Genesis 32:24-31 NRSV
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 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. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 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. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
The other week I went to my first Bris. Actually, a bris is Brit Milah, the Covenant of Circumcision. The wife of one of my friends just recently gave birth to a boy. In her practice of Judaism, the bris is an important religious and community-centered ceremony to celebrate this child’s identity and connection to his ancestors and current family. I was honored to be invited to such an event.
As my partner Maria and I entered the home in NE Philly, we spotted the ceremonial table, the empty chair for Elijah, the wine, the bris instruments, and an anxious group of family and friends.
The Mohel, an observant Jew who is educated in relevant Jewish law and surgery, was delightful in his explanations of the bris. He led us in singing and prayer. He made us laugh.
The Sandek [like a godfather], held the child on a pillow. Prayers and blessings were recited.
And then, the Mohel performed the procedure of circumcision.
On a personal note, I felt fine. I had none of those feelings of queasiness that some of my Jewish friends and colleagues warned me about. It seemed like I would make it through the ceremony without any problem at all.
But I was wrong….
The Mohel was done with the circumcision. He gave the child some wine and the little guy stopped crying. We sang again.
And then I felt nauseous; and then dizzy; and then the world started to fade to black.
I whispered to Maria:
I have to go outside for some fresh air.
I stumbled past the ceremonial table, trying not to make a fuss. I found the front door of the house and nearly fell on it. I struggled with the handle and finally got it open, only to collapse on a bench just outside. I put my head down and took deep breaths.
I was soaking wet–a cold sweat.
Meanwhile, inside the house, a little girl who was there with her family, stared at me curiously through the glass door as if to say:
I told you so. Don’t stand too close to the table!
Okay, so eventually, I felt better and was able to attend the rest of the ceremony. It was very nice. Mom and dad read words they had written about the child and his name. The mother talked about her relatives and how this boy’s name would connect to their lives and experiences. Afterwards, we ate food.
I celebrated the fact that hardly anyone seemed to notice that I had almost fainted and fallen right into Elijah’s chair.
In the Jewish tradition, naming and identify formation is important. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, we encounter stories about people from infancy to death–often learning their names and journeying with them through the various stages of their lives.
In this case, we are journeying with Jacob.
He’s middle-aged now. He has some money, a family, a herd of livestock—he seems pretty set. But he’s having a mid-life crisis, for sure. His brother Esau, if you remember, was the guy from whom Jacob “stole” their father’s blessing. Apparently, Esau is still angry about it and wants to take his birthright back. So previously in the story, Jacob sends word to Esau that he is coming, that he is rich, and that he hopes that Esau will favor him. But Esau isn’t buying it. He instead approaches Jacob’s camp with an army of 400 people. Jacob is scared. So he prays to God out of desperation, asking for help. But Jacob isn’t satisfied with just prayer. He reserves a bit of his wealth and sends it ahead to give to Esau. Maybe that will calm him down.
Jacob doesn’t hear from his messengers. This cannot be good.
Esau will surely arrive with a fury and possibly kill him. So Jacob sends his wives and kids to meet Esau and his 400 strong!
Then, that night, Jacob [all alone] encounters a stranger. The person he does not recognize starts wrestling with him—throws him to the ground. It’s WWE of the Bible! Turnbuckles, full nelsons, flying elbows.
But Jacob holds his own. It’s a tie.
Jacob’s wrestling opponent is smart, though. He does some move that throws Jacob’s hip out of joint. What irony this his, because Jacob’s name means the Heel. Now the guy who was born grabbing his brother Esau’s heel can’t even stand up straight. He’s out of balance.
The wrestler tells Jacob that it’s time to go. The sun is rising. But Jacob hasn’t had enough.
“I won’t let you go,” he says, “unless you bless me.”
“What’s your name? says the wrestler.
“You are no longer called Jacob. Now you are called Israel. You have wrestled with God and with humans, and you have prevailed.”
“But what’s your name?” Jacob wanted to know.
“Why do you want to know my name?” The wrestler refused to tell.
The blessing finally comes to Jacob—after this whole process. Jacob is convinced he has wrestled with God, so he names the place Peniel. He limps off, heading to meet his angry brother Esau.
The story continues. Jacob does in fact make it to see his brother Esau the next day. Surprise, surprise, it is a joyful encounter! Esau embraces him with tears of happiness. Forgiveness. They are brothers again. And Jacob says something important:
“I have seen your face, as though I had seen the face of God.” [Genesis 33:10]
Jacob thought that he had met God Almighty in the nighttime. He thought he wrestled with Jehovah and won. But the next day, he realized that the whole time he was wrestling with himself. He grappled with his fear, his selfishness, and the avoidance of the truth of his past. The face of God awaited him on the other side of the river, where his brother Esau waited with 400. Jacob was a coward. He had sent his messengers, even his own family ahead to meet Esau! But he could not face his fears himself! So after the wrestling match with himself—after sorting through his own fears, guilt, and issues—Jacob emerged with a limp. The limp is a sign of Jacob’s imperfections. He still needs to mature. He still needs to grow and find balance in his life.
The story does end happily with the brothers’ reunion and forgiveness.
But Jacob is never the same. He is no longer Jacob the Heel. He is now called Israel. He walks with a limp. He will always remember.
Friends, this story can speak clearly to all of us. Oftentimes, in our struggles of life, we wonder if God is our adversary. Why is this bad stuff happening to me? How come I have so much bad luck, God? Why don’t you favor me more? Can I get a blessing, God? Come on!
We want to steal a blessing.
We hold on for dear life to whomever or whatever; we attach ourselves until we get the blessing or the relief from our suffering. We cling to the illusion that what we feel inside [fear, resentment, depression, self-loathing]—we cling to the idea that we feel these things, because everyone else or external forces are causing them. The walls, we claim, are put up by others. We cannot be whole; we cannot be at peace, because others won’t let us.
But our opponent is not God. And most of the time, our opponents are not people either; or circumstances.
Our opponent is ourselves.
In the dark of night, our minds race to thoughts of regret. Things undone. Maybe like Jacob we have broken relationships with family or friends. For years, we have blamed the other person. After a while, we are afraid to even cross the river to try to make amends. There is no way, we think, that this person will accept us or offer forgiveness. Perhaps this is true, in some cases. Not always do we have to cross the river and encounter the person face to face.
But we DO have to wrestle with ourselves.
We do have to look at ourselves in the mirror.
We do have to admit that our fear is inside us and not coming from the outside.
So here is the blessing that we don’t have to steal.
If we do wrestle with ourselves in an honest way and stop blaming God or external circumstances, or whatever—we find a special blessing.
Like my friend’s baby boy, like Jacob–we are blessed with new identity.
You see, throughout our lives we can start to take on the identity that the world or others give us. Our past experiences give us names. Sometimes they are good and healthy, but other times they are destructive and hurtful names. Those names can haunt us at night, fill our minds with fear and depression—even take over our physical bodies. Our failures, disappointments, resentment, and regrets can solidify such names.
But the blessing we don’t have to steal is God’s willingness to help us discover a renewed and refreshed identity. God is still speaking, still acting, and still encouraging us to keep wrestling with ourselves.
And it is never too late to be renewed.
Friends, it won’t be easy to wrestle with yourselves. Sometimes, in the nighttime, you will struggle with your past and sometimes you will fear the future. It will be painful. You may wish for some instant relief—for God to swoop in and tell you a bedtime story and tuck you in.
But God will do something surprising instead. Your God will speak to you and fill you, encouraging you to wrestle.
Who are the Esaus in your life?
What rivers do you need to cross?
And God will meet you in that place where hope seems far away. And you’ll wrestle.
And then you’ll discover a new name, a renewed purpose for yourself.
And God will lead you to the Esaus of your life.
And God will lead you to whatever rivers you need to cross.
And a bridge will be built for you to cross over.
And when you do, tears of joy, kisses of greeting, forgiveness, and wholeness await you.
So may you find strength to limp over to the other side of the river.
May you find wholeness, peace, and forgiveness inside yourself.
And may others see the face of God in your forgiving, and blessing of them.