What does it mean to wrestle with God? What does it mean for God to wrestle with us? (show photos of modern wrestlers, then an older woodcut of Jacob). While this might seem like a new-ish question, resting on less authoritarian understandings of God in recent years than would have been common in previous generations, the metaphor of wrestling with God – or an angel of God’s – goes back to the very early days of our Judaeo-Christian lineage and gives us much to explore.
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Last Sunday (Genesis 28: 10-19) we met up with Jacob, as he was on the move, making a stop at the place he named Bethel, or BETH-EL, “the place where God lives.” At that place he had a dream, alternately known as the stairway to heaven or Jacob’s ladder, a dynamic dream of a God who had bridged the gap between this realm and the next, with angels in perpetual motion between the two. In this morning’s reading Jacob is on the move once again, but twenty years have elapsed, and the direction of travel is reversed. Last week, we heard that there were two possible motivators for his travel: either his parents had sent him to find a spouse, or he was on the run from his brother Esau, from whom he had taken both the family birthright and the paternal blessing. Now, on his return home, he will finally need to face the music with Esau and the setting is fraught with danger. Oh, and in the intervening years, Jacob the trickster got some trickery served up to him in that quest for a spouse, with his presumptive father in law Laban turning seven years of service by Jacob into fourteen in order to marry Rachel – after marrying her elder sister, Leah. Found in Genesis chapter 29, it’s a story filled with both patriarchy and, for me anyway, a degree of reader satisfaction as Jacob has someone else pull a fast one on him.
In any case, in the 20 years between last week’s reading and this week’s, things been set in motion for Jacob and his brother to meet – and they do reconcile, in chapter 33– but before that, Jacob has another of his noteworthy restless nights. He has what one might euphemistically call a sleep disturbance: he gets up in the middle of the night, to get his group strategically positioned to face Esau, and in the night an unknown stranger engages him in a wrestling match. Unlike the stairway to heaven dreamscape earlier, this time the night event is portrayed not as a dream or vision but as intensely physical, so much so that Jacob’s hip is thrown out and he is left with a limp. (And please note, as Pastor Jeremy Berg points out, the limp is not necessarily to be seen as an impediment, but as a physical reminder of this important engagement with the holy.)
This was no regular earthly assailant, but a supernatural being – God, or an angel, or a fallen angel, depending on whose interpretation you believe. (see Widmalm) . As translated by The Message Bible,
“A a man wrestled with [Jacob] until daybreak. When the man saw that he couldn’t get the best of Jacob as they wrestled, he deliberately threw Jacob’s hip out of joint.
26 The man said, “Let me go; it’s daybreak.” Jacob said, “I’m not letting you go ’til you bless me.”
27 The man said, “What’s your name?” He answered, “Jacob.”
28 The man said, “But no longer. Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it’s Israel (God-Wrestler); you’ve wrestled with God and you’ve come through.”
29 Jacob asked, “And what’s your name?”
The man said, “Why do you want to know my name?” And then, right then and there, he blessed him. 30 Jacob named the place Peniel (God’s Face) because, he said, “I saw God face-to-face and lived to tell the story!”
While I have known since childhood that Jacob was renamed Israel part-way through his story, it’s so significant that this new name, Israel, arises from this encounter and that it means “one who has wrestled with God” – or contended, striven, or persisted with God – rather than some more benign term. The name Israel is definitely not a soft term of blessing or belonging, or a term based on superiority or dominion. To have one’s name and the name of one’s descendants defined by wrestling with the Divine is to engage that struggle at the core of your being. This thought, of an identity integrally related to struggle, I will be pondering for a good long time, relative to both the modern state of Israel, and to the ongoing plight of Jewish people around the world who continue to contend with anti-Semitism.
What would it mean for us, as people of faith, to also bring that sense of “wrestling with God” up close, not just as a mindset but as a significant part of our identity and our daily living?
Over the years I have heard many friends and parishioners describe their tussles with God at life’s crossroads – at times of loss and grief, when pondering a career transition, when dealing with a health diagnosis received by self or loved one, when trying to make sense of world events and worrisome climate change. As hard as these struggles have been, I have always been encouraged to a degree that folks are willing to wrestle with God, rather than getting stuck in their anger, or helplessness, or shame. To wrestle with God is to recognize that God is, and that our relationship with God isn’t a static thing. To wrestle with God also, in many cases, calls us to change our picture of God, especially if we picture God as judgmental and do not perceive the power of grace in our lives. Wrestling with God can be exhausting and at times the pain gets more acute, not better – we can identify with Jacob and his hip injury. Yet this wrestling also tells us of a God who is concerned about and engaged in your life, not some aloof, judgmental deity who just watches from afar.
Another form of wrestling, which I’ve experienced first-hand – is the form of wrestling known as doubt. For a person who considers themselves spiritual and/or religious, to express and wrestle with doubt does not signify a shortage of faith, it’s an integral part OF faith. One of the turning points in my own faith journey, over 40 years ago, was an encounter with Paul Tillich’s little book, Dynamics of Faith, in which he clearly stated that faith, of necessity, includes the element of doubt for without doubt it would be certitude. Tillich’s words ring in my ears as I witness the unyielding, unlistening certitude that shapes so much disrespectful discourse on social media, mirroring the daily divisiveness of the early 2020s. Curious and perturbed doubt brings us into a place of creative tension with God, with our belief system, with our worldview. Wrestling with our doubts – through meditation, prayer, hard thought, emotional work – has the power to rejuvenate our faith. Asking hard, honest questions of our faith is one of the ways we wrestle with God, and in the wrestling we know we might end up, like Jacob/Israel, walking with a limp afterward – for this wrestling is not some magic cure for spiritual malaise. But as with any deep exploration of life, wrestling with doubt may well increase our sense of personal authenticity and God-engagement, and there’s great value to that.
We wrestle with God, then, as we examine our faith, our doubts, the way that our God connection is shaped and the way it shapes things. Within that, for many of us, is our relationship with scripture. Amy-Jill Levine, musing on this passage from Genesis, writes “Since the name ‘Israel’ traditionally means ‘to wrestle with God,’ we do well [to wrestle] with passages that confuse and disturb us. More, we do well to wrestle with passages that have and can continue to cause harm.”
Each of us, I suspect, has more than a few parts of the Bible that we find at best, irritating and at worst, unjust, untrue, or harmful. I very much appreciate Amy-Jill’s words here, encouraging us to use our intellect, and to pay attention to our experience of the helpful and harmful ways of being we have observed. And we do this, not only to evoke understanding, but to equip ourselves for change. Just because misogyny, for example, is deeply imbedded in parts of our sacred text, doesn’t mean we should point to the Bible as a reason to keep misogyny alive in successive generations, any more than references to slavery as a normal part of Greco-Roman society should be considered as a recommendation of its continuation. In seminary, we were encouraged to wrestle with sacred text, at times to even preach against the text, as an acknowledgement that the word evolves as the world evolves.
Before moving to the next point I feel compelled to name one of the places in scripture I am constantly wrestling with. Throughout the story of Jacob, the repeated promise of land, land inhabited by others, troubles me. In its original setting, I can make some sense of it, especially as I recall that much of our sacred text was written when the people of Israel and Judah were subject to overlords such as Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia or Rome. But as I see how it has been applied since then, with powerful nations using a sense of God-given dominion to justify the genocide of Indigenous peoples and the theft of land, my heart breaks. To me there is no question that flat-out repentance and restitution (also evidenced in the Jacob and Esau story) is needed for many of the ways that “promised land” theology has been and continues to be used.
And now I exhale… and ask today’s question once more, “what does it mean to wrestle with God, or for God to wrestle with us?”
One answer unfolds literally here and now. This weekend, as thousands of guests and locals converge on Centennial Park for the Folk Festival, I give profound thanks for artists – musicians and actors, authors and screenwriters, choreographers and dancers and visual artists – whose work raises questions about life and belief and justice and community, and evokes response. Think of those times where something you had accepted or believed has been called into question because of a song – or where you had to look in a mirror in a new way because of something you experienced in a play – or when an author or poet’s words have given voice to something that was bubbling deep within you but did not have a means of expression. On Folk Festival Sunday I always find myself so thankful for the influence of my big brother Herb, who introduced me to Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, I name with gratitude the legacy of Gordon Lightfoot and Gord Downie and hey, even my man Stompin’ Tom Connors whose music touched me and shaped me, and I acknowledge the relentless presence of artists like Pete Seeger and Buffy Sainte-Marie who would not take no for an answer as they pushed against racism and sexism and war-mongering. (We recall Pete’s banjo inscription: “THIS MACHINE SURROUNDS HATE AND FORCES IT TO SURRENDER). For those of us who identify as people of faith, the power of music and all manner of artistic expression isn’t something separate from our God-Wrestling; it is one of its more powerful venues.
Wherever and however it has been part of your journey thus far; wherever and however it may be agitating you right now; wherever and however it may be part of what comes next in your life, the metaphor of wrestling with God, including the possibility of God’s seeking you out and provoking the fight, is a powerful one. Our experience, our intellect, our spiritual inklings and our political leanings, our values and our callings are all invited to engage with God, as a to-and-fro ‘rassling match that promises to shape who we are. Long may I and you and we be willing to wrestle with the God who strives for us to have a love-imbued life that is dynamic, courageous, informed, and life-affirming. Amen.
Levine, Amy-Jill. The Difficult Words of Jesus: A beginner’s guide to his most perplexing teachings. Nashville: Abingdon, 2021. Accessed via https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/an-orthodox-jewish-female-explains-the-new-testament/
Pete Seeger’s Banjo: https://thedutchluthier.files.wordpress.com/2016/01/image15.jpeg
Tillich, Paul. Dynamics of Faith. NYC: Harper Torchbooks, 1958.
Trible, Phyllis. Texts of Terror. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984.
© 2023 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church. Preached in Canmore.