Words from Phyllis Trible: Jacob Wrestles with God

jacobwrestlesIn the September/October issue of the Biblical Archaeology Review, Phyllis Trible, a professor of sacred literature at Union Theological Seminary, discusses the strange account of Jacob wrestling with the God (or a man or an angel — it’s not so clear).

(Gen 32:24-31 ESV) 24 And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his 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 has broken.”

But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

27 And he said to him, “What is your name?”

And he said, “Jacob.”

28 Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, 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 name of the place Peniel [the face of God], saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Trible is a feminist and writes about her struggles reconciling the Old Testament with her feministic perspective. She concludes,

Moving this haunting story to my predicament at the boundary of faith and feminism, I pluck from it two memorable lines, one from Jacob and one from the storyteller. First, Jacob’s defiant words to the stranger I take as a challenge to the Bible itself: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” I will not let go of the book unless it blesses me. I will struggle with it. I will not turn it over to my enemies that it curse me. Neither will I turn over to friends who wish to curse it. No, over against the cursing from either Bible-thumpers or Bible-bashers, I shall hold fast for blessing. But I am under no illusion that blessing, if it comes, will be  on my terms — that I will not be changed in the process. Indeed, the second line I pluck from the story undercuts that illusion: The storyteller reports: “The sun rose upon him [Jacob] … limping because of his hip.” Through this ancient story, appropriated anew, Biblical studies, faith and feminism converge for me. Wrestling with the words, to the light I limp.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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5 Responses to Words from Phyllis Trible: Jacob Wrestles with God

  1. John says:

    This should be an eye opener for evangelicals who have always assumed that progressive or liberal Christianity is an “easy, do as I please” religion.

    Those who do not struggle with scripture have not taken off their childhood tinted glasses. I know people who are very intelligent, who can recall everything they read; yet, as far as I can tell, have never entertained an original thought when it comes to things spiritual.

    I am fed and enlivened by those who struggle. They bring love, mercy and compassion to the top.

  2. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    Thanks. You said it better than I could.

  3. Mark says:

    There are also some really tough and not so easy to understand words of Jesus found in the middle of the gospels. For too long they have been either glossed over or over simplified. To decently convey them from a pulpit and relate them to modern human nature will have most people squirming in the pews.

  4. Dwight says:

    It is our own hubris to believe we have everything neatly wrapped up in a particular way and have nothing left to learn or discern or that there is anything that could possibly be wrong with our own belief system. We should not struggle againt the scriptures, but against our own pride and self-righteousness in light of the scriptures.

  5. John Fewkes says:

    I would ask, ” In our struggle with application of scripture is there a place for a call to a Biblical center line?” It is difficult to stop a swinging pendulum, religious or otherwise. From legalism to libertine the pendulum swings through the cultural winds of the Western world. I appreciate the “struggle” as it strengthens my resolve to submission to the will of God. It is far beyond me to even define what a Biblical center line looks like, but I do believe the search together is worth the effort. The history of God’s called is the history of digression — from Egypt the people carried their false God images (some of which were likely given for the golden calf). An adulterous people from the desert to the judges to the kings to the deportations — yet a merciful God continued the promise made to Abram. From the time of the early church, the called people were urged to remain faithful to NT apostolic teaching ( and yes apostolic tradition). The letters are replete with the call to faithful obedience and submission to God. We are perhaps no different than Diotrephes. The call to the seven churches of Revelation could well be the lens through which we examine of own congregations.

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