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A Struggle with God

Genesis 28-33

Jacob sets out on a journey to the land of his mother’s family. On his way he settles down for the night and has a strange dream: angels are ascending and descending on a ladder between heaven and earth. The dream symbolizes the connection between God and human experience. Within this call to stay connected to his spiritual quest God speaks to Jacob and renews the Covenant formed with Abraham and with Isaac. It was Jacob’s destiny to become the next in the line of Abraham’s spiritual heirs.

Jacob finally reaches his uncle Laban and spends many years working for him. During that time he marries Laban’s two daughters and acquires a large family. Although poor when he started and although Laban deceived him many times - it was Jacob’s turn to be the victim of clever dishonesty - at the end he becomes a man of means.

It is time for Jacob to leave his uncle Laban and return home. On the way he must also confront his unresolved past. He must meet his brother Esau for the first time since he cheated him of his father’s blessing many years ago.

So Jacob is afraid. He divides his camp in two, so that at least one half will escape if the other half is attacked. He sets apart a good portion of his livestock as a gift for Esau, then hides in the rear behind the animals and his servants. And finally he prays.

And in the middle of the night a man comes to Jacob and wrestles with him. We usually think of this man as an angel, but the text does not call him that. His identity is left to suggestion. But certainly, at the very least, he is Jacob’s fears taking concrete form.

The man does not prevail over Jacob, but he does inflict a wound that causes a permanent limp. The sun begins to rise, and the man gets ready to leave.

Jacob holds him back, telling him: “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”

As a sign of this blessing - and how Jacob's stuggle has changed him forever - the man changes Jacob’s name: he will from now on be known as “Israel,” the one who has struggled with God. Jacob in turn wants to know the man’s name, who he is. The man does not answer him.

This was Jacob’s test of faith, much as Abraham’s being called to let go of his son was his own test. Life tests all of us in these two ways: Can we become ready, as life will require of us, to let go of everything we hold dear (Abraham)? Are we willing to confront and wrestle with our demons (Jacob)? We may say we don’t like the idea of a God who tests us in these ways. But that would be the same as refusing to accept life. If nothing else the Bible is true to life, and life does to us exactly this. Nothing is permanent. Everything perishes. And if we do not struggle with our inner tormentors we will remain their slave.

This is the nature of existence, and God is the author of life. These trials are necessarily part of life. What was asked of Abraham and Jacob is asked of each one of us.

Jacob discovers that the confrontation with suffering gives one a new identity.

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