Jacob was a trickster. He had managed to trade a meal of lentil stew for his older brother Esau’s birthright, to be next in line in his family. Lentil stew! I like lentils, but as soup goes, this wasn’t even chicken tortilla soup.
With the help of his mother, Rebekah, he tricked his blind father Isaac into blessing him instead of Esau. Esau was getting ready to go all Cain and Abel on his brother Jacob.
Since Esau had made a vow to kill his brother—the Bible says, “Esau hated Jacob”—Jacob left his home and his family. He moved in with his uncle Laban and started a family of his own.
Some 20 years later, Jacob is coming back home. He’s days away from meeting up with Esau, so has sent ahead some gifts—you know, the usual: goats, sheep, cows… bowls of piping hot lentil stew. (No, wait, I shouldn’t send him that!)
Jacob knows Esau is coming.
Jacob and his crew come up to a river. It’s dark. The majestic mountains on either side of them and the starry night overhead are no match for the utter fear that grips Jacob now.
He helps his family cross to safety, and then in v. 24: “So Jacob was left alone.”
“So Jacob was left alone.”
Before he could worry whether Esau would pounce on him in his vulnerable state, a man jumps out of the shadows and they start to wrestle. Surely this is Esau! Jacob must be thinking.
There’s a well-represented strand of Jewish interpretation that sees this mysterious man as Esau’s patron angel… a proxy for Esau. But the story goes on to reveal this is more of a divine than human character he is wrestling with.
The fight seems to be pretty even. Verse 25 says, “The man saw that he could not overpower [Jacob],” but then he pops him in the hip so that Jacob begins to limp.
Jacob—ever the trickster, ever the procurer of blessings where they are not his to procure—says to the guy he has in a headlock, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Come to Jesus
“What is your name?” the man asks him. “What is your name?”
The answer is, “Jacob,” but naming in the book of Genesis and Ancient Near East was deeply significant. Your name was your personality. Your name was your reputation. Your name was your future calling and destiny. Your name was who you are.
“What is your name?” the godlike wrestler said. “Who are you?”
Jacob has a come-to-Jesus moment here, to use a religiously anachronistic phrase.
At this point he can dodge the question. He can say, “I’m not telling you that. Why should you know anything about me?” He can run off, though he’ll be hobbling and probably won’t get very far. He can lie and say he is somebody else.
“What is your name? Who are you?”
“I’m Jacob—I’m a trickster. I don’t trust people very well. My family was dysfunctional, my parents played favorites, and my family role was the conniving one. I want so deeply to be loved, that I’ll cheat, lie, and steal my way to it.”
Just one word in the text, “Jacob,” he says, but when I visualize this encounter, I think of Jacob’s answer as almost a confession of who he is, warts and all. By this point, surely, he must realize it’s not Esau he’s been wrestling with. “I saw God face to face,” Jacob would say at the end of this encounter, and face-to-face with God, he tells God his name. By saying, “I am Jacob,” he admits to God—freely—who he is, what he’s done, what his own internal struggles have been.
Go to the Mattresses
Growing up my family had a few go-to movies that we’d watch on a Friday night. One of them was You’ve Got Mail. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are two competing bookstore owners who also happen to be falling in love over AOL’s now archaic Instant Messenger service online, under the screen names of “ShopGirl” and “NY152.” They don’t at first that they already know each other in real life, too.
Meg Ryan’s character complains from her computer screen, as ShopGirl, to Tom Hanks’s character, as NY152, about Hanks’s ruthless efforts to put her local, neighborhood bookstore out of business.
Hanks’s character summons the Godfather and tells her, “Go to the mattresses.”
Befuddled at that reference, she asks him about it and he replies:
The Godfather is the I Ching. The Godfather is the sum of all wisdom. The Godfather is the answer to any question. What should I pack for my summer vacation? “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” What day of the week is it? “Maunday, Tuesday, Thursday, Wednesday.” And the answer to your question is “Go to the mattresses.” You’re at war. “It’s not personal, it’s business. It’s not personal it’s business.” Recite that to yourself every time you feel you’re losing your nerve. I know you worry about being brave, this is your chance. Fight. Fight to the death.
(Watch the scene here.)
Jacob has gone to the mattresses. He’s fighting—if not to the death, then he’s fighting for some favor. He’s wrestling for a blessing.
Let’s not forget how the book of Genesis started—the God of the universe separated vast expanses of sky, water, and land; he created light; he made all kinds of beings and vegetation, culminating in the creation of male and female in his image.
This Lord of the cosmos, this magnificent God of the universe who spoke and breathed all things and people into being—this could be a God we puny humans choose to avoid. Out of fear. Out of a sense of unworthiness. Due to a notion that we don’t want to trouble God with our concerns, our struggles, our anxieties. Maybe we think we have to be strong, or keep it together, or look like we’re keeping it together.
Maybe we feel guilty for the questions we have, for how distant we’ve been, for how hard it is to pray.
But if that’s you, go to the mattresses. Go to the mattresses with God.
Are you angry, at your brother or sister, or at God? Are you nervous about your life? Go to the mattresses—take it to God. Do you feel betrayed, passed over, or left out to dry by God? Go to the mattresses—take it up with him and have it out.
Go to the mattresses with God, if you think you have a need to clear the air.
Go be alone, like Jacob was, and wrestle a little bit.
The stakes are higher for us than in the Godfather because we can’t say, “It’s not personal; it’s business.” With God, it’s all personal, and the blessing of our future seems to entirely depend on whether we can have an encounter with God.
I realize this is potentially dangerous advice to give to a group of Christians, to encourage us to go to the mattresses with God. You see Jacob limping around here, with a strained hip. And who wants another injury to have to worry about?
But there’s something about this human-divine struggle that is holy. There’s something sacred about grappling more deeply with the wonder and the mystery–even the sometimes elusive nature–of God.
Jacob Became Who He Was Always Supposed to Be
Jacob, the trickster, the one who contends on his own behalf, receives the new name Israel, meaning, “God strives,” “God contends,” “God struggles for you and for your good.”
Jacob became even more of who he was always called to be.
I think there are two main reasons we don’t go to the mattresses with God when we know we should, or could.
First, we think that God can’t handle it. We’re worried that the whole edifice will come crumbling down and we’ll have nothing left to believe in, when we really examine just who this God is, and just what this Word is, and just why justice does not prevail as it should in the world. We think God is either easily offended, quickly angered, or readily deconstructed, and so we stay at home. We don’t fight. We don’t engage in the struggle that is needed.
But if God is truly omniscient, if God really knows everything, then he already knows your questions, your frustrations, the things you protest about him, or others, or about the world. So why not give voice to them?
God can handle our frustrations, our consternation, our jadedness, even if we see him as the source of it.
Another reason we don’t go to the mattresses with God is we think we can’t handle it. We’re nervous that we’re right about God not being able to handle our complaints, our indictments, our protestations, and what would I have left anymore if that were true?
But if you’re keeping a midnight, solo encounter with God at bay for fear of what will happen—what do you have left anymore right now, anyway?
God can handle the struggle. You can manage to get in the ring—respectfully, of course—and go a few rounds.
Jacob, on that long, dark night, became even more of who he was always called to be. From the struggle emerged a new expression of God’s favor. From the wrestling came a blessing. Because he dared to face God—in all his honesty and uncertainty, and with all his passion—God gave him a new name, an altered identity, and declared Jacob to be a new person in God.
When we wrangle with God, we are not the same afterwards. We may come out of a period of holy wrestling a little worse for the wear, as Jacob did with his limp—which healed in due time—but we do so with a blessing. We get back up with a new name, a refined identity.
So if you need to, go to the mattresses with God. You don’t have to do it alone, like Jacob did; take a friend with you. Make a vulnerable new step of really chasing down some of your unfinished business with God, and sharing that journey with a friend, inviting them to walk with you, to pick you up and carry you when you’re limping.
And as the sun rises after your dark night, you will be able to rejoice at the new name and the even more abundant blessings you’ve received from God.
But sometimes, to get there, you’ve got to be willing to wrestle.