Jack Baumgartner, Jacob Wrestling the Angel of the Lord (2010). Used by permission of the artist
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.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
– Genesis 32.22-31 (NRSV)
When he reaches the river Jabbok, which is all that stands between him and the Promised Land, Jacob sends his family and his servants across ahead of him, but he remains behind to spend the night on the near shore alone. One wonders why. Maybe in order to savor to its fullest this moment of greatest achievement, this moment for which all his earlier moments have been preparing and from which only a river separates him now.
And then it happens. Out of the deep of the night a stranger leaps. He hurls himself at Jacob, and they fall to the ground, their bodies lashing through the darkness. It is terrible enough not to see the attacker’s face, and his strength is more terrible still, the strength of more than a man. All the night through they struggle in silence until just before morning, when it looks like a miracle might happen. Jacob is winning. The stranger cries out to be set free before the sun rises. Then, suddenly, all is reversed.
He merely touches the hollow of Jacob’s thigh, and in a moment Jacob is lying there crippled and helpless. The sense we have, which Jacob must have had, that the whole battle was from beginning fated to end this way, that the stranger had simply held back until now, letting Jacob exert all his strength and almost win so that when he was defeated, he would know he is truly defeated; so that he would know that not all his shrewdness, will, brute force that he could muster were enough to get this. Jacob will not release his grip, only now it is a grip not of violence but of need, like the grip of a drowning man.
The darkness has faded just enough so that for the first time he can dimly see his opponent’s face. And what he sees is something more terrible than the face of death — the face of love. It is vast and strong, half ruined with suffering and fierce with joy, the face a man flees down all the darkness of his days until at last he cries out, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me!” Not a blessing that he can have now by the strength of his cunning or the force of his will, but a blessing that he can have only as a gift.
Power, success, happiness, as the world knows them, are his who will fight for them hard enough; but peace, love, joy are only from God. And God is the enemy whom Jacob fought there by the river, of course, and whom in one way or another we all of us fight — God, the beloved enemy. Our enemy because, before giving us everything, he demands of us everything; before giving us life, he demands our lives — our selves, our wills, our treasure.
Will we give them, you and I? I do not know. Only remember the last glimpse we have of Jacob, limping home against the great conflagration of the dawn. Remember Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb after the resurrection, bearing on his body the insignia of the defeat that is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.