Wrestling With God
By Jack Kelley
How a simple wresting match foretold the history of the nation Israel.
That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man.
Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, (he Struggles with God) because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”
Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, (face of God) saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon. (Gen 32:22-31)
After 20 years with his uncle Laban in Paddan Aram, Jacob was coming back to the land that would one day bear his name. Sending his two wives, their two handmaidens, his eleven sons (Benjamin wasn’t born yet) and all their possessions across the river, Jacob stayed behind to spend the night alone, or so he thought.
A man showed up at dusk and wrestled with Jacob all night long. The match would have ended in a draw at daybreak if the man hadn’t dislocated Jacob’s hip just by touching it. Maybe that’s when it dawned on Jacob. His opponent had disabled him with just a touch so this wasn’t any ordinary man. That meant he could have ended the match any time he wanted to. He’d let it go on all night for a reason. Who was this guy?
Since a blessing is only given by a senior to a junior, in asking for one Jacob was admitting his subordinate status. Just who the man was became clear later when Jacob, having realized that he’d seen God face to face, named the place Peniel. Later on God would dwell in the desert with Israel’s descendants, the only people in history so honored. And still later He would again come to them, this time in the form of the man who wrestled with Jacob. (Scholars who hold to a literal interpretation of Scripture identify the man as Jesus, in one of His many Old Testament appearances.)
Looking at the passage on the symbolic level gives us a ton of insight. In the first place, by changing Jacob’s name to Israel, God established the nation’s destiny in the world. Constantly struggling with God and with men. No other people have so obviously fit this description.
With Abraham, Sarah, Peter and Paul, once their names were changed, they stayed changed. Not so with Jacob. Sometimes in the Bible he’s called Jacob, other times it’s Israel. Even after his death, his descendants were known by both names depending on the state of their relationship with God. When they were being obedient (in the Spirit) they were called Israel. When they were in the flesh, it was Jacob. Sometimes, the Lord used both names in the same sentence, as in Deut. 33:28;
So Israel will live in safety; Jacob will dwell secure in a land of grain and new wine, where the heavens drop dew.
It’s interesting that God was willing to wrestle Jacob all night long. Anyone else that powerful would have crushed and humiliated his opponent, ending the match quickly without breaking a sweat. But God in His great love for us doesn’t want defeated subjects. He’ll allow us to struggle for as long as it takes for us to realize just how much better off we’ll be after we willingly submit.
If God hadn’t supernaturally weakened Jacob would he have ever yielded? And even after he was injured, Jacob demanded something in return for agreeing to end the match. Is that meant to indicate that Israel will struggle with God right to the end? It appears so. But God refused to give up too, indicating that He’ll never abandon Israel. He’ll stay engaged, permitting the struggle to continue until Israel is so weakened that submission to Him is the only option left. This idea is demonstrated is a prophecy from Hosea that will be fulfilled just before the 2nd Coming when Israel is facing certain defeat by the armies of the anti-Christ.
“Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; He has injured us but he will bind up our wounds. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence” (Hosea 6:1-2).
Note the fact that Jacob’s wrestling match began in the evening and ended in the morning. It’s the same as the order of creation. The root of the Hebrew word for evening means chaos and the word for morning means order. As long as Israel struggles with God, the nation will be in chaos. Only after submission will they see clearly and receive their long desired blessing, their Messiah. Only then will order be restored.
In giving him a new name, God said that Jacob has struggled with God and men and has overcome. This is a prophecy of the future and is not indicative of the past or present. It’s a promise for a time still coming when Israel will finally emerge victorious from its long night of struggle.
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins (Isaiah 40:1-2)
And so in this one passage we see an overview of the future of the nation that would bear Israel’s name, skillfully woven into the events of a simple wrestling match.
Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Rom. 15:4)
But there’s a personal application here as well. In the most chaotic moments of your life the Lord confronts you. As you wrestle with Him it becomes clear that while He’ll let you wrestle for as long as you like, you cannot prevail. Then with a touch of His hand you are weakened to the point of submission, and you cling to Him begging for His blessing. As He imparts it, He promises you a new name, (Rev. 2:17) a great victory, and restores order to your life. A new day dawns bright and clear, and if you’re limping a little it’s because He wants you to lean on Him. Such is the love He has for you. Selah.