In the thirty-second chapter of Genesis (Gen 32:22-31), Jacob wrestles all night with what many Bible translations call “a man.” Some refer to “an angel,” and by the end of the passage it is clear that Jacob’s opponent has been God. As a result of the struggle, Jacob gets a new name, Israel, which means, “one who wrestles with God.” The name is eventually applied to the entire people descended from Jacob. The early Jews called themselves, thought of themselves, as a nation that wrestled with God.

The relationship implied by that description is hardly one of a benevolent deity and an obedient people, much less that of a distant or indifferent god and an apathetic nation. It is intimate, engaged, even physical — Jacob’s hip is permanently dislocated during the struggle. It is contentious, yes — but it ends with “the man” blessing Jacob and Jacob naming the place peniel, Hebrew for “face of God,” because “I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.”

Jacob’s wound suggests his vulnerability — though he survives his encounter with God, he is forever changed by it.

This is the relationship God chooses with God’s people: not one of overlord and serfs, but of partners equally matched, willing and able to struggle with one another until a satisfactory outcome is reached. This is not the God most often evoked in mainline Christian churches, neither the Jesus trapped in stained glass nor the everlasting fixer conjured by our magical thinking.

We are called to become God’s partners in the continuing work of creation and of bringing all people into the new community where love is paramount. This love is not sweet, though it may bring joy; it is like Jacob’s wrestling match — passionate, contentious, wounding and intimate, with blessing as its end. It is our high privilege — and this is more an ideal than a reality for most of us, me included — to engage with another, knowing that we can be openly who we are, and however we may disagree, we will end by valuing each other’s honesty and desire to move the relationship forward.

Jacob, of course, feels guilty, because he has been much less than honest: he has cheated his brother, Esau, first, out of his birthright as the eldest son, and second, out of the blessing of their father, Isaac. He is on his way to meet his brother, and before lying down to sleep, has made various provisions against the possibility that Esau, justly angry, might attack him.

So besides the “man” who both blesses and wounds him, Jacob is likely wrestling with his conscience and with what it means to be a leader. Earlier in the story, he had only himself to worry about; now he has wives, children, servants and animals to care for. His dishonesty toward Esau in the past could end up not just depriving Jacob of property, but hurting those who are dependent on him.

His careful arrangements for their safety, splitting his party in two and sending them in different directions, having his wives and children conveyed across the river and sending some animals ahead, in the care of servants, as a gift for his brother, show that he has acquired the ability to think of others’ welfare as well as his own.

But all of that is not enough to let Jacob rest easy. He lies down to sleep and is plunged into a struggle with the “man” who comes to him. He comes out of it blessed, lame and with a new, God-given name to mark his transformation. The struggle has affirmed that Jacob is chosen by God: he has become a leader of God’s chosen people.