Jacob & the Angel: A Spirituality of Struggle

I’m not a fan of wrestling – neither amateur nor professional. Maybe you were on a high school or college wrestling team or you enjoy watching the competitions in the Summer Olympics. There’s nothing wrong with wrestling; I’m just not a fan. Although I do have hard time with the macho theatrics of professional wrestlers. So why would a story about wrestling be one of my favorite Bible passages? 

The whole Jacob saga in Genesis is a fine example of the “I don’t know if it happened this way, but I know it’s true” art of biblical storytelling. What may have begun as a tribal legend now serves as an archetypal tale about a common spiritual reality. Like the theme of exile, wrestling – the spiritual kind – is another one of those universal experiences that appear in the human psyche the world over. And – it has been said – this Jacob story just might be the best description of the life of faith in the entire Bible.

But let’s back up a bit. Who is this opponent who pounces on Jacob like Hulk Hogan as he slept? We have to remember what had brought Jacob to be camping out all by himself by the river in the first place. Someone once said that all the families in the Old Testament were dysfunctional, and that’s certainly true of this one. It starts back in Genesis 25 with the birth of Jacob and his twin brother Esau. The relationship between them was always one of deep-seated hostility stemming from the fact that their parents, Isaac and Rebekah, played favorites. Isaac favored Esau, while Jacob was his mother’s favorite.

But the sibling rivalry turned treacherous when Jacob cheated first-born Esau out of his birthright, which entitled him to a double share of the family inheritance. Then he also swindled the family blessing from his blind and dying father. When Esau threatened to kill him, Rebekah warned Jacob to flee to her brother Laban’s home in another country. While he’s there, Isaac says, marry one of Uncle Laban’s daughters. So off he went.

But before he got there, something strange happened. On the way, he stopped to rest for the night. He lay down, using a stone for a pillow. In his sleep, he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven, with the angels of God ascending and descending on it. Then God spoke, reiterating the promise made to his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac, to bless all the earth through their offspring. When Jacob awoke, he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel (house of God). From there, he went on to the country of his Uncle Laban where he married his cousins, Leah and Rachel, and fathered thirteen children with them and their two slaves, Bilhah and Zilpah (there’s a whole other story there, but you’ll have to read chapter 30 for that drama). 

Eventually, Jacob got tired of being manipulated by his father-in-law (see previous story) and took off with his family and all their possessions – plus some of Laban’s. He then sent word to Esau that he was coming and that he had acaravan of gifts with him – probably as an incentive for his brother to spare his life. When they came to the Jabbok, Jacob sent the women and children on across the river and hunkered down for the night. Imagine the scene: physically exhausted, deeply anxious about Esau, alone by the river, without any of his worldly possessions, powerless to control his fate, with Laban behind him and Esau in front of him, Jacob is stuck between a rock and a hard place. The only place for him to turn is directly toward his family of origin trauma. But that night Jacob was too tired to struggle any longer.He finally collapsed into deep sleep.

But then his real struggle began. That night someone visited Jacob and they wrestled through the night until daybreak. But who was this “someone”? In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, as well as the King James Version, Jacob’s wrestling partner is referred to as simply “a man.” Tradition has called this mysterious stranger an angel, or God in human form – in other words, an encounter with the Divine. Not the comforting presence we so often crave, but a terrifying, physical/emotional/spiritual challenge to submit to a power greater than oneself. Author Frederick Buechner calls Jacob’s divine encounter at the Jabbok the “magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.” I think I might have said the defeat of the human ego.

In any event, that doesn’t sound like good news, does it? Who wants to be, dare I say it, a loser? Yet it’s finally in defeatthat Jacob is blessed. He sheds his identity as a cheater and is transformed into a new identity that will be able to be a blessing far beyond what he ever could have imagined.

I wonder how many of us have encountered such a life-changing presence. Nothing like Jacob’s experience, but I can recall in my early years of seminary, being challenged by new ways of thinking and believing, also coming to terms with my own dysfunctional family and how it had shaped my view of the world and of God. It wasn’t a sudden one-night wrestling with God down by the river, but it was a process of transformation into a new way of being.

I remember describing it as feeling like my insides were being rearranged. It really was almost that physical. As I was searching for an image to go with this theme, I was drawn to the sculpture Jacob Wresting with the Angel in your bulletin because of its physicality, which to me embodied the tough struggle that spirituality can be sometimes. In another artist’s description of her Jacob sculpture, she says, “We often have to wrestle with God to admit the truth about ourselves.”

In her book Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, Sr. Joan Chittister also uses the Jacob story as a paradigm for a “spirituality of struggle.” She begins with her own story, so we know this isn’t an abstract theological treatise; this is apersonal reflection. In Jacob’s story she identifies eight elements of our human struggle: change, isolation, darkness, fear, powerlessness, vulnerability, exhaustion, and scarring.

So, yeah, I can relate. I bet you can, too. But, she says, with each human struggle there is a corresponding divine gift: conversion, independence, faith, courage, surrender, limitations, endurance, and transformation. She writes, “Jacob does what all of us must do, if, in the end, we too are to become true. He confronts in himself the things that are wounding him, admits his limitations, accepts his situation, rejoins the world, and moves on.” The end result of the struggle for this cheater and liar was God’s blessing. 

Similarly, psychologist Estelle Frankel writes in: Jewish Spiritual Teachings on Emotional Healing and Inner Wholeness: “For the Hasidic masters the entire cast of biblical characters lives within each of us representing dimensions of each of our souls. As a psychotherapist who spent the past 30 years immersed in the study of Jewish myths and metaphors, I’ve learned that when we go beyond our personal predicaments and locate ourselves within the larger story, we open the doors to the sacred dimension and our lives become pregnant with meaning, living embodiment of Torah.

We come to experience our lives as resonant with a much greater matrix of meaning in which any transition we undergo – be it a death, divorce, illness, or disability – may initiate us into the larger mysteries of life. As we find reflections of our individual lives in sacred myths, we tend to feel less alone in our suffering. We no longer see our personal struggles as simply personal; instead, we see them as mirrors of sacred processes that occur at all levels of creation at all times. By locating ourselves in the crucible of the great myth we are guided on a journey of transformation.” 

The Inclusive Bible has a similar take on the universal meaning of this tale. In its translation, Jacob’s wrestling partner is referred to as simply “someone.” A footnote explains it this way: “The Hebrew in the passage is almost completely lacking in proper names – each line of dialogue begins, ‘And he said,’ without any indication of who is speaking, a dizzying construction which gives the reader the idea that Jacob and the Other are mirror images of one another – Jacob in effect wrestling with himself, or figuratively wrestling with his twin, Esau, whom he is about to confront. Indeed, in the next chapter Jacob says to Esau, ‘Seeing your face is like seeing like seeing the face of God.’

So if Estelle Frankel is right, and we can begin to see ourselves in this sacred story of Jacob, then perhaps we can begin to see that our wrestling partner is indeed our very selves. For what are we if we are not reflections of the divine? And what are we to each other if not also reflections of the divine?

I’m going to take a wild guess and say that each and every one of us has some kind of struggle – past or present – and will have more of them in the future. What we can learn from Jacob, along with his epic wrestling match, is his persistence in obtaining a blessing from the experience. Like the widow in the gospel story who won her case by her unflagging tenacity, we too are emboldened to demand a blessing, even though we have to understand that– like Jacob, we may walk away from the experience with a limp or a bruised ego. Yet in our magnificent defeat we are transformed to be a blessingfar beyond what we can imagine.

Locating ourselves in this sacred struggle we can begin to see reflections of our world’s struggle as various branches of the human family wrestle with one another. Maybe this blessing can nourish us as we make our presence known to our fellow wrestlers, if only to remind us that we’re all in this together. And that in the end it is something greater than ourselves that will bring us that for which we truly long.

Maya Angelou wrote a poem called “Touched by An Angel,” which seemed to me to express what Jacob – and we – might feel after a time of such intense spiritual wrestling:

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.

Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave

And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.

Amen 

Lotta di Giacobbe con l’angelo, Pier Francesco Mazzucchelli (il Morazzone) – Museo Diocesano di Milano, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Jacob’s ladder, Wenceslas Hollar, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Andrea Brustolon

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smstrouse

I've been the pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Burlingame, CA since February, 2020. I am a “proud member of the religious left” and an unapologetic progressive Christian. While I have been criticized by some as no longer being Christian and as a pastor for whom “anything goes,” I firmly reject those characterizations. I am most assuredly a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, as well as a seeker of the Cosmic Christ.  My preaching, teaching and worship leadership is based on sound theology and careful study. I would call myself a devotee of process theology with a Lutheran flavor. For two years I also served as the interim executive director of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio in San Francisco (http://interfaith-presidio.org) and served on the board for many years before that.  In 2005 I received my Doctorate in Ministry from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley in interfaith relationships. My book is The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters? I enjoy leading workshops and retreats on interfaith matters, as well as teaching seminarians how to think about pastoring in a multi-faith environment. I suppose I’m not everyone’s idea of the perfect Christian. But if you’re interested in exploring the questions of faith in the 21st century, drop me a line.

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