Genesis 32:22-31

Wrestling with an Angel

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Genesis 32:22-31

Wrestling with an Angel

The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel


Trouble comes. I’ve seen bumper stickers and tee shirts with the same idea but a much cruder phrase – but it is the truth. Whatever our preparations, trouble will come to us, often when we least expect it. People of an earlier generation often made their plans and added the two letters, d.v. – deo volente, God willing. We have all heard the phrase, “Man proposes, God disposes.” Whether or not we would attribute life’s difficulties, to God or just to the way things are in the world, trouble comes. Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof, does not doubt that God is behind it all: “Sometimes I think things are too quiet up there, God. You say to yourself, ‘Let’s see, what kind of mischief I can play on my friend, Tevye ‘.”

Trouble can often come when we least expect it. Someone said to me not so long ago, “You may be paranoid, but that doesn’t mean some folks aren’t out to get you.” I heard a psychiatrist describe the sleep problems that so many people have as going back to a “fight or flight” response. He said in prehistoric times, people would relax and then hear a lion roar and wake up and for so many people today they can’t find rest because they are constantly hearing the lion roar.

Trouble happens. The widow in our Gospel lesson was troubled; she had not received justice against her opponent. Life had not treated her fairly.

Trouble happens. Jacob in our first lesson was in deep trouble. He was on his way to meet his brother Esau. Remember, Jacob had tricked his brother – the red-haired, hairy, brother out of his inheritance. Jacob had put on a skin of an animal and told his father that he was Esau. So Isaac had blessed Jacob rather than Esau. Even his name, Jacob, meant ” Supplanter,” the one who takes something that is rightfully someone else’s.

But now Jacob is going back from the house of his father-in-law Laban. He had been tricked. Laban substituted the homely Leah for the beautiful Rachel as Jacob’s bride. Jacob had been visited by the angels and told to go to Esau. He was afraid that he would be killed for his guile and deceit by the one whom he had tricked. The setting is the brook Jabbok, across the Jordan. Jacob sent Rachel and Leah and his concubines and eleven children and all his worldly goods across the book. Jacob remained alone waiting for his brother: “Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” Unexpectedly a man comes to wrestle Jacob. Out of the blue, he is thrown into a battle that lasts throughout the whole night. If we want an example of unexpected, unanticipated trouble, this is it!

Jacob does not give up. The man whom he is wrestling is an unknown assailant, but it is presumed that he is not an ordinary human being. Scholars tell us that in ancient times, people believed in river demons or sprites who would reside in the water. Many an aboriginal people still do. Some years ago we visited Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada. The name of the town is an English translation of an Assiniboine Indian term and means a river spirit. A hot spring in the Bow River suggested to the native people that a dragon or serpent lived there and the steam in the open river in the winter suggested a spirit hat. Apparently the native people would make sacrifices to this river spirit. It was much the same in ancient Canaan. Perhaps Jacob thought he was wrestling a river demon who would not let him cross.

Fight or flight. I’m sure Jacob had much the same thought – do I keep on wrestling and not give up or do I try to run away. Sometimes we just want to give up when we have troubles, throw in the towel and enough is enough! Jesus told his parable about the importunate widow for just this reason according to Luke: the parable is about the need to pray always and not lose heart. It is pretty hard when life sends its blows to keep one’s chin up and keep a smile on one’s face. We need the same advice as Jesus’ disciples – God is with us when bad things happen to us.

As Joyce Rupp in her book, Praying Our Goodbyes, puts it,

“‘What might happen?’ is the secret question that always pummels our thoughts.

We do not yet fully believe

that God always desires our good and our happiness.

We do not fully realize that God will be with us as a guiding power

to love and sustain us

through whatever hardships and headaches life will bring.”

Jesus tells us,

“Fear not

for even the hairs of your head are counted.”

God’s eye is on the sparrow and Jesus reminds us, “You are of more value than many sparrows.” God is with us. Our help comes from the Lord the maker of heaven and earth. The Lord will preserve us; the Lord will keep us safe. We do not need to be afraid when trouble comes.

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In fact it is just in the dark and troubled times, that we are reminded of our need for faith. Madeleine l’Engle, the noted children’s author, has written,

“When things go wrong,

when the good things do not seem to happen,

when our prayers seem to have been lost,

God is most present.

We do not need the sheltering wings when things go smoothly.

We are closest to God in the darkness,

stumbling along blindly.”

Jacob did not give up. He kept wrestling with this man and it was not an easy struggle. The man hurt Jacob: “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.” Jacob would always limp after this night of wrestling. He was wounded through the struggle and he would ever bear the scars.

We should not be surprised if we too are wounded and hurt in our struggles either. Jesus bore the marks of the nails and the pierced side even after His resurrection. Those scars did not vanish from His glorified body. The pain is real, the trouble is real, the scars and wounds are real. Yet we can rejoice in our sufferings. We are being given the opportunity to follow our Lord who was despised and rejected. Trouble comes, but it can be an opportunity for us to witness to our faith and the hope that is within us. The long night of our wrestling with angels and demons can be an opportunity for us to confess that God is good and faithful.

St Paul tells us in the fifth chapter of Romans:

“We rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.

And not only that,

but we also rejoice in our sufferings,

knowing that suffering produces endurance,

and endurance produces character,

and character produces hope,

and hope does not disappoint us,

because God’s love has been poured into our hearts

through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

Jacob’s night of wrestling does not end with his being wounded but his being blessed. The man said to Jacob, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” – an idea which suggests that it is a river demon fighting Jacob, an ancient idea that the forces of darkness have to depart at dawn. Jacob refuses to let him go. Jacob is asked his name. “And he said, ‘Jacob'” – the supplanter, the cheater, the deceitful one. Then he given a new name, “Israel,” the one who has striven with God and humans. Jacob does not let the man go until he is blessed as well.

Our story ends with Jacob still limping. The people of Israel, the sons and daughters of Jacob decide that they would never eat the meat of the hollow of the thigh. The place by the brook is called Peniel, “The face of God.” The man who wrestled, Jacob recognizes, is nothing less than God: “I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.” Jacob is limping and will for the rest of his life. The scars remain but are not worth comparing with the blessing. St Paul reminds us too, that our sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that is to come.

Trouble comes and we should not be surprised. St Peter reminds us, “Beloved, do not be surprised by the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and rejoice when his glory is revealed.” Remember that in all things God works together for good to those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose. Amen.

––Copyright 2004, James Kegel. Used by permission.