Genesis 32 is quite simply one of the most perplexing stories in the entire Bible. This narrative, in which Jacob wrestles with a spiritual being (presumably God) throughout the night and is given the new name ‘Israel,’ is both hard to interpret and yet a monumentally important text in the Jewish and Christian faith. Jacob’s new name of Israel literally means ‘he struggles with God’. And according to the text, Jacob is said to have ‘struggled with God…and overcome.’ But what of course does that mean? Does Jacob defeat God, or at least wear him out, in some sense? Rabbi Joseph Teluskin, a Jewish scholar writes, ‘It is no small matter that Israel, the name for both the Jewish people and the modern Jewish state, implies neither submission to God nor pure faith, but means wrestling with God (and with men).’ (Jewish Literacy, pg 22) While the Bible presents numerous examples that God desires an honest dialogue with humans and is not put off by our anger or arguing (see the Psalms, the books of the prophets, and Jesus’ parables, for just a few examples), there are too many things about the story of Jacob wrestling with God that simply don’t make sense for this simple explanation to be valid. I recently came across one of the most insightful commentaries I’ve ever read on this passage. It points out what I think is the key to understanding this story.
And God said to Abraham, “…You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.” Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised. (Genesis 17:9,11,24) What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ (Romans 4:1-3) There is no denying that circumcision is a bizarre ancient ritual. In fact, scholars from a wide range of disciplines continue to debate the purpose and origin of the practice. I’m the kind of person who gets tripped up on stories that aren’t clear to me and I’ve long wondered about this part of Genesis. Now, a couple decades later, I think I finally understand it (or at least, enough of it).
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46) “…through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22) I’ve found that the Genesis story of Adam and Eve is fascinating in many regards. But one particularly interesting dimension of the story is that it tells us about the first distancing that occurs in humankind’s relationship with God. This is not a trivial theological matter. This is the story of humankind’s first break from God. Doubt enters in. And humans no longer commune with God as they once did.