Wrestling with Scripture (and God)

Struggling with a Given Text, Whether Scripture or Literature, is Critical to Receiving a Blessing from It

Guest Contributor / 1.15.21

This one comes from our friend Robbie Sapunarich.

The story of Jacob wrestling with an unnamed man at the ford of Jabbok might be one of the stranger episodes of the Old Testament. After sending his family across the stream, Jacob suddenly finds himself alone and wrestling with a stranger. The reader is never given any indication as to the motive for the struggle, or who initiated it. All we know is that they wrestle through the night, and the stranger, apparently frustrated at Jacob’s perseverance, knocks Jacob’s hip out of joint. But Jacob refuses to let his opponent go unless he first receives a blessing from him. The stranger grants Jacob a new name, “Israel,” for he had “‘striven with God and with humans, and … prevailed.'” Jacob demands to know the stranger’s name, but the stranger just asks Jacob why he wants to know, and proceeds to bless him. Jacob then renames the place “Peniel,” for he had “‘seen God face to face'” and still lived, suggesting that the stranger was in fact God incarnate.

To be honest, despite the fact that Jacob’s renaming is a foundational narrative for the people of Israel, this story has never held much place in my thoughts about scripture. For Alan Jacobs and Esau McCaulley, however, Jacob wrestling with God acts as an animating force that illustrates and sustains the theses of their two recently published books.

Jacobs’ book, Breaking Bread with the Dead, is written for readers seeking “a tranquil mind,” something that seemed rather elusive in 2020. According to Jacobs, the phenomenon of “social acceleration” has given us the sense that we are both in the midst of rapid changes and yet held transfixed on a static present that perpetually vies for our attention. Over and against these trends, Jacobs advocates developing “temporal bandwidth” and “personal density,” concepts he borrows from Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow. In Pynchon’s novel, “temporal bandwidth” is the size of one’s present, and “personal density” is the solidity of one’s persona. For Jacobs, cultivating both of these attributes is critical to developing inner stability when faced with a frenetic present. Engaging with the works of writers from both the distant and recent past, Jacobs shows readers how they can develop temporal bandwidth and personal density by engaging with voices that speak from outside our immediate moment.

McCaulley’s book, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope, is an introduction to “Black ecclesial interpretation” of scripture, an “unapologetically Black and orthodox reading of the Bible.” Each chapter of his book addresses a specific concern of African American experience as it relates to scripture, and shows how the Bible speaks to it in often surprising and hopeful ways. Covering topics such as policing, political witness, justice, Black identity, Black anger, and slavery, McCaulley argues that a careful and faithful reading of scripture reveals truths that have been overlooked or even distorted by European traditions of biblical interpretation, often to justify the abuse and oppression of African Americans. For McCaulley, this book isn’t merely an academic exercise; it is written first and foremost as an encouragement to fellow Black Christians, to show them that “the Bible has something to say,” and he draws heavily from his personal experience struggling with scripture on these very issues.

At first glance, both Jacobs’ and McCaulley’s books would seem to have little in common with one another (aside, perhaps, from both being written by Anglicans). One is written by a humanities professor for a more general audience who might be seeking some mental respite by reading old books; the other is by a Black theologian who is writing to address the theological and social concerns of a specific ecclesial community. Yet despite these differences, they both find meaning for their projects in the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with God.

In Breaking Bread, Jacobs finds the biblical story to be indicative of the generosity he advocates — an intellectual generosity that presumes that one’s interlocutor (in the case, an old book) has something to offer. “But,” he writes, “note that generosity is not simply assuming the best of some writer or text from the past. It is, rather, a kind of struggle: taking the past seriously enough to argue with it.” Jacob demanding a blessing after struggling with God exemplifies the disposition one might take toward an old book that one finds equally moving and problematic. Rather than silencing one’s moral intuitions,
Jacobs would have the readers put them in conversation with a given text in the hope that it will nonetheless bring forth a blessing.

Similarly, McCaulley believes that readers ought to imitate Jacob’s wrestling in their reading of scripture. Although he acknowledges that “ultimately, the Word of God speaks the final word,” he also warns that “it will not do to dismiss the concerns raised about the Bible from many quarters.” Instead, he proposes that “we adopt the posture of Jacob and refuse to let go of the text until it blesses us.” McCaulley identifies this interpretive disposition as a “hermeneutic of trust,” which exercises patience and believes that “when interpreted properly, [the text] will bring a blessing and not a curse.” For McCaulley, the
“hard work of reading the text closely, attending to historical context, grammar, and structure” is a struggle that will bring blessing, but it is a struggle nonetheless.

In both Jacobs’ and McCaulley’s views, struggling with a given text is critical to receiving a blessing from it, while belief in a latent blessing also gives meaning and purpose to the struggle. However, the books differ considerably in the way they envision readers relating to the text(s) in question. On multiple occasions, Jacobs warns against undue reverence for old books, as much as he warns against unreflective disdain (although he acknowledges this advice might not apply for how one reads a piece of sacred writing). McCaulley, on the other hand, approaches scripture with the utmost reverence, affirming the “ongoing normative role of the Bible in the life of the church.” Furthermore, the stakes of reading are quite different for the two authors and their respective audiences — I doubt that one’s interpretation of Horace has ever been a matter of life and death, but for countless African American Christians, the same book that ought to speak life and salvation has been used against them to justify ongoing injustice and wickedness. Furthermore, Jacobs fully acknowledges the existence of “moral malformations” in old books, whereas McCaulley locates any such malformations in the sinfulness of scripture’s interpreters that manifests in their interpretation of the text, rather than the text itself.

Despite the different assumptions both authors have about how their readers might relate to a given piece of writing, they nonetheless urge a similar disposition. Jacobs advocates for a “disposition to love,” while McCaulley calls for a “hermeneutic of trust.” They both acknowledge the inevitability and importance of social and historical location for readers as well — “human nature never changes,” but “human circumstances do,” Jacobs writes. And McCaulley tells us, “… our experiences pose particular and unique questions to to the Scriptures,” but “the Scriptures also pose unique questions to us,” questions that must be answered from the various cultural and social contexts in which God has placed us.

Trust and love might feel like they are in short supply, especially after the tumultuous year in which both of these books were published. Trust and love for God or neighbor often elude us even in the best of circumstances, but in the midst of widespread isolation, fear, and anger wrought by a global pandemic, social unrest, and ongoing injustice, such attitudes might seem nigh impossible, unintelligible even. Yet, because of the circumstances, their necessity might be even greater than ever, but we often find ourselves inadequate to the task.

Mercifully, our struggles does not have the final say. Wrestling with God (and others) is an inevitable, sometimes even necessary, fact of life on this side of glory. But, contrary to our intuitions and expectations, such struggles are often the very means by which God confers his blessing. We grapple with whom who yields to our belligerence with grace. As McCaulley writes, “… if Christ is risen, trampling down death by death, then the world is a different place even when I do not experience it as such,” and “[w]hen anger is victorious in my own heart it never defeats God.”