"The Blessing in the Wrestling" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer
How do you define God? What I mean is, what characteristics do you think God has? I don’t mean to humanize God too much, but if we’re created in God’s image it’s not impossible to make sense that elements of our nature come directly from the Eternal. The biblical text tells us God gets angry, we know Jesus wept upon learning of his friend Lazarus’ death, and we talk constantly of God’s love at this church.
But what other characteristics does God have? How should God be defined? Buckminster Fuller, the American architect and philosopher once wrote, “God, to me, it seems is a verb, not a noun, proper or improper.” French writer and playwright Alfred Jarry described God as, “the tangential point between zero and infinity.”
Traditionally, Christianity teaches that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and unchangeable. If you grew up in church you’ve likely heard these philosophical definitions of God before, but what if God doesn’t fit so neatly into such categories?
This morning’s story of Jacob wrestling with a stranger is one that, among other things, should challenge how we think of God. But before we tackle that idea, let’s remember where we are in the biblical story because we’ve zoomed ahead a couple of generations from Abraham and Sarah.
Jacob is Abraham and Sarah’s grandson, and his name means trickster, supplanter, or heel grabber because he comes into the world holding onto his twin brother Esau’s foot. Second-born, Jacob is his mother Rebekah’s favorite, and his long journey to where we find him today begins when he steals his brother Esau's birthright by hoodwinking their father, Isaac.
Afraid for his life after Esau discovers his deception, Jacob runs away and keeps running for decades. Along the way, he marries sisters Leah and Rachel and gets into conflict with his father-in-law Laban from whom he also flees until they finally reach a peace treaty in the chapter just before this one.
Now at peace with Laban, this morning’s story finds Jacob again fearing Esau who, despite Jacob’s gifts, is planning to meet his younger brother with an army of 400 men. Always the trickster, Jacob sends his family and possessions across the Jabbok River for protection and waits alone for Esau. As Dr. Amy Merrill Willis points out, “This is a rare event. Like most twins, Jacob has virtually never had a solitary moment. Since his conception, he has been tied up and entangled with at least one other human being at any given moment.”
But it’s in these moments of solitude that Jacob encounters God. First, in Genesis 28 God comes to a sleeping Jacob in his dreams and makes a promise much like the one made to Abraham - for land and numerous descendants. Later, after Jacob is married, God again appears in his dreams commanding him to return to his homeland. Then in this morning’s third encounter God “comes posing as a dark and disguised threat, not as a protector.”
It’s important to note, however, that the text never identifies the stranger. This has led commentators to a variety of explanations over the centuries such as that the dark figure is Esau come for vengeance, that the stranger is an angel, or that Jacob’s inner demons have come calling. I like the idea that Jacob is wrestling himself, perhaps in his sleep, but such an explanation doesn’t explain how Jacob wakes up with a limp - unless he’s like many of us over 30 who can hurt ourselves while sleeping. But despite the text’s crypticness, it’s clear that Jacob is attacked by this stranger without warning or reason.
Jacob and the stranger wrestle and wrestle, and wrestle neither getting the upper hand. The stranger strikes Jacob in the hip, seriously injuring him, and Jacob wrestles on. Jacob refuses to relent when the stranger asks to be released at daybreak unless the stranger will bless him, which seems to be an odd request to me. If you were attacked in the dark by a stranger and spent the whole night wrestling him and sustained a lifelong injury, wouldn’t you be looking for a reason to get this stranger away from you? Wouldn’t you be desperate to be done with this person who hurt you?
Joseph is just built differently. Perhaps recognizing the Divine in this stranger, perhaps wanting something for having endured this unprovoked attack, perhaps needing some “indication of the growth” he’s gone through in this struggle, Jacob demands a blessing.
Now, there’s an important detail to notice in Jacob’s story before we go any further: this is the first time anyone in Jacob’s family - Abraham, Isaac, and Esau - has had to work for a blessing. Up to this point, God has blessed Jacob’s family without anyone asking or having to do anything. But here with Jacob, the trickster, the hard-headed one, a blessing has to be worked for.
And Jacob does get a blessing, of a sort though. He’s told his name is no longer Jacob but “Israel,” for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed. Like the rest of the odd choices in this story, this sort of blessing/non-blessing feels strange. This isn’t really what Jacob asked for until you consider this renaming to indicate the relationship between God and Jacob. God could have just won this wrestling match, but instead shows mercy. God could have overpowered and overwhelmed Jacob without even touching him, but instead is fully engaged in this physical struggle. God could have sent Jacob off with a standard sort of blessing, but instead, God sees beyond Jacob’s trickster nature, sees his determination, sees that Jacob has been changed by their encounter, and gives him a new name.
But is Jacob the only one changed by this midnight struggle? What if this encounter also changes God? Being in relationship with humans is still fairly new for God. The Eternal has only been this committed to this family for three generations and Jacob is nothing like his father or grandfather. What worked with them doesn’t work with this hardheaded hoodwinker, so even if God showed up to that riverbank and engaged Jacob in this physical struggle to prove a point, to show dominance, that’s not how the night ends.
A relationship, a path forward emerges. Jacob demands something of God and God responds. It might not be the verbal blessing Jacob hoped for, but it is an indication of something far better than words - that God is growing in this relationship just as Jacob is. God is challenged and changed in this encounter, and yet God is faithful.
My friends, the Good News this morning is that while the God we see in this Genesis story is not one “who fits neatly into the philosophical categories of [being] omniscient, omnipotent, [or] unchangeable…this is a God who’s in the fray, down here with us.” This is a God who’s committed to being in relationship with us. Who might even be surprised to be wrestled to a draw?
The God we see growing and evolving in this story doesn’t mind that we’re struggling - even if that struggle is with Her. For what God desires, the reason God shows up on that riverbank, or a hospital room, or at a graveside, or in the simplest moments of our most normal day is to continue to be in relationship with us. And yes, we might wrestle with God. We might take direction easily. We might have questions and doubts but rest assured God has never expected people to be perfect - Jacob certainly isn’t. God expects and desires people to be engaged.
A final word of warning. Any sort of wrestling changes us. Sometimes it yields blessings, sometimes it marks and wounds us, and we carry those marks on with us. Tangling with the Divine in particular promises many things, but safety isn’t one of them. But there is blessing to be had in the wrestling. Just don’t be surprised if you come away after an encounter with the Eternal with a blessing and a limp.
 R. Buckminster Fuller, No More Secondhand God, 1963.  Alfred Jarry, Exploits & Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician, 1911.  Amy Merrill Willis, “Commentary on Genesis 32: 22-31,” from https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2132  Ibid.  Ibid.  Dr. Amy Robertson and Dr. Robert Williamson, The BibleWorm Podcast, September 17, 2023, https://www.biblewormpodcast.com/e/episode-503-jacob-wrestles-with-god-genesis-329-13-22-30/  BibleWorm, ibid.  Ibid.