There are images, stories, and descriptions in scripture that become part of us. The truth of these things just enters into us. We grab hold of them. We are changed by them. We are made whole through them.
A story from the bible that effects many of us in this way is the story of Jacob becoming Israel. Sometimes we may not even consciously realize that we are referencing it. Whenever we say things like “I’m wrestling with God about that.” We are referencing the fact that Jacob wrestled first.
If you’re anything like me, you use that phrase a lot. In fact, if you’re anything like me, you use that phrase too much.
When I know God expects me to do something I don’t want to do, I say, “I’m wrestling with God about that.”
When I’m trying to deny some hard-to-swallow truth about God, I say “I’m wrestling with God about that.”
When I pray, and pray, and pray, and my life circumstances are not changing, I say “I’m wrestling with God about that.”
In short, any time I want to have my way and not God’s way, I say “I’m wrestling with God about that.” It’s a pretty interesting rationalization. It covers up my disobedience with the appearance of holiness.
It’s not that I don’t think we can wrestle with God. It’s not that I don’t think we should wrestle with God. I don’t want to underestimate what an incredibly important and even primal story this is, nor do I want to suggest that it did not literally happen.
Clearly there are important things going on in the story. God’s people come to be named after this man. God’s people come to take on a name that means “wrestles with angels.”
Sometimes I think that our understanding of scripture suffers for the fact that we don’t translate the word “Israelite” or “children of Israel.” Someone who speaks Hebrew would be reminded, every time he read the word “Israel” that his people wrestle with God all the time. It’s much easier for us to gloss over this meaning.
But I think it’s tempting for us to do something that causes us to lose meaning in an even more important way. This temptation is to begin reading at Genesis 32 verse 24.
“So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, [e] because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” “
It is understandable why we might want to begin here. It appears to be where all the action is. But this action is pretty well disconnected from me, if I don’t explore it in context. If I don’t consider who Jacob was and where he was coming from, it’s so very easy for me to view this like a fairy tale. It’s so very easy to see this as an intellectual exercise, something disconnected from my every day reality.
In what follows, I’m going to explore this context. My hope is to illustrate my own recent path of discovery. As I read Genesis from the beginning through this passage, what I found out was that Jacob and myself, we aren’t nearly the world’s apart that it appears we are. We are actually quite similar, Jacob and I.