By the River Jabbok

by Larry Patten

Jacob—eventually revered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims—traveled to seek forgiveness from his brother Esau. He sent his family on ahead and remained by the River Jabbok. And then, with the stark brevity of Genesis 32:24, Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

It was night, with the heat of the day finally easing. The Jabbok flowed, a liquid ribbon of life among the arid hills and barren ridges. Stars glittered overhead, nocturnal jewels. A breeze soothed Jacob’s skin, carrying the smoky remnants of old campfires and the lingering fragrance of his departed family. 

Jacob was alone, and yet not alone.

In a darkness not entirely caused by night, Jacob waited. He was alone with the countless promises he’d broken and made and broken again, the old lies he’d crafted and sold as the truth, the shameful acts that moaned from the hidden corners of his soul.

Jacob was alone, and yet not alone.

Why did he wait?

Why had he sent his wives and children across the Jabbok?

Had Jacob intuited something in the murmuring of the river, or in the whisper of wind, which had prompted him to stay?

And then, so said Genesis, a man wrestled Jacob. It would be a brutal struggle, lasting the night, without rules, with neither adversary relenting, with Jacob sustaining injury and still fighting on.

How much am I, or you, like Jacob? How much do we live our lives in darkness? If we’re busy-busy-busy from dawn to dusk, or if we have that rare stretch of dreamless sleep, we pretend to temporarily escape the darkness. Though often enough, the darkness of our fears finds us.

Let’s say you’re a preacher and you receive nine hearty handshakes or hugs from smiling church members. They each greet you after worship, gushing over your splendid sermon. But a tenth person arrives and mutters, “I wish you’d stop preaching sermons with the same examples.” Or maybe the criticism wasn’t that specific, more a vague complaint. Or—for this does happen—the tenth person’s words were blunt and specific. Later, when you’re alone, whom do you believe? The nine that adored your sermon? The one who complained? I can guess. A few callous comments and we feel exposed for the fools we always knew we were. Our inner darkness gathers and we feel lost. Alone.

It’s not just preachers.

The giggling child raised by loving parents becomes the teen who can hurl heart-wrenching accusations at a mother or father. And a parent bemoans his or her dark failures. The teacher has become numb from giving the required tests and darkly wonders why he ever went into education. A lawyer once yearned to make the world better, but now, with a dark competitive heart, she schemes to accumulate more billable hours than her colleagues. Who remembers old yearnings when all you care about are this year’s earnings?

You are a magnet for darkness.

In the darkness of our lives, we have constant reminders of the worst; of the moments and zip codes and people where failure reigned, and we were resigned to admitting defeat.

But it could be worse. We inwardly sigh with relief when reading headlines about murders and foreclosures and drug overdoses and the other damaging events that happen to… others. Is that what it has come to: we’re glad that the darkness we experience is not as bad as someone else’s darker and more dismal misery?

On the worst days, we are convinced we were born alone and that we’ll die alone.

Do we matter? Do I matter?

Jacob was alone, and yet not alone.

And then, from the darkness, a man attacked Jacob. No, it wasn’t a man. Though Genesis is as clever with the words as the attack was startling, this was a Holy encounter.

But was it an attack? Or was it—in the darkest slice of the darkest night—a divine lunge into Jacob’s very flesh to remind him that he was not alone?

Remarkably, Jacob would not let go. Was persistence his only gift?

On the river flowed.

On they wrestled: one, who was and is the Giver of Blessings; one, who had lived in so much darkness.

Jacob, who would be renamed Israel, who was no better or worse than you or me, held on. (And don’t you dare think he was better than you. The Bible, thanks be to God, was awfully clear about how wretched a person Jacob could be. The Bible, thanks be to God, was written by and for irksome humans and not inaccessible saints.)

Out of the darkness, light.

Just enough. For Jacob by the River Jabbok; for us, weary from a pandemic, mired in the doldrums of divisiveness.


Jacob would name the place Peniel. To see God. Which, I believe, also meant you are called to see yourself as God sees you.

You are blessed.

Larry Patten is a retired United Methodist pastor living in Fresno, California. He has worked in churches, hospices, and campus ministry. His writing has appeared in publications such as The Christian CenturyEarth & Altar, and Ruminate. He is the author of A Companion for the Hospice Journey.

2 thoughts on “By the River Jabbok

  1. What a compelling reflection on a beloved but disturbing Biblical story, like a Diamond with many angles & faces! The passage has served countless times to uplift loved ones of those suffering a lingering death. I especially like the universal human experience Larry highlights!


  2. Beautiful and thoughtfully written. Embellishing the Jacob story brings it to our lives and times so well. So well woven. A favorite story lifted from the pages for each of us to breathe afresh. Thank you so much for your efforts.


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