This week’s text on Jacob wrestling with a strange man (or God, angel, whatever you want to think) is probably my favorite story in the Bible, and for obvious reasons: I am a wrestler.
There are many excellent commentaries on the Genesis 32 story, including Vanessa Lovelace’s on Workingpreacher and David Lose’s on names. But I’ve never really read or heard anything about this story from the perspective of those who know the act of wrestling intimately and well – the wrestler. So let me humbly (or perhaps, not so humbly) add my 2 cents.
The change of name is a challenge for me, at least in the way of how I think Christians are often led to think about change. The name change leads to the notion of a new identity, a new self, and a radical change that I find that can be problematic, at least in how our society thinks about personal change today.
There are many in the pews (and many I minister to) who think that we fundamentally change as Christians. We become something different – usually for the better. The issue for me is that if that’s the case, then the name change – this story – is about an outcome. Christian faith then becomes an opportunity that holds self-serving benefits. We become perhaps like Jacob – an opportunist. This wrestling match is nothing more than another opportunity for Jacob to work another deal in his favor, to gain an advantage in the messy situation he faces with Esau.
The thing is, the name might change, but the person necessarily doesn’t. I think of baptism, for example. I sprinkle a little water on a baby’s head and that’s powerful, but the truth is that baby’s still going to cry, need their diaper changed, and keep their parents up late at night. Going back into Jacob’s story, later on in Genesis the names Israel and Jacob are still used interchangeably suggesting, perhaps, that Jacob’s name might have changed, but he’s still a bit the heel and scoundrel….the opportunist. Such a reality for us today can be kind of sobering – and turn us away from faith. So, what to make of this story?
This is where a wrestler’s perspective might be helpful. Wrestling is a strange sport. You spend hours and hours training, cutting weight, preparing. You are in control of your world, and seemingly the outcome, more than in any other sport. It’s what I love about wrestling…but it also creates one of the biggest moments of fear within you, because you realize the truth that no matter how much you’ve prepared, there is still a chance you might lose. The other guy might be better. The referee might make a bad call. Time might run out on you at the worst time. An injury might occur in the midst of bodies being tangled up and put in positions bodies are not meant to be in.
The truth is, no matter how much control you think you have, you realize how little control you do have – you might lose. The anxiety of the reality can be paralyzing. I used to get nervous before matches….paralyzing-like nervousness. The unknown of the outcome would work me up to the point I would want to throw up; that’s how nervous I got. I didn’t even want to go out and wrestle the match, the fear so great, so arresting. It was an endless cycle – a painful one.
Over time, I realized that I still had to go out there on the mat – I had to perform; I had to wrestle the match, win or lose. Yet over time I realized that while the result would be different, I never really changed – I was the same person whether I prevailed over my opponent or not on a given day. Wrestling became something I embraced each time I stepped out on the mat. Over the years, I’ve learned that wrestling has given me an incredible amount of resiliency – the ability to function despite my anxieties and fear.
What then do we make of the name change? The power of that move, in my mind, comes in understanding the role of wrestling in the life of faith. A change of name isn’t an opportunity for a radical change of life, but rather it symbolizes God’s blessing of breaking the cycle of our endless advantage seeking. The change of name breaks the cycle of opportunity seeking and hiding, and instead is God’s bestowal of the blessing and gift of resiliency – faith to face what’s ahead, outcome unknown. Faith is resiliency that allows us to wrestle – to live.
In a world where so often people prefer desired outcomes without struggle, what does it mean to see wrestling in our life as a gift in which as we grab hold of God, we find God grabbing hold of us, and revealing fundamentally who we are – both sinner and saint. It is the saint, however, that defines us relationally with God and breaks us, perhaps, from the cycle of paralyzing fear that affects us much like Jacob.
The question we can ask people to wonder with us about is where do people seek resiliency or what does such resiliency that comes through a life of wrestling look like? In short, when it comes to faith – is the struggle worth it?
I’m sure folks have their own stories to tell…..just like if you ask any wrestler – myself included – they’ll have more than a few “war stories” of their own to tell.