Beloved Adversary -- on Wrestling and Blessing

July 31, 2011

by Elizabeth Maxwell

Modern Testimony: “St. Francis and the Sow”, by Galway Kinnell
Ancient Testimony: Genesis 32: 22-31

The story from Genesis that we heard this morning is surely one of the richest and most evocative in all of scripture. We meet Jacob alone on the banks of the river Jabbok as he prepares with dread to meet the brother from whom he has been running for twenty years. But while he waits there he has an encounter with a mysterious adversary, which changes him to the very core.

But to understand what happens there by the river crossing, we have to ask, who is Jacob and how did he get to this point? Longer story of Jacob unfolds through several chapters of Genesis, and its densely crafted, themes weave all the way through: naming, deception, truth-telling, blessing.

Jacob is born the second of twins whose mother, Rebecca, felt them struggle even in her womb. He comes into life grasping his brother Esau’s heel, as if, as the second child (if only by a few minutes), he wants what will never be his. The very name Jacob means “the heel grasper,” or “the heel thief,” or perhaps, “he who supplants.” Esau’s name means hairy or rough.

Supplanting, in fact, is exactly what Jacob does. When his father Isaac is old and blind, Jacob tricks him into giving him the blessing intended for Esau as the eldest son. Jacob is Rebecca’s favorite and she helps him deceive his father, by covering him in skins so that he will feel and smell like his hairy brother. In the Hebrew bible, a blessing is a living, substantial thing that changes the one who is blessed. It cannot be revoked once the deception is discovered. Jacob has stolen Esau’s power, even his identity and his future. Esau wants to kill him. So Jacob leaves home in a hurry, traveling with nothing. He heads some distance away, to the country of Haran, the home of Laban, his mother’s kinsman.

Jacob finds a welcome there - and it turns out that Laban is a bit of a trickster himself. Once again the story plays with older and younger children. Jacob loves Rachel, Laban’s younger daughter. He works seven years to have her as his wife. But on the morning after the wedding, Jacob discovers that Laban has given him Leah, his older daughter instead. He exacts another seven years for Jacob to have Rachel as his second wife. Jacob serves, and he prospers. His wives bear eleven sons and a daughter; he has servants, flocks, herds and camels. Gradually Jacob’s prosperity begins to seem like a threat to Laban, and Jacob begins to want to return to own country. He leaves Haran with all his household. There are stealth and deception on both sides as Laban and Jacob each try to trick the other. But in the end, they part in peace.

But now, a much more threatening meeting is looming. As Jacob nears the land where his brother lives, he sends messengers. Their message is conciliatory and also, he is telling Esau, “I have done well. You don’t need to worry about me.” But the messengers return and tell Jacob that Esau is coming with 400 men. (As one commentator said, “you don’t need that crowd for a family reunion.”) The text says that Jacob is “greatly afraid and distressed”. He divides household into two companies and sends them ahead separately across the Jabbok River, hoping that if his brother’s intentions are violent, his family may not be totally destroyed.

And so it is that in our passage, Jacob finds himself alone on the river bank, deep within the gorge- alone with his fear of what the next day will bring.

I don’t know about you, but I recognize that place - a place of fear that keeps me up at night - when the thing I most wanted to avoid comes crashing in. It may be some unfinished business, or the realization that you can’t go on living as you always have. “Inconvenient truth” breaks through. Perhaps you receive a serious diagnosis, or a relationship is over, of you are suddenly in touch with some undeniable and seemingly impossible longing. Maybe you realize that you need to get sober or you have outgrown your job and don’t know what else you are going to do. Or you confront some injustice or abuse and know you have to respond. In the crisis, like Jacob, we wait and we worry, wondering if our wits can pull us out of this once again.

What happens next in the story, though, dwarfs all Jacob’s thoughts of Esau.

A mysterious stranger - “a man”-  wrestles with Jacob until daybreak. He arrives unannounced- is it a surprise attack? The text gives no explanation or introduction; the wrestler just is. In hindsight, both Jacob and others will say that the adversary is the holy one, or perhaps an angel of God’s presence. But the text also bears traces of a very old tradition that suggests that Jacob wrestles with a night demon, who must vanish at dawn. In the night, in the wrestling, it is often not clear whether we have met an angel or a demon, nor how the adversary can bring blessing.

The two wrestle in mortal struggle through the night. Imagine the sculptural representations of this story- the physicality of straining muscles and bodies pressed against each other- sweating, grunting, locked in fierce embrace. At times, the struggle gives way to a kind of dance.
I have very limited experience of wrestling, but for me, it has included pushing as hard as I can, and being met. It gave me a sense of my own presence, power and limits as well as the force of my adversary. These were discoveries I made with my body. I couldn’t think my way into them.

These wrestlers seem evenly matched, Jacob and the mysterious stranger- until at daybreak the other strikes Jacob on the hip socket, throwing his hip permanently out of joint.

“Let me go, for day is breaking”.

But Jacob, wounded, holds on. “I will not- until you bless me.”

Is this faith, or stubbornness? Or does Jacob simply speak from overwhelming need and longing? Maybe it is all of these.

The stranger takes Jacob seriously. There is a cost. He asks, “What is your name?” To speak it in this context will give the other power; he will know Jacob’s being, his very identity.

“Jacob.” I am the heel, the sneak, the supplanter. I am the one who has lived by deception and took another’s birthright by trickery.

The adversary says, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and humans, and have prevailed.”

Jacob, now Israel, responds: “Please tell me your name.” Not a chance. But then, the holy adversary blesses him.

The one who lied and cheated and stole a blessing has confronted mystery and truth in all their fearful force. He has been marked; he will limp for the rest of his life. But he has received a new name- his true name- and the blessing that is rightly his.

“I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

Jacob crosses over the Jabbok with the new day. He is ready, now, to meet his brother. The wrestling on the riverbank has put something- old guilt, shame, uncertainty- to rest. Somehow, he seems able to face whatever comes- and there is Esau, coming towards him in the very next verse.

Something has changed in Esau too- we never hear how. But (with echoes of prodigal son story, except this is the older brother!) he runs to meet Jacob, embraces and kisses him. They weep.

Jacob says to his former mortal enemy: “Ttruly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” He should know.

What are we to make of this story?
First of all, it is a remarkable snapshot of a relationship with God. Jacob is a kind of every-one- so flawed, so sneaky, so human- and he is confronted by living, mysterious, holy Other in a moment of crisis. Suddenly he has to engage with his whole being in a struggle for his life; he wrestles and will not let go; he demands that it mean something. His story gives us an image for prayer and the life of faith: struggle, wounding, being known, being blessed and being given a new identity.

This seems so deeply true to me, including the part about the lasting wound- the mark, the cost, the losses. For me, so often the wound seems to be about my naive grandiosity - that sense of being above, or immune to, the full human condition. The blessing comes only with having the honesty and courage to own my wounding. It comes with exposure and going beyond the limits of my strength. It involves coming down to earth (the meaning of “humility”) being a part of the whole catastrophe and joy of being human. I might even say, it involves being “a good animal,” rather like St. Francis’s sow- part of the larger community of creation, interdependent with all of life.

One question that comes to me as I reflect on Jacob’s story is how we know when it is the holy adversary we are wrestling. When is it right to hold on, and when do we need to surrender and let go? Is the struggle that confronts me mine or not?

Always we are discerning, but sometimes the struggle simply chooses us and we can do no other. Perhaps we are grieved and outraged by injustice and suffering; perhaps someone we love needs what only we can give; perhaps we are driven and allured by a dream, a question, a calling.

The best I can do, be it in prayer, in difficult personal relationships or in a particular justice campaign, is trust my intuition, trust wise counsel from my friends and listen to the energy of life to determine whether I need to hold on and demand a blessing or let go and stop banging my head against a wall. Sometimes the issue is letting go of a particular, familiar way of wrestling. And sometimes, the ambiguity is part of the wounding.

We wrestle until we don’t need to any more. And of course, sometimes it is not only the holy adversary with whom we wrestle. Whether we struggle in a difficult personal relationship or slog along fighting for justice, contending with people who seem ignorant and mean-spirited, it is deeply important that God is there, mysteriously, in the struggle. And like Jacob, we wrestle to see the face of God in our enemy, our beloved, our neighbors, our suffering sisters and brothers, our tortured earth. We wrestle to see the holy one even in our own faces, as we are “re-taught (their) loveliness”. Sometimes the blessing that comes is like remembering what we always have known at our core, and at other times it feels totally new, transformative. But always it means an opening, a deepening, a flowering of our true identity, and of our capacity to love and trust and create.

Working with this familiar text this time around, I noticed something about the identity, the name, that Jacob receives that I have never seen before. “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and human beings and have prevailed.” This story is about a deeply personal, even solitary, experience. But Israel becomes a communal identity- a people who wrestle with God, with injustice, and often with each other. It speaks to me of who we are meant to be as church: a community of God wrestlers, a community that engages fully, laying on hands and putting bodies on the line. A community in which we can find support for the myriad struggles for justice and meaning, for a sustainable future on this precious wounded planet. Also a community in which we can rest and be renewed and allow others to take up the wrestling when for awhile we cannot. Somehow, I suspect that being church in this way is not alien to the community at Judson! Just as surely, we are meant to be a community that blesses- that sees the holy, mysterious One, present in the wrestling, both challenging and beloved. We are meant to see the hope of healing and transformation in the midst of struggle, and to call out the loveliness of flowering in each other. This is the kind of community that I deeply need- and for which our world hungers.

Of all the artistic expression inspired by this story, one of my very favorites is Rilke’s poem, The Man Watching. With this I will close. Hear it as an invitation to engagement with the beloved adversary, whose blessing we so long for.

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister.

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win, it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler’s sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

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