Frederick Buechner’s Secrets in the Dark contains a sermon he preached titled ‘The Magnificent Defeat’ that details the story of Jacob’s all-night wrestling match with God:
22 Now he arose that same night and took his two wives and his two maids and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream. And he sent across whatever he had. 24 Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he touched the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob’s thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” But he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 He said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him and said, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And he blessed him there. 30 So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” 31 Now the sun rose upon him just as he crossed over Penuel, and he was limping on his thigh. (Genesis 32:22-31)
If I’m being honest, I’ve always had a little trouble grasping this passage. Buechner’s take on it, however, is beautiful and spoke to me a great deal. Jacob is a man who has always gotten ahead by being just a little crafty and devious. If you recall, he caught his brother Esau in a moment of weakness and essentially tricked him into trading his birthright for a bowl of soup (Genesis 25:29-34). He then set about with the help of his mother to trick his father into granting him a blessing that was intended for Esau (Genesis 27:1-29). Jacob was a little devious … and here’s the hard part to understand – his deviousness worked for him.
Jacob got ahead as a result of his trickery. He gained his brother’s birthright and blessing and, although he had to flee before Esau exacted revenge, he enjoyed the benefits of his deviousness. Buechner writes:
… the shrewd and ambitious man who is strong on guts and weak on conscious, who knows very well what he wants and directs all his energies toward getting it, the Jacobs of this world, all do pretty well.
Jacob is the guy at your workplace who gets ahead on the backs of his coworkers. The guy who isn’t afraid to sacrifice others on his way to the top. But it is essential for us to remember that such trickery will only get us so far. Look again at Jacob’s wrestling match with God. The battle goes on for the entire night. Though Jacob struggles in all his might he is unable to get the advantage. He battles and battles until God finally reaches out and cripples him by simply touching the socket of his thigh. One can only wonder why God didn’t do this from the beginning. Why did God allow the wrestling match to wage for the entire night when He could win so easily. Perhaps there was a greater lesson for Jacob to learn.
Once crippled, Jacob grows desperate. He grabs on to God and begs, “I will not let go unless you bless me!” Jacob knows he is losing the wrestling match. He is crippled. God can’t be taken advantage of like Esau or duped like his father Isaac. Buechner writes:
[God’s blessing] is not a blessing that he can have now by the strength of his cunning or the force of his will, but a blessing that he can only have as a gift.
Once Jacob gets desperate, God extends His grace, “So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ He said, ‘Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him and said, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And he blessed him there” (Genesis 32:27-29).
God’s blessings are a gift and they reach a crescendo in Jesus Christ “… that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). We can not trick, demand, or force our way into eternal life – we must humble ourselves and accept the free gift of Jesus Christ.
Not in our strength, but His.