My theology professor, Kwok Pui Lan, who is a constructive theologian, asked us to bring a picture that symbolizes our spiritual landscape. I came to class unprepared, but thankfully my discussion partner Elizabeth had an i-phone. On the fly, I recalled the a sermon I wrote last semester on the biblical text of Jacob wrestling with the angel. It is a very rich and robust metaphor for the simultaneous struggle and embrace of God on our spiritual journey. My sermon spoke about this metaphor from the vantage of several works of art depicting this text. Jakob und der Engel by Rembrandt is one of my favorite artistic renderings of Jacob wrestling with the angel. In Rembrandt's depiction, it's not quite clear if the angel holds Jacob in a loving embrace or if Jacob is wrestling with the angel. I would surmise that for many of us it's a both/and kind of spiritual journey. Therein lies the paradox. The text of my sermon on this text follows.
In the passage from the Hebrew scriptures this morning we are introduced to the image of Jacob wrestling with an angel. This image has been iconic throughout history and has permeated our cultural imagination. Dutch painter Rembrandt created a painting that both shows Jacob wrestling with the angel and the angel cradling Jacob in his arm depending on how you view the painting. It appears as if the angel locks Jacob in a bear hug in Jacob Epstein’s sculpture. Each of these interpretations of the biblical text is unique, but each artistic rendering speaks to Jacob’s spiritual struggle.
Why has the story about Jacob wrestling with the angel influenced and captivated so many different artists throughout history?
I believe that Jacob’s struggle speaks to us at the core of our souls. Jacob , you see, is on a journey of reconciliation and transformation. For Jacob, wrestling with the angel is wrestling with God. Wrestling with God helps prepare Jacob to meet his brother Esau and to reconcile with him. This journey results in a shift in Jacob’s identity and his experience of love. Jacob grows and becomes another person on his journey.
Jacob’s journey of struggle, wrestling with God and ultimately transformation reminds me in ways of my own journey.
Nine years ago my father died suddenly while I was out of the country on a business trip. My father and I had had an argument before I left on my trip, and I did not have the opportunity to speak to him before he died. I struggled and wrestled with his death and did not find much comfort in faith as I chalked up religion and spirituality best left for others. This was my way of wrestling with God over what happened to me.
As an outlet for my grief, I plunged myself into the study of my family history. My father , before he died, had developed an interest in his family tree. This study started me on a fascinating journey. When I first started exploring, I only knew the country where my family was from and the name of my great grandparents. This search for my roots took me to Wisconsin, upstate New York, Montreal and finally northern Ireland. Along the way I became acquainted with members of my extended family who I did not know well or at all. I heard a lot of stories that shaped the lives of the people I was researching and this brought them to life for me. This journey concluded with a trip accompanied by 15 distant relatives to northern Ireland to visit our ancestral home near Belfast.
On this journey that started with some really deep wrestling I experienced wholeness and my life was transformed. I did not experience a dramatic name change like Jacob, but my identity was shaped in other ways. In coming to terms with my grief and acceptance over how I lost my father, I grew emotionally and intellectually, I deepened my identity and my grief was transformed. I found myself connected with a larger family, many other people who I could love and many others who could also love me. My journey, I do not think, is so different from Jacob’s.
Jacob is on journey through Canaan to the land of Seir to meet up with his twin brother Esau. You may recall that Esau was the first born, but his twin brother Jacob had his hand wrapped around Esau’s heel while following him out of the womb. Jacob is often portrayed as a trickster. He tricked Esau out of his blessing as the first born son. He must reconcile himself to his brother and therefore reconcile himself to God.
In Rembrandt’s depiction of Jacob wrestling with the angel it looks as if the angel is cradling Jacob in his arms. In Jacob Epstein’s sculpture it looks as if the angel has Jacob locked in a bear hug. Could wrestling with God also be a metaphor for God’s love for us? To wrestle with God can be a way for us to love God and God to love us?
God recognizes Jacob’s wrestling, his struggle and marks his transformation on his journey by giving him a new name. A common motif in the Bible is a marker of a new identity for those who experience transformation. Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah and Saul becomes Paul. And Jacob becomes Israel.
Our journey with God is not an easy path: it can involve strong emotions, fighting, conflict, and wrestling. Our struggle too marks our journey. However, as we move along in the journey something is borne of our wrestling. Our wrestling with God occurs within the context of God’s love for us. God expects that we will grow on this journey, that our journey will yield new insights, perceptions, even new identities and the formation of new relationships. The wrestling can ultimately transform us just as Jacob’s wrestling with the angel transformed him and prepared him for his reconciliation with Esau.
Esau could be bitter and angry at his brother’s deception and stealing his birthright as first born son of Isaac and Rebecca. Instead in chapter 33 of Genesis, we see Esau embrace his brother Jacob. Jacob is met with love from Esau. Indeed, Jacob’s wrestling with the angel did result in a double blessing. In antiquity, it was believed that one could not look at God without risking death. Jacob feels blessed because he has faced God in wrestling with the angel. His confrontation with the angel should have led to his death – but it did not.
When my father died, I was angry and confused, but my journey was transformative. I was a different person with a different identity at the end of my journey much like Jacob when he meets Esau. This identity was borne out of both struggle and love.
Our spiritual journey will be marked by struggle, conflict and even pain, but on the other side of the dark night, in our darkest nights, we may wrestle with God, all the while knowing we are deeply and wholly loved. Our wrestling can ultimately bear a blessing for us as our wrestling with angels allows us to grow, to be loved , and to transform us into the people of God.
Jacob experienced God’s love through his physical and spiritual wrestling ….Esau extended love to his brother Jacob, just as God can paradoxically hold us in an intimate embrace as we wrestle with him. As we struggle with God, at the same time God also lovingly and tenderly cradles us in his arms.