Abraham’s signature moment is his ascent of Mount Moriah to sacrifice Isaac, an extreme demonstration of obedience that few of us can contemplate without fear and dismay; Isaac’s moment is also up there on that mountain, where he realizes what is about to happen and experiences a terror that seems to be with him for the rest of his life. Jacob’s is different, for it is as he crosses the Jabbok that he wrestles with the angel, and for the first time we have one of the patriarchs behaving in a way that we can understand. Whether we admit it or not, whether we call it that or not, all of us wrestle with angels. And it is in this struggle that we learn whatever we can learn of the nature of God. The place is one that Jacob calls Peniel — the face of God, “for I have seen God face to face.” And as he passes over that place, “the sun rose upon him,” which, at one level, tells us what time it is, but is obviously more significant than that, for the light that has clearly dawned is one of understanding and wisdom. Indeed, Jacob’s name from then on is Israel, which means He Who Fights With God. And all of us are the Children of Israel. We are Jews (from Yehuda — God be praised), and we do praise sometimes, but we are also Israelites and Israelis, and whether or not we are able to praise, we at critical occasions in our lives are required to struggle with God. In that struggle we are, like Jacob, wounded, and sometimes, like Jacob, enlightened.
The identity of the angel is not clear to Jacob, who asks his name but for a reply only gets a question: Why do you want to know? The search for that answer is yet another struggle, or is part of the same struggle. It may be Jacob’s angel, or quite possibly Esau’s, for he is on his way to meet his brother whom he has not seen for some 30-odd years. (And brotherhood, in Genesis, and perhaps in general, is a dangerous relationship.)
Our struggles may be with death or the fear of death, or loss, or anger at loss, or with despair and the failure of faith and even, apparently, God. But we cannot wrestle with God without God being there. The confrontation may be agonizing but it is also reassuring, as we see in the great sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins about this struggle, “Carrion Comfort,” which ends with a resonant line that captures and dramatizes syntactically the solace in the encounter, even if it has been bitterly adversarial:
NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
For those who are still so strenuously engaged in the struggle that they deny their condition, there are ways to explain the encounter that are perfectly reasonable and natural, although hideously reductive. Jacob had a bad dream, tossing and turning all night. And he woke with a touch of lumbago (do people still have lumbago?) or sciatica, perhaps. And that explains his feeling of having been beaten up and his soreness in the morning.
But this is not interesting, and it loses all the richness of the story. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son and his gratitude at not having in the end to do so is undeniably grand. We can reject but we cannot diminish it. Nor can we do much to reduce Isaac’s brokenness that is clearly his path to God. Jacob’s struggle has to comport with these larger-than-life experiences of his forebears. The God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob is the same God, but each of them saw him and experienced him differently. And it is Israel of whom we are all children.
David Slavitt’s latest collection of poetry is “Change of Address: Poems, New and Selected” (LSU Press). His newest book is “Re Verse: Essays on Poetry and Poets” (Northwestern University Press).