Today’s topic is Israel’s founding father Jacob, the man who defeated God in an all-night wrestling match. Go to Genesis 32:22-31 and read this incredible tale. As Jacob prevails, God injures Jacob’s hip trying to escape. Jacob keeps God pinned and won’t let God loose until he receives God’s blessing. Honest, I am not making this up.
Jacob’s infamy is that he had twelve sons by no less than four different women (Rachel, Leah, Rachel’s handmaiden Bilhah and Leah’s handmaiden Zilpah). What a man! Jacob’s life is a weird twist on family values. With his haram-like exploits with successive and simultaneous lovers, Jacob is quite the poster boy of patriarchal privilege.
Jacob’s lude exploits reveal a dangerous, dysfunctional sense of so-called family values, a fact lost to modern, self-righteous Puritans claiming that society needs to return to biblical living. The problem is that enlightened ethics and morality are seldom prevalent in the Old Testament. With few exceptions, Jacob and other colorful characters in Bible stories seldom exhibit noble virtues, and when they do it is often within a culture that embraced slavery, treated women like dogs, and elevated ruthless brutality over compassionate care and social justice. Yeah, sadly, for many people such “values” represent the good old days.
Tell your critics who shout “Return to family values!” that there is no coherent or consistent view of so-called biblicalfamily values, certainly nothing followers of God would consider acceptable. There is no golden age to return to, no magical era of fidelity wherein husbands, wives, and children created an idyllic family structure, all supposedly blessed by the Almighty’s favoritism. Yet, the myth of biblical family values lingers in the hearts and minds of those who can’t face reality.
A patriarch such as Jacob didn’t set a good example given his sexual exploitation of women or his twisted interpersonal and social ethic. Some defenders often cry, “Jacob can get away with what he did because he was special, God’s chosen, and the rule of law doesn’t apply to him.” Oh really. Interesting, isn’t it, that whether ancient or modern, peoples’ favorite sons often get away with anything they want, and are held in esteem regardless of how horribly they treat people. Look around today and see how this mindset still excuses immoral leaders from even minimal accountability.
Jacob lived before Moses revealed the religious Law (e.g., the Ten Commandments and the nauseating list of priestly rules). This doesn’t let Jacob off the hook because following God means that a person’s divinely-inspired conscience is supposed to guide them regardless of what their culture permits. Some who try to excuse Jacob’s behavior say that technically he wasn’t breaking the law (since the law hadn’t been created). More likely, it is that the so-called timeless family values are not so eternal because they change along with everything else. What is timeless are the ways in which powerful, elite people act, often as if they can get away with anything.
Those who struggle with the odd tale of Jacob face a problem: a mere man like Jacob overpowering God. Self-appointed Bible defenders, known formally as apologists, argue that it was Jesus that Jacob defeated in that bizarre wrestling match. In this view, Jesus as the son wasn’t as strong as God the father and that explains why Jacob won. Other defenders of the party line try to squirm out of the problem by saying “No, it was just an angel that Jacob defeated—God can never lose because God is omnipotent—all powerful.” Still, conquering an angel is no small feat and all of the gyrations of pious interpreters suggests desperation.
Was Jacob a demigod or a Marvel superhero? If Jacob were just an ordinary macho maniac then for him to hold God captive is implausible, unless there’s a new, unorthodox idea of who and what God is (and perhaps the text is inviting people to consider this). It’s not just the defeat of God that’s troublesome, but the terms of surrender that Jacob forced God to accept. Jacob won the day by compelling God to give him a blessing.
Just when you felt comfortable with the nature and power of God and everything else in a tidy spiritual world . . . BANG! Out of nowhere something hits you like a flying body slam from legendary WWE superstar John Cena. Ignoring Jacob’s wrestling story—which is the lazy way out—doesn’t solve the matter. Whether Jacob’s life represents reality or is just a tale still requires rational management. Stories have power, and are used as teaching devices so care must be exercised lest Jacob’s life be used as a justification of bad behavior.
What is a follower of God to do? You could do what many people do and quietly conclude that the story is not literally true, that instead it represents a poetic literary device and should not be stretched or squeezed (pardon those incessant wrestling metaphors). If the story were not important, then given its embarrassing aspects it begs the question of why the ancient editors didn’t erase it from the canon of holy writ. But as with any great story, the plot thickens and you, the reader, are invited into a peculiar new world that reveals as much about you as the characters on the page.
The most unusual wrestling match of all time remains a disturbing oddity. Tale or truth, Jacob’s story may be inviting you to forever reshape your convictions into something splendidly incompatible with traditional Judeo-Christian theology. In any case, God’s smackdown changes things—or does it? I’ll leave you to wrestle with that one. Kapow!