Wrestling for Identity

 And Jacob was left alone. Genesis 32:25

This is only the second time we’ve seen Jacob really alone. The first time was when he camped at “a certain place” on the way out of the promised land, running from Esau. Now 20+ years later, he’s returning to the promised land, and about to meet up again with Esau, and he’s alone again.

I’m reading the stories of Genesis this year with special attention to the family dynamics in the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. A theme that runs throughout is the rivalry between brothers for the recognition and privileges of the firstborn, which will come to a head in the saga of Joseph and his brothers (on which I’m currently writing a book). It’s a rivalry for identity, to use a modern term: a sense of who I am, what I’m about, and ultimately what I’m worth. Identity is something we struggle to form and maintain today. When it comes to sibling rivalry, though, old Jacob might be the champ. He wrestles with Esau in the womb so he can be born first. This fails, but Jacob is still hanging on to Esau’s heel at the moment of birth. Later he negotiates with Esau to purchase his birthright, and then cooperates with his mother, Rebekah, to get the blessing of the firstborn. Esau is understandably outraged, and Jacob has to flee, but then he spends the next twenty years wrestling with his uncle/father-in-law/boss Laban just to get a fair deal.

It’s only now that Jacob is finally left alone . . . but then he ends up wrestling again with a “man” until the break of day (32:25 [32:24 in Christian Bibles]).

Some of our sages say that this man is actually Esau’s guardian angel. Jacob seems to think that he’s actually God himself. Both interpretations find support in Hosea’s brief allusion to the story (12:3-6), but I want to look at something else that’s going on.

Until now, Jacob’s identity has always been formed in tension with another; first with Esau and then with Laban. Within his own family, his children are all conceived in tension, too; the ongoing contest between Leah and Rachel that’s going to shape the story of their children’s whole generation (Gen. 37–50). But here, it’s finally Jacob alone with the divine. Jacob’s identity is no longer being formed in contest and comparison with other human beings—which is normally the way we all do it—but in a face-to-face encounter with God (at least that’s how Jacob describes it at the end of ch. 32).

Jacob emerges from this encounter with his contested identity finally confirmed. Jacob, who had earlier diverted the blessing away from Esau, now demands a blessing from his wrestling partner. He responds by giving Jacob a new name, Israel “for you have striven with God and with man and have prevailed” (32:29). Rashi has the wrestling partner saying, “It shall no longer be said that the blessings came to you through trickery (aq’vah, from the same root as his old name Ya’aqov) and deceit, but with nobility [related to the s-r in Israel] and openness.”  The identity that emerges from our struggle with God is noble, in contrast with the identity of comparison that emerges from our struggle with other people. We become noble and open when we settle on a God-based identity in place of the usual human completion for approval, status, and power.

But Jacob emerges from this encounter with something else—a bum hip. The “man” touched him there when he saw that he couldn’t prevail, and in the end Jacob limped away from the fight. Apparently, the touch on his hip joint impaired Jacob’s wrestling prowess. He got his blessing, all right, but he also got a serious limitation, perhaps to keep him from reverting to the comparison-competition mode of identity formation.

The rivalry for favor and status is deeply ingrained in human nature. The first crime in Genesis is fratricide, the murder of a brother, over competition for these commodities. We grow up comparing ourselves with others, competing for recognition, and sometimes continue doing so long after we’re grown up. This story reveals an encounter with God that can free us from all that, and give us a new identity as a prince[ss] with God, as an Israel. But there’s a cautionary note too: that encounter might leave us limping, less able to rely on ourselves, and more dependent on God.

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