Jacob Wrestles at Peniel
22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man[a] said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans,[c] and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel,saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel, limping because of his hip.
Feeding the Five Thousand
13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Before we dive headfirst into stories from Genesis and the Gospels, I want to set you free from a bind that I think a lot of people feel trapped in. Yes, we are called to place our trust in the authority of Scripture and, yes, we should love the Bible. We should love what it teaches us and how God challenges us through it. The Christian journey is about falling in love with the God that Scripture reveals.
That does not mean that you have to love every character nor affirm every action.
Jepthah, for example, is an idiot. (Judges 11) The story about him sacrificing his daughter to God in order to fulfill his promise is a story about his foolishness rather than his faithfulness. Just because it happened in Scripture or was done by someone God chose doesn’t make it right or good.
(For the record, this isn’t just an Old Testament rule. I still really struggle with Paul’s refusal to give John Mark a second chance after his initial failures in Acts 15:36-41.)
I bring this up because I am not Jacob’s biggest fan. His name means ‘to supplant’ which sums him up well:
1. to supersede another by force or treachery.
2. to eradicate or remove something that is obsolete and provide a substitute.
3. to take the place of/serve as substitute for something by reason of superior excellence or force.
As the younger of two twins, Jacob comes into the world with his hand around his brother’s heel, a metaphor for how he will spend his life — trying to take something that isn’t his and trying to be someone that he is not. His brother grew up to be a skillful hunter while the Bible describes Jacob as ‘a quiet man, living in tents’, something that I doubt was intended as a compliment. To use a Game of Thrones reference, Esau had a lot in common with Robert Baratheon or Ned Stark. Jacob was more like Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish or Varys, the Master of Whisperers, men of words and cunning rather than action and force.
Jacob was the kind of man who would seek to capitalise on his brother’s hunger rather than meeting his needs. He is the kind of man who would impersonate his brother in order to fool his dying father into spending his final breath blessing the wrong son.
Jacob is not, in my estimation, a good man. He is a man hungry for blessing and who will stoop as low as he must in order to lay hold of any blessing he can get.
In Genesis 32, Jacob has sent his family ahead of him at the Jabbok when we read:
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
I love how the writer tags on this line as if it isn’t both perplexing and ridiculous. A man just shows up and wrestles Jacob all night? Was this customary? Were the lands filled with wandering wrestlers? Was the Jabbok crossing point an ancient version of the Royal Rumble?
As they wrestle, the man — generally assumed to be God or a divine emissary of some sort — sees that he is not prevailing against Jacob and dislocates his hip. Jacob doesn’t know it at that moment but this injury will force him to walk with a limp for the rest of his life.
As day is breaking, God asks for Jacob to let him go but Jacob refuses.
‘I will not let you go until you bless me.’
No great surprise there. Jacob’s endless, insatiable quest for blessing continues.
I have loved this passage for a long time and I find myself returning to it often. I love what it tells us about the Christian faith and the God who gives us permission to wrestle with him. This week, however, I’m reflecting on a possibility that I have not considered before:
What if the dislocation of Jacob’s hip is part of God’s blessing?
I imagine that, like most of us, Jacob would struggle to see the blessing in the midst of the pain, that he would find it hard to reconcile what God has done with what ‘God is supposed to do’. And yet here in the place of Jacob’s pain, his identity changes and he receives a new name. He goes from being the one who takes what is not his to being Israel, the man who wrestled with God.
In Jacob’s previous struggles with his brother, Esau, and his father-in-law, Laban, he walked away with wealth and power — but also with disconnection and shame. His greed and need for blessing have taken him away from the people he loved. He has more but he is less as a result.
When he limps away from his battle with the Almighty, he is a different man. He is a man wounded by intimacy with his Maker. Part of God’s blessing was the act of breaking him, of humbling him, of reminding him of his humanity. By wounding Jacob, God gives him the chance to fulfill his name, the opportunity to supplant himself, to become someone else. As Imogen Heap sings, ‘There is beauty in the breakdown.’
This week’s Gospel reading is the feeding of the five thousand in Matthew 13. After a long day of teaching and healing with a huge crowd, the disciples urge Jesus to send them home so that they can get something to eat. Jesus responds, ‘They don’t need to leave. You feed them.’
‘How can we feed them? All we have is five loaves and two fish.’
Jesus says ‘Bring them to me’ and goes on to do what God so often does.
He blesses them. And then he breaks them.
When all have eaten their fill, there are twelve baskets left over. When God blesses and breaks, there is always more at the end than there was at the beginning. There is more left over than was offered.
This what God does. He blesses and he breaks.
Just as he did with bread at the last supper. Just as he did with Jacob and with the disciples.
Just as he does with us. May God bless you and may God break you.
For your sake, for his sake and for the sake of the world he loves.