So there I was in Brittany, nursing my sore hip, awaiting instruction. It was not long before the Old Testament ‘sore hip story’ of Jacob wresting with God came to mind! It’s in Genesis 32 if you haven’t read it for a while. I didn’t actually have the Pentateuch or BibleGateway.com to hand in France, but I remembered the elements of it…
Jacob the son of Isaac is returning home after 14 years in exile with uncle Laban – during which he has gained 2 wives, a lot of sons and plenty of animals to call his own – to face the twin brother he had cheated out of his birthright (Genesis 25). God has actually called Jacob back to his homeland; so he sends gifts ahead to appease Esau’s wrath, shepherds his double family across in front of him and ends up alone on the river bank where he is opposed by an anonymous man who wrestles with him all night.
It’s a powerful story of life-changing encounter – Jacob gains a new identity – yet his transformation only comes through humbling and struggle. He endures the wrestling match until dawn starts to break – all credit to him – but when the Lord finally brings it all to an end by simply touching his hip he is marked for the rest of his days as the ‘walking wounded’, blessé de guerre.
So how did a man endure such an encounter with God and live to tell the tale? Like play fighting with a child, surely God held off His full strength? Just like a character in a fairy tale he wants to ‘disappear’ when dawn comes so the light won’t show His face; the point has been made – Jacob went the distance. Yet this usurper has always been desperate for the blessing – maybe it’s because he wasn’t his father’s favourite as a child. He holds God captive with his demand: “I will not let you go unless You bless me!”
And behold, the highest Patriarch of all gives him his heart’s desire – the one he tried to steal before – the father’s blessing of a new name and an identity describing his struggle and victory: Israel means ‘you have struggled with God and with man and have overcome’. It’s a turn-around, a transformation, gained not through his previous devious ways – ‘Jacob’ means ‘twister’ and ‘supplanter’ – but through a process of emptying, humbling and confronting his fears. Both the new name and the accompanying wound to his hip joint are given as marks and medals – and both are carried as a constant reminder of his weakness and the grace he’s found.
It’s only as day dawns he realises just Who it was he’d been wrestling with: “My eyes have seen God!” He names the place Peniel, after his encounter, just as on his outward journey he’d named Bethel – and surely there is an echo here of when he ran away in fear, spending the night in the desert with his head on a stone pillow, dreaming of the ladder into heaven, the very gateway of God. It almost seems as if the Lord of his fathers has been waiting on the border for him to return! It was clearly never going to be ‘the God of Abraham Isaac and Esau’ who has been feted through the ages: Jacob’s story has so much to teach us all about the faithfulness of God and who He chooses to demonstrate it through.
I can identify with Jacob’s difficult journey in so many ways – running away from family trouble – favouritism, jealousy, longing, deceit – but having to come back and face it all to find his healing, reaping the trickery he’d sown in a far-off land, the fruitfulness in his work and family mixed with pain and loss, wrestling in the night hours – and discovering that it’s God Himself who is opposing, laming, revealing Himself and bestowing blessing all at once. Do we not also carry the marks of our wounding now for the rest of our lives, whatever happens to Sam – although they may be hidden from view? Daily we face our fears of the future and underneath the outer layers, my mother heart has been snapped in two… I don’t see how it can ever be mended. It is only the daily grace of God, the protective canopy provided by heaven, that enables any semblance of normality to continue – along with just not thinking about it too much and all my other coping mechanisms (like blogging!) It is more than ironic that I now have this reminder I hardly need and I find myself with a real physical limp mimicking the inner reality and underlining the emptying yet again!
For to cross over into the ‘new old land’ of his future Jacob had to send everything he had ahead of him, not knowing if he’d ever get it back. He parcelled up his flocks and herds as gifts in an effort to smooth his re-entry. Finally he had to send his wives and children on ahead to face their own fate too – and left all alone and empty-handed he is found at the torrent, a tributary of Jordan – the river that surely speaks of death. In that dark night of brokenness and fear he meets his most severe test, surely a near-death experience… but then new life is given and he emerges into his promised future – and just like Jesus’ risen body, he is still carrying the wounds.
Through Jordan Jacob waded, fought, endured – he simply would not let go – and so he overcame, transformed by this encounter, ‘turned into a different person’. Staggering out of the water on the home shore he came into the promise: his brother graciously and gladly received him back, he was given room – and eventually, after many troubles with his sons – grief, loss, famine and exile – his name became that of a nation under God and the Lord kept His promise to bless and prosper him in the land. Israel’s founder carried that limp as a sign of his encounter until he blessed his sons and died, yet he remained an overcomer and gained a lasting inheritence – Jesus Himself said he was/is living still, with I AM, the ‘God of the living not the dead’ (Mark 12v26-27).
This is a life story of true redemption, the ultimate usurper made good – so I guess it gives all of us, however twisted or lost, some hope! It gives me hope as I face my fears and struggle through my own dark night of the soul… And it also sums up a most important life lesson, as you’ve probably learned yourself by now: never trust anyone who doesn’t walk with a limp!