I didn’t grow up watching wrestling. Sure, as a child of the ’80s, I certainly knew who Hulk Hogan, the Ultimate Warrior, and the Macho Man were, but, probably like many of you, my parents thought wrestling was ridiculous, so it was never on in our house. It wasn’t until college that I realized that yes, wrestling is ridiculous, and that’s what makes it so great! I mean, when Hulk Hogan rips his shirt off, when the Rock gets hit by a chair, when Ric Flair calls to the audience, they know how ridiculous it is. And once I realized that, then it started to get fun. I always described it as “a sports soap-opera”; and it did have so many of the elements I love from sports: (manufactured) drama, competition (sort of), characters, speeches (ok, maybe there not as much of that in traditional sports…)
So I enjoy wrestling. Maybe that’s why it saddened me (well, maybe sadden is too strong…) to see that the word “wrestle” only appears 2 times in the Bible, and in the same story. Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham, is fleeing from his father-in-law Laban. However, in fleeing, he’s headed back to his brother Esau’s land, who had also sworn to kill him. So Jacob’s in a tough spot, but then he does a very strange thing. He’s traveling in a large party of all his servants, family, and possessions, and he sends them all ahead of him. In fact, they had reached the river Jabbok, and Jacob sent everyone over the river. Everyone except himself.
Then, in Genesis 32:24, there’s a very strange verse: “So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.” Huh? What? Who is this man? Where did he come from? Why are they wrestling? Why does it go all night? The Bible doesn’t really say. However, this man is clearly the superior wrestler, as at one point he dislocates Jacob’s hip with a touch. And yet, Jacob doesn’t let go! I got to hand it to Jacob, that would be extreme even for professional wrestling. But it gets better. After the “match”, Jacob says “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared” (Gen 32:30b). So somehow, this “man” was God? Or represented the Face of God? And Jacob wrestled with Him?
When I hear this story, or even the phrase ‘wrestling with God’, I don’t know that I picture literal wrestling. And who knows? Was this in Jacobs's mind? Is it a metaphorical struggle? Scripture does say he walked with limp afterward. Regardless, the thing that most captures my mind is what comes out of this struggle. In the end, the ‘man’ says “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome” (Gen 32:28b). And that, as best as we can understand it, is literally what ‘Israel’ means – ‘he wrestles with God’.
Think about that. Not Israel the country, or the politics, or even the history. The people of Israel, the promise to Abraham, God’s plan for the redemption of mankind, is through ‘he who wrestles with God’. So what does that mean? I’ve heard nicer translations, like ‘strives with God’, or ‘struggles with God’, but ‘wrestles with God’ really makes me think. What does it look like for me to wrestle with God? Not only that, but why define His people that way? What is it about the wrestling that’s so important?
There are two answers I come to. One is what C.S. Lewis said once, how a teenager doubting the existence of God may actually be closer to Him than any point before. And I see that, especially working with Middle and High School students, really anyone on the cusp of owning their own faith. There comes a point where the culture and assumption of faith are not enough, and we need to ask “Do I really believe this?” And at that point, what my parents believe, what my pastor believes, even what my friends believe doesn’t really matter as much as what I actually believe. At that point, God needs to answer for all the wrongs that have been done to me, all the things I disagree with, everything I see in this world that seems to dispute his existence. Our wrestling match has begun.
A second answer is what I see several times in the Old Testament – people ‘calling God out’ on something. Abraham calls God out on Sodom and Gomorrah: “Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked” (Gen 18:25), Moses calls out God on the golden calf: “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand?” (Exo 32:11). And then, rather than being angry at being questioned, God relents. But, knowing God as we know Him, knowing He knows all things, past, present, and future, did God really intend to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if there were righteous people there? Did He intend to wipe out the Israelites, days after He’d freed them? Or did He want people who would stand in the gap for these people? Represent them to Him as an advocate?
As I’ve ‘wrestled’ with what it means to follow Christ, I think that picture of standing in the gap, advocating for my fellow man, is what it means. It doesn’t mean God is our adversary, and I think in fact we’re actually the thing that needs to be wrestled to the ground. But, I think we need that wrestling; we need to bring all our doubts, fears, and frustrations before God and let Him overpower them. Only then can we land at that assurance and Hope that He’s got us.