The story of Jacob wrestling has long been a text of confusion and difficulty. The character of God testified to in this text does not fit the typical framework for understanding God’s power. How is it that a human might prevail against God? And, what might that say about the kind of God depicted in this text? Jacob’s wrestling may help re-shape our understanding of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
This text, although it center upon an individual, is about a nation. In fact, one might say that Israel is given birth in Jacob’s wrestling with God. This grappling match will forever characterize Jacob and Israel’s relationship with God! Identity is named by God in this passage. For those experiencing exile, this story serves as a powerful reminder of Israel’s call and identity, which is given by God in their wrestling.
IN THE TEXT
Verse 22 And so the gift went on ahead, while he remained in camp that night.
Verse 23 That same night he arose, and taking his two wives, his two maid-servants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok.
Verse 24 After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions.
Verse 25 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
Verse 26 When the man saw that he had not prevailed against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.
Verse 27 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
Verse 28 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”
Verse 29 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
Verse 30 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.
Verse 31 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
Verse 32 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
Verse 33 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.
BEHIND THE TEXT
Genesis, as the name indicates, is a book of “beginnings.” Origins of the world are not the only beginnings that are recorded in this text. Instead, we see brokenness enter the Creation through disobedience and violence escalate exponentially. The Flood narrative watches God repent of the Creation, but exercise mercy in the midst of divine judgment. God gives the rainbow as a sign of God’s commitment to the Creation, a new reality has emerged. And, Abraham is the beginning of the promise that will find fruition in Israel and, ultimately, Jesus.
Genesis 32 plays a unique role in this sequence of beginnings. Israel is foreshadowed in the name change of Jacob. Likewise, there is a new reality that erupts for Jacob in this encounter with God. No longer is he the “supplanter” but his character is shaped toward a different telos. Namely, one who wrestles with God and prevails! But, more than this, perhaps it is a new beginning for the way that God will engage the world. It is a position that entails much risk, not only for humanity, for God.
Genesis is a narrative following the Creation of the world to the blessing of the family of Abraham as inheritors of the covenant. The narrators (J, E, P) that compose Genesis are not simply interested in the historical accuracy of these patriarchal stories. There are definitely elements that bear the weight of history, but there is more to the narrative than documenting the past. Simply reading Genesis gives one the overwhelming sense that this story is just as much about God as it is about the patriarchs or even the creation of the cosmos. Genesis records the deep theological reflection of the community concerning the world and their calling as descendents of Abraham. If Genesis is a history, it is a theological history. More appropriately, it is a theological narrative that establishes the foundation for the Abrahamic covenant and God’s relationship with this unique people called Israel.
Genesis 32, in particular, must be carefully understood as theological narrative. Fretheim notes that the story is not a dream or a vision (i.e., Jacob’s ladder). Instead, there are real, tangible consequences for Jacob (and God?) in wrestling all night. In other words, the author does not construe this story as something that occurred in Jacob’s imagination, but calls for incarnation of the divine.
The cultural context of this pericope is essential to comprehending the conflict that Jacob faces. Jacob’s fear of Esau coming to meet him with a large cohort of men (presumably an army in Jacob’s mind) stems from Jacob’s past underhanded dealings with his brother. Primogeniture named the firstborn as primary heir. Esau, as the first son, was entitled to Isaac’s possessions. However, Jacob tricked Esau into selling his birthright for a bowl of soup. Granted, Esau was not very wise, but Jacob was equally crafty. Discovering Esau’s plot to kill his brother (thus making him the rightful heir again), Jacob flees Esau’s wrath, living in exile with Laban (Jacob’s uncle).
Before their birth, Rebecca is given a notice about her children. Wrestling in her womb are two great nations! However, these two great nations, embodied in the two sons, will not follow the way of primogeniture. Rather, the older will serve the younger and the younger will rule over the older. The story of Jacob is the unveiling of that promise, which Jacob seems to try to accomplish under his own power. Through conniving manipulation, Jacob seems to be on the verge of fulfilling that promise. However, the promise is soon precariously close to being killed, literally.
Jacob’s name even gives away Jacob’s character. Names are of utmost importance in this culture because they reveal something about the person that is named. Their identity is contained in this moniker. “Heel grabber”, which can also mean something akin to “backstabber” in our current context, is Jacob’s name. Immediately out of the womb, Jacob begins to live up to his name as he wrestles with Esau in the womb and follows him in birth, grasping Esau’s heel.
Our pericope follows Jacob’s departure from service to Laban. Jacob has become quite wealthy off of his father-in-law. Of course, Laban’s sons are far from impressed and are likely extremely wary of Jacob taking their inheritance as well. Needless to say, Jacob senses the trouble and decides to leave in secrecy. Laban finds out and pursues him. In this altercation, Jacob takes final leave of Laban, reminding Laban of the great service that he has given during those twenty years. Jacob notes that God has seen Jacob’s affliction and has rebuked Laban. At that time, they covenant together not to bring harm to the other and to depart in peace. Jacob subsequently enters into Esau’s territory and receives word that Esau is coming with a troop of men. Jacob is immediately fearful, perhaps having had already tense interactions with his father-in-law, Esau is coming for retribution.
Jacob’s response once again highlights his cunning, as well as, a knack for saving his own skin. He separates out everything out in two groups, leaving himself alone behind everyone and everything. He has placed a buffer between Esau and himself. To ease Esau’s anger, Jacob sends gifts ahead before passing before his “face.” “Face” is a repeating theme in Genesis 32-33 that ties Jacob’s wrestling to his meeting with Esau the following day.
Verse 25 states that Jacob is now alone after having sent everything across the Jabbok. The audience might be tempted to wonder if Jacob is going to flee again, as has been his modus operandi for so long. It seems that his past has finally caught up with him and there’s only one way to escape: run. Although the context is slightly different, there may be parallels here with Exodus 14 where the Israelites find themselves trapped between the sea and Pharaoh’s marching army. At this point, there are no more options. God called Jacob (and Israel) to go back to Canaan and now both find themselves confronted by an army they cannot hope to defeat.
A mysterious stranger shows up during the night and begins to wrestle with Jacob all night until daybreak. There have been conjectures about the identity of this “man.” Is it Esau? A river demon (which are said to be found at river forks in some religions)? Is it God in human form? In beginning to answer this question, I want to give two answers that are not mutually exclusive.
First, I think it is important to think about how wrestling fundamentally works. Wrestling is a full-bodied endeavor. Both parties are grabbing, pulling, pushing, and rolling around. The physicality of this match is portrayed in Jacob’s injury to his hip that is sustained when the stranger realizes that Jacob cannot be bested. This is more than a vision. After all, Jacob limps the next day when meeting Esau. This is a bodily encounter, not an ethereal dream or ghostly haunting. Real flesh and blood are involved. If this is Esau, Jacob would have had a clue as to the identity of the stranger given his hairy body. Jacob probably could remember the early wrestling matches that all brothers engage in when they are young.
Jacob would have also heard his voice when they conversed, which would have been further confirmation of identity the next morning when talking with Esau. In fact, near the end of the altercation with the stranger, Jacob asks to know the stranger’s name. Does he begin to recognize who he has wrestled with all night? Is the response, “Why is it that you ask my name?” a surprise from Esau at Jacob’s lack of recognition? We will return to this subject.
Terrence Fretheim suggests that regardless of the stranger’s identity, Jacob’s interpretation of the event is what matters most. Jacob summarizes his wrestling experience, saying, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life is preserved.” Jacob understands his flesh and blood wrestling match to have been a wrestling match with the divine. How is that possible? Issues of divine power, as they are understood by many, seem to necessitate separation between the finite human and infinite divine. How can both be present?
The text necessitates an investigation into this tension. After all, Jacob wrestles a “man”, then he is renamed Israel because he has “striven with divine beings and human”, and Jacob reflects upon his experience by saying that he has seen “God face to face”. The story transitions from human to human-divine to divine. The line between them is blurred so that it is difficult to separate one from the other. Somehow, both are working in conjunction with each other.
Terrence Fretheim recently stated in a lecture on violence in the Old Testament, “God acts directly but always through agents.” Those agents can be human or through other parts of the Creation. In essence, this means that God’s presence is always mediated and it is always embodied. This is true of God’s judgment issued in the Exile through the Babylonians. It is also true that the word of the Lord comes to Israel through judges and prophets. If this is God’s typical way of interacting in the world, it creates issues with our conception of divine power.
Verse 26 suggests that, if this is indeed God, God can be equaled. It seems that Jacob in some sense has control and power over this other individual. Is God limited in power and strength? Verse 29 further suggests that Jacob has “prevailed” over God! In answering objections about God’s limited power and God’s use of agency, Terrence Fretheim writes:
I would claim that God’s assuming a human form for a specific venture in the world does not compromise divine transcendence. The finite is capable of the infinite. In such theophanies God takes on human form in order to be as concretely present as possible. In assuming such a form, the personal and relational dimension of the divine is more sharply revealed; there is greater intensity of presence.
The limiting of God’s power is not a new concept within the Genesis text (or in other parts of the Bible). In fact, covenant is such a limiting of God’s power by God! Covenant restricts how God will act in the future (i.e., no more floods to destroy the earth). Furthermore, God’s use of power will not violate God’s character and nature, which is Holy Love! Thus, even the use of power is restricted in its use. The relational God that is attested to in the Scripture uses power to engage in relationship, not simply to accomplish tasks! The greatest act of God’s power may really be God’s willingness to be imminent in the Creation, which includes experiencing suffering.
God’s power is demonstrated through weakness. God is not threatened by the prospect of losing, even to humanity. In fact, time and again God reveals God’s character to be one of patience and willingness to allow humanity to make decisions that matter, even decisions to reject and disobey God! God does not use God’s power for coercion, but encounters with the divine do leave their mark. Incarnation might prove to be God’s fundamental movement toward humanity, to engage humanity where they are.
Returning to Jacob’s face to face encounter with Esau in Genesis 33, there is a further hint indicting Esau as the mysterious man from the previous night. Esau questions the gifts sent to him by Jacob. Jacob says that he wanted to find favor in Esau’s eye because seeing Esau’s face was like seeing God’s face. Jacob notes that Esau has received him favorably. Esau then tells Jacob to come and start their journey together and Esau will go at Jacob’s “pace.” Did Esau know about Jacob’s ordeal? It seems plausible, if not probable. Yet, even in this encounter Jacob recognizes God’s presence in the midst of the meeting between estranged brothers.
Jacob’s interpretation of the encounter must be allowed to carry weight. Jacob does not deny his wrestling with another person, but in that great struggle Jacob recognizes something much great at work: God! Not only is Jacob allowed to live, Jacob prevails! This throws all categories of power out of the window. What kind of God is this that holds all power and yet can be bested in a contest of wills? Perhaps, it is the same loving God that is depicted in the Exodus wrestling with Pharaoh, whose power will not bend the knee. Ultimately, it leads to his destruction (as well as the destruction of others).
Yet, in Jacob’s wrestling match, there is a notable difference in that Jacob prevails but is not destroyed! Jacob’s prevailing, unlike Pharaoh’s prevailing, leads to recognizing God. There is a marked difference in how Jacob now encounters the other. It is demonstrated in Jacob’s act of humility that prostrates himself (exposing his neck for the sword) before his brother. The scene with Jacob ends with day; Pharaoh’s encounter ends with darkness.
God is a wrestling God, who can be bested. Imagine that! But, in those wrestling matches, “There are those who say to God ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God say, ‘Thy will be done.’” The difference between the two scenarios is the difference between life and death.
FROM THE TEXT
Henry F. Knight wrote, “Jacob wrestled with a lifetime in one night.” In this encounter, Jacob wrestles with his brother (whom he had deceived), he wrestles with himself (something about his identity and character is different after this episode), and he wrestles with God. It is a contest between people where the lines between God’s actions and the actions of the agents becomes fuzzy.
This intriguing text leaves us pondering the mystery of God’s work through human agents. Brueggemann states, “In the night, the divine antagonist tends to take on the features of others with whom we struggle in the day.” In other words, the conflict and interactions of our daily life becomes the means of God’s redemptive and transformative work in us.
Jacob, from before his birth, was chosen by God to be the heir of God’s promise to Abraham and Isaac. God chooses Jacob over Esau, although both appear to be poor candidates. Esau is unwise and flippant with his birthright. Jacob uses God’s promise as the justification for his deception. The result is a chasm in the relationship of a family. Esau is left with a full stomach but no longer having his birthright. Jacob is now the primary heir to his father, but is driven into exile by Esau’s threat. Yet, despite Jacob’s deceitful nature, God sees something in Jacob that Jacob has yet to see about himself.
Jacob’s wrestling with man and God brings two worlds colliding together. He finds himself between a rock and a hard place. Left alone, he begins wrestling with both his past and God’s future. God’s future calls him to go to where he cannot avoid his past, but must come “face to face” with it. And, in confronting his past head on, Jacob comes “face to face” with a God that is able to direct Jacob’s character from “backstabber” to one who “wrestles with God and man and prevails.”
Does this change the reality of the past? No, Jacob can no longer run from his past actions. But, he can limp forward into a hopeful new future that God has set before him. Seeing his past in a new light, rather than shrouded in darkness, is like seeing the “face of God.” Jacob’s wrestling with his dark past leads to seeing the bright dawn of reconciliation where exile is a distant memory.
For those in the Church, those who have received the new covenant and become heirs and co-heirs with Christ, Jacob’s story is a familiar one to us. We have received a great promise. Although we were not the wisest or the strongest, God chose us to be inheritors of the blessing which was first given to Abraham and fulfilled through Christ Jesus. It is an amazing gift we have received.
However, like Jacob the Church has often used this promise as justification for being “heel grabbers.” We think that because we have been chosen that all avenues are open to us to ensure that God’s promises are accomplished in our time and in our way. It’s no wonder that the Church, at times, finds itself alone alongside the Jabbok. It’s afraid of the impending doom of facing its past. It’s scared to look Esau (the world?) in the eye and recognize its past deceptions.
Even as Jacob could not ignore God’s call to return to Canaan, the Church cannot deny its call to fulfill its mission (Matt. 28). In order to fulfill that mission, it is necessary that we wrestle with “a lifetime in one night.” The Church cannot ignore the way we used Scripture to excuse slavery or validate the denigration of women. We cannot hide behind our vows of silence while children are harmed. We dare not ignore our hate disguised as righteousness, our patronizing masked as discipleship, or our greed veiled as stewardship.
If we are to encounter a God that is able to shape our identity in a new way, then it requires us coming face to face with our past darkness. We can run back to the comfort and convenience of Laban, forsaking our call to go. Or, we can limp into a new future that marks us as those who have wrestled with God and humanity… and have prevailed!
Blumenthal, Fred. “WHO WRESTLED WITH JACOB?.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 38, no. 2
(April 2010): 119-123. Academic Search Elite, EBSCOhost (accessed October 12, 2012).
Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982.
Fretheim, Terrence E. “Jacob’s Wrestling and Issues of Divine Power (Genesis 32:22-32).” 1-12. This article will be published in a year and was used with permission from the author.
Fretheim, Terrence. Earle Visiting Scholar Lecture, “The God of the Old Testament and Issues of Violence”. Nazarene Theological Seminary. Personal Notes. August 28, 2012.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003. New American Standard Bible: Reference Edition. Anaheim: Foundation Press, 1973.
Knight, Henry F. “Meeting Jacob at the Jabbok : Wrestling with a Text–a Midrash on Genesis
32:22-32.” Journal Of Ecumenical Studies 29, no. 3-4 (June 1, 1992): 451-460.
ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed October 12, 2012).
Smith, Marsha A. Ellis. Holman Book of Biblical Charts, Maps, and Reconstructions. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1993.
Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures: The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985.
 The first two verses are the Tanakh’s translation. This translation connects to the previous context of Jacob trying to conjure a way out of this dilemma. I also used the Tanakh’s verse numbering, since it provided connections with Jacob’s preparation for Esau’s arrival. The following verses are based more upon the NRSV, with notes on changes.
 Smith, Marsha A. Ellis. Holman Book of Biblical Charts, Maps, and Reconstructions. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1993.
Jabbok is a tributary of the Jordan River that flows East. Deuteronomy 3:16 (also Joshua 12:2) sets Jabbok as a border for the Reubenites and the Gadites, separating them from their neighbors, “the sons of Ammon”, to the East of Canaan. Jabbok would elicit the memory of foreign nations serving others gods (perhaps river gods?) and the call to come out of those nations. However, in connection with the Abrahamic covenant, Israel would be reminded that God intends them to bless the nations, even as Jacob blessed Laban (although Laban wasn’t entirely thankful).
 Fretheim, Terrence E. “Jacob’s Wrestling and Issues of Divine Power (Genesis 32:22-32).” 1-12. Fretheim argues for this translation over using “touch.” Although the word can be translated either way, Fretheim makes the case that “strike” language is more congruent with the grueling wrestling match. The use of “touch” may be betraying the translator’s desire to preserve God’s power from question. The Tanakh translates this word as “wrenched”, which also demonstrates the struggle appropriately.
 Jacob means “deceiver” or “heel grabber.” In our context it might be translated “backstabber.” Hebrew names were thought to convey the nature of the person named.
 Peniel means “face of God.” Also, read 33:10 for connections to Jacob’s meeting with Esau.
 See citation for “Peniel” in verse 31.
 Knight, Henry F. “Meeting Jacob at the Jabbok : Wrestling with a Text–a Midrash on Genesis 32:22-32.” Journal Of Ecumenical Studies 29, no. 3-4 (June 1, 1992): 451-460. ATLASerials, Religion Collection.
Henry F. Knight states, “For a tradition that speaks of the way of right living as halakhah, to be permanently hindered in one’s walking could never mean just a simple physical wounding. The linguistic echoes penetrate far deeper. Right living, or ‘halakhah’ is literally derived from the verb ‘to walk.’ The lingering limp of Jacob could not have been just in his legs. It would have reached to every fiber of his identity as he stood before God, now as the ‘Godwrestler.’”
 See citation for verse 25.
 This is an obvious addition to the story that connects Jacob’s wrestling with Israel’s dietary laws. The dietary laws do not come into play until much later in Israel’s story, which suggests a history of redaction to the oral tradition concerning the patriarchs. This redaction interrupts the flow of the narrative of Jacob’s wrestling and Jacob’s meeting with Esau.
 Fretheim, Terrence E. “Jacob’s Wrestling and Issues of Divine Power (Genesis 32:22-32).” 1-12. 9.
 Blumenthal, Fred. “WHO WRESTLED WITH JACOB?.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 38, no. 2 (April 2010): 119-123. Academic Search Elite, EBSCOhost. Blumenthal argues that Genesis 32:22-32 is a prophetic vision. However, he does not take into account that Jacob is limping the next day. There was a physical altercation, according to the text. This is more than a vision.
 Terrence Fretheim. Earle Visiting Scholar Lecture, “The God of the Old Testament and Issues of Violence” given at Nazarene Theological Seminary on August 28, 2012.
 Fretheim, Terrence E. “Jacob’s Wrestling and Issues of Divine Power (Genesis 32:22-32).” 1-12. 11.
 Exodus 12:29-32. Pharaoah asks for a blessing, even as Jacob asked for a blessing at the end of the wrestling match. However, Jacob’s name is changed and receives the blessing. Pharaoh is not changed and ultimately receives the destruction that had been planned for the Hebrew boys in Exodus 1.
 Knight, Henry F. “Meeting Jacob at the Jabbok : Wrestling with a Text–a Midrash on Genesis 32:22-32.” Journal
Of Ecumenical Studies 29, no. 3-4 (June 1, 1992): 451-460. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, 452.
 Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982, 267.