Jacob’s limp and disability

This year as I read through my Bible, I have been watching for texts that may help me reflect on theologically on disability. One of the first texts that I marked a few days ago was Jacob wrestling with the man at night.

So Jacob was alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. (Genesis 32: 24-25, NIV)

The most frequent interpretation I’ve seen of this text has to do with spiritual humility. Jacob was humbled. He was forced to lean on God. And so on. Most often, they speak of permanent change in Jacob that night. I’ve also seen people use this text to reflect on physical disability.

But I do not see clear evidence in this story of permanent change in either a physical or spiritual sense. Jacob was injured. We do not know how long he was wounded. His hip was wrenched and it left him limping that day under the sunrise, but we do not read about that limp again. Jacob’s eyesight falters in old age, we are told, but I do not notice in the rest of the story any mention again of that limp.

So, we are not reading here about disability, perhaps.

It is a text about striving with God, certainly. It is about being wounded by God and not letting go. It is about those wounds becoming holy signs to the people of Israel (v. 32). But I cannot find any actual indication that Jacob’s limp persisted.

Of course, we do not need knock down evidence in order to discern in scripture a leading or guiding of the Holy Spirit. Some people who wrestle with God about disability clearly find that here. I do not.

It is one of the iconic stories of the Old Testament. It is a puzzle that continues to fascinate us. I am not persuaded, though, that it has a special word to use about disability.

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9 thoughts on “Jacob’s limp and disability

  1. I love this text. I agree. It is not (at least primarily) about disability at all. Though I do think it has some step-back big picture thoughts it stirs in me on disability (but I’ll get to that in a moment). The set up to this text seems to me to be about Jacob’s anxiety (or read another way his careful preparation) about his reunion with Esau. In fact, one wonders whether the “man” (that’s what the scripture said) that he wrestled with might be Esau (the whole thrust of the text up until now seems to be a “wrestling” with how best to approach Esau). For me, one of the most important parts of the story is that the wrestling match ends up with him claiming a new name, a new identity.

    So here’s where I want to say a word about where this might have something to say about disability. This blessing that he gets comes along with an “injury” (as you said) – or perhaps something even more long lasting (a disability?). But it is completely in the context of what appears to be a blessing and re-naming moment. Perhaps one thing it could be pointing to (as not the main point, but a sub-text) is that we cannot use an injury or disability to miss the blessing and renaming. Some might look at Jacob as damaged goods. But God sees the one who represents the people on earth who will be the vehicle for God’s story – God’s light to be revealed.

    1. Thanks, Mike for wrestling with the text. Jacob as bearing a “blemish” in the OT words is certainly something interesting to play around with. With all the holiness and purity codes what does it mean to have one of three men by whom God identified himself (God of Abraham ….) limping about?

  2. Someone said years ago something like “People say to me that ‘religion is a crutch.’ Who told you that I don’t limp?” We all limp. And that these who God identifies with limp – seem outward and visible signs of the inward and spiritual reality (I suppose anyway). Perhaps one of the lessons of this is that none of these are disqualified for being “with blemish.” (as if there would be anyone left – if we were looking for the persons around us “without blemish”).

    I was talking with Duane about it this morning and in our conversation we noted that the new name had nothing (on the face of it) to do with the injury/blemish/etc. While the problem might be there – it is not the defining (naming) gift that is being given.

    1. I need to untangle in my own head and heart these words “limp,” “blemish,” “sin.”

      On the name, though, I did see a connection between the name and the limp. They share a common root. Israel … the one who strives with God. The limping man who was touched by a power as he wrestled. To me they are connected in some way, but not a straight-forward one. The name Israel does not mean “limp” or “broken hip” or something like that.

      Interesting discussion.

  3. Yes, I see how you make that connection (and many others before you). The text is rich; and so is much of the naming that goes on in scriptures old and new. Here’s another weird association (both for this text and the world of “disability”): The poet Marina Tsvetayeva wrote these words: “The poet can have only one prayer: not to understand the unacceptable–let me not understand, so that I may not be seduced….let me not hear, so that I may not answer….The poet’s only prayer is a prayer for deafness.” This sends me back to thinking of the word “disability” a bit. It brings me to wonder if the story doesn’t make the point (in what you said about “striving with God” – in quoting the text) to not miss the gift (in this case the blessing of having striven with God) that may be the other side of the coin of one’s particular disability. I think of Gene, who was the chair of our Staff-Parish Committee when I came to Broadway 10 years ago. Gene is blind. He is also the best chairperson of the Staff-Parish we’ve ever had. He sees more what is happening in the room – than any sighted person I’ve seen as chairperson of this or any other committee. A group of blind young people once talked with my colleague, Rev. Rachel Metheny, and told her “just because you have sight doesn’t mean you can see.” In naming him Israel, perhaps he was being named for the blessing and not for the injury (whether a disability or not).

    1. I agree that he was not named for his injury, and I certainly think we can draw the lesson that we should not miss the gift, although I’m not convinced this is a primary intention of the original writers.

  4. I certainly agree that this is not a primary intention of the original writers. A friend of mine, a poet, tells me that every poem has two voices – the voice of the poet and the voice of the poem. In this other voice, though, there may be more being said than was the primary intention (that’s what makes all great literature – including the wonder of the Bible so rich).

    1. A man with a lot of poets as friends is fortunate indeed. I share your awe at the richness of the Bible. But I am an English major.

      I always wondered, getting back to the text, why Esau does not get more love from us. What an amazing thing he did. Maybe he understood his brother and his limp.

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