Genesis 32 is quite simply one of the most perplexing stories in the entire Bible. This narrative, in which Jacob wrestles with a spiritual being (presumably God) throughout the night and is given the new name ‘Israel,’ is both hard to interpret and yet a monumentally important text in the Jewish and Christian faith. Jacob’s new name of Israel literally means ‘he struggles with God’. And according to the text, Jacob is said to have ‘struggled with God…and overcome.’ But what of course does that mean? Does Jacob defeat God, or at least wear him out, in some sense? Rabbi Joseph Teluskin, a Jewish scholar writes, ‘It is no small matter that Israel, the name for both the Jewish people and the modern Jewish state, implies neither submission to God nor pure faith, but means wrestling with God (and with men).’ (Jewish Literacy, pg 22) While the Bible presents numerous examples that God desires an honest dialogue with humans and is not put off by our anger or arguing (see the Psalms, the books of the prophets, and Jesus’ parables, for just a few examples), there are too many things about the story of Jacob wrestling with God that simply don’t make sense for this simple explanation to be valid. I recently came across one of the most insightful commentaries I’ve ever read on this passage. It points out what I think is the key to understanding this story.
The books of the Old Testament prophets can be so challenging to read that it’s easy to overlook the big concepts and the larger historical events that these books reference. I’ve been reading through the Old Testament books of Amos and Hosea lately and one of the most fascinating things to me about these men is that although they devoted their lives trying to save the people of northern Israel, they ultimately failed. What does it mean that God called Amos and Hosea to spend their entire lives doing something that was met with utter failure?