between our steps 2016 dec 21 double
According to tradition, the night before Abraham's grandson Jacob returned to the promised land, he spent the night wrestling. As I ponder what would give him a sleepless night, I am aware of those times when we wrestle with questions about what we have done and where we are going.

The text says that, alone in the wilderness, he wrestled with a man. Many read that to mean it was an angel. In the morning, Jacob declared that he had seen God face to face, so interpreters argue he wrestled with God. Psychologists suggest that he wrestled with himself.

I think it doesn't matter who he wrestled with, the reasons for the tossing and turning were the same. He has been a conniving ambitious person, had broken relationships and deceived people to become wealthy. Had his past broken the promised future?

The specific trigger for this night of discomfort was the news that his brother, whom he deceived and stolen from twice, was coming to meet him with four hundred men. Jacob was travelling with two wives and their maids, eleven children, hundreds of sheep, goats, camels, and cattle along with servants. No soldiers.

Jacob arranged for a significant gift of livestock to be sent ahead to his brother to earn welcome, but he must have worried that the morning would bring trouble.  

Jacob's brother had reason to be angry with him. Jacob tricked his father also. He did as his mother asked, but then he left her for twenty years. That night, he might have wrestled with the way his actions broke family relationships.

As a father now himself, he might have worried that he would create an atmosphere of distrust and competition among his children.

When he left home to go to the place his mother came from, he spent a night near the border of the promised land in the middle of nowhere. He dreamed of a ladder where angels carried the concerns of earth to God and the power and teaching of God to earth. This was a place where God was present. In his dream, he heard God bless him to carry the inheritance of the covenant with Abraham.

But that moment of certainty led to leaving the promised land for twenty years. He turned his back on God and left. As he returned, he might have struggled with the question of whether or not he was worthy of the promise.

In the land his mother came from, he married twice and bore children. Through working for his father-in-law, he became wealthy. Again, the family became dangerously jealous. He might have wrestled with the question of why he always created negative reactions in people.

He decided it was time to go home. His wives said they might as well leave because, having married him, they were treated as foreigners. They seemed willing to start this journey. But there was underlying discomfort, at least in Rachel. She stole the family gods, the images that focused the family worship. With this desperate and shocking action, she showed she deeply needed to bring home with her.

While he did not know of Rachel's theft, he must have sensed that he was dragging his wives and servants from their home. He may have wondered if they would be able to adapt to the promised land and the covenant with the God of Abraham.

Jacob did a lot that could cause regret. A night of wrestling with his history and with his character would have been quite appropriate as he began again.

That night he was given a new name. And if we look ahead in the story, we see he has learned something about preventing jealousy: each of his sons will become head of a tribe among the people of God. He did not completely undo that part of his character: his preference for Joseph led to trouble. The story also reminds us all that he had more to learn about fairness for women as Dinah and Tamar experience violence and betrayal.

For Jacob, the sleepless night of wrestling on the edge of return gave him a sense of clarity. He declared that he saw the face of God and yet lives.

Not every such sleepless night brings such clarity. But Jacob's story reminds us that such wrestling has its place, and that we do not wrestle alone.

Cathy Hird lives on the traditional territory of the Saugeen Ojibway