I am so incredibly glad I didn’t commit to reading the Bible through in a year.
If that had been my resolution, failure would fall pretty hard right now. I’m not just chapters behind, I’m books. As in plural. As in way behind. But I didn’t commit to reading the Bible through in a year. I resolved to read the Bible. And I have. Not every day, but I always regret it when I don’t. My days feel off and I feel the sledgehammer of self fall hard, and self is an ugly thing.
I’ve been sitting in three chapters or so in Genesis for over a week and just when I think I’ve dug enough and seem content to move on – the Holy Spirit throws out another little gold nugget and I dig some more.
This particular treasure mine focused on a couple stories I’ve read and heard millions of times. I’m pretty sure I even remember the flannel board version from the ’90s Sunday School curriculum.
Jacob, whose name aptly means deceiver and supplanter, is on the run from his brother. Jacob conned his way into Esau’s rightful inheritance and Esau was out for his blood. As he flees to his mother’s homeland, he falls asleep along the way and has a dream. In the dream, he sees a ladder and angels ascending and descending on it. The Lord stands beside Jacob and repeats the covenant he made with his grandfather Abraham. Jacob awakes and declares “Surely, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” (v. 16) He builds a pillar and names the place Bethel, the house of God.
While it was tempting for me to gloss over this familiar chapter, I decided to dig deeper into the original language. The first treasure was found in the ascending and descending phrases. In Hebrew, these are active verbs, implying continuous action. Jacob calls it the gate of Heaven where the angels are actively and continuously on mission fulfilling the orders of God. They climb up and down existing back and forth between the heavenly realms.
Jacob wakes from his dream in the early morning and sets up a pillar. The phrase sets up describes something that is fixed. It is stationary. John tells us Jesus is the ladder in which we get to the kingdom of heaven. Ladder is also akin to staircase meaning make level way, make plain the way, according to the Hebrew Lexicon. Jesus set himself up on earth. Salvation isn’t evasive or a moving target. Jesus makes plain The Way. He is the bridge between us and God. The way to God is fixed, it isn’t ever changing like the fleeting desires of mankind. There is only one gate to ascend the bridge and the gate is Jesus.
Approximately, twenty years God tells Jacob to return home. Jacob is still apprehensive over encountering his brother who once declared he would kill him. Chapter 32 tells us that Jacob woke up mid-night and sent his family across a ford. While he was alone, a man engages in hand to hand combat with him. After wrestling all night, the man touches Jacob’s hip and puts it out of joint. Send me forth, the man says, and Jacob realizes he is wrestling with God. He refuses to let him go similar to the lover in Song of Songs who declares “I held him and would not let him go!”
God specifically knew how to get Jacob’s attention. Wrestle is ye’abeq and Jacob is ya’aqob. Do you see the interesting word play in the two? He descends the heavenly ladder and enters into combat with Jacob – to get his attention, to get his allegiance.
Jacob spent his entire life striving with others. He deceives his father and alienates his brother. And yet, here he strives with God. And he refuses to let go. He doesn’t flee for his life like he did from Esau. He holds on tight, refusing to lesson his grip.
To wrestle is to get dusty, it’s the image of grappling with someone or something. If you examine the Hebrew definition, another verb for wrestling is to pound. Think of the feet pounding in the ground, stirring up the dust and clinging to their sweat as they contended with each other throughout the night. As they moved back in forth with each maneuver, God was pounding new purpose, new faith into Jacob.
And through the pounding was the redefining. The renaming. Jacob, cheater no more. Israel, contender with God.
When the sun hit the horizon, Jacob walks away with a limp. A reminder of his encounter and names the place Peniel, the face of God.
I wonder if as he limped, as he inclined to one side, perhaps he’d always picture the man with whom he had wrestled supporting his lame side.
Jacob grappled with God. He wrestled. And he walked away a new man.
Asking the Hard Questions
Part of the wrestling is being honest with ourselves. We are professional deceivers, mankind. We can deceive ourselves, but we cannot deceive God. In order to be honest with ourselves, we have to start asking the hard questions. The ones we like to avoid. But if we are ever going to start taking back the ground we’ve lost from the enemy, we’ve got to learn to wrestle with our God well.
When Jacob first arrives to Bethel, he knows God as “the God of Abraham your father and the God of Issac.” Are you relying on the faith of your grandparents or your parents, or have you made their faith your own? Because, we will all be before God, one-on-one. As Jacob wrestled with God, Abraham and Issac were not his tag-you-are-it buddies. Jacob’s family was across the ford. Jacob faced God alone.
This is the one question that all others hinge upon. This is the one question that matters most of all.
Do you have a personal relationship with God?
We may be professional deceivers, but we are also professional chasers and cravers. We chase after relationships, even the ones that are not good for us. We chase after platforms. We chase after our callings. We chase after “followers.” We hustle as a form of obedience and yet can we say like David “With my whole heart I seek you”?
Seeking is the practice of studying, of following. As an interesting side note, it can also be translated as to tread or beat a path. Are you treading paths toward God or away from him? If others were to look at your beaten path, where your feet go the most – would they see God or would they see you chasing something else? Are you a frequent visitor of God’s?
What are you seeking? What is the object of your chase?
The Psalms are full of David’s own wrestings with God. Psalm 119 holds some of his own declarations, his newly discovered identity and purpose with dust still clinging to his sweaty brow. “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you,” he writes in verse 11. David treasured and stored up God’s word in the midst and core of his being. The center towers of his faith, of his soul were built up on God’s word. It is what held him up, what sustained him, and what delighted him.
The Hebrew word for sin gives an interesting picture of archery. It is defined as “err from the mark, speaking of an archer.” When we fail to understand the importance of God’s word, or don’t care enough to give it priority, we are like an archer spending our time, our energy, our money, our lives aiming for the wrong things.
Do you love his word? Does it delight you?
David’s pen pours out his love for God’s word. “Teach me” he writes. Train me. Train me up in holiness. Teach me the ways of holy warfare. Teach me how to live a life of purpose. Train me how to study your word and ways. Teach me the secrets of your spirit and I will lay them up in the secret place of my heart. I will meditate on them. Muse over them. Study them.
In her book Unglued, Lysa TerKeurst contrasts Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the statue of David, with his unfinished Prisoners sculptures. The unfinished sculptures hold the potential of beauty but were never chiseled into a finishing work resulting in blocky chunks of stone. She uses these sculptures to illustrate the difference between someone who allows the chiseling work of God and someone who refuses God’s teaching and chiseling and is forever stuck in the hard places of unfinished stone.
Are you teachable? Moldable?
Dare to Get Dusty
We wrestle with God every single day whether we realize it or not. Our faith wrestles against unbelief, against our sin, our errs in aiming. We sit back binge watching Netflix or mindlessly scrolling through social media, remaining oblivious to the heavenly war raging around us – for our marriages, for our children, for our joy, for our purpose, even for our very lives.
Do I beg for God? Am I desperate for personal revival? Do I know that I am a hopeless and helpless mess without him, because we all are whether we want to admit it or not. Whether we believe in him or not.
While we avoid eye-contact at all costs, God wants to raise our faces from our phones and says wrestle with me. Dare to get dusty with me. Because, as we see through Jacob and David when we get brave enough to ask him the hard questions, we may just get some answers. When we get the courage to seek, we will find. When we long for more of him, beg for more of him, we will grasp him and we won’t let him go. And when we wrestle with God, we may just find ourselves with a purpose and a brand new name.