Skip Navigation

Wrestle Till the Break of Day

from the “Nurture in Time and Eternity” collection

Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 17
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21

July 31,2005
Marsh Chapel
Boston University

Sermon hymn, 386 UMH

The story of Jacob wrestling with the angel or divine being—Jacob thought it was God—is a classic story of struggle to win a blessing. Sleeping in the open by himself after having sent his family, flocks and troops on ahead, Jacob was engaged by a man or angel or god in a wrestling match that lasted all night. Jacob was ferociously strong, a point made earlier in the narrative when on two occasions he lifted huge stones that usually could be moved only by several men working together. The god could not get away from Jacob, but had to do so because, according to ancient beliefs, the god could not last in the light of day. Even after the god sprained Jacob’s hip, Jacob held on. Jacob demanded a blessing, and at last the god relented and gave Jacob a new name, “Israel,” which meant that Jacob would be the father of that great people, Israel. Jacob demanded to know the god’s name, but the god refused; in ancient times it was thought that to know a person’s real name is to have some power over him. Jacob was satisfied that he had seen God face to face and lived; indeed, Jacob’s physical encounter with the god was more intimate than merely seeing. So, the first-level moral of the story is that you can wrestle with God to win a new divinely-blessed identity, and also to see God face to face. Jacob is the model of the spiritual striver, indeed perhaps of the mystic.

This incident takes on added significance when read in the context of the overall Jacob story, which runs from Genesis 25 to 35. That story is an artful contrivance based on the plot of Jacob’s birth, his fleeing from home, and living for twenty years with his shifty uncle Laban while he marries two of Laban’s daughters plus two concubines, and has twelve children by the four of them. He becomes vastly wealthy. Then Jacob returns home with all his belongings; the wrestling match takes place on the homeward journey. The art of the story is that the incidents on the outward journey are paralleled by incidents on the homeward journey. For instance, Jacob is born competing with Esau, his twin brother who was first out of the womb, and the end of the story has the brothers living peacefully and happily together. As a young man, Jacob cheats Esau out of their father’s blessing by disguising himself as Esau. Esau is furious, and Jacob flees to his uncle Laban, ostensibly to find a wife. Parallel to this, Esau welcomes Jacob back with much forgiveness on the return home. While fleeing Esau on the outward journey, Jacob has the dream about angels going up and down on the ladder to heaven, and this is paralleled by our story of the wrestling match with a god just before Jacob meets Esau for their reconciliation. The land Jacob flees to, Haran, is the place where his grandfather, Abraham, originally came from, and Uncle Laban is the brother of Jacob’s mother, Rebecca. So Jacob’s wives are his first cousins, keeping the heritage all in the family, as it were. Even Jacob’s flocks are taken from Laban’s flocks. For our culture, all this seems a bit incestuous, and the people who say the biblical ideal of marriage is one man and one woman simply don’t know the Bible. But the point of the Jacob story is to emphasize the purity of the heritage of Israel. Jacob, now renamed Israel, is the father of twelve sons whose descendents are supposed to be the twelve tribes of Israel, and the lineage goes back with purity to Jacob’s father, Isaac, and then back to Abraham to whom God made such extravagant promises about the Promised Land. Jacob’s Uncle Ishmael, who is older than his father Isaac and, at least according to the Muslims, is the rightful heir of Abraham, is excluded from the lineage of Israel. I talked about that several weeks ago. The Jacob story begins with a long genealogy of Ishmael’s descendents; Ishmael married outside the Abrahamic clan and his descendents are not part of Israel. Jacob’s brother, Esau, who had a better claim by birth than Jacob to be the heir of Abraham and Isaac, also married outside the Abrahamic clan, and his descendents became the Edomites, not the Israelites. A long genealogy of Esau’s descendents comes at the end of the Jacob story. Thus the illegitimate genealogies frame the story of the legitimate one. According to the Jacob story, only Jacob’s lineage is kosher, as it were.

The guiding theme of the Jacob story, however, is not only legitimacy of heritage, but alienation and reconciliation. As a young man, Jacob cheats his brother, deceives his father, and provokes God. Returning home, Jacob is eventually reconciled with his brother and father, and in our wrestling incident is reconciled with God, who had blessed him rather well all the time. The point is that God is faithful to the legitimate descendents of Abraham and provides the conditions for their reconciliation even when, like Jacob, they are greedy and full of lies. Jews and Christians have long taken the Jacob story to be a parable for the reconciliation of those who deservedly are alienated from the divine heritage. Christians have often interpreted Jacob’s wrestling partner to be Jesus Christ, or some kind of anticipation of Christ.

So let me say that the moral of the wrestling incident, when read in the context of the larger Jacob story, is that God comes to us when we are yet sinners and, if we hold on hard enough, not giving up even when the night is over and God has wounded us sorely, we can win the blessing of reconciliation with God and other people. Holding on to God in this struggle requires the tenacity that Paul described as faith. Although Jacob did not begin as a particularly admirable person, he clung to God in the pursuit of his own righteousness. May we all do as Jacob did: fight without giving up for reconciliation with God and our neighbors! No matter how bad we are, God comes to wrestle.

I admit that the metaphor of wrestling with God is a little sweaty for this time of year, and probably appeals to men more than to women. But you get the point.

A deeper dimension of this wrestling story needs to be investigated, however. Just who is the fellow with whom Jacob wrestles? What is his name, so coyly withheld? The text allows many answers: An angel? A primitive clan god belonging to Abraham and Isaac’s clan but not to Laban’s or the Canaanites? The one true God of Israel as the editors of the story have Jacob believe? The text admits of all these answers. I want to leave the historical dimensions of this question for biblical scholars and turn instead to a non-biblical source: a Methodist hymn.

Charles Wesley, the great hymn writer and brother of John Wesley who with him founded the Methodist movement in the eighteenth century, wrote a hymn-poem on the text of this story. He called it, “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown.” It speaks in the voice of Jacob addressing the wrestling partner, whom he calls the unknown Traveler, and the first stanza is as follows. Listen to how it fits the story:

Come, O thou Traveler unknown,
whom still I hold, but cannot see!
My company before is gone,
And I am left alone with thee;
With thee all night I mean to stay
And wrestle till the break of day.

My sermon title comes from that last line.

That first stanza had a double meaning for the Wesley brothers. In addition to referring to the Jacob story, it referred to their own partnership in the Methodist movement. They often wrestled over what to do, and Charles was critical of John. But when Charles died, both of them were in their 80s, and John was devastated that his “company before is gone and I am left alone” with God. Shortly after Charles’ funeral John tried to teach this hymn to a congregation and broke down in the attempt. I suspect that many widows and widowers feel this way about the loneliness of their remaining years with God alone.

Charles Wesley’s hymn gives a strange exposition of the Jacob story. It has Jacob say that he need not tell the unknown Traveler who he is himself, because his sin and misery are obvious, and besides the Traveler already calls him by name. The Genesis text does not suggest this introspection on Jacob’s part, although the name “Jacob” meant the “supplanter” because Jacob supplanted Esau as the receiver of Isaac’s blessing, and thus his name did refer to Jacob’s early sin. Wesley’s Jacob is desperate about his own unworthiness and does not need even to confess it. He asks, “But who, I ask thee, who art thou? Tell me thy name, and tell me now.” Not the Traveler’s blessing, but his identity, is what Wesley’s Jacob wrestles for. The hymn goes on with several stanzas that end, “wrestling, I will not let thee go till I thy name, thy nature know.”

Wesley’s Jacob asks our central question. We all wrestle with powerful forces, forces that make us to reveal our inmost identity when we often would hide that, even from ourselves. What are those forces with which we wrestle? God? Demons? What is their nature? Greed? Ambition? Fear? Doubt? Hate? Pride? Complacency? These deep struggles define our souls. They are the things that concern us ultimately, as the theologian Paul Tillich liked to say. Our lives are shaped around them as we wrestle with them through the years.

In Wesley’s exposition, Jacob becomes a Christian and asks whether the Traveler is Jesus:

In vain thou strugglest to get free,
I never will unloose my hold;
Art thou the man that died for me?
The secret of thy love unfold;
Wrestling, I will not let thee go
Till I thy name, thy nature know.

You see, there are a great many things with which we might wrestle ultimately that are not worth the effort. We all wrestle to make a living. But if we take it too seriously, it will deform our souls. We all wrestle to have a career. But taken too seriously, that deforms us. We wrestle to have family and friends, and we never have family and friends without long-term wrestling. But taken too seriously, that leads to dependency. We wrestle with our own character flaws, our greed, ambition, fear, doubt, hate, pride, complacency and a hundred other vices. To be sure, we need to work on these things. But if we wrestle with our sinful selves too seriously, we will be deformed into nasty judges whose self-hate sours everything. Haven’t we all known “religious” people like that? People who wrestle too much with what’s wrong turn into nihilists. The only thing worth wrestling with ultimately is God.

Wesley’s Jacob cries, “Yield to me now—for I am weak but confident in self-despair!” This introspective Jacob, in his self-despair, has nothing left to lose, and this gives him enormous strength. Remember the Janis Joplin song, “Freedom’s just another name for having nothing left to lose”? If Jacob had hope in his own strength, getting along without victory over the Traveler, he would have given up. But he becomes more insistent. “Speak to my heart, in blessing speak, be conquered by my instant prayer.” What gall! What confidence founded upon total despair, could let Jacob demand that the Traveler be conquered by his prayer! We softer types usually think of prayer as a petition. For Jacob it is a demand that God be conquered and reveal the Traveler’s name and nature. “Speak,” says Jacob, “or thou never hence shalt move, and tell me if thy name is Love.” Love is Jacob’s guess, or hope, for the name and nature of his intimate wrestling partner.

Love is the only thing worth a lifetime of struggle. Love is the only thing that will not deform us when we embrace it each day. Love is not always an adversary, as suggested by the reference to wrestling. But one engages love like in a wrestling match. Learning to love through all the stages of life, with all the crowd of our friends and enemies, requires holding on through the night, again and again. What more important question can we ask than whether our ultimate concern, that with which we wrestle ultimately and life-long, is love or some fake?! So easily do we deceive ourselves, that we are about God’s business of love, that we need to go to the bottom of despair to ask Jacob’s question: is your name and nature really love?

Wesley, of course, is alluding to the text in 1 John that says “God is love.” He also suggests indirectly that the Traveler whose name and nature might be love is Jesus. But he does not say either directly. His Jacob does not ask explicitly whether the Traveler is God or Jesus, only whether his name and nature is love.

Then Wesley’s Jacob hears in his heart the Traveler’s whisper of his name and nature, a voice the Jacob in Genesis never heard:

‘Tis Love! ‘tis Love! Thou diedst for me,
I hear thy whisper in my heart.
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
Pure Universal Love thou art:
To me, to all, thy mercies move—
Thy nature, and thy name is Love.

The secret power of Wesley’s song is that it speaks salvation to the individual heart because it recognizes the paradoxical universality of love: “to me, to all, thy mercies move.” If the love that answered Jacob’s despair were only for Jacob, healing only Jacob’s vices and alienation, that would be for Jacob a fake love, a love that answers only his selfish concern for his own salvation. Wesley knew that real divine love loves everyone, the entire creation, and only an individual’s recognition of the universality of that love beyond his or her own benefit has true healing for that individual. Of course the point is that being healed means loving all those others just as the saving love has loved oneself. Truly to wrestle with saving love is to wrestle for the salvation of others as much as oneself. If the apparent love with which one wrestles is not the love of those others as well, then it is fake and cannot truly address the singularity of one’s own heart. Not all of the evangelicals of Wesley’s time, or ours, got that point. Even John Wesley frequently said that, although he knew intellectually that Christ died for the salvation of all, real salvation means the recognition that it applies to oneself. Charles Wesley reversed this in his hymn: in order to know that saving love applies to oneself, one has to recognize that it applies to those others just as well.

When pure universal love is the one with whom we wrestle through the night, nothing of God’s business is impossible for us. Our vices will be cured and our hopes fulfilled, as these things count within God’s love.

Lame as I am, I take the prey,
Hell, earth, and sin with ease overcome;
I leap for joy, pursue my way,
And as a bounding hart fly home,
Through all eternity to prove
Thy nature, and thy name is Love.


end of content