Jacob Wrestles at Peniel
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. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 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 Peniel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.
Comments: For anyone who imagines an easy and comfortable relationship with God, this passage comes as an unsettling shock. Here, the paradigm for relationship with the Divine is not comfort, but struggle. Jacob is returning to his home after fourteen years away, and he knows that he must face is brother (Esau), from whom he has stolen both a birthright and their father’s all-important blessing. Jacob has every reason to expect trouble. The surprise is that the trouble doesn’t come from Esau (who, on the day after this wrestling match, welcomes Jacob home with open and forgiving arms), but it comes from God. God is no easy partner here, not even a benign parent. Rather, God is a formidable foe, an overpowering presence. All of this confirms what we know instinctively, but which our religion often tries to cover over: that the human encounter with the divine can be terrifying, but that nothing short of entering that encounter can make us truly alive.
1. Recall an instance when you struggled (“wrestled”) with God. What were the circumstances? How did that encounter change your image of God? How did it change you?
2. Hebrew Scripture puts great stock in the significance of names. In this story, Jacob’s name is changed to Israel, which means, roughly, “One who has struggled with God.” If you were to be given a name that characterized your own spiritual life, what would it be? “One who _________”
3. Jacob limps away from this nighttime encounter. Do you have a similar “limp”? How does it show up in you?