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God-Wrestling and Faith...

God-Wrestling and Faith...

Further thoughts on Parashat Vayishlach

by John J. Parsons

Before he could return from his exile, Jacob had to face his fears and wrestle with God. The outcome of the struggle was a blessing, as signified by a new name, "Israel" (יִשְׂרָאֵל), meaning one who who perseveres (שָׂרָה) with God (אֵל). Jacob finally prevailed with God when the power of his faith overcame the pain of his past... Jacob's story teaches that before we can return from our place of exile, we have to face our fears and wrestle over who we really are. Each of us must be renamed from Jacob to Israel, from being a manipulator to one who surrenders to God's power and blessing. Just as Jacob finally prevailed with God when the power of his faith overcame the pain of his past, so we can escape from our own exile - the prison of our past - by proclaiming from the heart: "I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered" (Gen. 32:30).

The prophet Hosea adds some further insight about Jacob's great struggle of faith and how it eventually led to the revelation of God at Bethel:

וָיָּשַׂר אֶל־מַלְאָךְ וַיֻּכָל בָּכָה וַיִּתְחַנֶּן־לוֹ
בֵּית־אֵל יִמְצָאֶנּוּ וְשָׁם יְדַבֵּר עִמָּנוּ
וַיהוָה אֱלהֵי הַצְּבָאוֹת יְהוָה זִכְרוֹ

vai·ya·sar · el · mal·akh · vai·yu·chal · ba·khah · vai·yit·cha·nen · lo
bet · el · yim·tza·e·nu · ve·sham · ye·da·ber · im·ma·nu
va·do·nai · E·lo·hei · ha·tze·va·ot · Adonai · zikh·ro

"Yes, he [Jacob] fought with the Angel and won; he wept and pled with Him.
He found Him at Bethel, and there He spoke with us;
even the LORD, the God of hosts; the LORD is His memorial."
(Hosea 12:4-5)

Chagall - Peace Window (detail)


Jacob "wept and made supplication" to the Angel, a fact left unmentioned by Moses' account in the Torah, though perhaps hinted at in Jacob's prayer before the climactic conflict: "I am not worthy of the least of thy tender mercies..." (Gen. 32:10). This shows that the struggle was spiritual, not physical, and that Jacob finally "won" the fight by paradoxically submitting himself to God... The injured thigh was a token of Jacob's surrender to the Angel (Gen. 32:25, 31), and it was only after his flesh was wounded that Jacob's life was empowered by God to take hold of the realm of promise, as signified by his return to Bethel... The story is ultimately about death and resurrection: Ultimately, Israel was wounded so that he could know that the LORD "gives power to the faint, and to them that have no might, he increases strength" (Isa. 40:29).

Notice that Jacob continued to wrestle until he was injured by the Angel of the LORD, after which he simply "hung on" for dear life until he received the blessing directly from God. In other words, Jacob discovered that struggling and resisting God were useless for the blessing to be secured, so he simply yielded in submission.... This was the turning point of his life, the moment when his new name and identity were bestowed. The LORD surely could have overpowered Jacob, but it took far more for Jacob to freely surrender his will. In the end, the New Testament attests to change that issued from Jacob's brokenness: Despite some additional struggles he later faced with the flesh, he was finally able to die with the blessing of God to impart to his children (Heb. 11:21).

And may God help us fight the good fight of faith - and prevail!

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