The Thin Place of Liminality

Genesis 32:22-31

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Louis Leloir, 1865.

I have heard from people in some form of recovery, usually from alcohol, and often they share a similar kind of experience. The first time that they are on their way to a meeting, or to a substance abuse counselor, is usually the most terrifying moment. It is a time in which one is in transition from dependence to sobriety, from an old life to a new life. It is a time in which something is going to be different, but the individual has no idea what that different way of being will look like. It is the space between spaces, it is a threshold experience. It is a liminal space. 

This is one of the clearest examples of such a space, though it is certainly not the only one. You have experienced many liminal spaces. Perhaps it is the morning after college graduation and you realize that you don’t have class to go to, or papers to write, or the first time you bring a new baby home from the hospital and you sit down and look at this tiny and helpless human, and you look around you and think, “okay, now what”, or the first day of retirement when you wake up early as you often do, but as you lay in bed you realize that there is no work to go to today, and there isn’t tomorrow either, and now you have to find a new way to exist in the world. These are but a few. The relative comfort of the known behind you, the uneasiness of the unknown ahead of you. 

Today we not only find a thin place, that is, a place where the Divine and human meet, and here in a very physical, tangible, and visceral way, but also a liminal space in many ways. It is the liminal space of the space between days, and it is the liminal space of a transition in Jacob’s life. Remember, Jacob had fled after he stole Esau’s blessing, and Esau was out for him. He has this dream at a place he names Bethel. He continues on to the land of the East, and the term “the east” is a recurring one. When the human progenitors were driven from the garden, the story goes, they were driven to the East. Abraham was taken from the east to the land of Canaan. And now Jacob travels to the East. He goes to Haran, to his mother’s brother–his uncle. There he falls in love with Laban’s daughter Rachel (for those doing a mental genogram, that is his cousin), and ends up marrying her sister Leah instead and then stays and works longer, and then marries Rachel. Between his two wives and two concubines he had a boatload of kids while there, and those kids will be particularly important a little later in the narrative. I know, this is a really dysfunctional family. Jacob cuts a deal with Laban for a subset of his livestock, and through a really strange breeding program that Laban, apparently, found to be unfair, though to be fair, Laban wasn’t quite so honest and forthright with Jacob either. 

So there’s a bit of a family rift there, and he packed everyone up to head back home, though the departure was something of a surprise to Laban. Laban finds out that Jacob high-tailed it out of here, and he chased him for seven days until he, and his entourage, overtook Jacob and his entourage. They met, had a heart to heart, and made an agreement with one another, and both went their separate ways. Jacob is coming home, and he sends messengers to tell Esau and gifts to Esau ahead of his arrival. 

And this is where we are right now. 

***

This is a hingepoint in Jacob’s life. He has spent his life fleeing from others, and now he has started to make amends. He had spent a good portion of his life away from home, and now he’s going back home. 

He sends across all of his family, all of his servants, all of his things, and for some reason, he stays on the other side of the river. The reason why is not really known, and not really our concern right now. But we are told he was left alone and that a man wrestled with him. This is particularly strange because we don’t know anything else. We don’t know where this man came from, or why he is wrestling, but simply that he is wrestling. 

Jacob is turning a page in his life, and leaving behind his life with Laban, and at the same time, he is leaving behind his life of cheating. Jacob has set his intent on going ahead, but has not yet crossed over that line, over the Jabbok river. He is alone, and it is night, that is, he is in the small space between days. In more ways than one, Jacob finds himself on a threshold, in a liminal space. And we are told that a man wrestled with him through the night. 

Day is breaking, and we are in that moment of twilight, the liminal space between light and dark. Daybreak, that is an important time on biblical stories as well as folktales.  Jacob wrestled with all his might and the man did not prevail over Jacob, and we are told that he struck Jacob’s hip socket and put it out of joint. The man asked to be let go because day is breaking, and Jacob replied that he would not let go unless the man blessed him. He’s not going to go through this wrestling for nothing, he is going to wrestle a blessing out of it. 

And the man asks his name, and the mysterious man, who we learn later is none other than God Godself, gives him a new name, Israel — to struggle or strive with God — for he has striven against God and humans and has prevailed. And this might just seem like a story to explain why the people of Israel are called such, but I think it’s much more than that. We see a few places where God changes someone’s name. Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Simon to Peter, and Jacob to Israel. And just as Jacob strove with God and humans, so also the people of God are the people who strive with God and with humans. Thinking of it this way makes us think a little differently, I think, of what it means to be the people of God. 

He named the place Peniel, which means “face of God” because he has seen God face to face. We are told that the sun rose upon him as he passed—having made it past and through that liminal space, the dawn of a new day breaking—limping because of his hip. 

***

This is one of my absolute favorite stories in the Bible, and has been meaningful to me for years, since I was in high school, actually. I found myself in a faith struggle of my own, and my church had a seminary student as an intern, and I talked to him about my struggle, and he encouraged me not to shy away from it, but like Jacob, to lean into it and to wrestle a blessing out of it. 

There is something significant about these liminal spaces, and, at least in my experience, we don’t pay much attention to them, we just seek to get past them. The Franciscan Richard Rohr describes liminal spaces as those moments when one has left the tried and true but has not replaced it yet with anything else. It is a time when anxiety tends to be high, when if you pay attention, your gut is churning, and you find you don’t know how to be. Some of these can be a good kind of anxiety, the kind that brings hopeful expectation. Others are the terrifying kind of anxiety, where you feel lost and alone. Alone. Like Jacob was on the bank of the Jabbok River. 

And those in-between experiences, those moments of standing on a threshold, those liminal experiences can feel like a wrestling match. Perhaps we are wrestling with ourselves, the part of yourself that wants to turn back, and the part of yourself that wants to step through that door wrestling together to see which path you will take. Maybe even you are wrestling with the Divine, as you seek to wrestle a blessing out of the moment, out of the situation, out of the struggle. 

And when the sun rises, as it does, if you look closely, in the twilight of the morning, you might notice that the place where you are standing is Peniel, and that you, too, have striven with God and humans. And like Jacob, you may find that you have not made it through unscathed. Though it will heal, and with time it may become more of a souvenir than an injury, a reminder of what you came through. 

And so, sisters and brothers, lean into the liminal places when you find them. Lean into the fearful and anxious. Lean into the times of transition, the times of in-between. Because if you look closely, it may be when the Divine is so close so as to touch.

Published by Matthew van Maastricht

Matthew serves as the pastor and teacher of the Altamont Reformed Church in Altamont, New York. He is a Fellow of the Reformed Church Center at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, and teaches for New Brunswick Theological Seminary. His particular interests are church history, the Reformed confessions, and church polity. The views expressed here are his own.

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