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.