Jacob’s story has certainly inspired many down several millennia, but without ever being able to be pinned down – rather like the divinity, the depths of love, being and becoming, with which Jacob wrestles. Jewish, as well as Christian, scholars have interpreted this narrative in many conflicting, as well as complementary, ways. There are rich findings to be made among them and in the details of the story which have been much wrestled over. Are we to see this story for example as a dream, provoked by Jacob’s understandable fear of their brother Esau at that time, or symbolising human struggles with the shadow of our own lives and souls? Similarly, what is the meaning of the Wadi Jabbok, the place where this encounter takes place? This is certainly liminal territory – a literal and symbolic borderland, threshold and crossing point. On one level, as the border of Esau’s territory, it is the verge of Jacob’s encounter with their family conflicts and tribal holy destiny, full of danger and anxiety. On other levels, as diverse commentators have teased out, it variously represents the threshold, the liminal space, in which the conscious self encounters the unconscious; the inauthentic self meets the authentic; the unredeemed meets the holy.
In the process there is transformation. For Jacob, a name which means ‘heel-grabber’, becomes Israel, ‘one who struggles - or prevails – with God’. As elsewhere in the Bible, such renaming marks a change of life and/or disclosing of purpose. It is a revealing, an entry into, and confirmation, of our true, authentic, identity. Typically, this is therefore accompanied with divine blessing. Yet it also comes with wounding. What does that mean? Some commentators have seen the wounding as a symbol that all struggles, all coming to life, all faith journeys, are accompanied by wounds, even when they come to fruition. What exactly does this point to however? Are such wounds part of our humbling before God, as Jacob may have required? Are they at all punishments in any way? Are they simply inevitable concomitants of life and the journey of faith? What do you think?
For myself, at this point in my journey, three things above all resonate in this story. Firstly, I identify with Jacob’s wrestling with the divine. This for me goes to the heart of human faith in God. For if we are to be authentic and mature in our spiritual life, each of us must wrestle with God. Sometimes we have no option. We have to turn and face up to doubt, suffering, or sin – that of ourselves or others – and allow God to grapple with us. Only through such wrestling can we live into our authentic life and purpose; grow into our true, authentic, identity; and experience the blessing of God for ourselves and others. In our story today, Jacob, in their fear and weakness, is running away from Esau, from their true calling and identity, and thus from their blessing. Meeting the divine however, and wrestling with them, changes all that. Jacob has to struggle with, and own up to their limitations, embodied in the name Jacob. Only then are they set free to become what God is calling them to be.
Secondly, I also profoundly identify with the wounding that Jacob experiences. For all of us carry wounds, don’t we? Those wounds are often accidental, self-inflicted, or caused, sometimes traumatically, by others. Some wounds are also incredibly intimate and vulnerable. No wonder we, like Jacob, therefore seek to resist them. Each wound however can be a space where God can work. Our wounds, like the wounds of Jesus, however horrendous, can become places of transformative love and life for others. In my case, I was literally wounded by surgery in January in very intimate places, profoundly interconnected to my deepest self and sense of identity. Like Jacob in our story, this year I have consequently limped from my wound. Indeed, some commentators have posited that the site of Jacob’s wounding, variously translated as the hollow, or inside of the thigh, or hip, may have reference to sexuality and/or gender identity and vulnerability.1 Such wounding is the source of much, often painful, and painfully slow, wrestling. In my case, this year has been tougher than I expected, as I have had to wrestle with levels of pain, disability, fragility, and physical and spiritual challenge, which I had not fully anticipated. In this wrestling, in my own transformation, in that liminal space, I was more deeply wounded, in various senses, than I had expected. Yet, like Jacob, in my wrestling and wounding there has also been blessing, and this has been part of my continuing journey into my true, authentic calling and fullness of life.
My wounding may be particular, but so many of us have similar journeys. This week I was moved again by words of a friend of mine who was diagnosed with incurable cancer a little while ago. He spoke about the pain and losses he has had to face up to and endure, but also about how, over time, these have also become places in which God’s grace has worked within him, and borne fruit for others. On the wider scale too, we have all been wounded, haven’t we? – and as a society, a nation, a world – by the wounding that is COVID-19. Perhaps however, for all its terrible pain, fear and disruption, if we continue to wrestle with it rightly, it too might yet be a place from which we may limp out into deeper understanding of our divine calling?
For, thirdly, this story, strange as it is, also appears to me as a source of blessing. As I said at the beginning of this reflection, I do not believe it can be turned into easy religious comfort, or pious platitudes. Rather, like the best of truly religious stories, it will always be something with which we are called to wrestle, and engage with our own woundedness. Yet, as such, it is therefore a threshold, a borderland, through which we too may receive God’s blessing. As we, like Jacob, face up to our own fears and weakness, we gain strength, even in our woundedness. As we recognise and endure our own wounding, we can become renewing people, with much greater authenticity in our lives. As we wrestle, we too can experience God’s blessing upon, within, and around us, so that we may share in God’s transformation through the wrestling wounds of divine love. In the name of Christ, the great divinely wounded wrestler, Amen.
Jo Inkpin, for Sunday 2 August 2020, Pentecost 9 Yr A, Chapel of the Holy Spirit Milton.
1. See for example, among pre-modern commentators, the interpretation of the mystic rabbi Moses Alshich (1508-c.1600), and, more recently, Theodore W.Jennings in his reflections on homoeroticism in the Scriptures – Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel, Bloomsbury 2005.
(picture: Lutte de Jacob avec l'Ange (détail), Fresque d'Eugène Delacroix à Église Saint-Sulpice (Paris),
Gloumouth1, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike)