For I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved Gen 32:30
A friend named Irene lost her well-paid job in Silicon Valley, struggled for a couple of years to get another position, lamented as her bank balance rapidly declined, and ended up declaring bankruptcy. The low point in her life turned out to be a high point. She drew from her deeper potential as a human being, took steps towards her own heart’s fulfillment, and rebuilt her life in the image of the happiness she had deeply longed for.
Irene launched a new career, cultivating beauty by selling flowers.
When I asked what her trials had taught her, Irene proclaimed, “God is a God of beauty and power, who wants us to be happy. My beautiful life has arrived on its own, the life I never let myself have when I held onto my so-called ‘secure’ corporate job. Now, every day I get to give the gift of beauty to others, the same gift that I’ve received from an angel.”
Sacred Story: An Angel and Messenger from God
My friend’s testimony reveals for me the spiritual significance of the Jacob story in the Old Testament (i.e. the Jewish scriptures) where Jacob wrestles with an angel sent from God.
I’m not going to enter into the mazes of scholarly and religious debates about this story. Instead, I suggest that we may understand this episode from the place of our own personal anguish, whatever that may be.
This sacred story, I suggest, is like an angel in the biblical sense of the term. An angel is a messenger of God, sometimes equated with the Word of God. An angel is so close to God that his or her very essence—or mission, destiny, life purpose, if you will—is to deliver to human beings, faithfully, a message out of the very heart of God.
The spiritual message of a sacred story, designated for each of us, is the one that uplifts our own heart’s resonance, in the place where we are most confused.
Hospitality and Friendship
If you were to welcome an angel to your house, as Abraham did, how would you behave? It’s a fanciful question but I think of it this way. When you meet your close friend or lover, for a meal and conversation, do you sift and sort through all your friend’s words in order to be sure you’ve got them totally right? Fretting, do you chop and dice every sentence? “I think you mean this, but it could be that. And what about this or the other thing?”
It is quite likely that you are so deeply at peace and happy to meet your close friend or lover that you get caught up in the other person’s company. Words flow easily. You get your friend’s message and absorb the beloved’s words. It is not necessary to cut through thickets of complexities, or to sort through a bewildering array of alternative meanings.
You respond to your friend, “Yes! I’m happy to spend some time with you.”
A biblical story may be compared to an angel, a messenger, and a beloved friend. Without belaboring all the details, you may get the message, in an instant. Like Abraham, you welcome the divine messenger: “I’m happy to receive your visit.”
Before proceeding further, I would like to acknowledge, however, that some of you may enjoy belaboring all the details of biblical stories and getting entangled in debates. However, our time is short—there is so much to do—and yes, like an angel, my interest is to uplift you.
Take a moment now then and pause this tape—or the verbal transcript. Please take a look at the passage, reproduced below from the NRSV, where Jacob wrestles with an angel.
When you are ready, and if you like, move along to read my commentary on this passage in the next part of this article.
22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
Now I will offer commentary on the Genesis story (Gen 32:22-30) where Jacob wrestles with an angel. I hope that my remarks will assist you to draw out, for yourself, the message that your own guardian angel intends just for you.
Hardship: Have Faith in the Greater Good to Come
vv.22–23 Jacob has great wealth and a big family. He sends them all across the river so that he can be alone. Similarly, there are moments when all of our possessions and our family have gone on, ahead of us. We are alone and left behind.
Let’s realize at these moments that we are not victims but, instead, agents. Like Jacob, we have chosen (on some level) to “send” our wealth and relationships away, so that we may be empty and receptive to the divine presence in our lives.
My friend, for instance, felt victimized when she went bankrupt, yet she knew (on a deeper level) that she had chosen her own life circumstances. Like Jacob, she had sent away all that she had owned. This loss created an empty space so that she could receive a longer-term happiness, like an angel, sent from God.
Your Deeper Resourcefulness: Imperfections and Scars Make You Beautiful
vv. 24–25 A man appears in the next verse. We may infer from what follows (vv. 28, 31) that he is an angel. An angel is so close to God as God’s messenger that to see an angel is basically very much like seeing God. That’s why, in v. 28, Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel is portrayed as a struggle directly with God.
Jacob and the angel now wrestle. Jacob in fact “prevails” over the angel. How does he prevail? His deeper potential as a human being comes forth, breaking through the shell of his own limited sense of self and beliefs about life’s possibilities.
This deeper strength and resourcefulness of human nature create a wow effect. Even the angel is impressed: “Wow! Incredible!” The heavens are impressed by human fortitude and ingenuity.
Yet, as the angel pulls away from Jacob, he breaks Jacob’s hip. Similarly, when we go through huge trials, we may carry away with us collateral damage.
v.26 Jacob and the angel engage in a tug of war. Jacob tugs on the angel, who wants to take leave and go back to heaven. Jacob holds on persistently, refusing to let go until he receives the angel’s blessing.
Let’s hold onto our deepest intentions for happiness when challenged to give up or give in.
From Victim to Victor: A New Name is Your New Identity
vv. 27–29 Now Jacob and the angel continue wrestling verbally. The angel gives Jacob a new name, “Israel,” which means “I will prevail,” explaining, “For you have striven with God and with humans and you have prevailed.”
During times of trial, if we are to be victorious, it is not sufficient, merely, just to get through and to survive, in order to remain safe. Instead, by giving ourselves entirely to the battle, risking all that we are, we may be transformed from within.
When we embrace a new name or identity, shaped by trial, then our victory gains lasting roots within us. What have we discovered about ourselves in the process? And what kind of new person have we grown into?
The One Who Seems Far Away is Close By: Your Beloved Friend
After receiving the new name (Israel) from the angel, another tug of war ensues. Jacob asks to learn the name of the angel, who will not oblige. Instead of answering the question, the angel says, “Why do you ask my name?” The angel’s question to Jacob invites the questioner to question himself.
Why indeed does Jacob ask for the angel’s name? Angels take on different functions, depending on their mission and purpose. So, they do not always have stable or single names. In this case, the angel is so close to God that the angel is like the Word that stands for God, exactly, communicating God’s very presence.
This divine presence is beyond name and form. So, the divine presence, and the angel in proxy, cannot be named.
Paradoxically, the angel of God cannot be named also for another reason. God is not only too far away to be named but also too close and near to be named. God is close to our hearts and at one with the deepest recesses of our being. Do we need to ask the name of our most treasured and beloved friend?
Welcome Your New Happiness
This tussle over the angel’s name, interestingly, causes the angel finally to bestow upon Jacob or Israel the very blessing that he has been persistently seeking.
Once we realize that the angel of God cannot be named, we stop trying to put God in some kind of nice box or gilded cage, whether conceptual or religious.
In my friend’s case, she surrendered the need to figure out everything about why her life had taken such a difficult turn. Instead, Irene simply prepared herself to welcome into her life, and to receive, the presence of the angel who brought her happiness.
Celebrating and Commemorating
v.30 Jacob now takes the power upon himself to do the naming. He drops the idea that the angel will reveal his name. Instead, by taking on the function of naming for himself, Jacob sets up a memorial. In order to remember the significant breakthrough that has transpired during the night, he gives the meeting place a name.
So Jacob called the place Peniel (which means “face of God”), saying “For I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.”
Here, Jacob honors the angel, the Word of God. The adversary has turned into an ally. The angel has brought forth Jacob’s inner strengths and the greater capacities within himself. The trial has opened up his spiritual insight and knowledge of his own destiny.
Vision of God
The beatific vision is usually reserved for death. The intense beauty of such a vision might easily blind mortal eyes. The “face” of God stands for an epiphany. For a moment, God lifts the mortal veil so that we may glimpse the divine beauty, radiant and shining.
Sharing the Beauty and Happiness
My friend Irene welcomed the angel of God into her life, during her difficult ordeal, when she remembered the beauty of the angel’s gift.
“I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved,” she proclaims with Jacob. “Now I will share this beauty and happiness with others.”
Let’s do the same.