Daniel P. Strandlund
St. John’s Episcopal Church
Proper 24 C
October 16, 2016
A Mysterious Adversary
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. (32:44)
This story of Jacob’s wrestling a mysterious Adversary at the ford of the river Jabbok is markedly ambiguous. The first thing I want to do is highlight he ambiguity.
The text refers to this Adversary simply as a man (v. 24-25). Yet as dawn draws close, the Adversary declares that Jacob has striven with God and with humans, and [has] prevailed (v. 28). We know already that Jacob has struggled with humans”his uncle Laban and his brother Esau, for starters”but unless this mysterious Adversary is talking about their wrestling match, what grounds does he have on which to claim that Jacob has striven with God? Furthermore, Jacob names the site of the encounter, Peniel, which means the Face of God (v. 30). This God talk only makes sense if it is God Jacob is wrestling.
On the other side, however, this mysterious Adversary only gains the upper hand on Jacob by knocking his hip out of socket, and not even then does he beat Jacob outright (v. 25-26). It doesn’t seem fitting that the Creator of the Universe should be reduced to sucker-punching one of his chosen people. Plus, the God of Genesis has no problem referring to himself in the first person, so if this were indeed God Jacob were wrestling, why not just say, You have struggled with humans and with me, the Lord your God or something like that? (See, for example, Genesis 12:1.)
The same problem arises if we say this mysterious Adversary is an angel. If this is an angel Jacob is wrestling”like the angel that wields a flaming sword at the entrance to the Garden of Eden (3:24), or the angel Michael who hurls Satan out of heaven (Revelation 12:7-9)”if this is an angel, it just doesn’t seem possible that even the scrappiest shepherd from the neighborhood of Canaan could withstand a member of the heavenly hosts from sundown to daybreak. The wrestling match does not have a decisive victor, which seems an inappropriate result for either God or one of God’s angels.
Part of this story’s power, then, is that it does not allow us to know the identity of this mysterious Adversary. Like Jacob, we are left still wondering his name.
The second thing I want to do is offer some background on this particular chapter in Jacob’s saga. This story from Genesis is old, even by biblical standards. Chances are good that slightly different versions of it were floating around for years before the Israelites arrived at the specific textual tradition that we have preserved in our canon.
One possible, potentially older version is that this mysterious Adversary is Jacob’s brother Esau. Remember that by this point in this story, Jacob has used his wits to win from Esau his birthright in the inheritance (Gen. 25:27-34). To make the sibling conflict even worse, Jacob, with the help of his mother, has also impersonated his older brother Esau so as to steal their father’s blessing, an irrevocable bestowal of power and favor more properly given to the elder Esau (Gen. 27). Jacob’s stealing their father’s blessing is the last straw for Esau, and he vows that he will kill Jacob as soon as their father passes away (27:41). When Jacob hears of it, he flees to the land of Haran, where he lives for twenty years. As Jacob makes his way back to the country of his birth, he sends messengers ahead of him, with presents, hoping to appease Esau before they meet in person (32:3-6). Esau sets out, ready to meet his brother.
Esau is a skilled hunter (Gen. 25:27), and the two boys must have fought more than once growing up. Esau would be no ordinary man for Jacob to fight. Esau is also a son of Isaac, a grandson of Abraham. And of all the beings on heaven and earth for Jacob to have to fight in the darkness, Esau would likely be the one to terrify him the most, given the terms on which they parted.
What we retain from this older possible version of the story is this: whoever this mysterious Adversary is, he is somehow connected to Jacob’s past. There’s an inevitability to this conflict. Jacob’s misdeeds towards his brother and his struggle to find a place for himself in the world still haunt him. They’re waiting, there at the river, even twenty years later.
Another possible, potentially older version is that this mysterious Adversary was some kind of spirit or god of the people of the land of Canaan. In this version, we might say that Jacob, a mere mortal, emerges victorious because he has matched the strength of a foreign god. Jacob is the recipient of the promise of the God of Abraham, and so ancient Israelites who heard this story would see that the recipients of God’s promise, even though they are mortal, are nevertheless the equal of foreign deities. In other words, the God of Israel is the only Lord, and so those who worship him, those like Jacob, are more powerful even than the gods of other nations.
The only thing that we’ve retained from this version is that we can’t help but root for Jacob. He’s a dynamic character: Jacob is a clever trickster trying to make his way in a world where younger brothers have the deck stacked against them (Gen. 25:26; 27:1-30). He’s also something of a romantic: Jacob works for fourteen years for a man called Laban just so he can marry his daughter Rachel (Gen. 29:1-30; 31:41). We can’t help rooting for Jacob not only because he’s one of the recipients of God’s promise, but because he’s relatable: he’s complicated. His conscience is anything but clean, but he also isn’t evil. He’s somewhere in between, like us, and his only strength comes from God.
Whoever this mysterious Adversary is, it is Jacob with whom we identify.
To recap: we can’t say with any confidence that this is an ordinary man Jacob is fighting. Nor can we say definitively that it is God, or even an angel. Jacob’s Adversary is mysterious: all we can say for sure is that he has both human and divine qualities.
Other versions of this story that may have circulated in ancient Israel have marked it with a sense that this is not a random encounter. If Jacob’s Adversary has both human and divine qualities, he is also somehow uniquely and evenly matched to Jacob. It’s almost as though Jacob is fighting a twin”or perhaps himself. This is not by chance: Jacob is returning home to face his past. He is preparing to face Esau, whom he has wronged.
But before he can bring himself to do that, Jacob sends all of his considerable household ahead of him. Jacob is left alone by the river (32:24). It is not until Jacob is alone that this mysterious Adversary confronts him. All night they struggle, and Jacob refuses to quit the fight until his Adversary blesses him (32:26). It’s not clear why Jacob makes this demand. He has received a blessing from his father Isaac not once but twice (27:27-29; 28:1-4)), and he has twice seen God’s angels around him, which can only suggest that Jacob is the subject of God’s particular favor (28:10-17; 32:1-2). Jacob has healthy children, an abundance of flocks and wealth, and he is happily, if not easily, married. By all standards of his day, Jacob is clearly favored by God. He has clearly been the recipient of abundant blessings.
So why ask for another blessing, especially from a violent Adversary who attacks at night, when he’s alone?
I want to offer that this is a story about a particular kind of encounter with God. As night falls, Jacob is left alone with his thoughts, with his fears, with all his doubts about what is to come and regrets about what has past. He is alone, and perhaps for the first time in his life he realizes that he doesn’t trust that God’s blessing is upon him. He’s the younger son after all. And sure, he got a blessing from his father, but he did so deceitfully. Surely that doesn’t count in the eyes of God!
Jacob does not or cannot believe that he is the object of God’s affection, that God really is pouring out blessings upon him. He has seen the deck stacked against him and he has cheated. He’s seen too much to believe such graciousness is possible for a swindler like him”and so he fights, tooth and nail, all night long. This encounter leads Jacob to God, and so his Adversary is divine”and yet because this encounter also lays bare the fact that Jacob does not see himself as God sees him, his Adversary has a suspiciously human shape.
Jacob’s Adversary is Israel. It is the simple, beautiful, and terrifying fact that he has been chosen by the God of Abraham, with and despite all his cheating and subtle manipulations. Jacob fights this. But beneath the full weight of the love of God, Jacob can no longer stand. His hip is knocked out of socket, and the full weight of his belovedness drops him to his knees.
He limps after this, for the rest of his life, I imagine. A long, constant reminder that one night a long time ago a man named Jacob railed against heaven and earth”and lost, sort of. Jacob fell; Israel rose. Jacob sought the name of the Unnamed One, and he himself received a new name.
The facts of the story are difficult: Jacob falls with a busted hip beside the river, and Israel passes through the waters to return home and be reconciled. Struggle and blessing in the same moment.
The facts of Christian life are likewise difficult: there is struggle and death, life and blessing. I would like to say that God always and only brings life and blessing, and that it is always and only us who bring struggle and death. I’m just not sure it’s that simple. I can’t solve this one for us. Sometimes life with God simply is struggle. And sometimes there is a blessing that comes with death. All of these can come from the hand of God. Some rivers we come to are both struggle and blessing, death and life.
The truth, friends, is that when we pass through the waters of baptism, we pass through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Romans 6). We are being committed to a world in which the waters of chaos will find us, a world which includes struggle and death. Yet we are also being committed to God’s presence more firmly than the stars are committed to heaven”and what’s more, none of our swindling or manipulations, or scheming against our brothers and sisters, or failed marriages, or any of our other moral injures or broken relationships can shake us down.
Baptism, like God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is not something that washes off. But it is something that will knock our hips out of socket. Remember what the resurrection is like: when Jesus is raised from the dead, the wounds of the crucifixion are still there in his hands and feet and in his side (John 20:27). It’s only that when Christ has crossed the river of his death and returned, those wounds are redeemed. They testify to the reality of God’s presence with us here on earth.
Likewise, after his fight by the river, the sun rises on a new day, and Jacob-called-Israel limps back home to his brother and family. Somehow, Jacob’s wound is part of the new life God has given him. It’s part of how he comes home to Esau, who weeps with gratitude and kisses him. Somehow, Israel’s limp is a confirmation of God’s promise to the world, that though we rail against heaven and earth, God will not let us go.
The wounds and injuries you have suffered, whether you know it or not, to some Esau somewhere they tell the story of Jacob’s Adversary. They testify that you have striven with God and with mortals and have prevailed, sort of. When you struggle through the darkness and in the morning limp home into the world seeking your brother’s forgiveness, you are the Gospel. When the world hurts you and you continue to love it, your very being is bread and wine. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.