This weekend, one of the two possible lessons appointed for the Old Testament reading is the story of Jacob, wrestling all night with the “man” prior to his confrontation with Esau. As I prayed over this passage, it became increasingly clear to me that this process of wrestling is as close as a man might come to the act of giving birth. If a woman had had that same experience, I suspect it would have taken the shape of a night-long period of labor.
Think about it. Jacob has been anticipating the morrow’s events for ages. Perhaps with some dread, but also with hope. You and I are used to thinking of successful labor as a given. Look at the cost of malpractice insurance for obstetricians. It’s through the roof because no one wants to accept that labor is risky, and so if there are complications, someone has to be to blame, and whether the suit is successful or not, the insurance company has to defend a costly malpractice suit.
Now take all that back to Jacob’s day. Labor was a moment of immense promise, but also immense danger. Jacob sends his family away so that they might be spared some of the danger, but he knows that the next day will determine the course, perhaps the length of his life. When he is finally alone, he finds himself wrestling with a “man” until daybreak as he heads into this moment of immense promise, but also immense danger.
There is no indication in the story that Jacob wants to engage in this combat. “A man wrestled with him until daybreak.” He receives first a visitation that makes visible Jacob’s willingness to contend for his future, no matter the cost. He clings to the One who has come to him, even though it costs him great pain. I think here, too, that the hip put out of place is a strange but understandable reference to the pain of birthing. Jacob perseveres in the moment of agony, insisting that the One with whom he contends is a giver of gifts, not an enemy. He has no idea what his future holds, but he declares that this time of visitation will be a time of blessing, and so it becomes.
And Jacob receives his new name, Israel, the man who contends with God and prevails. Jacob has wrestled with his “god” and discovered his God. He has uncovered in the pain the God who blesses.
As I ponder all of this, I am reminded of all the times that God has led me through times of pain in order to bless me. I can also admit that on many occasions I have chosen to release the man at daybreak rather than let him put my hip out of joint. I have done the sensible thing and missed out on the blessing that would have been mine. On the other hand, I can also remember a few times when I hung on, sure that the God with whom I wrestled was a God of blessing and not of curses. And though I sometimes emerged with a bit of a limp, I have also come to know my identity in God in a new way for having held on.
Even the limp becomes a part of the new blessing, reminding me in the days and years that follow that it was not by anything that I did that I came to my new identity, but because God came to me in a moment of great possibility and danger. My only contribution to the process was my utterly ridiculous decision to praise God, hold Him up as a giver of blessing even though my hip is aching like crazy. And since the blessing wasn’t the result of anything I’d done, neither can it be nullified by anything I might do.
I am convinced that, if only I can cling to the God Who Saves during the times of danger and pain that seem to suggest that God might be otherwise, each of those moments of danger will prove to be moments of possibility and blessing.