Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
September 2022 - Volume 22, No. 9
Wrestling with God
Sometimes, when it seems appropriate, I’ll share with a client the story from the Old Testament of Jacob wrestling with the angel all night at ‘the ford of the river Jabbok’. It comes from the Book of Genesis, chapters 27 through 33.
Isaac, the son of Abraham, had two sons, Esau & Jacob. By deceit, when Isaac was old and blind, Jacob, the younger, with his mother’s (conniving) governance, stole the blessing from his father which by right would belong to the older son. After this, Jacob had to flee from his brother, who had vowed to kill him. Both brothers had prospered, wives, children, slaves, cattle -- until after some years, circumstance made it necessary for Jacob to return to his brother’s land, still fearing his brother would want to kill him.
The night before he was to cross over into his brother’s land, there, all alone, by the ford of the river Jabbok, he was forced to spend the entire night wresting with an angel. (In that time, it was not uncommon for God to appear as an angel.) Neither was prevailing. Until daybreak when the angel claimed “release me!” Jacob responded “Not until you bless me.” The angel said “What is your name?” “Jacob.” “From henceforth you will be known as Israel - because (which means) you have wrestled with God and survived.”
To Jacob’s amazement (and the reader’s) his brother welcomes him with open arms!
Would this have happened without the interminable wrestling? No. It only came to a halt when ‘God’ called it. Jacob could not win until his opponent let him. But then Jacob had the wit to ask for a blessing - not a win, but a blessing. He limped away with a blessing.
Why I respect this Story
1) It’s an honest portrayal of what it’s like for many people in the process of therapy.
It pays homage to the seeming impossibility or at least inequability of what some people have to go through. It’s not just a ‘fix’ like just a medication or a ‘secret’ code. It often involves real struggle, often against odds. It’s ‘work’, often an ordeal. I’ll tell people that often my ‘secret’ is that I trust the struggle, the hard work, the wrestling involved, sometimes the hope without hope - out of which a more genuine humanity can emerge. Sometime it’s wrestling with ‘fate’ - that over which we often don’t have much control. But still we must be willing to ‘wrestle’ it into place.
2) We may end up with a new name
- a new identity. a new sense of what’s real about ourselves or the world we live in. I like the sense that by nature, a name is “given.” We don’t come up with it ourselves - it comes from outside ourselves, as perhaps in a dream. We don’t make it up - more like it’s been waiting for us to find it.
3) The wound.
I’ve been told that everybody in the Old Testament who encounters God, gets a wound of some sort. It seems that whenever someone wrestles with God, they get wounded. Moses had a speech defect. In the larger world of literature, it seems to me that every literary work wrestles with a betrayal - from comic books to Harlequin romances to Russian novels, to spiritual classics, to Grand Opera. Betrayal is a massive, perhaps the greatest universal wound. Perhaps including death itself.
There’s also a common tradition that personal wounds are sources of healing gifts for healers.
4) Not necessarily ‘fault’ oriented.
Often the cause of ‘wrestling’ doesn’t of necessity reflect a ‘fault’ in the wrestler. Jacob’s stealing his brother’s blessing, was engineered by a deceitful mother, who in the narrative never seemed to have to pay for her guile. Wrestling with God may not come from any consideration of ‘fairness’ - though it can effect a sense of ‘personal responsibility’, calling, or destiny. And it can transcend a sense of winning or losing, even right & wrong.
5)Such wrestling can open the ongoing purpose for our life.
As a result of ‘wrestling with God’, the story of our life can now move forward. Each story in the Old Testament is linked to a larger story, and continuing in the New Testament, becoming the ongoing narrative of the People of God - beginning with Creation and culminating with the ‘Kingdom’.
My use of the word “God” doesn’t necessarily need a religious context. AA uses ‘higher power’. I like the concept of a life-map for the inner soul. Sailors know to not head straight for a lighthouse.
5) Not necessarily ‘fault’ oriented.
Often the cause of ‘wrestling’ doesn’t of necessity reflect a ‘fault’ in the wrestler. Jacob’s stealing his brother’s blessing, was engineered by a guiling mother, who in the narrative never seemed to have to pay for her deceit. Wrestling with God may not come from any consideration of ‘fairness’ - though it can effect a sense of ‘personal responsibility’, calling or destiny. And it can transcend a sense of winning or losing, even right & wrong.
All in all, the story of Jacob wrestling is one of the favorites in my story-telling repertoire.
And so I invite you to
The Angel departed, and Jacob was left limping, from a wound to his hip socket. The text continues, “That is why to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh sinew which is at the hip socket.” (32:33)
Having written this, afterthoughts arrived that I decided to share.
I recall from my Ojibwe friends, the Anishinabe (Northern Woodlands Native) concept of Bimadissiwin - “Life lived to the fullest.” I consider what I here have call “wrestling” to fall within that greater sense of “Life.”
Having to ‘wrestle with God’ is not simply a matter of fault or ‘sin’ - but rather another aspect of the Grand Venture of Life - which is a part of our human birthright.
We wrestle with God. We can’t win (prevail). God lets us win, wounds us, blesses us, and our life is enriched with greater (divine) purpose. (It sounds so simple, doesn’t it!)
Once I started to write this - I apparently let the story take over, and ended up with a “Wow!”
PS - this isn’t the first time this has happened to me.
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