Jacob at the Jabbok
It seems like an incidental fact that Jacob was at the ‘ford of Jabbok’ (Genesis 32:22) when he wrestled with God in Genesis 32, but it may turn out to be a point of real significance. The exact time that the two struggled together isn’t recorded in the story, but reading between the lines the whole incident seems to have unfolded over several hours and it did not end ‘till daybreak’ (Genesis 32:24). The proximity to the fords of the river perhaps infers that it was a messy, muddy affair, but also that it was a point of movement between one place and another – just like the later crossing of the Red Sea by Moses or the Jordan by Joshua. Certainly, for Jacob it was a place of renaming, blessing and transformation.
Whilst some translations try and describe the strange figure that Jacob encounters as ‘an angel’ the Hebrew text is unambiguous, it was God, אֱלֹהִים֙ (Elohim) and Jacob names the place of the struggle as Peniel, ‘“It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”’ (Genesis 32:30). Interestingly, it is the first place in the Hebrew Bible that a human being is described as coming ‘face to face’ פָּנִ֔ים אֶל־ פָּנִ֣ים (panim el-panim) with God and it was clear that people believed, even by the time of Jacob, that such an encounter should result in death - in fact it resulted in new life. Although this aspect of Jacob’s life story seems strange, that is, a wrestling match with God in which the desperate man ends up limping for the rest of his life, it is in fact indicative of a certain type of approach to God that is found throughout the Bible. Whilst Jacob physically wrestled with God, others such as Abraham, Moses and David struggled with God in prayer in a way that is, perhaps, best described as “forthright”: Abraham argued with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Moses questioned why God had put him in charge of the Israelites (reminding God that they were his people) and David’s Psalms are filled with the words of a man trying to make sense of his circumstances, and who often questions God as to his whereabouts in the midst of them;
‘How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?’ (Psalm 13:1)
Although the attitude and prayers of God’s ancient people may seem irreligious, in fact, they rise out of a genuine respect, godly fear and love for God, whilst at the same time originating from a place of honesty and transparency that does not try to cover up the human experience. Jesus himself cried out on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ – this was not the cry of a man wanting to manufacture some sort of Messianic fulfilment, but rather, the words of a man in deep anguish who, in that moment, felt abandoned and separated from God.
In short, it is this type of discourse with God that we have maybe forgotten as modern Christians, or perhaps we have deemed it too messy and irreligious to explore. The story of Jacob, however, should encourage us to believe that God is willing to get down into the dirt, into the mess of our lives and into the nitty gritty of our daily reality, to hear out our pain, our struggles and our disappointments – why do we think we can hide these from God anyway? The story should also teach us, that it is in the place of struggle, of contention and of facing uncomfortable feelings and realities that God is able to touch us, transform us and bless us. As we wrestle with God in the dark times and push through until daybreak we may discover a surprising outcome - our name has been changed and we have crossed over to somewhere new. It is true, we may walk differently afterwards, but we will walk closer to God, in greater intimacy and reliance on his goodness and love.