Frederick Buechner has spoken of this passage of scripture as a story of Magnificent Defeat. Inspired by Buechner and those who have come before and since, the story of Jacob:
Jacob was a wrestler before he had seen the light of day. If he was to believe the stories from his mother, he wrestled with his brother Esau inside the womb. According to mom, Esau was born first, with Jacob grasping his heel right behind him.
And from that day, it was like Jacob was determined never to come in second place ever again. As a child, he and Esau would fight with each other like bears. Esau was always bigger, always stronger, but always dumber. Jacob always found a way to beat him whenever they wrestled. Each time, Jacob would hold his own for a while, but Esau would start to overpower him. Eventually, Esau would get him in some sort of hold. Unable to move. Unable to breathe. But Jacob always found his way out! When they were young, with Esau sitting on Jacob’s head, turning purple, he would eek out “Mom,” and Rebecca came out to save the day and save his head. When they got a little older, Esau pinning him against a rock, Jacob would swear that their dad had told him he was supposed to clean out the stables. Esau narrowed his eyes to see if he were telling the truth, which of course he wasn’t. But every time, he fell for it and let Jacob go. And Jacob would run away to safety once more.
And the thing was, Jacob felt absolutely no remorse. Esau was a thick-headed oaf and he deserved everything he got. Jacob resented the fact that Esau had been born first by seconds. It was so unfair. Jacob knew he was smarter. Quicker. More deserving of the birthright. But the dumb oaf was given blessing after blessing after blessing. Jacob saw it as his right and responsibility to take what he could whenever he could. It was God’s way of correcting the oversight of their birth order.
And so he did. He stole his brother’s family blessing, tricking his father into giving it up. He took his brother’s birthright, tricking his brother into giving it up for a pot of stew. Esau came in famished from the hunt, claiming, “give me the food before I die!” Jacob, who knew how to take advantage of the situation, responded with a smile: “Then bless me…or die!” But again, he thought it was exactly the way that the world was supposed to work. Jacob knew he was more deserving, and so it never bothered him to steal from the oaf.
But it sure bothered the oaf. So after stealing both his birthright and his blessing, Jacob knew that it wasn’t wise to hang around long enough for Esau get him in a headlock. So he ran off before the wrestling began. And escaped his murderous brother before he knew what hit him. He escaped to the North Country to live another day, and find a wife while he was at it.
And find a wife, he did. Two, in fact. Two sisters. And before the story was over, he had found a new wrestling partner in his father in law Laban. A cheater and liar himself, Laban had bested Jacob. And again, Jacob was determined never come in second place again. After working for 14 years for both wives, he ended up besting his father in law, robbing him blind, and disappearing before he knew what hit him. Again, Jacob felt no remorse. Laban was a cheater and a liar and he deserved everything he got. And once again, Jacob had run away before he could get caught in a headlock.
But this time, he had a new mission. Once upon a time, what seemed like a lifetime ago, God had promised Jacob a land and family. Now, in possession of the latter, he returned to the scene of the former. Back to the country where his brother Esau lived, he came to the River Jabbock on the border of his land. Ready to claim the land by deceit if necessary, he sent his wives and his children and his possessions and his gifts over the river. He would gain some suck-up points by buttering up his brother with gifts, and some sympathy points by showing him his family. It would make it easier when he told him the next day that God had actually promised him the land he thought was his. Satisfied with his strategy, he went to sleep. Again, he felt no remorse. His brother owed him the land and he didn’t deserve it anyway.
In the setting sun, across the river he saw a million grains of sand, sparkling in the sunset. As he looked back to where he had come, each one seemed another resentment, another offense, another slight, another perceived injustice, another anger, another fear, another darkness, another reason to strike back against the world around him. The next day, he would fight against those million resentments. And this time he would not come in second place.
Then, in the night, something new happened. A dark figure appeared in the night and began to wrestle with Jacob. No idea who his enemy was, all Jacob knew to do was to wrestle. No problem. He had been doing that since before he was born. Early on, he was playful as he tried to guess who it was he battled. Pretty quickly, he had guessed that it was not Esau. It had been a while, but he knew his brother’s old tricks. Eventually, he figured that it was not Laban or someone sent by his father in law. Laban was too old and a wrestling assassin wasn’t his style. He would have slit his throat in the night, if he knew his father in law and his tricks.
Remembering those men angered him. And he used that anger. He used it as a tool. Used his resentment as a weapon. Whenever the stranger had started to overwhelm him with strength and power, Jacob would just picture his dumb oaf of a brother and slip out of his hold and live to fight another hour. Whenever the stranger had pulled his own wily or treacherous move, Jacob would just picture his lying and deceitful father in law and the adrenaline would come from deep within to throw him away and overpower him with strength.
But this was someone else. Something else. Jacob was good that this whole wrestling thing. He was smart and quick and strong. But this shadowy figure was at least as good, if not better. Every move Jacob made, the stranger had a counter. Eventually, the thought occurred to him that maybe this was more than a man. This was an agent of the Almighty. Maybe even Yahweh in the flesh.
Of course, he had met Yahweh before. In the middle of another night in the middle of another place, Yahweh had been full of promises. But that same God hadn’t bothered to show up much since them. He had left him alone and lonely more than once. Left him alone to face the challenges of family and servitude more often than Jacob cared to remember. Left him alone to wrestle, to fight, to be broken by the evils of life.
So hour after hour, as he battled this stranger, he battled his resentments. He battled his brother and father in law and mother and father and everyone in his life who had hurt him or offended him or lied to him. Eventually, he realized that he was fighting against none of them, but all of them. And he was fighting against the God and Creator who had created them, and left him to fend for himself.
And so hour after hour, he struggled against those resentments and cursed and gasped and cried in pain. And hour after hour, he used every weapon at his disposal. Strength and power and deceit and guile and hatred and resentment. And at every assault, the stranger had an answer. Had a response. Had a counterattack. Until the blow that made the difference. The stranger struck him on the leg, and Jacob screamed in agony and fell back, but did not loosen his grip. He knew he was disadvantaged, so with everything he had left, he pinned the stranger down.
Now it was the stranger’s turn to scream. “Let me go!” But Jacob would not. He could not. He could not allow himself to come in second place once more. Every last piece of anger and revenge and resentment that he had in his soul went came to him, and he pinned the stranger down without remorse. He would win this time. “Bless me,” spat Jacob. “Bless me or die.”
And then the stranger spoke again. “What is your name?”
“Jacob!” came the vengeful and triumphant response.
“You shall no longer be called Jacob. You shall be named Israel: one who strives with God. Because you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” And the stranger’s muscles went slack.
Jacob paused. Was this another trick? Was this the stranger’s last attempt to win? He backed away slowly and saw his face for the first time in the morning dawn. And what he saw was not the face he expected. The face of an assassin. The face of violence, of anger, of deceit.
But instead, he saw the face of grace. The face of blessing.
The face of one who knew him enough to name him – accurately and perfectly.
The face of one who knew him for who he was and not the façade he tried to portray.
The face – not of resentments and revenge and anger and perceived injustices, but of conversion, of transformation, of change.
The face of forgiveness.
The face of one who had come in weakness, but weakness that was true strength. For in weakness, this divine face of grace had shown Jacob what true strength was. The stranger had not blessed him because he had to. He had blessed him because he wanted to.
And for the first time, in his life or before it, Jacob had been beaten but was not in second place.
He had been bested but blessed.
Overcome but overwhelmed…by grace.
The face of grace had shown him a new way of being. A new way of living. A new way of relating: To God, and to others, and to himself. The way of joy and peace and hope and independence and surrender and faith.
Jacob limped into the dawn, and squinting, looked out over the million grains of sand reflecting in the sun. But now, they were not offenses he was unable to forgive. But they were a million promises of hope. A million offerings of grace.
His limp forever became a sign of coming in second place, and being the better for it.
Jacob was a changed man.
He crossed the river into his brother’s arms. Into the land of promise. Into a new day of grace.