A reflection on Proper 13A Genesis 32:22-31
Murray Stein, a prominent Jungian writer and analyst, wrote a book called, “Transformation: Emergence of the Self.” He writes about a very profound transition that most human beings go through, usually in our mid to late forties, which takes about a decade to complete, sometimes known as a mid-life crisis. He uses the life stories of Carl Jung, Rembrandt, Rilke, and Picasso to describe the struggle and the creative result. The process begins with a sense of being unsettled in life, something is amiss. We then experience years of doubt, confusion, unsettledness, where everything we thought we knew and understood about ourselves, or our hopes and dreams, our expectations, our life goals, even our faith, comes into question.
This is the place where we find Jacob in our readings this morning. We have moved through the Genesis story from Abraham and Sarah, who are Jacob’s grandparents. We’ve heard their story of struggle and transformation. We have moved through the story of Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob’s parents. And we have heard most of the story of Jacob himself – how he tricked his brother into giving him the birthright of inheritance, how he had to flee his homeland to escape the wrath of his brother, how he worked for 14 years to win the hand of Rachel from her father Laban. And now our reading today points us to a place late in Jacob’s life, a time when he has become successful and wealthy. He has a large family, 12 sons, and many possessions, he ought to feel settled. But despite all of his success he still struggles with what he did to his brother all those years before. And so he sets out with his family to see his brother and ask his forgiveness.
As he nears the end of his journey to meet his brother, Jacob pauses for some time of sleep, prayer, contemplation. He sends his family on ahead, to a place of safety, while he prepares. It is in this night of preparation that Jacob has an amazing dream. He is wrestling with an angel! All night long he wrestles, getting no sleep, and ending up wounded.
This story of Jacob wrestling with the angel invites us to look at the ways we may wrestle with faith. Each one of us at some point in time argues, debates, struggles with God. It is part of the process of faith. It is part of the process of becoming fully who we are called to be.
Jewish Midrash views this story from two dimensions - one is the break-down in human relationships, symbolized by the rivalry between Jacob and his brother Esau. Jacob’s life long struggle over inheritance and birth right has broken him. Now he seeks reconciliation and healing with his brother, an effort that is never simple, but always comes with grace. The work of healing a relationship leaves us vulnerable and raw, it’s scary, but it is also a blessing.
The second view is that the confrontation between Jacob and the angel describes the dynamic of a tormented soul struggling for insight and understanding in the face of life’s challenges. It is the struggle to remain a person of faith in a world of violence, disease, despair, and bad things happening to good people. It’s literally an emotional and spiritual tug-of- war. It is easier for Jacob to make peace with his brother Esau than for him to reconcile his inner struggles of identity and faith. Wrestling with the angel reveals the nature of Jacob’s inner struggle - he wants to know who he is, what his purpose is. Jacob insists that the angel give him a blessing. The angel does more than that, the angel gives Jacob a new name and his true identity is revealed, he is Israel, a people of God.
The paradox of this story is that even though Jacob comes out of the dream wounded from this struggle, he is also more mature and whole. He’s become a wiser human being who finds peace in his life, content with it as it is. Genesis 32 uses the word “Shaleim” to describe Jacob when he awakens. Shaleim has two meanings “wholeness” and “peace.” Jacob emerges from the struggle, whole and at peace, despite being physically wounded.
Our spiritual journey toward a mature faith often includes doubt and struggle followed eventually by reconciliation within one’s self, and a sense of wholeness and peace. Along the way God calls us by name, “Beloved,” and blesses our journey with God’s abiding presence, love, and grace. May we trust in God’s presence though the wrestling feels endless for the dawn will come, the sun will rise, and love will prevail.