“Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” (Genesis 32:25)
Jacob sat alone on the edge of the riverbank, watching the water shimmer and sway in the moonlight. He could barely make out the forms crossing over to the far side. With each passing moment they disappeared from his gaze like inky bubbles popping against the dark horizon.
An uneasy lonesomeness came upon Jacob. It was a familiar sensation though he realized he hadn’t noticed it in many years. The last time he remembered feeling this alone was the night he ran away from home as a child. Shivering and fearful, he had camped out in the open wilderness using a rock for a pillow. After that terrifying night he vowed he would never allow himself to feel so vulnerable again. Jacob awoke from that night with a resolve that surprised him in its ferocity. He went on to build a refuge in the sanctuary of his many wives and children, his servants and attendants, his vast holdings. At long last Jacob had found his strength. He had wrestled with an uncertain world and had prevailed.
Or so he thought until now. Now Jacob found himself alone once again, and the depth of his loneliness truly unnerved him. He smiled ruefully. Even in the midst of his noisy entourage, he had always been alone. During the struggle that had defined his life, he had never given himself the opportunity to face this unhappy truth. But now, on this moonlit riverbank, it bore down upon him with remarkable intensity.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jacob saw the shadow again. He twisted around sharply to catch it, but as always, there was nothing. The shadow was Jacob’s faithful travel companion. He had felt its presence ever since the day he left home as a child. It danced just beyond the range of his peripheral vision but always managed to disappear whenever he turned to confront it. Over the years, Jacob had grown used to its presence as one would tolerate a barely tolerable family member.
Suddenly, with a violent jolt Jacob was seized from behind. His breath burst from his body in one huge gust and he bent over gulping at the air. Just as suddenly he was grabbed around the middle, lifted high, and thrown back to the ground. Lying flat on his back, Jacob opened his eyes, but could see little. The moon had become obscured by clouds, transforming the night into one great shadow.
Jacob felt his strength beginning to return and he wrestled the man over. Together they rolled over and over down the slope of the riverbank until they splashed into the water. The sharp cold jabbed into Jacob like a blinding light. He blinked at its impact, as if he had been rudely, brutally awakened from a contented sleep. And memories long obscured by darkness came rushing back into daylight.
Jacob was a young boy once again, back in the land of his childhood. It was late afternoon and he was sitting under a tree, trembling with the knowing dread that his life had just been forever transformed. This time was different. This time he had gone too far.
As a child, Jacob had always loved to see how far he could push Esau, who had none of the cleverness of his younger brother. Toying with Esau was a kind of sport for Jacob, and it somehow helped to heal the hard truth that Esau was older, stronger, and the obvious favorite of their father. But even Jacob hesitated when his mother came to him breathlessly that afternoon and instructed him to steal his brother’s blessing. He did it of course, because his mother’s love was the only real comfort in his life. And perhaps because he knew that in the end, outright theft was the only way he would ever receive a blessing of any sort from his father. But now, as he sat trembling against a tree watching Esau eagerly entering his father’s tent, he realized that this particular blessing would come to him at an almost unbearable cost.
Jacob and the shadow had been wrestling for what seemed like hours now, thrashing in the water like condemned men. For his part Jacob fought with the strength of one who was experiencing a moment of raw and desperate truth.
Jacob watched his older brother enter his father’s tent, food in hand, ready to finally receive his blessing. After a few long moments came a bitter and heartbreaking cry. “Don’t you have a blessing left for me? Bless me too father!”
The words tore into Jacob’s gut, astonishing in their power. Over and over again, Jacob listened to the awful words bursting out of the tent. “Please, bless me too, father!” Jacob’s trembling grew into spasms. He clutched his sides and rocked back and forth, begging for his brother’s cries to cease.
Those words, the ones Jacob had kept hidden away in the shadows for so many years, now returned to him as he wrestled in the night. He heard them distinctly, repeating over and over against the splashing of the dark water. “Please! Bless me too, father!” Then Jacob realized through his tears that it was not Esau’s voice he was hearing at all.
Again and again Jacob screamed at the night visitor, “Bless me too, father!” With each outburst he felt his strength return tenfold until he pinned his wrestling partner down against the riverbank. Jacob shook him like a limp rag doll. “I WILL NOT LET YOU GO UNTIL YOU BLESS ME!”
And from out of the darkness, a voice replied to him, “You are no longer the weak, frightened boy named Jacob. For now you have seized your blessing honestly, face to face. From now on your name shall be Israel, for you have wrestled with your shadows and have prevailed.”
As his night visitor rose to take his leave, he turned to face Jacob. In one brief, glancing moment, Jacob saw a number of faces gazing back at him. A father beaming with love and pride at long last. A mother telling him it was now safe to return home. And a brother smiling through his tears, finally ready to embrace him in forgiveness.
Jacob looked up and saw the sun rising over the mountains in the east. The night shadows had disappeared and he was alone once more. He stood up and looked out across the river, now shining in the morning light.
Slowly, painfully, he limped his way across the water.