My new name is Peniel, meaning “I wrestled with God and won.” This name comes from Genesis 32, in which Jacob is assaulted by a strange man who engages him in a prolonged struggle, wrestling with him all night beside the river Jabbok, a name derived from the root “failure.” Jacob was strategically alone by the river after having sent his caravan, and all his defenders, ahead.
I wonder what sort of man-contest this was, sweaty, muscular, grunting men grappling with one another till dawn. If I had been in that struggle there would have been angry tears of frustration involved, for sure, for I so despise to be continually thwarted in any labor.
When the man is unable to gain complete mastery over Jacob (whose name means deceiver or cheater), it is said he “cheats” by putting Jacob’s thigh out of joint, a wound that leaves Jacob limping when the battle is finished as a reminder of the reality and intensity of the struggle: Jacob was not crazy; the fight and the wound were real.
Such “foul play” may make one sympathize with Jacob, but as the Genesis account later reveals, it was the Angel of God with whom Jacob actually wrestled, an angel that could have simply spoken a word and struck Jacob dead rather than expend the effort and time in a seemingly useless struggle.
The text does not say so, but I believe Jacob discovered something about his adversary through the course of this intense midnight struggle, for he demands a blessing before the “man” leaves, and with more than a little respect conveyed in the telling, he receives it as “one who wrestled with God and won” (Gen. 32:28).
This fascinates me. How on earth is it possible to wrestle with God? How does one win a struggle with and win the respect of the God of the universe? Why would he stoop to undertake such a silly striving that is no match for his matchless power?
Who Shall Remain Nameless
Interestingly, Jacob never asks why he was confronted and opposed, he simply asked to know the man’s name. Then the angel says something mysterious: “Why is it that you ask my name?” and the name remains undisclosed.
To ask one his name in that time was to ask who the person was. A name was not simply a title, it revealed a person’s character and nature, so that Jacob really was a cheater, and the angel’s refusal to reveal his name was actually a refusal to explain anything about his presence or struggle with Jacob.
This inscrutable episode changes Jacob and becomes the defining moment in his spiritual life. Hosea 12:4 reports there were tears of unsuccessful exertion involved in Jacob’s supreme struggle that night.
I imagine the sudden failure of his thigh joint by the finger of the “man” was supremely discouraging, as he would have known the angel could have won at any time and was simply condescending to Jacob’s weaker effort.
The story relates that Jacob moved forward in humility and blessing to fulfill what had been promised him many years earlier, but only after being all but forced to confess his own name and the disgrace of who he was.
The Hebrews used the word “thigh” to denote the reproductive organs. The ability to reproduce was so vital to ancient survival, that area was used as collateral, symbolically, in covenant making.
To forge a covenant involving one’s sons or descendants, it was customary to put one’s hand under the thigh of the one requiring him to swear. Therefore, to strike the hip or thigh was also to indicate complete superiority (Judges 15:8).
Jacob was made to know he had been utterly conquered, even as he received the covenant from the angel. How, then, could it be said he had won?
River of Failure
Not very long ago I found myself beside the chaotic waters of failure, devastated, confidence rattled senseless and to the core, and I did battle with God there in my midnight desert. I exerted all my heart, soul, mind, and strength in the effort.
Deeply hurt, I drew my insignificant self up to full spiritual height and dared to tangle face-to-face and toe-to-toe with God, repeating his own Word back to him, almost sarcastically, all the things God had said to me that had led me, yet again, to make that humiliating failed attempt.
But like Jacob our brother, my theophany was an epiphany. A miracle it was, that Jacob admitted he was a cheater; isn’t it always a miracle when, in seeing God, I too confess the difficult reality of who I am, and in doing so somehow cross over my failure to blessing?
Like Jacob, I know something about God, even as I wrestle with him: I know he loves me, and I know he is good despite the pain He inflicts. While I did not understand the struggle at all, I all but demanded the blessing through my raw and painful tears.
You know what? I got it.
The Scriptures never give a reason for Jacob’s antagonism, and I believe it is because Jacob is every man, and his fight is every man’s life. We find ourselves confronted by nameless adversaries, people and circumstances; we fight valiantly; we rage and cry and wail; our own character is used to engage and defeat and bless us; we are wounded and changed forever; we wonder what the heck is going on, why it’s happening; and God does not answer us.
Who is He, this helper/opponent who seems to both empower us to fight, and wound us to win? What kind of God does this?
Dearest comrade, isn’t salvation a sweaty enterprise involving every strenuous labor that will ultimately require your very last breath? The midnight striving is meant to wound, but change you for the better, for it is always God with whom we ultimately wrestle. If not an answer, there is a solemn blessing in every struggle; you only have to ask.
Copyright 2016 Sonja Corbitt. This article first appeared on the Great Adventure Bible Study blog.