Wrestling with God?

My friend Pat Stedman tweeted this out the other day and it got me thinking.

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In the Western tradition, especially in the Hebrew and Old Testament, there is the famous story of how Jacob in a dream like state wrestles with God. [1] Jacob is taking rest next to a river awaiting his estranged brother Essau to meet him. Many years ago he tricked his brother out of his inheritance. When his brother found out, he was furious and fearing his life Jacob fled. Now many years later he has sent a message to his brother to meet him. He has already sent his family across the river, in fear of his brother’s retribution and is waiting alone at night. It is at this point that he meets a man at night. The man wrestles with Jacob until day break. When the man realizes that he cannot overpower Jacob he touches a socket of Jacob’s hip. Jacob while in pain holds on to the man, and asks him to bless him before he lets him go. He is thereby given a new name by man – Israel, “he who wrestles with God.” What’s surprising about this story is that Jacob is allowed to win, although he suffers a serious limp in the process. It is also interesting that the people who are designated by God as the Chosen people (across the Old and New Testament and even acknowledged by the Quran) are not necessarily those that are have automatic belief but instead those that wrestle with God.

It is also interesting to me that Jacob wrestles with God, and not say the figure of Satan.

In the Islamic tradition there is not a lot of conversation on “wrestling” with God, although the Israelites are recognized as People of the Book. Islam itself means to “submit” and the implication there is that there is a peaceful serenity that the comes with handing your life over to Divine will.

There is one interesting exception that I know of though. In the Islamic tradition the Prophet Muhammed takes a celestial flight, called Mairaj to the seven heavens and hell. Very similar in fact to Jacob’s vision of the Ladder, and similarly preceded by a threat to his life from citizens of Mecca. In this celestial flight he meets all the Hebrew Prophets and then in the last stage of heaven enters a veil beyond which he is able to speak to God directly. The angel Gabriel who is accompanying the Prophet on this journey does not dare to enter the final stage where one can see God in His absolute form. Anyways, the Prophet goes and in his communion with God comes back with certain standards that his people are expected to perform. For example, it is expected that Muslims will pray 50 times a day. After his communion with God, as he is descending down the levels of Heaven back to Earth he bumps into Moses again. Moses asks about his conversation with God and learns about the stipulation of 50 prayers a day. Concerned, Moses asks the Prophet to go back to God and reduce that number because he thinks no way would people be able to follow a guideline like that. The Prophet goes back and comes back with a reduced number of prayers but Moses again tells his this is too much. It is said that the Prophet goes back and forth between Moses and God nine times before he tells Moses that he is too ashamed to go back again. And thus the number of prayers that are allotted to Muslims stays at 5.

The fact that it is Moses who asks the Prophet to go back and negotiate is also ironic. If we remember Moses himself was extremely reluctant to take up his calling during his lifetime. This is wonderfully illustrated in this scene from the movie Prince of Egypt (the image clicks to the full video):

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Having fled Egypt after having been involved in the cause of someone’s death, he is tending to his sheep in exile. As he is tending to his flock he sees a flicker in a cave and upon investigating finds a burning bush that is talking to him. Turns out it is God himself that is talking to him. God tells Moses that he is going to send Moses back to Pharaoh to rescue his people in Egypt. As far as Moses is concerned this is a decision God has made unilaterally without consulting him. Even though Moses believes it is God that is talking to him, he is so surprised by this ‘revelation’ that he tells God something along the lines of “hey I think you made a mistake because you got the wrong guy – I’m the son of the Pharoah and the Egyptians really don’t like me.” God sternly rebukes Moses for stating that God might have made a mistake, before in a more paternal way tells Moses that he will protect him and his people as they make their way out of Egypt. Moses is not given any room for negotiation in the matter.

So which one is it? Do you wrestle with God or submit to God?

[1] some other accounts have this as wrestling with an angel

[2] Genesis 32:33