Signposts: Daily Devotions

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."
—Genesis 32:24–26  

It is night. Jacob is alone, beside the River Jabbok, terrified of what awaits him the next morning. Without warning, he is thrown to the ground by "a man." They fight, hard, wrestling violently until daybreak when Jacob’s hip is ripped out of joint by the force of the man’s blow.

In agonizing pain, Jacob refuses to let the man go "unless you bless me." The man asks his name, and when Jacob answers, the man says, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Thus ends one of the most famous Bible stories, certainly one that has been reflected upon for centuries by writers, preachers, and artists.

What does this story mean? Why would the "man" (angel? God? demon?) first attack and then bless Jacob? What is the correlation between terror, acute physical pain, and blessing? It would take a month of Sundays, as well as a month of meditations, to do justice to these questions. 

Here, greatly distilled, are thoughts from two great theologians:

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book Gospel Medicine:

Do not let anyone convince you that if it were really God it would not be so scary and would not hurt.  No one asks to be attacked, frightened, or wounded, and yet that is how it comes sometimes, the presence and blessing of God.

Frederick Buechner in The Magnificent Defeat:

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, because, before giving us everything, he demands of us everything. Remember Jacob, limping home against the great conflagration of dawn. Remember Jesus, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward the Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.

Bless us, O God, that we may see your hand not only in the wonders of the world, but in its pain, and ours. Amen.

Copyright © 2010 Margaret Jones.