Striving Toward Heneni

Please enjoy the following weird story from our Bible...

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. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 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, 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 32:22-32 (NRSV)

After many years of keeping his distance, Jacob was about to meet his brother Esau again.  As you may recall, Jacob swindled Esau out of his birthright by preying on his vulnerability as well as their father’s blindness in order to get that more-than-twice-as-powerful position as the blessed first born.  Jacob was used to running.  He ran away from his equally slick father.  Now Jacob was all alone.  Everything that mattered to him was on the other side of the river.  The next morning would be a new day (which could have very well been his last).  It was a terrible night.  Jacob experienced a wrestling match that took him from dusk until dawn.  It was the most pivotal night in his life to that point.  Who would Jacob choose to be in the morning?  Would he cross the river, or take his exit as he had so often in his past?

This is a story about striving.

The Hebrew word in question here can sometimes be translated as struggle, or even wrestle, but the most accurate seems to be “striving”, which is defined as: “make great efforts to achieve or obtain something” (Oxford English Dictionary).  This is not a casual exercise.  This is where you leave everything on the mat, as if your life depended on it.

In the story, this isn’t a dream.  The story is passed down that an actual incarnation of God in human form showed up, unannounced.  Furthermore, this person took the initiative – Jacob did not invite him to his campsite.  This seems to be a recurring theme about this God the Jewish people are talking about – this God doesn’t stay in the heavens, but comes down among us.  And this God doesn’t come down to ruin our lives or sleep with our brothers and sisters – this God comes to bring something good to us.

There were likely a range of reasons Jacob chose to sleep alone on the other side of the river that night.  One handy reality was that if he chose to slip away into the night, never to be seen again, he could.  I think a big part of this strife in darkness was that this was to become one of his defining moments.  He did not know what the next day would bring.  Death, perhaps.  Surely a part of him had to consider giving up on the dream, of God’s dream, for his life.  I think that, more than anything else, is what the striving was about.  Would he become the man he was meant to become, or cower once more, tricking his way out this mess and begin yet again as the trickster who knew how to make a deal and work the system.

If you cannot relate to this, I wonder if you’ve ever had a deep, reflective thought in your life.  Perhaps you’ve skated throughout life never wondering about who you are or who you are becoming.  Sometimes we don’t want to wonder because it can be a painful experience.  Denial feels easier, and is easier, for a time.  We can binge on Netflix and avoid personal reflection for a long time.

But shallow living catches up to us eventually.  We were made for love and depth.  When we avoid those things, we will struggle – strive – with despair.  We will face the mirror at some point (even if for a brief moment) and realize that we may have missed Life.  In those moments, I believe the presence of God enters the room to strive with us.  Not to beat us down for being idiots, but to strive with us in the sense of helping us overcome that which keeps us from Life itself.

Sometimes what keeps us from life itself is shame. 

ü  Or guilt. 

ü  Or fear. 

ü  Or anger.

ü  Or sorrow.

ü  Or the company we keep.

ü  Or our depression.

ü  Or… 

Lots of things can keep us from life.  Lots of things distract us from seeing and seeking Life itself.  Surely Jacob could check all these boxes.  Especially when we are alone and are quiet (his campground didn’t have Wi-Fi), we can be flooded with these “adversaries”.  Sometimes it may even feel like it is God who is bringing the battle.  But I don’t think that’s the case.

It seems to me that God is much more interested in blessing than cursing.  Accountability comes for all of us, of course, but only when the Life of God is held high to give us something to contrast our lives with.  God has no need to judge – we’ve got that down to a science.

What God does do really well, however, is come alongside and whisper (or sometimes shout) words of hope and blessing to us.  Words of love and encouragement about who we are and who we can become.  I think Jacob faced his demons that night and was tempted to retreat.  But God was there in the flesh to strive with Jacob through the night, calling him forward, calling him into the morning light, a new day, a new chapter in which he would see the promises come to fruition.

When morning came, there was no clear winner.  Jacob got a new name – one which would become the name for an entire nation of people – the Hebrew people – the cross over people – the people who strive with God in order to cross over rivers into myriad Promised Lands. 

And Jacob also got a limp.  An injury that would remind him of the striving.  Don’t mistake this as some form of punishment to turn God into a jerk and Jacob a needless victim.  On the contrary, I am confident Jacob was grateful for the limp, because as far as everybody thought at that time, to see God face to face meant certain death.  Jacob was alive and moving forward toward promise.  His limp would forever cause him to be grateful, not bitter.  He saw God in a new way by the dawn and put a word to it.  That’s how these things usually go: we strive with God by our side, and we discover a new level of beauty that perhaps we didn’t see before, and it adds to our language about this incredible One we seek and serve.  Of course, the paradox is that we are sought and served more than we seek and serve…

Where are you camping in your life right now?  What does it mean for you to cross the river?  What are you striving against?  Do you realize that God strives with you toward your best, most true self?  You have a teammate with you to help you along the way.  God is not your foe as it sometimes may seem.  God is your champion. 

Another interesting tidbit...  The story ends without the Stranger leaving.  Some scholars think this is a hint that God never left Jacob’s side, especially as he faced his brother in the very next scene.  Perhaps God has never left you, either.

But wait, there’s more!  This was the second of three visions experienced by Jacob.  When the third vision comes, Jacob’s response is different than the first two.  In the first vision, Jacob’s reaction was “Wow!”, and in the second was a wrestling match.  The third time around, when Jacob realizes he is experiencing the Divine, his response is, “Heneni!”  Heneni is a Hebrew word that shows up only a handful of times in the Hebrew Bible.  It translates, “Here am I.”  Jacob, toward the end of his life, finally matured into a person who trusted the nature and character of God so much that his response was simply, “I’m in.” 

Don’t wait until the end of your life to get to Heneni.  Strive toward Heneni now, because life is short and Life awaits.