Jacob’s having a family reunion tomorrow—a reunion with the brother who, for all Jacob knows, would still love to have his head on a platter, beside a bowl of steaming lentil soup, of course. A river is flowing between Jacob and his family. And the setting sun has left his world in shadow. Then and there, while he’s all alone, in the dark, and afraid the next day might be his last, God shows up, eager for a fight.
“A man wrested with Jacob until daybreak.” A man. We privileged readers need only skim down a few verses to discover the ‘man’ was actually ‘God.’ Jacob had to fight all night to figure that one out. All he knew at the time was that a stranger attacked him under cover of darkness. So he fought, he fought tooth and nail. And by dawn, Jacob was still going strong. The only way the adversary ended the bout was by playing the divinity card. Sometimes it seems God doesn’t fight fair.
Here is the remarkable thing: not that God appeared as a man, not that he picked a fight with Jacob, but that God lost. The ant bested the elephant. Jacob whipped the Almighty. Even after the Lord dislocated Jacob’s hip, he held on with a bulldog grip. He outhit, outwrestled, outdid God.
And here is the even more remarkable thing: not that Jacob won the fight, but that God delighted to lose. No man likes to lose, to have his opponent claim victory over him. It matters not if the battle is over a woman, a job, a ballgame, or is just a barroom fist fight. The runner-up does not pat himself on the back for a job half-ass done. He may be a good sport about it, smile for the camera, congratulate the better man, but secretly he hates the loss and covets another chance at victory. So it is with man. So it is not with God. When it comes to fighting with his people, God is the biggest, and the happiest, loser.
For when God loses, we win; and when we win, God wins. The God who is last is the God who is first. He crowns Jacob with the laurel of a new name, Israel, a name that means, more or less, “I beat God.” I strove with God, I went fist to fist with the Maker of heaven and earth, and I emerged victorious.
For Christians, their odd God wins by losing. He lost to Israel more than once. Later he would lose much more than a wrestling match with his children; he would lose his life. He would fight with them much more than one night; he would struggle with them year after year, but finally they would prevail. They would not let him go, but would pin him down, hands, feet, everything. But when dawn broke after his loss, he would step forth to proclaim his people’s victory. And he would crown them with a new name, a new nature, a new life. And they would see, in the crucified and resurrected Jesus, God face to face.