From Gensesis 32:23-33, comes a story that could have come from the pen of Rod Serling or Harlan Ellison, just two of the 20th century’s most fabled fantasy writers, but it’s a Bible story, for sure. One of these days, I want to begin a series of essays on the most unusual stories and sayings of the Bible, and coming from the provenance of sacred Scripture, the phrase, “most unusual” signifies a fairaly rareified class of narratives. The unexpurgated story appears below. Read it again, to get a feel for its harrowing nature:
That night, however, Jacob arose, took his two wives, with the two maidservants and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he got them and brought them across the wadi and brought over what belonged to him, Jacob was left there alone. Then a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When the man saw that he could not prevail over him, he struck Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that Jacob’s socket was dislocated as he wrestled with him. The man then said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” “What is your name?” the man asked. He answered, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be named Jacob, but Israel, because you have contended with divine and human beings and have prevailed.” Jacob then asked him, “Please tell me your name.” He answered, “Why do you ask for my name?” With that, he blessed him. Jacob named the place Peniel, “because I have seen God face to face,” he said, “yet my life has been spared.” At sunrise, as he left Peniel, Jacob limped along because of his hip.
It had been 20 years since Jacob and Esau had parted ways, and with great acrimony. Jacob was, after all, a champion liar and trickster, and had cheated his elder brother our of his inheritance by pretending to be him, obtaining the elder brother’s blesssing from the aged Isaac (Gen. 25:26). Not only that, but he also tricked Esau into giving him his birthright by offering Esau a bowl of lentil stew (Gen. 25:29-34). Personally, you could tempt me with a bowl of chili before lentil stew, but that’s another story. Jacob made a lifestyle out of living up to his name, which meant, “a heel, to deceive or supplant.” But things weren’t going to stay the same for Jacob, and it was on the banks of the Jabbok River, where the above story takes place, where everything changed, not only for Jacob, but for his entire family, and by extension, you and me.
It was dark. Jacob had to be full of dread, to say the least. He had swindled his brother, and Esau was, as an old boss of mine used to say, “hotter than a firecracker.” So he sends his family and his possessions on ahead, across the Jabbok, thinking that if his brother meets them first, he might be calmed a bit before the fateful reunion. Some have seen in this act the divestiture of all worldy attachments ahead of a potentially lethal conflict. It was told Jacob that his brother had 400 men with him. It didn’t sound like a family BBQ! But something unexpected happened as soon as Jacob was alone. He got into a fight.
What happened after Jacob was left alone is stated in a most unassuming, yet ambiguous way: “Then a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” Who was this man? The story is maddeningly unclear, and it is only after the fact that Jacob was able to make this conclusion: “…I have seen God face to face.” Many Church Fathers and commentators have seen this encounter as presenting a picture of the soul at prayer. The Catechism of The Catholic Church is in line with that conclusion, as well: ” From this account, the spiritual tradition of the Church has retained the symbol of prayer as a battle of faith and as the triumph of perseverance “ (2573).
Think of it: Jacob was standing at the Jabbok, and it was night. He hadn’t seen or heard form his brother Esau for close to 20 years, and things were extremely acrimonius between them when they parted. It’s easy to imagine Jacob feeling as though his whole world was collapsing. Wouldn’t it be easy to also imagine him uttering a nervous prayer under such circumstances? For this Patriarch, prayer was unmitigated hand-to-hand combat. St. Ambrose called prayer, “the struggle of virtue.” St. Augustine might have had this story in mind when he wrote: “Struggle, wrestle, to hold on to Christ, to love your enemy. You hold Christ here and now if you love your enemy.” With that in mind, I have to ask myself, “Have I ever really prayed?” Whatever else may have been true of Jacob, he certainly had motivation to pray! Lex orandi, lex credendi: Loosely translated: The way we pray leads to the way we believe.
To answer Juliet’s question, “What’s in a name?” from Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, Romeo & Juliet, there is much in a name; especially from God’s perspective, which isn’t a perspective as much as it is the way things are. Another word for it is, ‘reality’.
You see, God blessed Jacob by changing his name. And in so doing, He changed the former supplanter and, like his father, Isaac, and grandfather, Abraham, before him, made him a progenitor of many nations. From his book, A School Of Prayer, then Pope Benedict XVI, wrote: “…knowing someone’s name implies a kind of power over that person because in the biblical mentality the name contains the most profound reality of the individual; it reveals the person’s secret and destiny.” (Ratzinger 29). God let Jacob win the match. That’s right. It was a fix from the beginning. Even so, Jacob had enough brio to refuse to let go of God’s very own angel until He blessed him! That was boldness in prayer! But God had a few tricks up his sleeve. In order to remind Jacob of his encounter with the Almighty, He touched Jacob on the socket of his hip, causing him to limp for the rest of his life. From this we should learn that prayer always changes us. Thankfully, it usually doesn’t cripple us, but the signs are there, or should be.
Jacob stopped being a heel that night. Literally, when he was born, he was grabbing the heel of his elder brother, Esau (Gen.25:26) and won the dubious name, “Heel”, “Jacob.” Further shades of meaning from his name include: “to deceive or supplant”, both of which Jacob honed to perfection in his life until the night of the fight (prayer). The change to “Israel” couldn’t have been more astounding, and yet, it was God’s way of saying, “Don’t ever think you had anything to do with winning that fight. I won.” “Israel” literally means, “God is victorious and strong”. So, Jacob limps away from the fight in the morning with a new name, a new destiny, and a new awareness that what he once achieved through trickery, he had now won through perseverance in prayer. He prevailed over man and God, and you can’t win bigger than that. The patriarch later names the place of the encounter, “Peniel”, which means, “Face of God.” When you pray, hang in there. Something big could be coming your way. But don’t be surprised if you come away with a few bumps and bruises.