Jacob’s all-night wrestling match with God has long been a fixating story for me. I returned to this post this week because I still need the reminder that rest is found in surrender to our Faithful and Almighty God…
“Jacob Wrestling with the Angel,” by Gustave Dore, 1855
What is the essence of this story from Genesis 32? Is it a model for prevailing prayer? A template for securing God’s blessing? Or is there more to this story than meets the eye in its sparsely told format?
Up to this point in Jacob’s life there has been little to commend him as a man of faith. He has lived up to the meaning of his name mostly, and has struggled with everyone in his life in order to secure himself a blessing. He’s been a cheat and a conniver, looking out for his own interests and enjoying the blessings of God without acknowledging God as His rightful Lord. He has spent the most productive years of his life living in exile from his own family, putting in slave labor for his uncle, being cheated and taken advantage of himself but always rising to the top, always making things work out… and now he has a big family, two wives, and a whole lot of progeny, not to mention flocks and herds. He left home with just a staff and now he’s returning with his own entourage…
Yes, he’s returning at last. This was God’s idea.
But years ago when he set out on this journey he had made a promise—granted it was an unabashedly conditional, ‘Jacob’ sort of promise—but a promise it was. God had ‘seen him off’ on his journey with a vision by night in which He said: “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. … and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Gen.28:13 Jacob was awestruck by God’s presence and made a sort of altar out of his stone pillow in the morning, christening the place, “Bethel” (house of God), and vowing that if God would keep him in food and clothes and bring him safely home again that he, Jacob, would make this God his own God.
And now here he is, almost home. But this is scary. The immediate dilemma in Jacob’s mind is that his presumably embittered brother, Esau, is on the march with 400 men. Jacob could lose everything, including his own life. But there’s another One he’s been running from. This God to whom he vowed allegiance has not forgotten Jacob’s vow at Bethel. He loves Jacob far too much to let him go on living by his own strength. And when Jacob has taken every last measure he can think of to gain his brother’s approval, and has sent his loved ones across the stream ahead of him…when he’s all alone at last, God shows up.
I love this about Jacob’s story. It’s really a story of God showing up, intervening, blessing, protecting, and guiding Jacob’s life in spite of himself, to a point where he will rest from his conniving and let God be God. It’s a story of God pursuing man. It’s our story… But I run ahead of myself.
The details of the all-night wrestling match are sparse. A ‘man’ wrestles with Jacob until morning light. Jacob refuses to yield until his hip is dislocated and finally, clinging on for dear life he declares “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” (Gen.32:26) Who does he think is in charge? Who’s not letting who go? It seems to me that it is God who has initiated this match and God will say when it is finished.
Hosea’s commentary on this event helps: “The LORD hath also a controversy with Judah, and will punish Jacob according to his ways…He took his brother by the heel in the womb, and by his strength he had power with God: Yea, he had power over the angel, and prevailed: he wept, and made supplication unto him: he found him in Bethel, and there he spake with us… Therefore turn thou to thy God: keep mercy and judgment, and wait on thy God continually.:” Hosea 12:2-6
I see a picture of a repentant Jacob finally yielding to God’s power, finally willing to admit that he really does need God’s blessing. He has found that ‘place of repentance’ that eluded his brother Esau. God, like a kind Father has brought him to repentance, first matching his strength till he is spent, then with a mere touch dislocating Jacob’s hip…all to bring Jacob to the point of crying “Uncle!” (or could we say “Abba”)? Or as he puts it: “ I will not let you go until you bless me”. Jacob acknowledges that he is dependent on God’s mercy. He cannot coerce God to bless him but he desperately needs what only God can give him--a new name, a new allegiance…God has orchestrated this moment.
It is not so much Jacob’s persistence that is to be lauded, but his crying out with the last of his strength for God’s mercy--recognizing that he is beholden to God for everything, even life itself.
“It depends not on human will or exertion but on God, who has mercy.” Rom.9:16
All night long God has hung on to Jacob awaiting his surrender, like a Father feigning weakness as he ‘wrestles’ with his toddler, but this is no game. God knows what Jacob needs most, the blessing of forgiveness and acceptance despite all he has done. He needs to be rightly related to this God as his God. A precious thing transpires at this point. God asks him a question that seems so obvious as to be silly. “What is your name.”
Long years ago Jacob had been asked this very question by his own father. And he had answered with a lie, the consequences of which have dogged him down through all these years and brought him full circle to this moment. He had said‘I’m Esau’ to procure his father’s blessing. And now he is here, a grown man pleading for a blessing from the God who has brought him to this moment for that express purpose.
But first he must confess his real name: “I’m Jacob” (the cheat, the deceiver, the usurper). And God is pleased to bless him with a new identity. He has come to the end of his struggling and will now bear the name Israel, denoting his life-long struggles with man and God, but also that “God Perseveres”. And I start to see that this is not so much the story of Jacob as it is that of God’s mercy and unrelenting love, carrying out all He has promised. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Rom.11:29 Jacob, now Israel, goes from this encounter, a reconciled man—finished with his struggles with God and with man. First chance he gets he buys up a parcel of land on which to pitch his tent and erect an altar. And guess what he calls it?! El-Elohe-Israel—God, the God of Israel.
His story gives me hope…for this God is my God. This God is the One who holds me in the night of my fears for myself and my family. When I struggle to work things out myself, He reminds me it’s His game plan that matters. When I question ‘Why did you make me like this?!’ He reminds me that He is the Potter and that’s no way for clay to talk…When I see how weak I am, He reminds me this is the best place for His strength to be on display…
Ah, which reminds me. There was another conversation God had with Jacob. The night of wrestling was past. The reunion with Esau had gone splendidly. And God told Jacob to build an altar at Bethel. There God answered the question Jacob had asked of Him on the dark night of their wrestling: “Please, tell me your name.” Gen 32:29
God answered, "Your name is Jacob; your name shall not be called Jacob anymore, but Israel shall be your name…And God said unto him, I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply…” Gen.35:10,11 The introductions were over. God Almighty is now the God of Jacob and Jacob will in turn invoke this name to bless his own sons and their sons (43:14) just as his own father had done for him.
The story of Jacob at this point gets all but buried in the narrative of Joseph’s life. Jacob grieves the loss of his favored son Joseph until he is surprised beyond belief at the announcement that Joseph is alive and ruling in Egypt—a literal God-send for his family’s preservation. Life in God Almighty’s care goes beyond anything he could have schemed or dreamed up for himself. And so he grows old in the land of Egypt. But do you know what he is commended for in the great Hall of Faith (Hebrews 11)? It is not for his ‘power with God’ in that long ago wrestling match. It is not for his big family. He is commended for the faith expressed in his dying breath as he blessed the sons of Joseph bowing in worship on his staff. (Heb.11:21)
This was his blessing:
"The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day, the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys; and in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth." Gen.48:15,16
How was this an expression of faith? Here are these two Jewish/Egyptian lads, Manasseh and Ephraim, being reared in a pagan culture, but Jacob is confident that God Almighty is well able to take them and weave them into a great nation as He has promised. Jacob has traded in his wrestling for worship, his self-confidence for faith. And so he is commended for his faith not in wresting a blessing for himself, but in passing it on…
I’ve been magnetized to Jacob’s story for two weeks now, perhaps because I see my own propensity to struggle with God to bless me and mine, as if He were not faithful, as if all depended on my faithfulness…As if the struggle were requisite to the blessing.
One morning early last week I was bemoaning my perceived woes, filling my ‘quiet time’ with rankling memos in my journal of all that is not right in my little world…It was time to put on the teapot and fix breakfast and still I could not see God’s truth through my self-absorbed fog. At that moment I was reminded of these words from Isaiah: “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” And a little farther along in the same passage, “The Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.” (Is.30:15,18) Old familiar verses freshly applied to my heart. They are the story of Jacob’s life and the requirement for my own. It is not in the struggle that I prevail but in repentant rest and quiet trust. And when I cannot see the blessing that is promised, it is the waiting that will be blessed.
"So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God." Hos.12:6
“We do not present our pleas because of our righteousness but because of your great mercy.” Dan.9:18
“O Lord, be gracious to us;
we wait for you.
Be our arm every morning,
Our salvation in the time of trouble.” Is.33:2
--I know this has been long but there are two songs that beg to keep company with Jacob’s (and my) story. Take a few minutes to bless the God of Jacob as you listen:
In Christ Alone [Click title to listen]
In Christ alone my hope is found
He is my light, my strength, my song
This Cornerstone, this solid ground
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm
What heights of love, what depths of peace
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease
My Comforter, my All in All
Here in the love of Christ I stand
And as He stands in victory
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me
For I am His and He is mine
Bought with the precious blood of Christ
No guilt in life, no fear in death
This is the power of Christ in me
From life’s first cry to final breath
Jesus commands my destiny
No power of hell, no scheme of man
Could ever pluck me from His hand
Till He returns or calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I stand
Songwriters: Julian Keith Getty, Stuart Richard Townend
I am not skilled to understand
What God has willed, what God has planned
I only know at his right hand
Stands one who is my Savior
I take him at his word and deed
Christ died to save me this I read
And in my heart I find a need
For him to be my Savior
That he would leave his place on high
And come for sinful man to die
You count it strange, so once did I
Before I knew my Savior
My Savior loves, my Savior lives
My Savior's always there for me
My God he was, my God he is
My God he's always gonna be
Yes, living, dying; let me bring
My strength, my solace from this spring
That he who lives to be my King
Once died to be my Savior.
--Aaron Shust’s adaptation of the original by:
Dorothy Greenwell, Songs of Salvation, 1873
Originally posted Feb.10, 2012 as Wrestling with God