By Carlo Sosa-Ortiz
“Now Jacob arose that same night and took his two wives and his two maids and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream. And he sent across whatever he had. 24 Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he had not prevailed against Jacob, he touched the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob’s thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” But he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 So the man said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”28 The man responded, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with humanity and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him and said, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And the man blessed him there. 30 So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” 31 Now the sun rose upon him just as he crossed over Penuel, and he was limping on his thigh. 32 Therefore, to this day the sons of Israel do not eat the sinew of the hip which is on the socket of the thigh, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s thigh in the sinew of the hip.” Genesis 32: 22-32
“Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”
You might remember all the stories about the humorous trickster with the unfortunate name. Or you might recall Jacob’s deception and Esau’s foolishness when the eldest brother sells his birthright for some red soup but who is so faint from the field that he exhaustedly calls it “the red stuff.” (One of my favorite lines evident only in the Hebrew). Or maybe more humorously is how Jacob tricks his elderly father by placing goatskins on his smooth skin to mimic Esau’s hairy arms. Much can be gathered from Jacob’s narrative, but one thing that is immediately clear: Jacob is the poster boy for deception.
For years, he has successfully managed to beg, steal, borrow, or barter his way to a life of comfort and promise. After years of fighting and undercutting, Jacob’s brother, Esau, finally closes in on him at the treacherous canyons of Jabbok with 400 men underway. Jacob doesn’t know what these men plan to do, but considering how Jacob tricked his brother years earlier into selling his birthright, Jacob can only imagine that the men are there to even the odds.
In anguish and desperation, Jacob has nowhere else to turn, so he prays for deliverance and reminds God of the promise that he made to his ancestors, hoping that would gain him some attention.
But Jacob is far too crafty, far too resourceful, to leave a situation like this up to luck or some God in the heavens. After finishing his prayer, Jacob makes preparations to have gifts sent to Esau in waves, hoping that they would pacify his brother’s temperament or slow him down as his merciless brother made his way through tears of the mountainside.
But our story begins when a man attacks Jacob while covered in the shroud of darkness, and the two men grapple all night long. After fighting for hours until daybreak, it is not until the assailant promises to bless Jacob does the elderly man finally let God go where he slips back into the darkness.
But Jacob somehow managed to receive a blessing from God after the two seemingly came to a draw. In this timeless story, we find a narrative of faith, but a story of hand-to-hand grappling is not a story we are familiar with.
If there is a scene that gives a glimpse into our faith journeys, it is Jacob tossing up dirt while attempting to put God in a chokehold. But if there is a scene that best represents our faith journeys, it is when we find Jacob in his most vulnerable position, begging God for God’s aid feeling crippled by fear and desperation.
Jacob’s fear is something that we are all certainly familiar with.
Fear prevents us from life-altering change and feeds our stagnation. It tempts us to stay in our lives of comfort, to not take the next step into our faiths. It tells us that we are fixed and that our days of sadness and pain were just slip-ups and that we are not broken. It says that Jesus’ parables and scripture’s strongest condemnations are not for us but for those who actually struggle with pride, greed, and gluttony.
Fear is all these things, but we come to realize after some thought that fear is only a veneer that covers the root of the problem. Much like an illness, fear and anxiety are symptoms of a debilitating disease.
The abstract idea of fear isn’t the sole problem, but its underlying cause is the stubbornness of our self-wills. We are not afraid of change, we refuse to prevail against ourselves; we are not only scared to admit that we are broken, we are fearful that we require too much effort to fix; we are not only afraid of taking to heart Jesus’ parables, we know that accepting them for their radical nature requires us to submit our wills for God’s.
We see this in Jacob’s story.
After Jacob prayed for God’s deliverance, he devised a plan to soften Esau just in case God didn’t come through on God’s promise. Fear was not Jacob’s sin, and neither was doubt; it was the certainty that he could save himself without God’s help.
As someone in ministry, I have been asked by some in various congregations very often what it means to be a faithful believer. When I turn the question around to church members, I’d get a range of definitions. They’d say that faith means we adhere to a specific doctrines or beliefs, are a member to one denomination, vote for one political party, read a certain translation of the Bible, or are free from any doubts.
However, Jacob’s story reminds us that faith is a pilgrim’s journey. It is a journey that finds us alone by the river of Jabbok and encourages us to challenge our wills, doubts, and theological ideas head-on even though we don’t know the outcome.
In these moments of trial and doubt, the scriptures have an abundance of characters that demonstrate such faith.
I am reminded of the persistence of the widow who bangs on a judge’s door until she receives her justice; or the confession of Jairus who desperately desires for his daughter to be healed and cries for Jesus to help him in his unbelief; or Jesus’ own words to ask, seek, and knock; and today we read of Jacob who is reminded by God that true trust is not in one’s possessions or knowledge or wealth; instead it is found in God’s provisions and not our own.
Faith heroes like Mother Theresa, St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King Jr, Peter, Thomas, and Jesus all shared in these experiences like us. What these heroes of faith teach us is that we must persist in these troubles and doubts until we ultimately are blessed in our persistence.
It is because of Jacob’s determination (and perhaps a bit of stubbornness) that he refuses to let go of his grip on God’s neck. Because of Jacob’s persistence, God blesses him after the man submissively changes his name and takes a new identity, an identity known for not giving up and persisting in adversity. Israel (translated as “the one who struggles with God”) would become known throughout generations as God’s people who struggled to trust in Yahweh but persisted in their faith, and generations later, Paul considers us Gentiles worthy of such a name when he says that we have been grafted onto the olive branch with Israel.
Israel likely remembered this scene whenever they struggled with God or with humanity. They remembered that Israel is not a people to stand by and refuse a fight. Israel engages with God when God shows up for a fight. We must persevere in our theological wrestling, our doubts, and our struggles until we humbly submit ourselves and say: “I just don’t know what to believe or do, but I serve a God that is faithful.”
We must force ourselves to learn what it is to trust in God as we work out our salvation every day and when we pick up our crosses in faithful obedience.
When we find ourselves in these moments, may we remember that the sin is not that we wrestle with God; the great sin is that we refuse to engage God and deny ourselves the blessing of such a fight. The fight prepares us for the next struggle that is waiting in the wings, and it is a divine blessing from God.
But we remember from Jacob’s story that this faithful journey takes its toll. For Jacob, his hip would forever be wounded, and he would walk with a limp. For Christ, he took up a cross as an example of authentic love for his people. The disciples faced humiliation, and the early church fathers and mothers faced unwavering persecution.
The process is slow, and it forces us to remember the day of Passion. But more than this, it reminds us of our own deaths too. We remember that Christ’s sacrifice does not take the place of our own; rather Christ’s death makes our sacrifices possible, and it “challenges us to get used to the steady pain of repentance and sacrifice” along our way.
As we go on through our travels, may we remember that the path through Jabbok is long and narrow, so may we take it together. May we be led in the way of the ever-lasting whether our journeys be full of doubt, or of pain, or loneliness. May we continue to be persistent in our wrestling as we limp heavenward together.
Carlo Sosa-Ortiz is a seminary student at Logsdon Seminary in Abilene, Texas, and is currently working on his M.Div. He works as a writing tutor and with the seminary’s student services department.
 Ellen F. Davis, Wondrous Depths.