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Wrestling Jacob


'Come, O thou traveller unknown' is a wonderful hymn by Charles Wesley based on the Old Testament text for today taken from Genesis 32. The tune, if memory serves, is called 'Wrestling Jacob' sung to this hymn which is well worth looking up and thinking about. After all, Charles Wesley is probably one of the best hymn writers the world has ever known.

The story on which the hymn is based is of Jacob wrestling throughout the night with 'a man' who is to all intents and purposes God Himself. On leaving the place Jacob calls it Peniel, meaning in Hebrew 'the face of God.' 

The passage is a 'preacher's paradise', as it offers so much to tease out from a small number of verses. But for now, and speaking personally, the passage describing Jacob wrestling with God for what is meant to mean a significant period ending in God blessing Jacob, gives me great hope. 

I have never found God easy to deal with. 

I always seem to have honestly 'wrestled' with him for any number of reasons, not least as a theologian working from an academic standpoint. But this struggle, and as the Hebrew suggests, it is a fairly intimate, personal one, and one which yields not anger from God but a divine blessing, gives me, and I hope others, an encouragement to struggle if necessary in our understanding of the divine.


My own natural questioning 'yes but' attitude is much more here than simply 'allowed', but in some sense encouraged. Jacob shows me that to struggle is actually fine and a source of blessing. Paradoxically however, I find that the selective theologically 'easy answer' in today's Church is often preferred to the 'difficult question' which might benefit from more wrestling with. Biblical criticism, as one amongst many other theological disciplines, has for a fair while now suffered in this way.


So, far from being negative here, the story suggests that all of 'us Jacobs' who have a struggling, intimate, personal relationship with God should actually rejoice in that. We should certainly not be put off or be tempted to give up, but rejoice in the struggle and receive God's enduring blessing into the future.

Revd Canon Dr Stephen Foster


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