“It just says he’s traveling to meet his brother and is camped by a river and suddenly he’s wrestling a man and the man is an angel and there’s no reason ever explained. I feel that profoundly, like something has been sent to me and I don’t even know why and I may never know but I have to struggle with it.”
This is something which Mal Ortberg, co-founder of the Toast, said about their second novel and the story of Jacob wrestling an angel. It’s an example of how even those bits of the Bible which can feel most familiar to us are the weirdest when we take time to read or listen to them. Last night, the Lent Course I’m going to focused on the Feeding of the 5000, as told in John’s Gospel. With both stories, the feeding and the angel, I’m not sure how to interpret them and I’m not sure if I know where to start. I have been told that the ‘miracle’ in the feeding of the 5000 was due to everyone having a few slices of bread or something each, and once the small boy shared his now infamous loaves and fish, everyone shared what they had. I also know people who interpret it much more literally and people who don’t think it happened at all – my instinct is that *what* happened is less important than what was said and thought and what was meant by including it in the gospels.
But back to Jacob and the angel. For those unfamiliar with the story, this is it in the NRSV (taken from Bible Gateway, Genesis Chapter 32) – it exists in different traditions and the man is sometimes read as an angel and sometimes as God, and sometimes as both.
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.
He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
There is a lot which strikes me about this passage – one of those things is importance of names (a look at the SCM website and Alex’s blog on there will say it all much better than I ever could). I don’t know if this was something that Mal had in mind specifically when thinking and writing about this, but I suspect they may have done.
The Provost of my Glasgow church, St Mary’s, is very fond of making badges, as anyone who attends the church or looks at his website probably knows! One of the badges he made says on it ‘I will not let you go until you bless me’. This is a phrase from this passage, but in that context refers to a very powerful speech at the Church of England’s General Synod. For those who have been excluded from church, or by the rhetoric of certain figures and leaders in the church, this can be such a powerful image – Jacob does not stop wrestling until he is blessed, and it is by name that he is blessed and called. I’ve explained before that I don’t usually find the fighting metaphor helpful, but I think this is an exception to that. It is at our darkest and most alone moments that we are most able to encounter the divine, whatever form that encounter takes. We may or may not come out of that encounter with a new name, or a clearer idea of what is going on, or a renewed vocation, and we may not even know what has happened – but we are going to come out of it changed, somehow.