Jacob Wrestles with God
- Main Text: Genesis 32: [9-13] 22-30
- Accompanying text: Mark 14:32-36
What this passage means to us
When we come face to face with God, our life is turned upside down and begins to change completely. In this passage Jacob moves from being someone who takes to someone who receives. His is a change of character that occurs following a struggle with God. The pattern of his life up until then had been dominated by grabbing wealth and blessings to himself, and by using deception to do so. This grabbing nature had been evident since birth when Jacob “came out, with his hand grasping his brother’s heel” (Genesis 25:26). In the wrestling story he demands that the man give him a blessing, again showing perhaps that Jacob’s idea of success was to take advantage of everything and everyone. His favourite wife, Rachel, joined him in his ambition when she stole the family gods, which were symbols of birth-right and inheritance in the local culture, from her father, Laban (Genesis 31:19). Jacob was about to understand that blessings come from what you receive, and not by what you take or force to happen. Value the blessings that come by grace more than those you’ve gained through your own effort or though deceit. Jesus would take all of this a step further. The godly life is not about what we take or get, but about how we give and about how we help those who are not as strong as we are. As Paul noted, “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive”’ (Acts 20:35).
Jacob’s re-naming to Israel is a type of conversion. His attitude changes visibly afterwards. Had his heart begun to change too? Instead of having yet another fight and struggle with his brother Esau, his approach had been transformed due to the outcome of the all-night wrestling. Note the wording of what Jacob said when he presented Esau with a reconciliatory gift, ‘If I have found favour in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favourably. Please accept the present that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have all I need.’ And because Jacob insisted, Esau accepted it” (Genesis 33:10-11). What if we were to view everyone’s face as the face of God? Victor Hugo, in his outstanding book Les Misérables, wrote “To love another person is to see the face of God” . Previously Jacob had viewed others often as rungs to be stepped upon on the ladder towards his self-aggrandizement, but no more so. This was not the scheming Jacob that was before, this was someone who had changed and was continuing to change. This new Jacob – Israel now – reflected the words of Paul to the Roman Christians, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). Not only was Jacob more peaceable, but also he put an end to the idolatry that both he and those with him had practiced, “So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, ‘Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes’” (Genesis 35:2). There is a lesson in this for all of us, that, after having received the grace of Jesus Christ, we let His Spirit change how we think, react and behave. Repentance flowed from the Jacob’s struggling encounter with God.
“The encounter of (Genesis) 32:2-32 is perhaps the most extensively interpreted text in the patriarchal materials. Its rich expository is based in part on its lack of clarity, which permits various readings. In any case, it is an ominous encounter with an unnamed opponent possessing divine qualities” . What are we to make of this wrestling event? It was not the first time that this grandson of Abraham had a curious incident in the night. A few chapters earlier Jacob had Heaven on his mind when he had a dream about angels going up and down on a stairway to the stars. He concluded wrongly, and somewhat superstitiously, that the place of the dream was a portal to Heaven, but he also realised correctly that “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it’ (Genesis 28:16). God is present, and, often, we don’t appreciate that fact. God re-asserted his promise to Abraham, Isaac and, now, to Jacob, and also explained that God’s presence is forever. Jacob’s propensity to dreaming seemed to have been passed on to his favourite son, Joseph. But what about the wrestling? From the start Jacob and his brother Esau seemed like feisty characters, and the Bible records that they “jostled each other” in the womb of their mother Rebekah (Genesis 25:22). Perhaps they sparred as they grew up. Their relationship develops into a story of rivalry and ambition, which is made worse by their mother’s clear preference for Jacob. Would Jacob taunt Esau and try to get the better of him? That Jacob was strong physically is one of the reasons Laban wanted him to work for him (Genesis 31:6). So, what was going on here? Was it that God chose to meet Jacob in a context that Jacob understood? This is what Jesus did for all of us when he took on our humanity. In order to get Jacob’s attention did God, or did God send one of angels, to wrestle with Jacob? It’s of note that God did not choose to overcome or overwhelm Jacob although in his omnipotence he could have done so. God does not seek to conquer us by force of his will, but he invites us to submit ourselves to his gracious purpose. When Jacob’s hip is put out of joint, is God doing to Jacob what Jacob would have sought to do to someone else? Jacob, who prided himself in his physical strength, now had a weakness — he would limp from that day on. God meets us where we are, even in the folly of our thinking, to redeem us and to show us his grace. When we are weak, God remains strong. Israel goes to his brother, limping, showing a hitherto unknown weakness, but now strong in God who reconciles and brings peace. “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Just as Jacob’s name, signifying his character, was changed from meaning “usurper” or “cheat” to Israel, meaning “one who prevails or wrestles with God”, so in Jesus, who prevails and overcomes for us (John 16:33), we receive a new character and thus a new name (Revelation 3:12).
Context and Story-line
“The narrative about Jacob portrays Israel in its earthiest and most scandalous appearance in Genesis… It presents Jacob in his crude mixture of motives… The narrator knows that the purposes of God are tangled in a web of self-interest and self-seeking” . The story of Jacob is couched in the culture of his time, and archaeology has shown that the settings are authentic in their description, and that the customs, such as the importance of the household gods which Rachel steals, link clearly to the age in which he lived. It’s important to assess the events in their own context and not to view them solely from our own twenty-first century context. Despite the antiquity of the writing and the stories, the story of the gospel and redemption in Christ continues to be told: grace, faith, conversion, and trust in God’s promises feature highly in what takes place. The nation of Israel begins in this story of Jacob’s wrestling with God, a beginning that was not to do with success in worldly terms of increasing its territory, but with a change of heart. In its future history Israel would lose that perspective almost entirely.
- Psalm 13
- Colossians 3:1-17
Other GCI resources
Footnotes and references
- Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Genesis (Kentucky, USA: Westminster John Know Press,1982). 266.
- Ibid. 204.