No One Can Embrace God without a Fight!

Jacob’s encounter with the Theophany at Peniel, upon re-entry to the land, is hardly less powerful of a story as his dream at Bethel. In fact, they are linked by visions of angels; the angels of the stairway and those of the army of God (cf. 28:12 and 32:1). Again, Jacob is awed, yet he still fears his brother Esau, and makes preparations in case of attack. This fear inspires a passionate prayer to God, reminding Him of His promises to him, asking God for deliverance (32:9-12).

As one traveled north from Jericho along the Rift Valley, one could observe, across the Jordan River, the high cliffs of Gilead to the east. There is a split in the wall-like plateau where a river cuts through on its way to the Jordan; this is the Jabbok. Here it was that Jacob sent his family across under cover of night. Alone like he was 20 years before at Bethel, Jacob confronts a stranger in the dark; he could not run, he could not hide. It could be that he thought he was his brother Esau attacking him. Terrified, he found himself, a mild man by temperament, suddenly locked in violent combat, fighting for his life. To his own surprise, Jacob had far more fight in himself than he ever knew. First of all, the contest lasted throughout the night until morning. Secondly, he found that he was getting the better of his mysterious opponent. Somewhere in the battle Jacob’s soul sensed that this was no ordinary man with whom he was thrashing about on the ground. What started as desperate fright now became steely determination to win something from this stranger who now clearly appeared supernatural. At the break of day, this mystical being, seeing that he cannot prevail against him by ordinary means, touches Jacob’s thigh, putting it out of joint. Clinging on to him with what strength he had in his arms, Jacob would not let go, would not accept defeat.

It is at this moment the very best in Jacob’s nature surfaces. He would not let go without a blessing. What started as a fight ends with an embrace. The Stranger demonstrates His lordship over Jacob by changing his name; no longer a “heel” (see “Jacob or Esau, Take Your Pick, March 3, 2014) he becomes “Israel,” meaning “he who strives with God,” or “he for whom God strives.” Jacob, still not fully comprehending Him who was before him, ventures to ask his name in return. It was the way in which his request was denied, by the simple question “Why is it that you ask my name,” that Israel knew He was a Theophany. In utter amazement, he realized that he got away with intimate personal combat with God and survived. Yet, he would never be the same; he would limp for the rest of his life.

No one can embrace God without a fight. By nature we humans fight God out of sheer fright, desperately clinging onto our own ways, protecting our turf, and pursuing self gratifying dreams. God shows up in the darkness of our night, and challenges us. Not one of us gives up without a fight. If by the grace of God, somewhere in the fight, our arms stop struggling and instead hold on, refusing to let go until God should give us a blessing, we win life’s battle. You can always tell one who has won with God, they always walk with a limp, a war wound, if you will.

Maximus the Confessor tells us that God has given us three powers of the soul; logikos (innermost secret place of the soul that searches for what is true and real), epithumētikon (desire and longing what is true and real), and thumos (fight). We see Jacob bending all three of these powers to God in this brief but intense encounter. As for fight, once it becomes an embrace, we must turn it against all that would keep us away from God. No one can grow spiritually without a long and continuous fight with the God who loves us, and a long and continuous fight against all that would separate us from Him!

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