Jacob is a guy known for struggling. He struggled before he was born. In his mother’s womb, he and his twin brother Esau were an active pair – they made their mother’s pregnancy miserable. When he was born, literally holding on to his twin brother’s heel, he made for a difficult birth. And as he grew up, he struggled with his brother, until he finally stole the first son’s birthright and blessing that should have been Esau’s.
When he ran away to his uncle Laban to get away from his murderous brother, he struggled there, too. He wanted to marry Rachel, but was tricked into marrying her sister Leah first. Then he worked longer yet for Rachel’s hand. Finally, after decades of working for his brother-in-law, he made it as a wealthy man, off on his own, with wives and children in tow.
And who does he meet up with? Why, it’s older brother Esau. What will this reunion be like? Will it be joyous and free from revenge, or will Esau try to settle the score? Jacob isn’t sure, and so the night before he is to meet his long-estranged brother, he spends the night alone. “And a man wrestled with him until the rise of dawn” (Gen. 32:25) The man/angel/God couldn’t out-wrestle Jacob, so finally, as the sun was rising, and the man struggled to leave, Jacob asked for a blessing from him, just as he had asked for a blessing from his father so long ago. Then, he was asking as someone else; this time, he was his own man. Jacob didn’t get a blessing, exactly. He got a new name, “Israel” (the one who struggles with God, the God-wrestler). When the mystery man/angel/God left, Jacob named that spot Peniel, “for I have seen God face-to-face” but lived to tell the tale.
The next day, the meeting with Esau went well. The brothers wept at seeing each other again, and Jacob offered Esau many gifts. He said, “…please, if I have truly found favor in your sight, take the offering from my hand, for to see your face is like seeing the face of God” (Gen. 33:10)
The face of God, language used in both places. That phrase means something very intense occurred, something that went to his very core. Why would Jacob equate the experience of seeing his long-lost brother with the wrestling man/angel/God the night before, and furthermore, describe both encounters in terms of seeing God’s face?
When Jacob saw God face to face, after wrestling with the man/angel/God, he was forever changed. He came away from the Divine experience with a new name, and with a new body, too. He limped from then on, an injury sustained from the wrestling. He was changed both inside and outside. Similarly, when Jacob saw his brother after all that time, when he realized Esau wasn’t going to kill him but in fact, was glad to see him, he was also changed. He may not have gotten a new name, but he was a new man – a forgiving and forgiven one, with a deeper understanding of forgiveness and starting over. Both of Jacob’s encounters involved holding on to someone else; embracing and wrestling. Jacob had to get up close and personal, really look into the others’ eyes.
Any encounter with God includes a struggle, because we have to go beyond ourselves into a very unknown place. But Jacob realized that to meet Esau again would take him into an unknown place, too – that of forgiveness and reconciliation. He had not experienced that before, and it didn’t come easily. He struggled to leave behind the fear and pain that he had carried for so many years. He had to fight his own past and come out the other side as a different man, ready to welcome his brother.
Perhaps that’s why Jacob used similar language in both of these moments. They were two halves of the whole that Jacob/Israel would become. Both the encounter with the angel/messenger/God and the encounter with Esau came about through struggle, and both left him in a different place, spiritually and physically. It wasn’t enough just to struggle with God, something that disappeared with the dawn. Jacob had to bring that struggle to a very human place, and come away better off from that encounter, also. We need both halves of our own struggles. It’s not enough to struggle only on a spiritual plane. We need to bring that change, that growth to the human realm, too, because that’s where we operate. And, if we neglect the spiritual side of ourselves, we’re missing some deeper level of awareness. When we struggle with both and come away having prevailed, as Jacob did, we are ready for the next part of the journey.