The story in Genesis 32 of a literal fight with God starts with a long journey.
After a dispute with Laban, Jacob’s father-in-law, the whole caravan of Jacob’s family heads back home — a home where Jacob had deceived his brother and father. This trek from Mesopotamia to Canaan foreshadows the journey to come for the Israelites.
Jacob and his family were going to need to redefine their relationship with God and with their own identity. I can imagine Jacob wondering if he’d be rejected or welcomed after he stole a birthright and hightailed it away from home.
Jacob likely realized he was going to have to change from being a scammer and a runner — his go-to survival personas — to being a beloved son and brother.
This is a complete change in how he sees himself. Seeing one’s identity in a new way doesn’t happen without a struggle.
Jacob seems to get a lot out of fighting. Jacob wrestling with God masquerading as a man is one of my favorite Old Testament stories. Jacob’s literal fight with God is like his struggle with Esau — because later in this story, when Jacob meets his brother and sees his face, he says it’s like seeing the face of God.
In his wrestling match with God/stranger/man, Jacob was winning. In what surely would be an illegal move in modern wrestling, the stranger put Jacob’s hip out of joint. The rival wrestler had to physically harm Jacob so he could get away.
In fact, the wrestler tells Jacob to let him go. Jacob doesn’t. This is not a spat. It is a fight for one’s life.
Jacob wrestles with God not for an hour, not for two, but for half the night. This blessing is so important that Jacob is willing to do whatever it takes.
In the end, God cries uncle. It was dawn, and both parties had to have been exhausted.
“Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me’ ” (Genesis 32:26).
It’s interesting that Jacob asks specifically for a blessing. That’s what started this whole mess: Pretending to be Esau, Jacob asked his father to bless him.
Jacob is now given the name Israel. The etymology is unclear, but some say the root of the word “Israel” means “to strive.”
In the end, Jacob receives the blessing, with this new name, because he struggled with God and with people and won.
Jacob names the place where he fought Peniel, because he saw God face to face and survived.
This story can disturb us. God is all powerful. And yet, God loses a wrestling match.
This foreshadows the humanity of Jesus in the New Testament. Jesus is a man who gets thirsty and angry, who feels pain and dies.
As Christians, we might struggle with that. Isn’t humanity gross, base, imperfect?
Yes. And humanity is loving, kind, generous and merciful. Or has the capacity to be.
We are not all one thing or another. We are both/and. Jesus is both/and. Completely human. Completely divine.
Jacob strove with God in the only way he knew how — giving all he had in a struggle. He wanted a blessing, and he thought he wasn’t going to get one until he pinned God down and made God do it.
This is who Jacob is, right? A fighter. A heel-grabber, as his original name suggests.
Fighting was Jacob’s way. It might or might not be yours.
God’s face takes many forms. God shows up in the most unlikely of places — even as a stranger hanging out by a river in the middle of the night.
What do we do when we see God? Ask for a blessing? Ask for our very being to be changed, like Jacob? What is this blessing that we want?
We don’t have to fight, but we do need to be attentive. We need to be attentive to the movement of God’s Spirit, to where God may be personified, to where God may be in an action. We need to be attentive to ourselves.
What is it that we need? A blessing? A reminder that God’s love is real and for us?
Do we need a new name, a new way of being — one that breaks out of the mold and into the person God is calling us to be?
Seek God. Fight, if you must. For it is in seeking that we find, as Jesus said.