Texts: Genesis 32:22-31; 2 Timothy 3:14-4.5; Luke 18:1-8
Before you start feeling too bad for Jacob, you should know that the heel-grabber gave as good as he got. After he worked off his fourteen years of debt to his uncle, he continued to work for Laban, and asked for all the black and speckled goats and sheep from the herd as his wages. Laban agreed—and then removed all the black and speckled animals from Jacob’s flocks. However, by some clever (and superstitious) breeding practices, Jacob induced his flocks to produce black sheep and speckled goats in abundance and grew exceedingly rich in Laban’s service.
After six years of this, Jacob could feel his uncle’s hostility. Though his wrestling match with his uncle was a bit more subtle, it seemed that Laban didn’t like Jacob holding onto his heel any more than Esau did. Even his two wives felt their father’s growing animosity; so, when Laban was away shearing, Jacob packed up his wives, children, servants and herds and headed back to the land of his birth. Upset at his son-in-law’s sudden disappearance, Laban gathered some men and chased down Jacob’s caravan. After a tense confrontation in Gilead, Laban and Jacob parted ways amicably, with a promise not to raid one another.
And so it was that Jacob once again found himself between two homelands, chased out of both for being a heel-grabber. Behind him lay an angry uncle who had agreed to a truce but who would not welcome him home again; ahead of him lay an angry brother who had vowed to kill him. The thought of facing Esau again clearly terrified Jacob. He sent hundreds of livestock ahead of him as a present to soften the heart of his angry brother, then he split his family and what was left of his herds into two groups, in the hopes that if Esau attacked, at least one of the caravans would escape. He sent those two groups across the Jabbok river where they would have more warning in the event of a raid and spend the night by himself, alone and afraid for the second time.
Instead of dreaming of angels, Jacob was attacked by one. A strange man appeared and wrestled with him all night. Even as he physically struggled with this assailant, he was wrestling with what to do next: should he go back, or move ahead? Would he face his brother with defiance, or with submission? Would he pretend like nothing had happened, or would he act as if no time had passed? The wrestling match between the two men on the banks of the Jabbok mirrored the wrestling match within Jacob as the man he had been—the heel-grabber—wrestled with the man he would have to become.
As dawn approached, the stranger—unable to gain the upper hand—punched Jacob in the groin, dislocating his hip, in an attempt to end the match. But the heel-grabber did once again what he did best: he held on. Finally, the man said, “Let me go, the sun is almost up.”
But Jacob refused to let go. Perhaps this mysterious wrestler was just a mere mortal, perhaps a heavenly being, perhaps even the LORD God Almighty in the flesh; whoever he was, Jacob recognized God’s presence in the encounter. Jacob knew he needed a blessing if he was face what the day would bring. He also knew that, if this stranger really was God, he would not be able to see God’s face and live; and with his vision slowly increasing in the growing twilight, his time was running out. “Bless me or kill me,” he told the stranger, “I’m not letting go until you do one or the other.”
So, the mysterious figure gave him a blessing. “You are no longer Jacob, the heel-grabber. Now you are Israel, the God-grabber, for you have wrestled with God, with people, even with yourself—and you have prevailed.”
Jacob had always been a wrestler. Even in his mother’s womb, he saw what he wanted and he grabbed it. Jacob still had to face the consequences of his past actions, but now he could face them not as the forlorn heel-grabber, but as the one who had wrestled with God and won, who had seen God face-to-face and lived. This is what God does: God redeems things. God takes our liabilities and transforms them into assets.
Jacob was a heel-grabber; it’s not just who he was, it is who God created him to be. It’s a trait that got him in plenty of trouble, but it’s also the same trait that allowed him to recognize God in the face of the mysterious wrestler and to go to face his brother with God’s blessing. Jacob was still the same person he always had been; but now, instead of being defined by all the ways he had deceived and cheated people, he would be defined by his tenacity, his persistence, his doggedness.
The story never says that Jacob and the stranger let go of each other. Of course they must have, but the story allows us to imagine that, on some level, the wrestling match never ended; that God and the One Who Strives With God remained locked perpetually in one another’s grasp, throughout the history of Israel, even to this very day. We are the beneficiaries of that history. St. Paul writes that we are branches that have been grafted onto Israel’s tree. We, too, remain locked in God’s grasp, forever wrestling with the God Who Strives for justice and peace, for wholeness and healing, for the redemption of all creation.
When Jacob finally did meet his brother, he didn’t find avenging warrior he expected. Instead, his brother surprised him with his generous welcome and warm embrace. Esau tried at first to refuse the gifts that Jacob sent ahead to him, but Israel insisted that he take them. “God has been kind to me and given me everything I need,” he told Esau. “Please, keep the gifts; because of your unexpected kindness, seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.” And if anybody ought to recognize the face of God, it’s Israel, the God-grabber, the One Who Wrestles With God.