deserve to be blessed. Maybe what he’s done cannot be forgiven. Maybe God has no reason to keep his promise to the end. Jacob does not know. But, even so, even so, even so, he says: bless me. Unfold a good future for me.
Even if I am inadequate. Even if I am a failure. Even if I don’t measure up. Even if I don’t deserve it. Bless me. Turn your face to me. So I will become something more. Someone like my father, my grandfather, the ones who engages all of reality faithfully, truthfully, and so, journeys with God—the ones who witness the impossible unfold!
I don’t know why you’d bless me. You have every reason not to. Even so: bless me.
And so it is. We wrestle with God; we contend and strive with reality. We wrestle because Life can be hard, and we’re flawed and frightened, and fail far too often. We struggle with other people, hurt them, even while wanting peace, because Life is like that. And we know that there is every reason reality should unfold calamity for us. Even so, even so, we still hold on. All of reality is God speaking; and when we have the courage to come out from where Adam and Eve hid themselves, and refuse Cain’s call to clamp our ears to what God speaks, we’ll then peer into every possibility that Reality holds—everything that God speaks forth—so that we can find and reach for a better tomorrow. Even if we fear failing, we’ll hold on. And because God personally speaks with us, we strain and hope to hear from God that there is a better tomorrow, that God will open the path to it, that God will speak to us and beckon to us from there. Even if we don’t deserve it. So, we hold on, and say, we won’t let go, until you bless us, God.
And the people of God will see God turn… as the man also turned to look at Jacob. “What is your name,” he asked.
“Jacob.” The one who desperately grasps at the heels, grasp at Life.
“No longer,” God says. “Your name is now Isra-El. The one who wrestles with God. For you have strived and contended with God, and you’ve prevailed.”
[ Music ends ]
Jacob limped back to the camp, and called the place, Penuel, which means the face of God. For here he faced God, yet still lived. In fact, he had a new life.
Esau arrived with his men. Jacob limped toward him with his family, bowing to him as he approached. But, his brother simply ran to him, caught him in a tight bear hug, and cried. Jacob cried as well, with relief, with joy, with something more.
Jacob then introduced his wives and children to Esau. Then Esau asked, “Why did you send me those gifts? I have plenty already. Keep them for yourself.” “No, no,” Jacob replied. “Please, I want you to have them. Seeing your face is truly like seeing the face of God, because you are happy to see me.”
And Jacob meant that; Esau’s response was in a powerful way, God’s response to him. Jacob had wrestled with God, and won from him what he most hoped for: reconciliation and peace—and the demonstration that God truly was with him.
So the people of God are Isra-El: those who wrestle with God. Those who come and face God, unlike Adam and Eve who hid themselves, and unlike Cain who turned away. Even if they’re not Abraham, who at the end of his life, had an unbreakable faith; even if they’re not Isaac, who was always at peace with his life. They will engage all of reality— face God that speaks—and despite their failures, faults, and vulnerabilities, they will say, even so: we will grasp toward hope, and… find God, looking back at them—that God has always been looking back at them.