In Genesis, chapter 32:3-32, we again find Jacob (the “grabber”) in trouble. In earlier passages we learn that he had used deceptive means to steal his older twin Esau’s rights of inheritance and blessing, and Esau swore he would kill Jacob in revenge. So Jacob fled all the way back to Mesopotamia, to the household of his uncle Laban, where he has prospered.
Now, 20 years later, Jacob has sensed and acted upon a call to depart and return to Canaan with everything he has acquired while working for Laban in Mesopotamia (wives, servants, many children, and an abundance of flocks). Laban in turn sets out to retrieve Jacob, who has been his prized servant, and all Jacob’s acquisitions. Jacob, of course, fights back. Finally, after considerable argument, Jacob and Laban enter into an uneasy truce, a “Mizpah.”
With an unhappy Laban behind him, Jacob presses on, only to be informed in time by angelic messengers that he is entering territory belonging to his older twin, nemesis, and earlier victim, Esau. Terrified, Jacob sends a messenger to Esau, with an obsequious greeting and a lavish gift of flocks, hoping to stave off the vengeance that Esau a generation earlier swore to wreak.
Jacob next takes all in his household and everything else he claims to “own” across the fjord of the Jabbok stream, on toward or into Esau’s territory, and indeed leaves them all there, but himself comes back across the fjord, ostensibly and perhaps fearfully, to spend the dark night alone.
Then unfolds one of the great scenes of biblical literature. In the dark of night, Jacob wrestles until daybreak with an unidentified “man,” who gives the unconquered Jacob the new name, “Israel,” because he has striven “with God and with humans, and (has) prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28). Jacob calls the site “Peniel” (face of God, or God face to face).
In Hosea 12:4, the early 8th century BCE Prophet Hosea described the scene as Jacob “wrestling with an angel”— an only slightly authenticated, interpretive view of the Genesis text that has inspired artists throughout the ages.
What do you suppose this is wrestling match is about? Has Esau or Laban or even Isaac somehow, vengefully, caught up with Jacob to “have it out,” physically or figuratively, to exact some form of expiation before Jacob — as Israel — can go on to fulfill his Divine destiny of leadership and ownership in the Land of Promise? I believe that the wrestling is:
(a) Jacob’s guilt-ridden, would-be expiative assessment within himself, in response to his sacred call — with sins against many, including the “women and children” he left in harm’s way on the other side of the Jabbok (in Esau’s territory).
(b) A “nass” (in Hebrew, a “test” like that given to Abraham at Genesis 22:1). Imagine a Heavenly Parent – God’s self who says, “Look, Jacob ... You are called to take on an unprecedented challenge of moral and ethical leadership unto salvation, in universal love and righteousness. So here in the dark, before you go further, put up your “dukes,” and show me what you’ve got!”
And Jacob prevailed, winning the match and earning his new name, Israel (“prevailed with God”).
— The Rev. Dr. Wesley S. Williams Jr., K.St.J., is Priest Scholar and Chaplain at Washington National Cathedral and previously was Bishop’s Dean and Sub-Dean and Priest in Charge in congregations in the Episcopal Diocese of the Virgin Islands (U.S. and U.K.).