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In Genesis 32 we find the famous account of Jacob wrestling with an angel who acts as God’s representative. Some teachers will summarize it like this: “Human Jacob wrestled with God so long and hard that God got tuckered out and just couldn’t find a way to overcome. So God was coerced into giving Jacob the blessings he demanded just so God could get free of His mighty creature.” Of course our egos love this interpretation of the story because our flesh yearns to dominate our Creator. But the way our flesh wishes things could be and the way things actually work are worlds apart. In this lesson, we’ll take a look at the wrestling story within its original context and see what God-honoring lessons we can learn. Clearly “we can physically overcome God” isn’t going to be one of them.
Jacob is introduced to us in Genesis 25 as the second born twin who comes out of the womb grasping onto his brother Esau’s heel. His parents find this remarkable, so they name him “heel grabber” or “Jacob”. To “grab someone’s heel” was a Hebrew idiom for “tricking someone”. So Jacob isn’t a very flattering name, but our feisty little infant soon grows into it. As an adult, Jacob takes after his mother: he’s a conniving cheat. Rebekah is the wife of Isaac. Isaac was that special boy who Abraham and Sarah miraculously conceived after waiting decades for God to follow through on His promise that Abraham would have many descendants. When you’re the miracle child, you naturally become the favorite. When you grow up being favored by your parents, it’s quite natural for you to then imitate their bad example.
Isaac practiced major favoritism in his home. Esau was the manly firstborn son who hunted and fought and won daddy’s approval. Jacob was the momma’s boy who stuck close to home and won Rebekah’s approval. Rebekah wanted her favorite son to get the lion’s share of his father’s inheritance, just as Sarah wanted her favorite Isaac to get the lion’s share of Abraham’s wealth. But Jacob was the second born, as was Isaac. Sarah had cleared the way for Isaac by driving his older brother Ishmael into the desert with no supplies in hopes that he would die. Rebekah goes for a less brazen approach. After conniving Jacob gets his brother Esau to verbally sell his extra inheritance in exchange for some food, Rebekah steps up to help her son steal what belonged to his older brother. When daddy Isaac is handing out final blessings from his deathbed, Jacob tricks his blind father into thinking he is Esau, thereby getting Isaac to verbally bless Jacob instead of Esau.
Now to understand why this was such a big deal, you have to understand how superstitious these people were. They viewed verbal blessings and curses like potent spells—once they were cast, they couldn’t be undone. Ridiculous? Of course, but that’s what they thought. So after Isaac heaps a bunch of glorious well-wishes onto the head of Jacob, he acts like he can’t come up with anything nearly as good for the outraged Esau. Why couldn’t Isaac have just said, “Oh, whoops, I see my twerpy second son tricked me. Esau, I verbally transfer all the blessings I cast onto Jacob onto you”? Well, you know how superstitions work—they don’t follow logical rules. These formal blessings that fathers passed on to their children were viewed like future-shaping prophecies. So once Isaac declared that Jacob would have it all, Esau was left with the dregs. Needless to say, this made Esau furious at his brother. Not the kind to shy away from violence, Esau planned to murder his brother as soon as Isaac was dead and properly mourned. Somehow Rebekah got wind of this plan, and she panicked. She cons Isaac into sending Jacob off to go visit her brother Laban in a distant land where she hopes he’ll be safe until the raging Esau calms down.
Now nasty old Uncle Laban is every bit as conniving as Jacob, and for twenty long years, he cheats and tricks Jacob every way he can think of. It’s a great example of Jacob getting a taste of his own medicine. During those twenty years, Jacob ends up marrying Laban’s two daughters. He only loves the younger one, Rachel. But Laban tricks him into marrying the older one, Leah, as well. We then see the destructive power of favoritism at work again as Jacob makes no effort to hide the fact that he only loves one of his wives. Leah feels wounded and bitter because of her husband’s coldness. Her only comfort is the fact that she is cranking out the baby boys while her sister Rachel is struggling to conceive. Children were highly prized in these times—especially boys. Infertile women felt intensely ashamed of their condition, even though it wasn’t their fault. Now because building up the family was such a priority, if your wife wasn’t conceiving, you started sleeping with her servants. By the time he finally parts company with nasty old Laban, Jacob has fathered children with four women: his two wives and their two slaves. He’s now on his way back to his childhood home and he’s got a massive crowd with him. He’s become a very wealthy man in twenty years, and the majority of his wealth was in the form of large flocks of animals which his many servants are herding along during the long walk back home.
Now there’s one a major problem with going home: Esau. It’s been twenty years, but time makes no difference to a determined grudge holder. Jacob is very worried that Esau might still be harboring murderous thoughts towards him, so he dispatches some of his servants to run ahead of the slow moving family camp and test the waters.
He told them, “Give this message to my master Esau: ‘Humble greetings from your servant Jacob. Until now I have been living with Uncle Laban, and now I own cattle, donkeys, flocks of sheep and goats, and many servants, both men and women. I have sent these messengers to inform my lord of my coming, hoping that you will be friendly to me.’”
After delivering the message, the messengers returned to Jacob and reported, “We met your brother, Esau, and he is already on his way to meet you—with an army of 400 men!” Jacob was terrified at the news. He divided his household, along with the flocks and herds and camels, into two groups. He thought, “If Esau meets one group and attacks it, perhaps the other group can escape.” (Gen. 32:3-8)
Jacob’s first instinct is to start doing damage control. He splits his massive crowd of people and animals into two groups and then puts some distance between them in hopes that at least one group might be able to survive if an ambush occurs. And clearly an ambush is what Esau is planning, for why else would the man bring an army of 400 men with him? This is a very upsetting situation and Jacob is a sitting duck out here in the middle of the country. He’s in a serious panic and he’s out of ideas for how he might try to defend himself. It’s time to pray.
Then Jacob prayed, “O God of my grandfather Abraham, and God of my father, Isaac—O Lord, You told me, ‘Return to your own land and to your relatives.’ And You promised me, ‘I will treat you kindly.’ I am not worthy of all the unfailing love and faithfulness You have shown to me, Your servant. When I left home and crossed the Jordan River, I owned nothing except a walking stick. Now my household fills two large camps! O Lord, please rescue me from the hand of my brother, Esau. I am afraid that he is coming to attack me, along with my wives and children. But You promised me, ‘I will surely treat you kindly, and I will multiply your descendants until they become as numerous as the sands along the seashore—too many to count.’” (Gen. 32:9-12)
Ever pray a prayer like this? “But God, You said…” We feel an urgent need to jog God’s memory about past promises when trouble comes. Of course this isn’t really necessary because God doesn’t forget things like we do. We’re very good at forgetting promises we’ve made—promises like, “God, if You get me out of this jam, I promise I’ll be much more devoted in my walk with You.” Ever try to bargain with God? He’s really not a fan of our empty promises. And while we conveniently forget to follow through on the things we promised to do for Him, we’ve got memories like elephants for all the things God is supposed to do for us.
Back in Genesis 28, Jacob made a promise to God that gives us a good glimpse into his heart attitude at the time. After having a powerful dream in which God spoke to Jacob and promised to be with him and protect him, Jacob woke up and made the following vow:
“If God will indeed be with me and protect me on this journey, and if He will provide me with food and clothing, and if I return safely to my father’s home, then the Lord will certainly be my God. And this memorial pillar I have set up will become a place for worshiping God, and I will present to God a tenth of everything He gives me.” (Gen. 28:20-22)
Notice the conditions. IF God is with Jacob and IF God protects Jacob and IF God gives Jacob plenty of material goodies and IF God escorts Jacob safely home again, THEN Jacob will grant God the awesome privilege of being his God. Wow. God must have been really swept off His feet by that one. Oh, and Jacob will generously give God a tenth of everything that God gives Jacob. Nice.
That was the fine footing that Jacob and God started off on. Now God has done everything except finish safely escorting Jacob all the way back to his father’s home. Jacob is now throwing God’s promises in His face and freaking out as he imagines Esau’s army closing in.
It’s a long night, and the next morning, Jacob comes up with another defensive strategy. Maybe he can bribe his brother into not killing him. Gathering together hundreds of animals from his flocks, he combines them into small groups, assigns a servant to each group and sends them out to intercept Esau. The idea is to assuage his brother with wave upon wave of gifts and submissive platitudes. Jacob instructs each servant to say the same thing:
“When my brother, Esau, meets you, he will ask, ‘Whose servants are you? Where are you going? Who owns these animals?’ You must reply, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob, but they are a gift for his master Esau. Look, he is coming right behind us.’” (Gen. 32:17-18)
A major disadvantage for Jacob is speed. With women, young kids, and nursing animals, he can’t afford to travel long and fast. But Esau and his all male army can cover a lot of ground in one day, and there’s no way to know how hard they are pushing themselves. Jacob is really expecting Esau and his terrifying horde to come into view at any moment. We get the impression that Jacob doesn’t do any more traveling that day—why would he want to shorten the gap between him and his brother? Night falls again and we can tell how terrified Jacob is for he sends his entire family camp along with all of his possessions across a river. He’s planning to use the river as a natural barrier while he stays alone in the camp. The fact that he stays alone suggests that he is going to make one last ditch effort to try and talk Esau out of murder if the army arrives during the night.
We have to mentally put ourselves in Jacob’s sandals and feel his terror to appreciate the irony of what happens next. There he is, alone in the camp, waiting on pins for one of Esau’s men to leap upon him in some murderous assault. Suddenly, this man shows up out of nowhere and leaps upon him. This has to be it—Esau has come! Jacob and this man are rolling around and around, and Jacob is giving it all he’s got. If you’ve heard this story before, you might have wondered how Jacob found the stamina to keep wrestling until sunrise. But once you understand the context, you realize that Jacob believes he is at death’s door. He is fighting for all he’s worth. We don’t know how many hours the struggle lasts, but we get the impression it’s quite a while, which means neither man is managing to win. In the text we read:
When the man saw that he would not win the match, he touched Jacob’s hip and wrenched it out of its socket. Then the man said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking!”
But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” (Gen. 32:25-26)
Now let’s think about this. After what has felt like an even match, the man merely touches Jacob’s hip and it gets wrenched out of its socket. That’s not natural, and Jacob has to be in major pain at this point. So when the man orders Jacob to let him go, we’d be wrong to visualize burly Jacob in some dominating alpha position over his opponent. Jacob’s hip has just been dislocated. If he’s hanging on, it’s like the grip of a patient in a hospital who grabs hold of the doctor’s coat in a desperate attempt to get more pain meds. This stranger has just proved that he is the superior one by flexing his supernatural powers. With a wrenched hip, there’s no way Jacob is in a position to make any demands, but he tries anyway. Of course he does. It’s Jacob.
So what does Jacob ask for? A verbal blessing. Remember how superstitious Jacob’s people are. He figures if this guy can so easily cripple him, he must have connections. The more powerful the man, the more potent his blessings—this was the thinking in Bible times. So Jacob is hoping to get this mysterious stranger to cast some kind of powerful spell over him. He could really use it now that he’s got a bum leg.
“What is your name?” the man asked.
He replied, “Jacob.”
“Your name will no longer be Jacob,” the man told him. “From now on you will be called Israel, because you have wrestled with God and with men and have won.” (Gen. 32:27-28)
This passage is commonly misinterpreted as God making some submissive remark. But no, that’s not what’s happening. Jacob has been utterly defeated in this fight and they both know it. Jacob is in agony and his opponent could easily kick him away if he wanted to. So the man is being very generous to stick around and chat. We’ll soon learn that this man is a supernatural messenger from God. He’s referred to later on in Hosea 3:4 as an angel. Now the angel, who is speaking on behalf of God, gives Jacob a new name. It was a common practice for other people in your life to give you a new name when something really momentous happened, and it’s not every day that a man wrestles with an angel.
Now this new name is very interesting, for we know that God is planning to use this name for His future chosen nation. Israel means “he who struggles with God”. What is the nation of Israel going to do for her entire existence? Struggle with God. Fight Him at every turn. Refuse to submit. It is the struggling, not the winning, that God chooses to emphasize in Jacob’s new name. How interesting and how sad. God could have picked a name that meant “victorious”, but somehow this just doesn’t fit Jacob or the future nation of Israel. It’s the struggling that characterizes them—the constant kicking against God, the constant efforts to connive and cheat and cut corners.
So what does the angel mean when he says Jacob has won? Here’s where many go astray to think the angel is saying Jacob has somehow triumphed over God. What a crock. Let’s remember the context. From the perspective of his own culture, Jacob knows that he has been a total lowlife by trying to get his older brother’s birthright from him. He knows that Esau has every right to despise him.
Now the older son’s birthright was not only a double share of dad’s wealth—it was also the responsibility of looking out for the family. But one of the most coveted elements of the birthright was getting the better verbal blessing from dad. When Isaac blessed Jacob on his death bed, he thought he was blessing his favorite son Esau. Isaac was blind and Jacob was intentionally deceiving him by dressing in costume. But the way their silly superstitions about verbal blessing worked, it didn’t matter that Isaac’s intention was to bless Esau. His hand was on Jacob when he spoke the words, therefore everyone believed that the potent power of the future-altering spell had fallen on Jacob.
Now who is it that we’re really trying to manipulate when we start trying to control the course of our lives through words? God, of course. God is the One in charge, God is the One who determines what the future will be. So when we start naming and claiming today, we’re really trying to override God. When we say, “I declare that this cancer is gone from my body in the Name of Jesus,” or when we cast blessings upon the masses by saying, “I declare that this week God is going to pour down abundant blessings in your life,” we’re really trying to tell God what to do. This is certainly a rotten attitude on our part, and the angel in this story is calling Jacob out on his shenanigans by saying “you have wrestled with God and with men.” Jacob is well aware that he’s gone several rounds with his brother Esau, and tonight is the night that he was afraid his past sins would catch up with him. But God clarifies what a little twerp Jacob has been by accusing him of wrestling with God as well. Naturally God lists Himself first, for in this culture, names are listed in the order of importance. God is the most important and God is the One Jacob’s been a little punk with all these years.
Now let’s remember Jacob’s recent frantic prayer for God to save him.
“Please save me from my brother Esau. I am afraid he will come and kill all of us, even the mothers with the children.” (Gen. 32:11)
Jacob knows that Esau’s revenge would be considered quite justified after what Jacob did to him. He’s begged God to save him even though he doesn’t deserve it. Well, this terrifying attack by an angel who Jacob thought was going to kill him is God’s answer to that prayer. God says that though Jacob has a sordid record with both God and people, God’s going to let him off the hook. From Jacob’s perspective, he’s going to win this twenty year gamble of “maybe if I leave for long enough, my brother will decide to forgive me.” God is assuring Jacob that his worst fears aren’t going to happen—Esau isn’t going to kill him. Jacob is going to “win” at this shady game he’s chosen to play of deceiving his father, manipulating his brother, and trying to trick God.
“Please tell me your name,” Jacob said.
“Why do you want to know my name?” the man replied. Then he blessed Jacob there.
Jacob named the place Peniel (which means “face of God”), for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been spared.” The sun was rising as Jacob left Peniel, and he was limping because of the injury to his hip. (Even today the people of Israel don’t eat the tendon near the hip socket because of what happened that night when the man strained the tendon of Jacob’s hip.) (Gen. 32:29-32)
Naturally Jacob wants to know the name of his supernatural contender, but the angel refuses to indulge his curiosity. Jacob has received his blessing, and now the angel departs, leaving Jacob crippled but in awe. Picking up on the supernatural aura of the angel, Jacob figures he’s wrestled with God Himself, so he names the place “the face of God.” Notice how he marvels at how his life was spared—a reverential acknowledgment that he was unworthy of being up close to God’s Presence.
As the sun comes up, Jacob goes limping off to reunite with his family. Eventually he’ll meet up with Esau who will assure him that he doesn’t have any murderous intent. Esau has also become a very wealthy man over the last twenty years, and he’ll invite Jacob to come home with him. Jacob will promise to, but then he’ll sneak off and flee with his family in a different direction. Clearly Jacob doesn’t really believe it when Esau claims to not be angry with him anymore. Such is the price of being a liar: you can’t trust anyone.
So what do we learn from this story? It gives us an insight into Jacob’s personal development as well as telling us how the nation of Israel got her name. She was named after a conniving brat who only ever shows interest in God for the earthly perks He can dish out, although he does occasionally express sincere reverence for God’s awesome power when that power overwhelms him. Sounds about right.
To put to rest any lingering questions about Jacob somehow triumphing over God, all we have to do is look through the rest of his life. He’s going to run away from Esau and set up camp in another city. While there, God will arrange for Jacob’s only daughter to get raped. That’s a major grief. A little while later, Jacob will lose the love of his life when Rachel dies very young giving birth to her second child. Then one of his older sons will utterly humiliate him by sleeping with Rachel’s slave, Bilhah, who was one of Jacob’s concubines. Rachel’s death will devastate Jacob, and he’ll try to compensate by favoring her two sons—especially her oldest son Joseph. Jacob will be so extreme in his favoring of Joseph that his other sons will end up despising Joseph and they’ll stage his death. Jacob will believe his favorite son has been killed, and he’ll carry that additional heartache for many years before finally learning the whole thing was a ruse. So as Jacob limps off into the sunrise after “winning” over God and man, he’s heading into a very painful future that is full of heartache and misery—much of which he’ll bring on himself by refusing to be more openhearted towards members of his own family.
What does a father gain by snubbing his own sons? The pain he inflicts on them only comes back on him in the form of angry revenge. What does a husband get by constantly reminding one of his wives that she is unloved? Nothing but strife in his home. When we dish out pain, God finds ways of bringing it back onto our heads. Jacob chose to shaft his only brother and father out of greed. He tried to manipulate God with verbal spells. And though he knew the pain of being shunned by his father, he chose to shun ten of his twelve sons just so he could keep reminding himself and everyone else that he wasn’t over the death of his favorite wife. Jacob is just not the kind of man we want to pattern our lives after. He acts like a fool, and he reaps a fool’s reward. So the next time you hear someone talking about Jacob triumphing over God and scoring all kinds of blessings because God just couldn’t find a way to overcome the stubborn little human, you’ll know that you’re not hearing the real story.