Wrestling With God

I guess I’m a nerd. I have always been a good student. Always brought home really good grades (my mother gave me no choice). But I have never been particularly athletic. I was on the volleyball team in high school, mostly for my own enjoyment. Sadly, I was a horrible player and hardly ever saw playing time during games. I think I just liked being a part of a team — so much so that I kept working out with them even after I was formally kicked off the team.

Though I do hit the gym pretty often now, I still don’t consider myself an athlete. Even if I were to become an athlete I know one sport I would never want to try: wrestling.

We had a wrestling team at my high school and I would occasionally see them practicing. Wrestling looks absolutely miserable. You have to exert strength over time as your opponent tries to best you. I’d rather hit a volleyball any day.

For this reason, perhaps, I find the biblical account of Jacob wresting with an unknown being in Genesis 32:24-32 particularly disturbing. Jacob, the second son of Isaac and Rebekah, is quite a character. He’s self-centered, self-serving, and decidedly dishonest. Even so, God meets him, uses him, and blesses this Patriarch of the faith.

The Setup
This incident takes place at a crucial time in Jacob’s life. He is about to meet with his estranged brother, Esau, knowing that Esau is out for revenge for a prank Jacob pulled in his youth. Years before, Jacob tricked Esau out of his inheritance as the firstborn and then fled to escape Esau’s wrath. He hadn’t seen Esau since.

In Genesis 31, however, Jacob is fleeing from his father-in-law, Laban. True to his nature, Jacob managed to acquire great wealth from Laban by craft and trickery. However, when Laban became hostile toward him, Jacob left with his wives and possessions. He decided to return to the land of his fathers, but in order to do that he would have to face Esau.

When Jacob learned that Esau was coming to meet him with four hundred men, Jacob was distraught. He prayed that he and his family would not be killed. He then divided his company into two groups. He sent gifts ahead to placate Esau, but kept his wives and children with him. When they came to the Jabbok, Jacob sent his wives and children ahead of him across the creek. Jacob remained alone on the other side. It was then that an unknown being attacked Jacob and wrestled with him all night, resulting in an injury, a name change, and a blessing for Jacob.

The Jabbok, also called “the blue river,” is one of the most important rivers in the region. Before bridges, rivers had to be crossed by laying wood or flat stones at the shallowest point to allow passage. The fact that Jacob would attempt this at night demonstrates a sense of urgency and distress.

When Jacob is alone and vulnerable, a mysterious assailant attacks him in the night. Jacob was ninety-seven at the time, and by physical standards, could have been easily beaten. The assailant has no trouble injuring him, but his inability to subdue Jacob shows that this was not a purely physical struggle.

The identity of Jacob’s assailant remains a topic of much discussion. The text describes it as a man. Questions abound: Was it God himself? Was it an angel? Some scholars speculate that it could have been Esau’s angel, or perhaps Esau himself, that attacked Jacob during the night. Jacob may have even initially thought it was Esau.

Genesis 32:28, 30 indicate the both God and Jacob identify the “man” as God. As the story unfolds, “the reader gradually becomes aware that this is no ordinary assailant; it is God in human form.”

When he realized that he was not prevailing against Jacob, the man “wrenched Jacob’s inner thigh.” Some feel that this refers specifically to the hip joint, but this is not certain. Most take the word “wrenched” to mean dislocated. However, scholars point out that this cannot be the case, because if Jacob’s hip was dislocated he would be unable to even limp.

When asked his name, Jacob reveals it without hesitation. He then asks for the attacker’s name, but is refused. While Jacob may not have known initially that he was wrestling God, he knew that the assailant was someone that could bless him. Even after being injured, he keeps a firm grasp on God.

Just before daybreak God pronounces a blessing on Jacob. He changes Jacob’s name to Israel, which means “he strives with God.” He is no longer the man he was. Israel, the one who wrestled with God and man (and prevailed!) fathered the twelve sons that would grow into the twelve tribes of Israel.

We All Wrestle
In this story Jacob is facing a crisis: his angry and estranged brother is coming after him so he prays for divine protection. God comes to him in the hour of his greatest need. Had God come in all is glory, Jacob would have been obliterated. Instead, he comes to Jacob in a way that Jacob can understand and interact with. After this encounter, Jacob realizes that he goes forth with the blessing of God.

I don’t think Jacob is the only one to wrestle with God. I think that we all wrestle with God at some point. And I think that some among us wrestle more than others. The big thing I see here is that God is willing to engage us in this way as we wrestle with him.

Wrestling is deeply personal. It requires very close contact. It might involve smelling the other person’s breath, getting covered with their sweat, and potentially finding your face in some awkward places. In a similar way, Jacob’s wrestling with God was deeply personal. This wasn’t the first time that God had come to Jacob. Years earlier God came to Jacob in a dream. In the dream the Lord stood at the top of a ladder that went from earth to heaven. In Genesis 32, however, God isn’t at the top of a ladder. He’s on top of Jacob!

Michael Lawrence has an interesting thought: God may wrestle with people in difficult times by taking the very form of anticipated difficulty. Jacob was trying to avoid a fight. And what does God come to do? Fight. God takes the
initiative, but Jacob engages God when he comes. Jacob perseveres. He persists.

Like Jacob, we should not be passive when wrestling with God. It’s unlikely that God will show up and wrestle with us physically (but if he does, I’m cool with that.). More commonly, we wrestle with God in earnest prayer. In the case of Jacob, the battle was both spiritual and physical. For us, the battle is usually spiritual. It’s a fight to keep praying, but like Jacob, we must not allow discouragement or God’s silence to erode our faith. We have to keep fighting in prayer.

Jacob wrestled with God all night. All night. He was engaged with God in intense physical combat for hours. God injured Jacob and Jacob still didn’t let go. I absolutely love Jacob’s determination and tenacity. It seems that he wan’t willing to do all that wrestling to come out empty-handed. If only I could do the same.

I know from experience that this is so much easier said than done. I’m praying for a number of things — things I’ve been praying for over a decade. It’s easy to pray for a while, but after such an extended period of time, it’s easier to just declare God unjust, uncaring, and unfaithful. Because that’s what the record shows. It’s an objective fact: God has not done the things he promised me.
Reading accounts like this encourage me to keep wrestling with God for what I need and what I have been promised. It whispers hope when time has worn away faith in God’s willingness and even his character. It makes me want to wrestle a little longer, hold on a little tighter, and resolve to do this through the pain for as long as it takes.

Jacob’s encounter with God was transient but the effects were permanent. Jacob’s name was changed, and thus his identity. He bore a limp for the rest of his life. Perhaps most importantly, Jacob is blessed. The same can be true for us. Let’s persist in prayer. Let’s hang on through pain until we get our blessing.

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