Wrestling with God and Man: Reflections on Jacob at Peniel

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One of the advantages of not ‘growing up’ in a Vineyard context lies in approaching any discussion of its core values free of presuppositions. ‘Re-imagining’ Vineyard values is therefore perhaps something of an overstatement.

A corresponding disadvantage, though, lies in having only a second-hand understanding – and that a limited one – of the significance of those values in their original context, of how and why each one came into being, and what they meant to those who authored and inculcated them within the early Vineyard movement.

The opportunity to be an original thinker therefore sits alongside the threat of being wrong. The strength of objectivity is undermined by the weakness of ignorance. This gives rise to a particular risk when one is ‘leading the conversation’ by posting a blog.

My hope is that those with a more historically informed perspective will be both liberal in correcting the shortcomings in this posting, and generous in recognising that my aim is to add value to Vineyard values, in conversation with the community, not to devalue or reject those values in criticism of the community.

‘Leaders who limp’ is a clear reference to the experience of Jacob, recited in Genesis 32. What we read here is an extraordinary story, that seems to just drop into the narrative from nowhere, of Jacob wrestling with a man. They wrestle all night. Morning comes, and finding himself unable to overpower Jacob (we are not told why), the man touches Jacob’s hip and injures him, causing him to walk with a limp the next day (and perhaps permanently, though the text does not tell us this). However, Jacob will still not let the man go, “unless you bless me.” The man tells Jacob he is hereafter to be named Israel, “because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” Jacob asks the name of the man but is not told. He calls the place Peniel, “because I saw God face to face and yet my life was spared.”

What are we to make of this story? Abstracted from its narrative context, it has commonly been uses as an exhortation to fervency in seeking God. It is analogised, for example, to praying through the night, until we get what we are asking God for: “I won’t let you go until you bless me, Lord.” Or as an authenticating mark of the Christian leader, that they have similarly ‘wrestled with God’ in prayer, when facing challenges and opposition, such that they bear the beneficial hallmarks of those close, personal experiences of God in their life and ministry. But is this the message from the text? Is this what’s going on in the story? Or are these simply convenient uses of the text as Christian allegory?

We might start with some reflection on this man Jacob. When Yahweh identifies himself to Moses (in answer to the question “which God are you?”) as “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”, we could be forgiven for wondering how Jacob made the list! It is no surprise, on all the evidence in Jacob’s story up to Genesis 32, that in his first theophany Yahweh describes himself only as “the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac” (Gen 28:10-22).

In Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac, the Covenant Story – which is the key theme in Genesis and indeed, I would argue, through the whole of the Christian scriptures – was facing a crisis. And the crisis was one of character. Esau had such scant regard for his birthright that he was willing to sell it for a good meal. Jacob, meanwhile, was scheming, lying and devious, someone who would be willing to deceive even his own aged father to get what he wanted, for his personal benefit. Up to this point in the story, Genesis 28, everything we read about Jacob is negative. We see no evidence of any relationship to God, no personal recognition of his destiny in relation to the covenant, and no reason to think of him as a godly person or an example in the faith.

Nevertheless, we see two striking things in this chapter: one (in vv.1-5) is Isaac’s blessing of Jacob, despite everything that has happened, as mantle bearer of the covenant promise. However, this is only a wish expressed, not a foregone conclusion; it is for God to determine and to verify to Jacob. And this God does, in a dream (vv.12-15).

At first glance, Genesis 28 might be seen as a turning point in Jacob’s life, but really it isn’t. The commitment he appears to make to Yahweh in vv.20-22 doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny. Jacob’s ‘deal’ is most naturally read as “if you do this for me, God, then I’ll do that for you.” It’s Jacob in charge, Jacob in control, and Jacob’s agenda. Jacob’s offer is conditional. Even his promise to tithe appears to say more about his designs on the other 90%. And yet, as John Walton observes (NIV Application Commentary) “we also see Jacob as a work in process – another of God’s reclamation projects. Jacob has done nothing to deserve God’s attention, yet God reaches out to him at a time when he is probably feeling nothing but despair and vulnerability.”

It is ironic that during his subsequent twenty years in Haran, Jacob himself becomes the victim of the very deception and cheating that he had himself earlier used to his advantage with Esau and Isaac. We may detect some slowly growing recognition of the hand of God on his life (e.g. 31:3-5), but deception and scheming continues to be his default approach (e.g. 31:20). Character is still the big issue in his life. Which brings us to chapter 32.

Twenty years after running away in fear of his life, Jacob is returning to the land, as God has told him to do (31:13), where he will face Esau again. As Jacob nears where he will encounter Esau, we see evidence of both the ‘old’ Jacob working every clever scheme and plan he can think of to survive (vv.7-8; 13-21), in great fear and distress (v.7) – his fear being exacerbated by the news that Esau has 400 men in his ‘welcoming party’ – and also, of an emerging ‘new’ Jacob, throwing himself on God’s mercy and promises (vv.9-12).

The culmination of Jacob’s personal transformation, his real turning point, comes in the encounter with the man at Peniel.

Jacob, alone and afraid, is at the end of himself and his own self-sufficiency. He has lived off his cunning, wits and scheming (and suffered as the victim of it too, although scarcely eliciting our sympathy in the process), but now he is at his wits’ end. He can no longer handle the situation. He can’t fulfil his calling in the Covenant Story through the way he has been, up until now. In fact he can’t even face tomorrow.

The story tells us that the man (identified by Jacob as an angel, in v.30 – the word means a supernatural being; see also Hosea 12:4) cannot overcome Jacob. But if taken as a literal statement of physical prowess, this is absurd, for Jacob is now 97 years-old, and no match for an angel, as is evident from the ease with which the angel wounds Jacob when he determines to do so (v.25). No, this is speaking about (what we would today call) a ‘spiritual’ wrestling, and the reason ‘God’ cannot overcome Jacob is because the battle is to do with character. The question, for which the battle rages all night, is whether Jacob will surrender to God. It is not a question of strength but of will.

This is not a battle that God can win by imposing victory on us: we must surrender willingly, by choice. It takes all night not for the angel to reach a point of overcoming Jacob, but for Jacob to get to a point of overcoming himself. To gain our life, we must lose it.

There are now two crucial things to note in the text. The first is when the angel proposes to leave without giving Jacob any assurance of God’s help (i.e. ‘his blessing’). This would mean Jacob is back where he has always been in the past – operating on his own, off his wits and resources, usually resorting to scheming and devious tactics. But these have run out. He knows they are not enough, and they have no place in fulfilling the Covenant Story. This time, Jacob is a changed man. He is at the end of himself. He has begun to walk in the ways of obedience to Yahweh, and he realises that the weapons of the fight are not those he has been used to relying on. He won’t let go of the angel until he is assured that God will be with him; this is what matters. Jacob’s refusal to let the angel leave, without first receiving that assurance, reflects his final complete surrender to God. As Walton puts it, “As always with God, one has to lose in order to win.” The second crucial thing is God’s renaming of Jacob, as Israel. In the ancient world, naming was seen as significant to who a person was (see e.g. Abram to Abraham), and the assignment of the new name affirmed authority over the one renamed. Similarly, therefore, Jacob’s acceptance of this new name reflects both his surrender to God and his changed character.

So who are ‘leaders who walk with a limp’ today, and why is it a critical Vineyard value?

Is it all-night prayer warriors? Perhaps, in part. Is it leaders who are desperate for God’s blessing, and willing to grasp hold of him until he delivers? Maybe, to some extent (although not in the ‘deal or no deal?’ terms Jacob originally proposed in 28:20-22). Or is it leaders whose character has been changed, who have utterly surrendered to God, letting go of self-reliance as their primary resource, and repenting of all scheming and manipulation in the work of the Kingdom? I think so. And particularly so where that character development, that battle of the will, has been a long and painful process in someone’s life, like wrestling all night, such that the scars of the fight are evident.

I submit that this is what it means to “have struggled with God and with men and [to] have overcome.”

It might be said that overall, scripture has far more to say about people’s character than their gifting. In the wilderness temptations of Jesus, one might say that the issues and choices he faced were to do with character (this would be unsurprising, given his humanity, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the story appears at the outset of his ministry).

This, then, is the message of Jacob and his wrestling with the angel of God, and it is a wrestling that each of us must go through, if we wish to contribute to God’s mission in God’s ways. The battleground is personal character. It is not a fight that God can win, though, not a victory he can impose on us, however long the fight goes on; it can only happen through our willing surrender.

If this is what Wimber meant by ‘never trust a man without a limp’ then I couldn’t endorse it more.