The story of Jacob wrestling with God is one of my favourite Old Testament passages. It inspires me, and it baffles me. It inspires me because it shows that God is real and present enough for us to wrestle with Him. It also shows the reward on offer for those who are truly desperate for God. But it baffles me because there are many oddities in the story which I must wrestle with.
Firstly, it’s bizarre that God seems to have initiated the wrestling match, for verse 24 says that ‘a man came and wrestled with him’ – Jacob is the object of the sentence, not the subject. Why would God want to wrestle him? I can think of two possible reasons: He may have wanted to test Jacob and see how desperate he was for a blessing. Or maybe He knew that Jacob needed a physical touch from God.
Jacob was by himself on the riverbank and he was preparing to meet the brother whom he had cheated. The last he knew Esau was murderously angry with him (27:42), and the 400 men his brother was bringing to their meeting would have done nothing to allay his fears (32:6). Verse 7 explicitly says that Jacob was ‘in great fear and distress’. In such circumstances Jacob needed reassurance. These two reasons aren’t mutually exclusive, and they don’t fully satisfy me. I’d be interested in knowing if you have any other suggestions, but whatever else we might say, I believe the story shows that God gets up close and personal.
Secondly, I’m puzzled by the fact that God could not overpower Jacob (v.25), so he wrenches his hip instead. Even if Jacob had been freakishly strong, God could have crushed him with an eyeblink, but He didn’t. This can only mean that He withheld some of His strength. He came down to Jacob’s level. Later in the Bible Jesus showed this same willingness to come down when He stooped to our level in order to raise us up.
And the wrenched hip? Admittedly it was remarkably small damage given that Jacob should have died for seeing God face-to-face (v.30), but frankly I’d be a bit miffed if an encounter with God gave me a lasting limp (v.31). Once again, I’m not 100% sure of the answer, but I’ve got some ideas to offer. The hip is of pivotal importance in wrestling manoeuvres. I think the injury he sustained here reflected how pivotal this episode was in Jacob’s life. No longer is he the lovesick trickster on the run; now he is a mature man of God. Previously, despite God’s blessings, Jacob has relied on his own strength and guile to prevail over first Esau and then Laban. But now the damaged hip shows that his own strength is not sufficient, he must rely on God. That’s important for us, because we won’t go far if we try and do things in our own strength (Proverbs 3:5). Instead we must lean on God, because in a way we all have a spiritual version of Jacob’s limp.
Thirdly, despite the symbolic changing of Jacob’s name to Israel, the mysterious intruder seems reluctant to share his own name (v.29). It is this that casts doubt over the identity of Jacob’s assailant, and we must rely on Jacob’s own identification to realise that this was in fact God Himself, in some sort of incarnate form. God does not reveal His own name until He meets Moses at the burning bush and declares ‘I AM who I AM’ (Exodus 3:14). Perhaps this was only to be revealed when God’s covenant relationship with His people was about to be launched in the Exodus story? Perhaps Jacob had to content himself with only a blessing, and not deep insight into God?
But Jacob did get a blessing (v.29). That made the struggle worthwhile, and probably the physical pain too. It gave him the reassurance he sought and the strength he needed to face Esau. More than that, it helped him to live for God. In the Gospels it is the persistent widow who gets what she wants (Luke 18:1-8), and in the book of Genesis it is the persistent wrestler who finds favour. Those who are desperate for God’s blessings will never be turned away un-blessed. We must cling to God, no matter what. There are many problems and hardships in life that might shake us loose, but we must hang on, just like Jacob did. He will never let go, and those who look to Him will never be put to shame (Romans 10:11; 1 Peter 2:6).
That’s why this story, for all its peculiarities, is a great comfort and inspiration to me.