Jacob Wrestled With God

Genesis 32:22-32 The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 24 And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.

INTRODUCTION

Growing up I watched a bit of WWF. Even at a young age, though, I recognized that it was just a soap opera for a different demographic. Nevertheless, it was hard not to be intrigued by certain aspects of it. There was so much drama leading up to certain matches. This, I knew even then, was simply a marketing gimmick, but it was hard at times not to get drawn in.

The matches that were most intriguing either had two of the biggest names going against one another or on huge name and one huge underdog. Who wouldn’t get fired up about Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant?! When Hogan lifted Andre above his head! And, of course, after each big match there was some sort of new drama that would carry the day until the next event.

I don’t mean to make light of this passage, and I promise not to carry this illustration beyond this paragraph, but there are some parallels between it and a main event in a Wrestlemania. It contains a made-for-PPV wrestling match. The match was preceded by a period of buildup. It features a massive underdog who, in a TV producer’s dream, seems to hold his own. And the dramatic result introduces even more drama.

That’s right, kids, this week’s text is mainly about a wrestling match! Given the context you might expect that it was between Jacob and Esau. Instead, shockingly, it was between Jacob and God. We’ll consider the setting of the stage for the match, the match itself, and the result. And through these things, in the way of application, we’ll see plainly that our identity and victory are both exclusively from God. Let’s pray that God would help us understand and appreciate the significance of this strange passage and its implications for the Church today.

THE STAGE IS SET (22-24A)

You probably remember that twenty years before this passage, Jacob fled from his brother because Esau wanted to kill him for stealing his father’s blessing. You probably also remember from last week that Jacob was now heading back toward his homeland and his brother. Having sent messengers ahead to Esau to announce his coming and discern his intentions, having heard that he was on his way with 400 men, and having sent three waves of gifts in an attempt to gain his favor, last week’s passage closed with this line, “So the present passed on ahead of him, and he himself stayed that night in the camp.” Our text picks up on the same night.

High drama.

What would happen? How long would it take Esau and his men to get to Jacob? Did Esau still want to kill Jacob? If so, would Jacob’s gifts pacify him at all? Interestingly, none of those questions get answered in this passage (we have to wait another week). As I mentioned in the introduction, the text takes a very different and unexpected turn. The first few verses set the stage.

22 The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 24 And Jacob was left alone.

For some reason, Jacob determined not to wait until the morning to get his clan across the river. And for some reason, having successfully gotten everyone and everything else in his party across the Jabbok river (which was no insignificant thing), Jacob didn’t go with them. Perhaps the current had increased, perhaps it had become too dark, or perhaps he was just too tired to cross himself after getting everyone else across. Regardless of why he stayed on the other side of the river, the main point was that he was alone at night.

This is a little strange, but not overly so. So far, so good. What happened next, though, no one could have seen coming.

THE MATCH (24B-25)

And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.

What?! Talk about an unexpected turn of events; a situation coming out of nowhere. Jacob, presumably with his mind on his family on the other side of the river and the fast-approaching posse led by his brother, found himself in an all-night wrestling match with “a man”.

Aside from the strangeness of an all-night wrestling match between strangers in the middle of nowhere, there are three particular textual items of note.

First, the term for “wrestled” includes part of the Hebrew word for “dust”. The point is that this was not a metaphorical wrestling match or a dream (this is affirmed by the fact that Jacob still limped the next day according to v.31). The two men engaged in physical combat to the point that they were rolling around in the dirt.

Second, the fact that the wrestling match was at night “until the breaking of the day” is a subtle way to indicate the fact that the “man” intended to remain anonymous. (Again, this is confirmed by the next verse where the “man” asks to be released because “the day has broken” and v.29 where the man refused to give Jacob his name). We’ll look closer at this in a minute, but it’s important that we see it from the outset.

And the third thing to note is that the word “touched” is meant to highlight the supernatural nature of Jacob’s opponent. It is a gentle word. Ordinarily, to achieve a dislocated hip, we’d expect to read of an opponent who “punched” or “kicked” or “jarred” or “smashed”, not “touched” a hip socket. The fact is, no mere man can simply “touch” the hip of another and dislocate it like this man did. We’re not told exactly what this means yet, but it’s already clear that Jacob wasn’t wrestling an ordinary man.

So who was this man? Why did he come after Jacob? How would all of this end? And what did all of this mean? Let’s turn to the final section to see if it answers any of these questions.

THE RESULT (26-32)

Presumably, in order to maintain his anonymity, the man said to Jacob, “Let me go, for the day has broken” (26).

And presumably, having realized that his opponent was no mere man, Jacob, instead of letting go at the displacement of his hip and the command of the man, held on for a blessing. 26 But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Jacob, ever the opportunist, wasn’t going to let someone like this go without at least attempting to get something from him.

At first the man’s response might seem like an attempt to change the subject or withhold a blessing, for he simply asked Jacob, “What is your name?” (27). That’s a strange response, isn’t it? What does that have to do with a blessing? And yet, seemingly undeterred, Jacob responded to the man’s simple question with an equally simple answer, “Jacob.”

Quickly, however, it becomes clear that the man’s question was actually rhetorical and part of the blessing Jacob demanded. For, 28 Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

Again, wow! If you didn’t already know the story, this ought to surprise you. Who could have seen this wrestling match coming, and who could have foreseen this opponent or outcome?!

Truly, there is a lot here. First, in forcing Jacob to state his name, the man was also forcing Jacob to acknowledge his inferiority and state his true nature—he was “cheater” or “heel-taker” (that’s the meaning of “Jacob”). In other words, in asking his single, simple question, the “man” was asserting his superiority and position of power over Jacob.

The man’s superiority and power were further displayed in a second thing we must not miss: the nature of the man’s blessing. It was at once a new name and a new nature. Jacob’s blessing was that his new name would be Israel, and with it his nature would no longer be “heel-taker,” but, “God-striver” and prevailer (see also Hosea 12:4). It’s hard to overstate the significance of this.

Third, the man’s superiority and power were shown in fullness in his final revelation—that he was God! In renaming and re-identifying Jacob, the man revealed himself to be one of highest authority (not just anyone can name or rename a person). To be crystal clear, the man plainly revealed himself as God, “for you have striven with God and men…”. That Jacob had this understanding is unmistakable in his naming of the place (v.30). Jacob wrestled with God!

It’s clear that Jacob already knew that this was no mere man, but as things became even clearer he sought to settle the matter once and for all, 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” Unwilling to come under Jacob the man refused to answer. He’d been as clear as he wanted to be. He’d already given Jacob all that he would concerning his true nature. And there he blessed him.

Finally, forth, given the superiority and power of the “man” over Jacob, indeed, given the that the “man” was God!, we need to come to grips with the fact that Jacob “prevailed” (v.28) in the wrestling match. How can this be? How could Jacob even survive, much less keep it close, much less prevail?! Isn’t this the same God who spoke all things into existence by mere words? Isn’t the same God who causes mountains to tremble and stars to hold their position in the cosmos? Yes! Talk about a mismatch. Talk about the ultimate underdog. How could a mere man, then, prevail?

We must understand that Jacob didn’t prevail in the sense that he overpowered or out maneuvered God. That’s impossible. Instead, he prevailed in the sense that he sought a blessing from God granted him his wish. It is the same as when we wrestle with God in prayer that He might save our unbelieving neighbor and He answers our prayer. In that “contest” we “prevail”. This was yet another sign that Jacob was God’s chosen son of the promise and that God would be faithful to His promises.

Content and amazed with all of this, 30 Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” There can be no mistake that Jacob’s wrestling match was with God and that God had placed His favor on Jacob. What a foretaste this is for the great promise God gives to all believers in Jesus. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face…(1 Corinthians 13:12a). Grace, do you know that another name of and blessing in heaven is Peniel, the face of God?! Oh that God might grant us to long for His face in greater ways this morning!

Without comment, it seems that the morning fully dawned, God departed, and 31 The sun rose upon [Jacob] as he passed Penuel. He had been changed ontologically, spiritually, physically, and dietarily. He was now God-grasper (Israel). He was now humbled. He was now “limping because of his hip.” And his diet, along with that of his offspring, was forever changed, 32 Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh. What a night!

THE TWO MAIN LESSONS

So what are we to do with all of this? This passage elicits all kinds of questions and hints at all kinds of implications. Why would God wrestle Jacob? Was it good that Jacob wrestled or should he have just submitted as soon as he knew he was contending with God? Was there any significance to the fact that this struggle happened on the edge of the land of the promise? What, exactly, is the point of all of this? Was there anything in this that God’s people ought to imitate? Are there ways in which we should “wrestle with God”?

The simple fact is that we really don’t know much about much of that. The text doesn’t really interpret itself for us. And yet, while we don’t know everything we might want to know about the passage, we can rest assured that God has given us everything we need to know. In particular, there are at least two clear lessons for us today. Let’s wrap up, then, by considering the awesome realities that God alone determines our identity and victory.

God Alone Determines Our Identity

In this passage we find a man first named by God as a baby (first given his identity as the younger, chosen, heal-grabber) (Romans 9:10-12), and then renamed by God as an adult (given a new identity as the victorious God-striver). In other words, in this passage God transformed this man’s name and identity; from Jacob to Israel, and from cheater to prevailer. Before he was born God determined his identity, and alone on the wrong side of the Promised Land, God did so again. Neither was Jacob’s choice. He didn’t initiate either and neither did he have the chance to refuse. God alone defined who he was and would be. God alone determined his identity.

And so it is for us today. In spite of our culture’s current, futile war to say otherwise, we are not who we feel like we are, we are not who we wish we were, we are not our experiences, and we are not what others say we are or want us to be. Grace, don’t miss this…we are not defined by what we do or don’t do. We are not defined by what we would like to do. We are not defined by our successes or failures. In short, we have no say in what we are or in how we are defined. God alone created us and so God alone defines us and declares us to be what we are. We are who, and only who, and everything who, God says we are.

This has always been a struggle to accept for the people of God, but perhaps never more than today. The whole world, it seems, is clamoring with a different message, but we must hold fast to the word of God.

Do you want to know who you are (regardless of how you feel or what you think or what others might say)? In simplest terms, you are a man or a woman (Genesis 1:27), created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27), and either an enemy (Romans 5:10) or beloved child (1 John 1:31) of God. There is more to be said about each of those things, but they are the essential ingredients of your nature; your identity. These things are the core of any true anthropology. Any other starting point is chasing the wind.

It’s hard not to wonder at how much pain and suffering and struggle and difficulty in the world and in the church are the direct result of mankind trying to add to, take away from, or deny these things as the core of our personhood. How much suffering is the direct result of modern-day rejections of the simple fact that God made us male and female? How much suffering is the direct result of forgetting that all people (including ourselves) are divine image bearers; that all people, regardless of skin color, financial status, homeland, intelligence, last name, or sin struggles bear the image and likeness of God? And how much suffering is the direct result of failing to acknowledge God as God, sin as sin, and Christ as the way, truth, and life? I think it’s safe to say that the answer is almost all of it! Most of our suffering is the product of humanity’s Adam-originated identity crisis.

Grace, once again, this passage helps us to see that we are who God’s says we are. There is so much rest and freedom and forgiveness and hope and healing and love in accepting that.

God Alone Assures Our Victory

Jacob prevailed against God and he would prevail against his brother, even as the nation bearing his name, Israel, would prevail over her enemies. How is that? Not according to their own wisdom, power, or cunning, but according to the sovereign grace of God. Often in her weakness Israel would find victory.

What’s more, throughout her history as a nation, Israel, Jacob’s children, would continually wrestle with God in a battle for her own will and God’s blessing. In every case, however, where there was victory, it belonged to God.

And so it is today. Crops grow, atoms hold together, our bodies digest food in an energy-producing way, and the earth holds its orbit only because God causes these things to be so. God alone assures every victory among His creation.

And so it is for the Church today. We too know success only where God grants it. On an individual level, we know deliverance from our besetting sins, mended relationships, financial stability, physical healing, good friendships, effective evangelism, and even joy in God’s fellowship, only when God gives those things to us. Grace, we must learn to walk in the knowledge that in Christ, our victory is such that there is no situation in which you cannot prevail and there is no situation in which you might prevail on your own. God alone assures every victory among His people.

And finally, on a larger scale, our greatest victory—victory over sin and death; over enmity with God—comes only because God provided it in Jesus Christ. While we were still God’s enemies, while we were still defeated, Christ died for us to give us victory. In the battle with sin we cannot win by our own strength or works. God alone assures every victory over sin, and He does so by grace alone, through faith alone, in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ alone.

CONCLUSION

Jacob wrestled with God and prevailed. In the process God transformed him and therein the entire nation of Israel. In these things we see that God alone determines our identity and victory. Let us walk, then, in light who we truly are in Jesus and in light of the eternal victory that is ours in Jesus. Amen.