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Politics of Scripture

Wrestling With Identity

Just as Jacob’s encounter brought new beginnings and transformation for him, embracing our true identities can lead to a powerful ripple effect within our communities. By cultivating a culture of acceptance, understanding, and celebration of individual uniqueness, we can foster an environment where marginalised voices get uplifted and empowered.

22 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. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When 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. 26Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ 27So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ 28Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ 29Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Genesis 32:22-31

Genesis 32:22-31 – Jacob wrestling with God – occurs within the broader narrative of Jacob’s life, which is itself a significant part of the Book of Genesis. Jacob’s life has various struggles in it, including sibling rivalry, deception, and facing the consequences of his actions. At this point in the story, Jacob returns to the land of Canaan after living with his Uncle Laban for many years. However, he gets filled with anxiety and fear as he anticipates meeting his estranged brother Esau, whom he had deceived and betrayed in the past.

Jacob struggles with his past (and its consequences) in the context of the passage. The struggle is both a physical encounter with a divine form, and an internal battle for his identity. Jacob’s deception of his father Isaac – stealing his older brother Esau’s blessing – made him a liar. His consequential unfavourable image prevented him from completely embracing a new beginning in his life.

The wrestling incident with the divine figure is a profound moment of introspection and self-discovery for Jacob. He realises that to move forward, he must confront his past, deconstruct the negative identity he carries, and emerge with a transformed sense of self. In this encounter, Jacob’s struggle for identity is evident as he seeks a blessing from the divine figure. Instead of merely seeking external blessings, Jacob is wrestling for a deeper understanding of who he is and what his purpose in life is.

The question “Who am I?” is a fundamental existential inquiry that has troubled humanity throughout history. This question of identity is deeply intertwined with our understanding of ourselves, our place in the world, and our connection with others and the divine.

Jacob’s wrestling with God is a pivotal event that reflects the wrestling for identity. This encounter with the divine shows that this question of identity is not just personal introspection but can also involve seeking answers from God, answers for the struggles he has gone through in his life, and answers for deconstructing the past to move forward to the future. The past not only includes his identity as “Jacob” after his action against Esau, but also his struggle to survive as a victim in his uncle’s place.

Jacob’s name, meaning “one who deceives,” reminded him of his background and reinforced a poor self-image. In his time, the firstborn was revered and granted advantages, while the other siblings were deemed inferior. Birth order created inequalities in families and societies. Jacob, the younger twin, struggled against cultural conventions that favoured Esau, complicating his search for identity and self-worth.

Jacob becomes the victim of deception a few times in his life. Before the meeting with Esau, Jacob had arrived in Haran, where he met his uncle Laban. In this narrative, Jacob becomes a victim of the same deceitful practices (Genesis 29:15-30). Laban’s actions perpetuate unfairness and discrimination against Jacob, reinforcing the idea that deceit is a recurring theme in Jacob’s life. This deception not only affects Jacob personally but also restricts his freedom and agency as he finds himself bound to a marriage he did not intend to get into.

However, Jacob’s struggle for liberation begins here. He confronts Laban and demands justice, expressing his desire to marry Rachel as promised. Laban eventually agrees to allow Jacob to marry Rachel after completing another seven years of work.

Jacob’s quest for freedom and liberation from Laban’s manipulative ways serves as an example of his determination to break free from oppressive circumstances. His insistence on marrying Rachel, the woman he loves, demonstrates his refusal to accept the unfairness and discrimination he faced. This struggle reflects Jacob’s resilience and willingness to assert his rights, challenging the societal norms that allowed such deception to persist.

Now, the struggle continues with his wrestling with God. Jacob wrestled with God until he got all the answers. He hoped to receive a blessing instead of his previous misfortune. Changing his identity gives promise of a fresh start. After the fight, God renames Jacob
“Israel,” meaning “he struggles with God” or “God contends.” This renaming redefined Jacob’s identity. It acknowledges his struggle and reaffirms that his identity is related to his relationship with the divine. The name change offers a chance to start again and have a more authentic and purposeful identity.

Jacob’s struggle for identity leads him to a deeper understanding of himself and his purpose. His encounter with the divine marks a turning point in his life. He no longer defines himself solely by his past identity that carries a negative image, but strives to embody the meaning behind his new name, “Israel.” From this point on, he becomes the patriarch of a nation chosen by God, and his identity is forever intertwined with his spiritual destiny.

When I read this passage from Genesis, portraying Jacob wrestling with the Divine, I could not just leave it without connecting with my own experience as a Dalit, and the Dalit search for an empowering identity.

Indian Dalits’ identity is tied to their persecution and prejudice. Dalits fight oppressive frameworks to find their place in society. As they struggle to shed their imposed identities and find their true selves, Dalits ask “Who am I?” more than anybody else.

For generations, oppressive societal systems in India have denied the Dalits their identities. Discriminated, humiliated, and marginalized, they are the lowest caste. The oppressors gave them names with prejudice and social hierarchy. The terms “Scheduled Caste,” “Untouchable,” “Harijans,” and “Outcastes” defined them as second-class citizens or no people.

Yet, in the face of this relentless struggle, the Dalits began to reclaim their narrative. They found strength in their collective voice and chose to identify themselves as “Dalits,” a name that defies the oppressive labels and reflects their resilience in the face of adversity. The term “Dalit” signifies the “crushed” or “oppressed,” “broken,” and “scattered,” and by adopting it, they sought to reclaim their identity and re-affirm their right to stand tall with pride.

Jacob’s struggle with God and Dalits’ struggle in Hinduism are strikingly similar. Dalits have long been marginalized and placed to the bottom of society in the caste based Varnashrama Dharma. Dalits feel detached from God and question whether God is with them, especially amid enormous pain and adversity, due to this exclusion and injustice.

Dalits are considered untouchable and lowest in the Varnashrama Dharma. This social construct promotes the concept that Dalits are naturally far from God, making it hard for them to feel spiritually accepted. Additionally, Dalits cannot enter many high caste temples.

Some Dalits believe God is against them because of their oppression. Dalits wrestle with God, like Jacob. They doubt God’s existence. Some Dalits have reframed their divine relationship in this context. They reinterpreted spirituality to find God in their fight for justice and dignity. God empowers some to battle oppression and defend their rights.

After Jacob’s encounter with God, he names the place “Peniel,” and the reason was, “because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” Names reflect social hierarchies, power systems, and affect how people and communities are regarded and treated. High-caste Indians use their caste name with their personal name to show off their social status. This reinforces the society’s caste system, where caste determines how people get treated.

On the other hand, Dalits, who have been historically marginalised and oppressed, do not carry their caste name with their personal name. This exclusion from the practice of appending caste names is an act of resistance and empowerment. It signifies their rejection of the oppressive caste system and the reclaiming of their identity beyond the boundaries of caste.

Similarly, Jacob’s act of naming the place where he encountered God as “Peniel” reflects an act of empowerment and personal encounter with the Divine. By naming the place, Jacob establishes a connection with God that is deeply personal and significant to his own journey. It signifies his agency in defining his relationship with the Divine and reinforces the idea that God’s presence is accessible to everyone, regardless of external factors.

In both cases, the act of naming and creating spaces for worship represents a reclaiming of power and autonomy over one’s identity and religious practices. It challenges oppressive systems and allows individuals and communities to forge a more intimate and authentic connection with the Divine.

As we reflect on these parallels, it becomes evident that the act of naming and creating spaces for worship is not only a political assertion, but also a spiritual and existential one. It signifies the quest for freedom, dignity, and a closer relationship with God – a journey that transcends societal boundaries and empowers individuals and communities to define their own identities and spiritual paths.

For example, unlike the traditional closed-door temples that have often restricted Dalits from entering or participating in religious practices, Dalit worship places exemplify the notion that God is not limited to grand structures but present wherever people are. These simple and open altars signify the inclusivity of their spiritual practices, emphasising that God is accessible to everyone, regardless of social status or background.

Similarly, in the wrestling incidence, Jacob had a personal encounter with God. It emphasises God’s active involvement in everyone’s troubles. The meeting shows a God who empathises with human struggles, wrestles with them, and provides strength and wisdom. Jacob asked for God’s name, but God did not answer. Jacob may need to start again with God and forget the past.

In both the Dalit context and Jacob’s experience, the emphasis is on the presence of God amid struggles and adversity. This notion brings immense comfort and hope to those who face social marginalisation and discrimination. It serves as a reminder that their worth is not defined by societal norms or oppressive structures but by their relationship with a compassionate and understanding divinity.

Moreover, the open and accessible worship places of Dalits reflect the inclusivity and openness of their spirituality. By creating spaces where all are welcome, irrespective of caste or social status, Dalits challenge the exclusivity inherent in certain traditional religious institutions. This approach aligns with the idea that God’s presence is not confined to elaborate structures but permeates every aspect of life, especially in the struggle for justice and dignity.

In his encounter with the Divine, Jacob sought a blessing that would embody his transformation and liberation from the shame associated with his name and past actions. The struggle represented a profound battle against societal injustice and the biased notions of superiority based on birthright.

In the end, the divine renaming of Jacob to “Israel” marked a powerful moment of liberation and empowerment. This new name carried a deeper meaning, signifying his growth and transformation from the one who deceives to the one who strives with God. It served as a proclamation of Jacob’s redefined identity, one that rejected the limitations imposed by society and embraced his authentic self with strength and determination.

Jacob’s wrestling match with the Divine lasts throughout the night until daybreak, reflecting the endurance of the struggle. The process of empowerment and transformation for the oppressed is not a quick or easy one. It involves confronting not only external forces of discrimination but also internalised insecurities and oppression. This internal battle is vital for genuine empowerment and the creation of a new identity that defies the narratives imposed upon them.

Just as Jacob’s encounter brought new beginnings and transformation for him, embracing our true identities can lead to a powerful ripple effect within our communities. By cultivating a culture of acceptance, understanding, and celebration of individual uniqueness, we can foster an environment where marginalised voices get uplifted and empowered.

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