Sunday, May 29, 2011


Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today I would like to reflect with you upon a text from the Book of Genesis that narrates a rather particular episode in the history of the Patriarch Jacob. It is not an easily interpreted passage, but it is an important one for our life of faith and prayer; it recounts the story of his wrestling with God at the ford of the Jabbok, from which we have just heard a passage.

As you will remember, Jacob had taken away his twin brother Esau's birthright in exchange for a dish of lentils and then, through deception, had stolen the blessing of his father Isaac who was already quite advanced in years, by taking advantage of his blindness. Having escaped Esau's fury, he had taken refuge with a relative, Laban; he married and had grown rich and now was returning to the land of his birth, ready to face his brother after having put several prudent measures in place. But when he is all ready for this encounter -- after having made those who were with him cross the ford of the stream marking Esau's territory -- Jacob, now left alone, is suddenly attacked by an unknown figure who wrestles with him for the whole of the night. It is this hand to hand battle which we find in Chapter 32 of the Book of Genesis that becomes for him a singular experience of God.

Night is the favorable time for acting in secret, the best time, therefore, for Jacob to enter his brother's territory without being seen, and perhaps with the illusion of taking Esau unawares. But instead, it is he who is surprised by an unexpected attack for which he was not prepared. He had used his cunning to try to save himself from a dangerous situation, he thought he had succeeded in having everything under control, and instead he now finds himself facing a mysterious battle that overtakes him in solitude without giving him the possibility of organizing an adequate defense. Defenseless -- in the night -- the Patriarch Jacob fights with someone. The text does not specify the aggressor's identity; it uses a Hebraic term that generically indicates "a man," "one, someone;" it therefore has a vague, undetermined definition that intentionally keeps the assailant in mystery. It is dark. Jacob is unsuccessful in seeing his opponent distinctly, and also for the reader he remains unknown. Someone is setting himself against the patriarch; this is the only sure fact furnished by the narrator. Only at the end, once the battle has ended and that "someone" has disappeared, only then will Jacob name him and be able to say that he has wrestled with God.

The episode unfolds, therefore, in obscurity and it is difficult to perceive not only the identity of Jacob's assailant, but also the battle's progress. Reading the passage, it is hard to establish which of the two contenders succeeds in having the upper hand. The verbs used often lack an explicit subject, and the actions progress in an almost contradictory way, so that when one thinks that either of the two has prevailed, the next action immediately contradicts it and presents the other as the winner. At the beginning, in fact, Jacob seems to be the strongest, and the adversary -- the text states -- "did not prevail against him" (verse 26 [25]); yet he strikes the hollow of his thigh, dislocating it. One would then be led to think that Jacob has to surrender, but instead it's the other who asks him to let him go; and the patriarch refuses, laying down a condition: "I will not let you go, unless you bless me" (verse 27). He who by deception had defrauded his brother of the firstborn's blessing, now demands it from the stranger in whom perhaps he begins to see divine characteristics, but still without being able to truly recognize him.

The rival, who seemed to be held and therefore defeated by Jacob, instead of submitting to his request, asks his name: "What is your name?" And the patriarch responds: "Jacob" (verse 28). Here the battle undergoes an important development. To know someone's name, in fact, implies a kind of power over the person, since the name, in biblical thinking, contains the most profound reality of the individual; it unveils his secret and his destiny. Knowing someone's name therefore means knowing the truth of the other, and this allows one to be able to dominate him. When, therefore, at the stranger's request, Jacob reveals his own name, he is handing himself over to his opponent; it is a form of surrender, of the total giving over of himself to the other.

But in this act of surrender, Jacob paradoxically also emerges as a winner, because he receives a new name, together with an acknowledgement of victory on the part of his adversary, who says to him: "Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed" (verse 29 [28]). "Jacob" was a name that recalled the patriarch's problematic beginnings; in Hebrew, in fact, it calls to mind the word "heel," and takes the reader back to the moment of Jacob's birth when, coming from the maternal womb, his hand took hold of his twin brother's heel (cf. Gen. 25:26), as though prefiguring the overtaking of his brother's rights in his adult life; but the name Jacob also calls to mind the verb "to deceive, to supplant." Now, in the battle, the patriarch reveals to his opponent, through an act of entrustment and surrender, his own reality as a deceiver, a supplanter; but the other, who is God, transforms this negative reality into something positive: Jacob the deceiver becomes Israel; he is given a new name that signifies a new identity. But also here, the account maintains its intended duplicity, since the most probable meaning of the name Israel is "God is mighty, God triumphs."

Jacob therefore prevailed, he triumphed -- it is the adversary himself who affirms it – but his new identity, received by the same adversary, affirms and testifies to God's triumph. When in turn Jacob will ask his contender's name, he will refuse to pronounce it, but he will reveal himself in an unequivocal gesture, by giving him his blessing. That blessing which the patriarch had asked at the beginning of the battle is now granted him. And it is not the blessing grasped by deception, but that given freely by God, which Jacob is able to receive because now he is alone, without protection, without cunning and deception. He gives himself over unarmed; he accepts surrendering himself and confessing the truth about himself. And so, at the end of the battle, having received the blessing, the patriarch is able finally to recognize the other, the God of the blessing: "I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved" (verse 31 [30]), and now he can cross the ford, the bearer of a new name but "conquered" by God and marked forever, limping from the wound he received.

The explanations that biblical exegesis can give regarding this passage are numerous; in particular, the learned recognize in it intentions and literary components of various kinds, as well as references to a few popular stories. But when these elements are taken up by the sacred authors and included in the biblical account, they change in meaning and the text opens itself up to broader dimensions. The episode of the wrestling at the Jabbok is offered to the believer as a paradigmatic text in which the people of Israel speak of their own origins and trace out the features of a particular relationship between God and man. For this reason, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church also affirms: "the spiritual tradition of the Church has retained the symbol of prayer as a battle of faith and as the triumph of perseverance" (No. 2573).

The biblical text speaks to us of the long night of the search for God, of the battle to know his name and to see his face; it is the night of prayer that, with tenacity and perseverance, asks a blessing and a new name from God, a new reality as the fruit of conversion and of forgiveness.

In this way, Jacob's night at the ford of the Jabbok becomes for the believer a point of reference for understanding his relationship with God, which in prayer finds its ultimate expression. Prayer requires trust, closeness, in a symbolic "hand to hand" not with a God who is an adversary and enemy, but with a blessing Lord who remains always mysterious, who appears unattainable. For this reason the sacred author uses the symbol of battle, which implies strength of soul, perseverance, tenacity in reaching what we desire. And if the object of one's desire is a relationship with God, his blessing and his love, then the battle cannot but culminate in the gift of oneself to God, in the recognition of one's own weakness, which triumphs precisely when we reach the point of surrendering ourselves into the merciful hands of God.

Dear brothers and sisters, our whole life is like this long night of battle and prayer that is meant to end in the desire and request for God's blessing, which cannot be grasped or won by counting on our own strength, but must be received from him with humility, as a gratuitous gift that allows us, in the end, to recognize the face of the Lord. And when this happens, our whole reality changes; we receive a new name and the blessing of God. But even more: Jacob, who receives a new name, who becomes Israel, also gives a new name to the place where he wrestled with God; he prayed there and renamed it Peniel, which means "the Face of God." With this name, he recognized that place as filled with God's presence; he renders the land sacred by imprinting upon it the memory of that mysterious encounter with God. He who allows himself to be blessed by God, who abandons himself to him, who allows himself to be transformed by him, renders the world blessed. May the Lord help us to fight the good fight of faith (cf. Timothy 6:12; 2 Timothy 4:7) and to ask his blessing in our prayer, so that he may renew in us the anticipation of seeing his face. Thank you.

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