A few weeks ago at the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, we heard about a significant moment in the life of the patriarch Jacob, who had a vision of angels passing between heaven and earth.
Today we heard about another significant episode in Jacob’s life, one that changes him even more radically than his angelic vision. We know this because as a result of what happens to Jacob at the Jabbok river Jacob’s name is changed to Israel: one who struggles or wrestles with God. As we further know, a name in the Bible is not accidentally related to the person who bears it. A name tells us about that person’s character; their name is who they are.
And before now Jacob’s character has not been all that great. His birth name, Jacob, means “heel-tripper.” It’s a weird name. He gets that strange name from his mother because when he was born he was gripping his slightly older twin brother Esau by the heel as they both emerged from the womb.
The twins made their mother miserable during her pregnancy because they fought each other even in the womb, and then baby Jacob tripped up his brother Esau at the moment of his birth. And the years to come followed that same pattern.
Twice in their adult lives Jacob deceitfully robs his brother Esau of the blessing that rightly belonged to him by birthright. After the second time Esau vows to kill his brother, and Jacob has to flee for his life.
But Jacob is a clever man. A resourceful man. A man who lives by his wits. And when he is cheated by his relative Laban out of the wife that he loves he works all the harder and gets the best of the situation and a second wife to boot. Though he is gone from his home in the Promised Land for twenty years, he becomes very, very rich.
Jacob is someone who relies on his own abilities for his success. And he does well for himself, sometimes by means that are a little dubious. As his name suggests, he is good at tripping others up, and even when he’s tripped up by someone a little craftier than he is, he gets right back up and makes the best of it in the end.
So when God sends him back home Jacob’s craftiness is still at work. He knows Esau is likely to still be angry, so he does everything he can to appease him by sending ahead of him a big show of all his nice stuff: “Look brother, I’m rich. Maybe it’s not too late to share in the blessing after all.” But this time his flattery and cleverness don’t seem to work. It looks like Esau is mad and not only that mad but possibly preparing for battle. So Jacob strategizes yet again, dividing his own property to avoid total loss and sending his family on ahead into the Promised Land to what he hopes is safety.
And there he is left alone. No family. No wealth. No home. Just him.
There is a haunting, primal simplicity to the nocturnal scene that follows, one we lose in translation, because there are three Hebrew words here that structure this crucial event, all of which echo each other. There is the man: Jacob (Yah-a-kove). The place: Jabbok (Yah-boke). And there is an action: wrestle (Ha-vahk).
The man is who has always been. Jacob, entirely self-reliant from birth, always looking out for himself. Jacob stands alone in the dark with nothing but his own considerable strength and smarts to help him.
The place is important too, because the Jabbok river ford is a tributary to the Jordan. We are just on the edge of the Land promised to Moses and his descendants. Jacob at the Jabbok is on the threshold of home.
But the action is totally unexpected. It is dark, Jacob is alone, and all of sudden he is set upon by an entirely mysterious someone.
Just when it seems like Jacob will win for himself yet another victory, that he will beat this challenge too…the one he is wrestling strikes the blow that will incapacitate him.
He’s lost. Yet even now he looks out for a way he can benefit himself. Jacob is still looking for that advantage. Though his thigh is out of joint he clings to his opponent and insists that he bless him. The man who twice stole his own brother’s blessing has the audacity to demand just such a blessing from someone he now grudgingly has to admit has got the best of him.
But he also has to admit who he is. He has to give his name and therefore to admit his character.
Once he does, he gets a new name and a new character. From now on he shall known as Israel, the one who contends with God.
Yet when Jacob presses his opponent for his name, he is elusive. Rather than bless his opponent in return Jacob blesses the place, thus changing not just his own name but also the name of the place where he stands, and he calls it the face of God. “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
It’s a commonplace in both the New and Old Testaments that we cannot see God as God is without being utterly annihilated by the experience. It is a grace and a mercy when God shows us God’s own self in some indirect way, as it seems God did to Jacob. This conclusion is further supported by the fact that Jacob’s opponent declines to give his own name, because just as God does not show his face, so also his name is elusive. And that is because God’s nature is elusive.
So this tale abounds in mystery. To choose just one of many questions we could ask, Why does God stand between Jacob and his return to the Promised Land, a return that God himself has urged upon Jacob?
Here is my guess: This moment is nothing less than the birth of a people, the people of God’s own choosing. And God chooses those who wrestle with him and chooses them to wrestle with him.
Jacob cannot enter into the Promised Land, he cannot come back home, on his own strength and smarts.
He must be changed. And that change is one he cannot make in his own life. The calling of Jacob to be Israel is one that God initiates. No amount of struggle can force God to bless Jacob and call him into a new and restored life in the land of promise.
Yet at the same time the path to the Promised Land is a path of struggle. We need to know that our own strength is not sufficient to get us home. Yet at the same time we are expected to use our strength to struggle with God, a struggle that is also mysteriously service to God.
The virtue that helps us to sustain struggle is an important one we don’t hear about often enough: That virtue is perseverance. We prayed for it this morning, in the collect for the day. We prayed for perseverance in faith.
And that’s because perseverance is a product of faith in the promise of God. To believe in God, to believe in the promises of God, is go on wrestling, because we believe that it is God who would have us wrestle and yes, even to wrestle with him. God wrestles Jacob on the very border of the Promised Land, but it’s God who sent him home in the first place.
Because no good thing comes without struggle. The good is hard-won.
Perseverance is what allows us to endure until victory. Jacob becomes Israel because he has struggled with God and God says he has prevailed. So what looks like a loss for Jacob is actually a victory. The defeat of his own strength is his real victory.
But that victory that perseverance wins itself come from God. Because while we go on wrestling with God it is not that wrestling that gives us the victory.
Perseverance makes us strong, but it does so with a strength that is not our own. The victory is to be had precisely when we no longer insist on our own strength. We have to not even insist on being our own old selves.
Jacob gets a new name because when you struggle with God, in the end God overwhelms you. God overwhelms you and makes you someone new. God puts Jacob’s thigh out of joint because it’s about time Jacob got tripped up. And God leaves the mark of that injury, as Jacob limps into the Promised Land, as a reminder of the new person he must be, as a physical reminder of his spiritual struggle.
Perseverance is the grace that comes from having struggled with someone other than you; it is how we stop insisting on being ourselves. And because of that it is also a way to be at peace with others. As Saint Paul reminds us, in one of his most celebrated passages, love endureth all things. Love perseveres. And because it perseveres love can bear with others, with their indifference, with their incomprehension, even with their lust for vengeance.
And that’s really where this story ends. With love. Jacob, now Israel, the one who struggled with God, limps into the Promised Land that to this day bears his name. And when his brother Esau approaches, he bows down to that sacred ground, he bows down on his bad leg, lamed and finally humbled.
And then what?: Genesis 33: “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”
That’s why we pray for perseverance. Because the good is always hard-won. It is always difficult. And it also takes time. Because to struggle with God and to contend for his blessing must be done on his timetable, not our own. Jacob has been gone for twenty years. And even on the very threshold of home he still has to fight for it. All night long.
But he wins. He wins peace and joy and reconciliation.
The struggle itself comes from God. And so does the victory. And so does the final blessing. For at the end of all our struggles, it’s the lame that shall enter first, and the ones who were wounded by their contention with God will show the rest of us how to replace vengeance with an embrace.