All his life, Jacob was a cheat. A con artist. He came out of the womb trying to obtain something for nothing. Ironically, it’s only when he makes himself vulnerable that he finds himself transformed.
Jacob was one of a set of twins, so desperate to be the first-born of the two, and thus enjoy all the benefits of the older son, that he is said to have been born grasping the ankle of his older brother, Esau. In fact, the name Jacob means “ankle-grabber.” He cheated his brother out of his birthright blessing. He cheated his uncle Laban by genetic manipulation to build up his own flocks and increase his own wealth. And every con artist needs a victim.
But now Jacob is going home. And so he will be confronting the encounter he’s been trying to avoid for years: He will have to face Esau, knowing that Esau might understandably mean him harm for the theft of his birthright.
But instead of surrounding himself to stay safe, Jacob sends all his servants, his wives and children, his livestock ahead of him. Perhaps for the first time in his life, Jacob is all alone.
And, alone with only himself for company, Jacob wrestles. How will my brother react? Have I built my entire life on a lie? What must God think of me? Even before the agent of God appears, Jacob is wrestling with himself.
He has fled home to escape the wrath of Esau; now he has fled from Laban after conning him out of half his flock. Caught between a rock and a hard place, he has come face to face with his own worst enemy. And in such a vulnerable place, Jacob does something he’s never done before: he asks for help.
Sister Joan Chittister writes that Jacob does “what all of us must do, if, in the end, we too are to become true. He confronts in himself the things that are wounding him, admits his limitations, accepts the situation, and rejoins the world.” It’s never a pretty sight when you and I come to the end of ourselves. Jacob has found that his entire life has been based on a lie, and that he cannot con himself. If he is to face Esau and come out of the encounter intact, for once he cannot depend on his good looks and slick charm. He can’t lie or cheat or steal his way through it. And so he must ask for help. And it must surely be with fear and trembling that he turns to the God of Israel, knowing that God would be well within his rights to condemn him for all eternity for his history. Jacob must know that this is a deeply risky move.
In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis reminds us that the divine-human struggle is neither tidy nor tame, but it is still one we can live with confidence. Susan and Lucy ask Mr. and Mrs. Beaver to describe Aslan (Lewis’s representation of Jesus). They ask if Aslan is a man. Mr. Beaver replies.
“Aslan a man? Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion– the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he–quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about being safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Jacob’s struggle at Jabbok reminds us of this truth, that God is so very good, but He is not safe. We may well struggle with Him through the night, but by daybreak He only intends to bless us.
Each of us has faced times of struggle in our lives – not the ordinary ups and downs of daily living, but at least one dark night of the soul, when we are faced with coming to the end of ourselves and discovering that we cannot, in fact, stand on our own – that we must acknowledge our utter dependence on the God who created us. And in doing that, like Jacob, we must wrestle with ourselves.
Like Jacob, we will not be unchanged by the encounter. Such wrestling, such acknowledgement of helplessness, always leaves a mark. For the rest of his days, even as he grows to become the patriarch of a great nation, Jacob will walk with a limp. Every step along the way reminds him that he has grappled with God. But he is still here. He is still walking.
And that, perhaps, is the message of this close encounter with God that He offers you and me. There comes a time in each of our lives when we must come to the bottom of ourselves and acknowledge that we are not equipped to face life without the help of our Divine Creator. That the wrestling we do, the struggling and sweating and grasping and panting, is, ultimately, a contest within ourselves, a crying out to the better angels of our nature.
And that in all the wrestling, God desires not to cow us or tame us or break us. Rather, that in all the wrestling, God desires nothing more than for you and me to call on Him for help. I will not let you go unless you bless me, and when we say that – in that moment we are blessed with the knowledge that we will live, we will carry out our purpose, we will walk transformed through the rest of our days, with the limp reminding us that we belong, body and soul, to God.