Benedict XVI Speaks of Wrestling God's Blessing

Uses Passage on Jacob to Continue Teaching on Prayer

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VATICAN CITY, MAY 25, 2011 ( Prayer requires trust and closeness with a God who desires to bless us, though he remains mysterious and seems unattainable, says Benedict XVI.

The Pope affirmed this today during the general audience in St. Peter’s Square, in which he continued looking at sacred Scripture to offer his teaching on prayer.

Today he drew from Genesis 32:22, where Jacob wrestles with God. «It is not an easily interpreted passage, but it is an important one for our life of faith and prayer,» he said.

The Holy Father recalled the story of Jacob — how he had stolen his twin’s birthright and tricked his father into giving him his blessing. After all this, when he is ready to face his brother, he is «suddenly attacked by an unknown figure who wrestles with him for the whole of the night.»

This battle «becomes for him a singular experience of God,» the Pontiff said.

He explained: «The text does not specify the aggressor’s identity; it uses a Hebraic term that generically indicates ‘a man,’ ‘one, someone;’ it therefore has a vague, undetermined definition that intentionally keeps the assailant in mystery. […] Only at the end, once the battle has ended and that ‘someone’ has disappeared, only then will Jacob name him and be able to say that he has wrestled with God.»

Benedict XVI noted how the episode unfolds «in obscurity» with not only the assailant’s identity hidden, but also the battle’s progress.

«Reading the passage, it is hard to establish which of the two contenders succeeds in having the upper hand,» he noted. «The verbs used often lack an explicit subject, and the actions progress in an almost contradictory way, so that when one thinks that either of the two has prevailed, the next action immediately contradicts it and presents the other as the winner.»

Jacob asks for his adversary’s blessing; then the rival, instead of submitting, asks Jacob his name.

«Here the battle undergoes an important development,» the Pope explained. «To know someone’s name, in fact, implies a kind of power over the person, since the name, in biblical thinking, contains the most profound reality of the individual; it unveils his secret and his destiny. Knowing someone’s name therefore means knowing the truth of the other, and this allows one to be able to dominate him.»

When Jacob reveals his name, it is therefore a form of surrender, the Holy Father clarified.

«But in this act of surrender, Jacob paradoxically also emerges as a winner, because he receives a new name, together with an acknowledgement of victory on the part of his adversary, who says to him: ‘Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.'»


The Pope explained how in Hebrew, the name Jacob alludes to his «problematic beginnings,» and the verb «to deceive, to supplant.»

«Now,» he said, «in the battle, the patriarch reveals to his opponent, through an act of entrustment and surrender, his own reality as a deceiver, a supplanter; but the other, who is God, transforms this negative reality into something positive: Jacob the deceiver becomes Israel; he is given a new name that signifies a new identity. But also here, the account maintains its intended duplicity, since the most probable meaning of the name Israel is ‘God is mighty, God triumphs.'»

So Jacob triumphs, but «his new identity, received by the same adversary, affirms and testifies to God’s triumph.»

«When in turn Jacob will ask his contender’s name, he will refuse to pronounce it, but he will reveal himself in an unequivocal gesture, by giving him his blessing. That blessing which the patriarch had asked at the beginning of the battle is now granted him. And it is not the blessing grasped by deception, but that given freely by God, which Jacob is able to receive because now he is alone, without protection, without cunning and deception. He gives himself over unarmed; he accepts surrendering himself and confessing the truth about himself. And so, at the end of the battle, having received the blessing, the patriarch is able finally to recognize the other, the God of the blessing.»

Benedict XVI said the account of Jacob’s struggle «becomes for the believer a point of reference for understanding his relationship with God, which in prayer finds its ultimate expression.»

«Prayer,» he said, «requires trust, closeness, in a symbolic ‘hand to hand’ not with a God who is an adversary and enemy, but with a blessing Lord who remains always mysterious, who appears unattainable. For this reason the sacred author uses the symbol of battle, which implies strength of soul, perseverance, tenacity in reaching what we desire. And if the object of one’s desire is a relationship with God, his blessing and his love, then the battle cannot but culminate in the gift of oneself to God, in the recognition of one’s own weakness, which triumphs precisely when we reach the point of surrendering ourselves into the merciful hands of God.»

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