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.
But first, for this story to make sense, let me explain the most important elements of the narrative.
1. We know that Jacob wrestles with God during the night, but what are the circumstances that precipitate this?
In short, Jacob’s life has culminated in a situation that has finally forced him to confront his own limitations. Jacob’s entire life thus far has been one of deceit. From a young age he used his intellect and cunning to take advantage of his own brother, his father, and his relatives, as he amassed wealth and ultimately married the beautiful woman he longed for.
Yet after obtaining these things, Jacob now seeks to return to the land of his birth. Many years earlier Jacob had deeply betrayed his older brother, Esau, and as was common in this era, Esau pledged to kill Jacob for this betrayal. This was no empty threat; Esau was always the stronger of the two. And as Jacob is leading his caravan back to his homeland, he receives word that Esau is coming toward him with 400 men. Esau is clearly not planning a warm family reception for Jacob; the mention of 400 men without women, children, or supplies to replenish Jacob, implies that Esau is leading a band of soldiers to slaughter Jacob and his party.
This is also quite clear because next, Jacob, ‘in great fear and distress’ prays to God: ‘Save me.’ (Genesis 32:7, 11) From what we know from the text, this is actually the first recorded prayer that Jacob speaks to God in his entire life.
Yet Jacob, always prudent, continues to scheme and devise a plan to save himself in case God does not come through. Jacob divides his property in two, so that Esau might only destroy one while the other half escapes. Then Jacob meticulously orchestrates a gift-giving procession for Esau. He sends his servants ahead of him, each with a flock of animals to give to Esau. The servants and flocks are spaced out so that it appears many gifts are given to Esau. Jacob, himself, remains at the back of the procession, sending even his wives and children ahead of himself (Genesis 32:22), a true sign of his cowardice.
2. Who wrestles with whom?
As evening sets in and Jacob lingers alone at the back of the procession, ‘a man wrestled with him till daybreak.’ It’s unclear exactly who this ‘man’ is, but in the morning Jacob exclaims that he saw God face to face, suggesting that this was an encounter with God himself (some say it was God appearing in the person of Jesus; others say the being was an angelic emissary from God).
It appears that God initiates this wrestling match—as Rabbi Telushkin writes, ‘a man attacks Jacob’ (Biblical Literacy, pg 62). God comes to Jacob, not the other way around.
Jacob, however, appears not to submit to God and to continue to battle throughout the night. “When the man saw that he could not overpower him [Jacob], he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man.” (Genesis 32:25).
Some individuals say that this passage shows Jacob’s great strength in continuing to wrestle with God throughout the night, and then even holding on as his hip is dislocated. But this explanation simply makes no sense. God simply touches Jacob’s hip and it is dislocated. So how could it be that Jacob were any match for God? What seems more clearly to be happening is that as morning draws near and Jacob continues to resist God, God humbles Jacob even more. For Jacob to be saved from Esau, God must help Jacob to fully turn to Him. So with just a touch, God incapacitates Jacob’s leg.
If this text is literally true and Jacob’s hip is dislocated, he would have been in excruciating pain. I have cared for patients with major joint dislocations and they often require deep anesthesia, any movement is almost unbearable. So how could Jacob have continued to wrestle in any substantive way?
3. How does Jacob overcome?
Perhaps the most confusing part of this story is that Jacob is said to have “struggled with God…and have overcome.” Jacob is victorious, but how so? We are told that Jacob pleads with the man until morning and will not let the man go until he is blessed.
First, it is particularly interesting that Jacob is pleading with God for a blessing. The last time Jacob had wanted a blessing he tricked his elderly father into blessing him. Jacob must now ask God outright for help.
However, most importantly, it is not that Jacob earns this blessing from God by his own tenacity and stamina in his struggle with God; rather, it is through his admission of weakness that the blessing is granted.
Here I am deeply indepted to the insightful exposition of Bryan Jay, who points out that the prophet Hosea actually provides the key to the interpretation of how Jacob overcomes. While the Genesis account does not actually tell us how Jacob wrestles with God, Hosea is more explicit.
3 In the womb he [Jacob] grasped his brother’s heel;
as a man he struggled with God.
4 He struggled with the angel and overcame him;
he wept and begged for his favor.
He found him at Bethel
and talked with him there—
5 the Lord God Almighty,
the Lord is his name!
6 But you must return to your God;
maintain love and justice,
and wait for your God always.
(Hosea 12: 2-6, NIV)
So it is not by strength or stamina that Jacob prevails against God, it is by weeping and begging his favor, as the prophet Hosea explains. In the face of imminent slaughter by Esau and a crippling blow by God, Jacob finally admits his weakness, his inability to save himself, and sincerely begs God for help.
See how Eugene Peterson translates Hosea chapter 12 in the Message, a poetic interpretation of scripture:
In the womb, that heel, Jacob, got the best of his brother.
When he grew up, he tried to get the best of God.
But God would not be bested.
God bested him.
Brought to his knees,
Jacob wept and prayed.
God found him at Bethel.
That’s where he spoke with him.
God is God-of-the-Angel-Armies,
What are you waiting for? Return to your God!
Commit yourself in love, in justice!
Wait for your God,
and don’t give up on him—ever!
The name of Jacob, his name by birth, means ‘he grasps the heel,’ a figurative expression for deception. But after this ‘struggle’ with God, Jacob is transformed.
There is evidence that Jacob has fully put his trust in God after this encounter.
First, Jacob goes out ahead of his family (Genesis 33:3) to meet Esau. He is no longer cowering behind them. And when Esau and Jacob meet, Esau does not kill Jacob. Esau has experienced a change of heart that only God could have brought about. Esau does not want nor need the gifts that Jacob has sent ahead. Had God not helped Jacob, his scheme would have failed him.
Second, as Jacob continues on his journey, he has a newfound integrity. For example, in Genesis 34, Jacob criticizes his sons when they execute a plan to deceive their neighbors. This is a small, but distinctive and uncharacteristic step for Jacob. Then in Genesis 35, Jacob removes all of the idols from his camp—amazingly, statues of other gods had been carried along in his household and worshiped until this point.
The story of Jacob is so relevant to those of us with illnesses. Indeed, Jacob’s story is what the whole of the Bible is all about—when we recognize our helplessness and our inability to control life and we cry out to God in humility, he comes to us and we experience an authentic relationship with him. That does not mean suffering ends—Jacob’s wife dies soon after in childbirth, his son is later sold into slavery, and as an elderly man, Jacob describes his days as ‘few and difficult’ (Genesis 47:9). But Jacob sees God ‘face to face’ (Genesis 32:32) and it changes him. He is given a new name; he is a new person.
There’s something about illness that opens up to us the possibility of seeing God’s face in a way that just can’t happen if we were not wrestling with God. After all, wrestling implies proximity to each other. But this embrace is to save us, to rename us, to help us overcome and walk with God beyond the grave.