Wrestling with God and with man
This short essay is an exegetical exploration of Genesis 32:22-32, Jacob’s wrestle with God at Jabbok. It outlines the importance of doubt, struggle and overcoming in the life of Jacob that foreshadowed the journey of Israel and ultimately the pathway of all Believers. Wrestling with God produces mature Christians.
The wrestle between God and His creation is universal as all individual’s struggle to discover their purpose and identity. The recording of events in Genesis 32:22-32 illustrate how the Patriarch Jacob, the grandson of Abraham and the current guardian of the covenant between God and his family, was no exception to this struggle. This passage details how Jacob who in his habitual manner, has fled his father-in-law Laban and arrives at the wadi, Jabbok. Here Jacob anxiously anticipates the impending confrontation with his brother Esau, whom he also fled from as a young man. Jacob’s constant wrestle with man has led him to a final wrestle with God, which is of such significance that by dawn Jacob is bestowed a new name and permanently disabled.
This essay will demonstrate that the author’s intended meaning of Genesis 32:22-32 was to reveal the nature of Israel’s future relationship with God, utilising Jacob’s wrestle with life and God Himself as an example. The man with whom Jacob wrestles acknowledges his life journey thus far, stating “you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (v.28). This statement is more than an astute description of Jacob’s life. It is a prophetic statement outlining the future for the nation of Israel, which similarly would include long periods of wrestling and subsequent prevailing, seasons of blessing, and days that host new beginnings.
Setting the scene
Genesis 32:22-32 can be divided into three sections; Jacob’s long wrestle through the night with a faceless and nameless opponent (vv. 22-25), the dawn of the day that results in Jacob blessed with a new name (vv. 26-29), and the new day in which Jacob departs Jabbok forever marked by God (vv. 30-32).
The author of the Pentateuch and this passage in Genesis is traditionally believed to be Moses. Although a reasonable assumption, there exists no conclusive evidence to support this. Due to the work in source criticism authors from the pre-exilic and post exilic ages are hypothesized to have collated the Pentateuch together in their present form during the time of the early monarchy to represent a “look back” on Israel’s ancestry. Assuming this is correct the author’s intention would likely be to record the origins of Israel for the Israelite reader. The purpose of translating the oral story to written text would be to describe the birth of Israel in Jewish history and to give context to the dark periods experienced by the nation as they wrestle with their God, as well as the subsequent times of blessing throughout their tumultuous history.
Wrestling: God and humans
Tired, alone and at the end of his human strength, the Lord’s word to Jacob’s mother Rebekah, that “the elder shall serve the younger” and the subsequent belief that he would be free from Esau’s vengeance, would have appeared unlikely to Jacob. Jacob’s striving with God and humans accurately describes his life until now. The Hebrew word for striven, warah, means to persist or contend. The New International Version Bible (NIV) utilises the word ‘struggle’ to emphasise the tussling nature of Jacob’s relationship with God and people. The two camps into which he has grownmirrors two dimensions of Jacob’s life struggles; the divine and the human.
In the night an unknown man thrusts himself upon Jacob, however, Jacob is not easily overcome. The years of evading the wrath of his physically superior brother Esau and resisting the injustice of a cunning Laban, all the while amassing a personal fortune has shaped Jacob into a staunch contender. Verse 24 states the man grapples with Jacob throughout the night until day break. Jacob’s stamina is not diminished and his divine opponent aware that he is not prevailing against him draws on supernatural strength to disable him and continues to wrestle, eventually crying out “Let me go!” (v. 26). Brueggemann postulates that the wrestling match was a draw and even suggests that, “Jacob is the stronger party.” This, however, could only be possible if the man is not God, which is not the case as Jacob identifies his opponent as God in verse 30. God has infinite and unstoppable strength and is not suggesting that God is lacking or that Jacob is superior in any way. Rather, the author is attempting to emphasise Jacob’s persistence. Frederick aptly describes Jacob’s wrestle with God as ‘the magnificent defeat.’ The magnificence of the conflict is Jacob’s undying perseverance captured in his declaration, “I will not let you go.”
God desires the attribute of perseverance in his people Israel. This trait is required of the Israelites to persist through slavery in Egypt, the wandering to and conquest of the land of Canaan and even in exile when the nation appears to be dislocate and limping. The prophet Hosea when appealing to Israel to return from their adultery to God reminds the people of Jacob’s plight, “In the womb he tried to supplant his brother, and in his manhood he strove with God.” The two dimensions of wrestling are rendered ideal by the prophet, however the following verse explains how Jacob succeeded where Israel currently was not, “He strove with the angel and prevailed, he wept and sought his favor.”Hosea’s referencing of the story acknowledges that Jacob’s victory was not found in his own ways, his own power or in turning to other gods, but in his persistence and humbling himself vulnerable before God, which leads to blessing and new beginnings.
Naming: The dawning of a blessed nation
The persistent and prevailing attitude of Jacob is his winning. The wrestle throughout the night reaches its climax at day break and the divine being must vanish, a mark of the antiquity on which the story is based. Despite his valiant efforts, Jacob is now exhausted with a dislocated hip. God, however, cannot be worn out and in simply touching Jacob’s hip has dealt his opponent a critical blow. The winner of the wrestle is affirmed in Jacob’s indirect acceptance of defeat, as he requests a blessing from the man who says, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” (v. 28). This blessing is the pivotal turning point of Jacob’s life trajectory and subsequently the birthing of a new nation, Israel. This passage in Genesis 32 and naming are closely linked. Long states “the fixation on names and naming in this text, that is, Jacob’s name, the man’s name, and the name of the place all underscore the name change for Jacob,” which suggests the name change is of primary importance in the passage.
The meaning of Jacob is ‘supplanter’, which reflects his character as a usurper of Esau’s firstborn position and rightful double portion blessing. The divine being who wrestles with Jacob renames him Israel in a prophetic statement that has overtures not only for Jacob’s immediate life trajectory as the Father of a nation but for the entire nation of Israel being born in this very statement. The name Israel has been suggested to originally have meant “El rules” (the god El was the head of the Northwest Semitic pantheon), however, based on the current passage is interpreted to mean “the one who strives with God.” This connotation is fitting for the identity of Israel as a nation that persists and remains faithful to their God.
It must not be forgotten that the blessing did not stop at the bestowing of a new name but also in the acknowledgement that “… you have prevailed.” Alternate translations use the words ‘won’ (New Living Translation) and ‘overcome’ (NIV) to highlight the victorious destination achieved by Jacob. Victory was attained by remaining in the wrestle with God and humans, not because of natural strength or his ability to deceive. Jacob prevails with prayer not with natural strength and this is the change of Jacob to Israel.
Waltke’s statement that this narrative “is a quite concrete assertion about the forming of Israel” supports this paper’s interpretation of the meaning of the passage. Similarly, the prophet Isaiah states, “he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel.” It can be concluded that both man and nation are divinely shaped at Jabbok. The denotation of the new name identifies the nation of Israel as not created through the Patriarchs only, but formed by God’s own hands in readiness to produce a saving Messiah.
Marking: limping into a new day
Upon arriving at Jabbok, Jacob was fearful of meeting with his brother Esau. After encountering God face to face, Jacob’s initial fears are quenched for he had met with God and lived. He subsequently names the place of his encounter with God ‘Peniel’ or ‘Penuel’ to enshrine the memory. The encounter with God not only marked Jacob physically but also inwardly as it altered his approach to the future and instilled him with confidence. The mark of God upon Jacob is evident across his lifespan from this encounter onward. Even at the end of his lifetime and he is dying, he must lean upon the top of his staff as he blesses Ephraim and Manasseh.
The Jabbok theophany turns Jacob’s perilous journey with Esau from aggressive conflict to warm reconciliation, demonstrating Jacob’s wrestle with not just God but also people has finished. Despite this, the wrestle for Israel as a nation with God and humans has just begun. The promise of light after darkness, however, has been secured. The author emphasises the day breaking three times in Genesis 32:22-32, highlighting its importance and metaphorically suggesting that despite future periods of darkness and confusion that Israel may experience, the eventual dawning of light and clarity will transpire for the new nation. The mark of God is upon Israel as it was upon Cain, as a mark of ownership which also ensures protection.
The Jabbok passage is a timeless story laden with principles for life. This essay has outlined the three parts of Jacob’s encounter including his wrestling with God, his blessing from God and his marking by God. The intended meaning of the passage, however, is not for Jacob alone. In his blessing he is renamed Israel, which becomes the national name of his posterity and the God of his family becomes the God of the nation.
A messianic hint exists in the author’s writing and it would be useful and enlightening to pursue the messianic thread in the future writings pertaining to Israel beyond Genesis. The limp Jacob exhibits for the remainder of his life is a foreshadow that is superseded by price the Messiah would pay for Israel and all people. Despite receiving a new name, it did not ensure a completely new nature for Israel and a Messiah would reveal a superior way to redemption. The need for a new light dawning, greater than Jacob’s after Jabbok would be required for Israel to be completely reconciled to God but God knowing he would send this messiah needed a nation from which to birth His very own son. The prophet Isaiah knows that the light will be a child born, a son given.
 Andrew Hill and John Walton. Survey of the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 64.
 Fredrick Carlson Holgren, “Holding your own against God: Genesis 32:22-32.” Interpretation 44, no. 1 (1990), 5-17, http://web.a.ebscohost.com.divinity.idm.oclc.org/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=6&sid=698eeffd-418e-4436-86d6-28e67be14023%40sessionmgr4007 (accessed March 29, 2018), 7.
 Holgren, “Holding your own against God: Genesis 32:22-32”, 7.
 Genesis 25:23
 Genesis 32:10
 Bruce K Waltke and Cathi J Fredricks. Genesis: A Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001).
 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2010), 267-268.
 Frederick Buechner, The magnificent defeat (New York City: Harper Collins, 1965).
 Hosea 12:3
 Hosea 12:4
 Michael D Coogan et al. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 57.
 Jesse Long, “Wrestling with God to win: a literary reading of the story of Jacob at Jabbok in honor of Don Williams.” Stone-Campbell Journal, (2012), 47-61, http://web.a.ebscohost.com.divinity.idm.oclc.org/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=8&sid=698eeffd-418e-4436-86d6-28e67be14023%40sessionmgr4007 (accessed March 29, 2018), 49.
 Genesis 25:29-34
 Coogan et al. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 57.
 Brueggemann, Genesis, 270.
 Waltke and Fredricks. Genesis: A Commentary.
 Isaiah 43:1
 Hebrews 11:21
 Brueggemann, Genesis, 271.
 Genesis 4:15
 Isaiah 9:6
Barker, Kenneth L. New International Version Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.
Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2010.
Buechner, Frederick. The magnificent defeat. New York City: Harper Collins, 1965.
Coogan, Michael D, Marc Z Brettler, Carol Newsom, and Pheme Perkins. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010
Hill, Andrew, and John Walton. Survey of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.
Holgren, Fredrick Carlson. “Holding your own against God: Genesis 32:22-32.” Interpretation 44, no. 1 (1990): 5-17. http://web.a.ebscohost.com.divinity.idm.oclc.org/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=6&sid=69eeffd-418e-4436-86d6-28e67be14023%40sessionmgr4007 (accessed March 29, 2018).
Long, Jesse. “Wrestling with God to win: a literary reading of the story of Jacob at Jabbok in honor of Don Williams.” Stone-Campbell Journal, 2012: 47-61. http://web.a.ebscohost.com.divinity.idm.oclc.org/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=8&sid=69eeffd-418e-4436-86d6-28e67be14023%40sessionmgr4007 (accessed March 29, 2018).
Manser, Martin H. Dictionary of Bible Themes. Kindle edition: BookBaby, 1996.
Waltke, Bruce K, and Cathi J Fredricks. Genesis: A Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.