In later years he would ask himself, “What was I thinking? How could I not have known?” but at the time it made, if not exactly sense, then a kind of desperate necessity. He was doing the only thing he knew how to do, the only thing he could think of to salvage the situation when his heart’s desire was on the line, or so he thought. His mistake was to think that his own strength and cunning could bring him there. All his life, after all, (from before his birth if his mother had spoken truly) he had been struggling to get there.
And in the end, all his cleverness had brought him full circle. Now, after leaving home as a desperate runaway, with only a stone as pillow, he was returning as a wealthy man, with flocks and herds beyond his imagination, wives, concubines and children. And in the end it didn’t matter, because he would still have to face the brother he had wronged, and hope that he could appease him with gifts so that, at the very least, his life would be spared. He was very afraid.
So he divided all he had into two groups, hoping that something might be spared from his brother’s wrath, and sent his wives and sons away, and then, alone and desperate, he prayed. And then a man appeared, and wrestled with him all through the night. When Jacob told the story to his family later, he put it as bluntly and baldly as that. How else could he explain such a surreal experience? How could explain the time, the place, his state of mind, in such a way that they could understand any better. Some experiences cannot be explained, they can only be lived through. The understanding les in the doing. So at the time, Jacob did not ask why a stranger should appear in this desolate spot and wrestle him, he knew, in the very turmoil of his bones, that it was his prayer made visible, his deep, need of God, the hunger that had driven him to treachery and sharp dealing, come up at last, against the reality of who God was. And so he strove, with everything he had, with everything he was, pitting himself to the uttermost against this foe who was also his heart’s desire and his deepest need. In his very fighting he clung desperately, until the only strength he had left was the strength of his need. All other things: his pride, his cunning, the cleverness with which a soft man bargains for success in a brutal world, all these things fell away. Only need remained.
And as the sky started to lighten in the east, the stranger touched his hip and dislocated it. The pain was intense, but still Jacob would not concede defeat. “Let me go, it is daybreak,” said the stranger.
“No,” said Jacob, still hanging on through the overwhelming pain. His breath came in hoarse sobs, but he cried out, “I will not let you go unless you bless me!”
There it was, at the heart of who he was. All his life he had been chasing the blessing, trying every means except the only one that mattered. One did not win the blessing of God by grabbing from men, but by pursuing the One whose very nature was blessing until all other things were left behind. Here, in this place that turned the whole world upside down, man seemed to have victory over God, but the very triumph of all God’s plans for blessing came from the very place of God’s apparent defeat.
And Jacob was given a new name.