Limping Into the Sun: Frank Lake on the Spiritual Battle of Jacob

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man […]

CJ Green / 7.7.16


Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 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. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ 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.’ 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. So Jacob called the place Peniel (that is, the face of God), saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. – Genesis 32:22-31 (NRSV)

A passage that can so easily read as inspiration for churchgoers who think too highly of willpower, Dr. Frank Lake interprets as a comment on Jacob’s frailty from “intrapsychic wounds.”

For Lake, this story is not just about the exceptional strength of one sneaky Israelite patriarch, but desperation. It is about Jacob’s last-ditch attempt to control what he cannot, resulting in a moment of clarity in which he not only sees God face to face but also himself. It is from himself that he must be delivered, and he is.

The following comes from Lake’s Clinical Theology, page 868-869 (a great find by Scott Jones).

The hysterical element in Jacob compelled him to cling. He distrusted the author of blessings. From the moment of his birth, several seconds too late for the boon of the birthright, to his early adult life when he had to manipulate his father and play upon his weaknesses to get the blessing, and on to his manhood when he had to work an extra seven years after being cheated over the woman he loved, Jacob was always one who just missed the place and time of blessing. So, having his hands upon the angel, he would not let go.

A confession had to be made. That is my name–supplanter; deceiver; there is no palliation. Jacob had to come to the place where he willingly confessed before God the whole guilt of usurping the birthright. This is full and profound and agonising repentance.Now that the contract is maintained by dialogue, physical clinging is not necessary. The old name reminds him now, not so much of his inferior beginnings, or the evils he has suffered which made him wrestle or cling, as of his sin.

God’s love had sustained Jacob through the long night of combat against the tragic miscarriages of providence and against God Himself as responsible for his whole fate. In wrestling and clinging finally in utter passive weakness, in the acceptance of the wound that made him go haltingly and in penitence for his sin, Jacob had persevered with the inner spiritual battle. God now gave him a new name indicating his new nature. ‘Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince thou hast power with God and with men and hast prevailed…’

‘And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.’

To see the face of God was so traditionally associated with dread as to regard the vision as deadly. Jacob was one of the few who persevered until, in the place which he feared most, God was revealed to him. The conclusion of this history of Jacob’s transition from an unstable character to a man who walked steadily with God is symbolised as we see him walking, even though lame, into the sun. ‘And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh.’ As the Master Himself said, ‘Better enter into life maimed’ rather than, insisting on retaining the wholeness of a broken humanity, be county unworthy of the Kingdom.

Featured image by William Bradford, “Ice Floes Under the Midnight Sun.”