There are some strange stories in the Bible. The strangest often involve direct encounters with God. Moses meets God in the burning bush where God won’t tell him his name. Abraham invites three angels/God/who knows? over for dinner. And then there’s this beauty:
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. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”Genesis 32: 24-30
You know the story. Maybe someone read a sanitized version in an Arch Book or you coloured a picture of it in Sunday School. Maybe you’ve heard it read and preached about in Church. Or maybe you’re not like me and didn’t grow up in a religious family and have never heard the story. Well, you may be better off than those of us who’ve had decades of interpretation imposed on the story. Take a step back and read it again without thinking about the possible meanings. Just enjoy the sheer absurdity of it.
The events leading up to this moment aren’t any less strange. Jacob is an asshole. He steals his brother’s birthright by lying to his father and then heads for the hills. He meets his match in the form of his father-in-law-to-be/cousin, Laban. He makes Jacob work for seven years before he’ll hand over his
property daughter. We don’t even blink when we read about Jacob fucking Leah on the night of his wedding to her sister Rachel meaning that now he’s got seven more years to buy Rachel. I mean seriously, how does he not figure it out? Is he so horny he simply has to complete the coital congress? There is a French translation of the story in the TOB that succinctly captures the mood, “Et au matin… surprise, c’était Léa !” or “In the morning…. surprise, it was Leah!” My eternal gratitude is due to Dr. John Simons, one time principal of Montreal Diocesan Theological College (my alma mater) for this observation.
Oh yeah, and by the way, does anyone ever ask how Rachel and Leah feel about this? They’re used as prostitutional pawns in Laban and Jacob’s scheming. As far as I can tell, true love stories in the Bible are non-existent. Our concept of mutual free giving love isn’t there. Men often fall in love and buy their brides but what she thinks is never taken into account.
So with his pair of duly purchased brides, Jacob heads home to see his brother. On the eve of their reunion, Jacob wrestles with God. As you do. And God cheats. As He does (apparently). Jacob holds his own, so God has to use magic to touch Jacob’s hip causing permanent damage. Still, Jacob persists. Eventually, God asks him to let him go. Jacob won’t until he gets a blessing. God gives him a new name, “Israel.” We all know that name don’t we? That’s a nation of people as well as a geopolitical nation. How touching!
Except, well, except that it means something as do all good Hebrew names. It means, “struggle with God.” That’s right. An entire nation of people is named after the struggle with God! And struggle they do. The history of the Israelites is the history of struggle. They were a rag tag bunch of misfits who managed to hold onto a small but significant piece of real estate for hundreds of years. They did so by the skin of their teeth. They also spent time in exile and were conquered over and over again while somehow holding onto their land until the Romans got fed up with them in the 1st century.
Israel is defined by its faith in Yahweh. Religion and politics are inseparable. They are intertwined. And yet the nature of this faith in God is cemented in their name. They struggle. Read some of the prophets. Prophets were not unlike political pundits of antiquity. They challenged those in authority and warned of the consequences that would come from immoral behaviour. Hosea got to marry a prostitute. Ezekiel got to eat food cooked on shit (God graciously allowed it to be animal excrement rather than human). Jeremiah seems to spend a lifetime in lament. How long oh Lord!?
This view of God is hard to reconcile with our contemporary focus on God as loving and gracious. The God of struggle can sometimes come off as a jealous lover or abusive husband. “You just get me so mad sometimes, baby, but you know I love you.” At the same time, this view of God is far more consistent with the travails of evolution. Evolution is progress at the cost of overwhelming failure.
This God of struggle also reflects my life experience more than the smiling faces of praise and worship bands. My life of faith has been a life of struggle (decidedly middle-class struggle, let’s be honest here). I wish it weren’t but what are you gonna do? I feel condemned to a life like Jacob or Jeremiah as opposed to… Come to think of it, I can’t recall a figure in the Bible whose life didn’t involve a significant struggle. Abraham and Isaac, Joseph and slavery, Moses and Pharaoh, David and Goliath/Saul/Absalom, and the list goes on. The heroes of the Hebrew faith are all fragile and broken men with some exceptional women too (Sarah, Deborah, Ruth, Mary strugglers all). I guess I’m in good(?) company.
So I will continue to struggle. The other options are less appealing. Praying truly means facing hard truths as well as basking in the glow of enlightened ones. The mystics confirm it. Of the mystical canon, in Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross expresses it directly. Praying truly is not easy. And the more I doubt the potential miraculous rewards, the more I wonder whether the struggle is worthwhile. But here I stand and can do no other.