Genesis 32:22-32 What does it mean to “wrestle with God”
The following post is a letter I wrote to a friend a couple of years ago. This is actually a re-post, but I am currently reading Genesis in my devotional time and wanted to share these insights with some who may not have read them when I initially posted them…
I’ve been meditating much this week on Genesis 32 and Jacob’s wrestling with God. This is a fascinating passage with so much that I don’t understand in it. Two days in a row last week I sat with V after our devotional times and discussed this story at length. I won’t try to reproduce the whole conversation, or the development of my thinking on the passage, but let me share some of my conclusions since they relate very closely to this subject of waiting on God that we have been corresponding about.
Is this story about prayer
First of all, I have read many different commentators on this passage and all of them use as a starting point that the passage is primarily to teach us something about prayer. While I think the story has some implications for prayer, I don’t think it is primarily about prayer but about Jacob’s relationship with God. I also spent a good deal of time comparing the passage to Hosea 12:2-6 which mentions this event in the context of the nation of Judah.
The context of the story is definitely that Jacob had a need (Esau’s impending attack) and that he had prayed to God for deliverance (vs. 9-12). I don’t think there is any doubt that Esau was coming with the 400 men with the intention of destroying Jacob and his family. SOMETHING happened, though, to completely turn Esau’s attitude around, so that he was favorably disposed to Jacob when he met him. Those of the “prevailing prayer” school would say that Jacob “prevailed” in prayer with God and received the asked for deliverance. According to this line of thinking, Jacob’s wrestling with the angel was a vivid symbol of his perseverance in the prayer that is recorded in vs. 9-12.
(The strongest Biblical support for this idea of prevailing prayer I think comes not from this passage, but from Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18. Other passages might include Moses’ intercession for Israel that moved God to relent from destroying them.)
One of the problems with this interpretation however is simply that Jacob was not praying but wrestling! He appears to not even know that the man is a possible source of blessing until the morning hour when his hip is touched and he then asks for the blessing. So to say that he was wrestling to “get something” just doesn’t fit.
Could this story be about brokenness before God?
Another interesting point is that it does not say that Jacob wrestled with the man, but that “a man wrestled with him.” I picture the angel as being the one who initiated the encounter. (although grammatically, that interpretation is not required, I think it will bear out as I continue).
When the angel puts Jacob’s hip out, it is apparent that he is the stronger of the two and could have easily won the encounter at any point. When he puts out the hip, it is God’s way of showing Jacob that he is not strong enough to win. The angel is bringing Jacob to a place of brokenness. What is to be made then of the observation that “…the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob…” I think the angel is God’s representative bringing Jacob to a place of brokenness, and this phrase does NOT mean that the angel had been trying desperately to win, but couldn’t. RATHER the phrase is pointing out that this is the reason for dislocating the hip: Jacob’s stubborn refusal to quit, and his determination to keep on in his own strength.
Jacob’s whole life story to this point is one of wily deception in an attempt to make things work out in his favor, by his own strength. He had constantly sought to manipulate events. (for example, the stew for Esau, deception of Isaac, getting Laban’s flocks by the striped branches, and now the gifts for Esau). His whole life had been a “wrestling in his own strength.” God was now bringing him to a point of seeing that he was unable to win, and was about to be destroyed by Esau.
When Jacob’s hip is put out, he realizes his combatant’s superior strength and appeals to him for a blessing. He, as the weaker, asks the stronger for help. It isn’t clear if he was specifically asking the man to intervene in the Esau affair–probably he wasn’t, he just knew that he needed this man’s blessing.
At this point, the story is really strange because the hip incident surely showed that Jacob was powerless to detain the angel, and yet the man clearly acts as though Jacob IS detaining him further when he asks to be let go. What an amazing picture of our depending on God in faith, when it is really HE who is holding on to US. This is the point of the story where it comes closest to the persistent widow principle.
When the angel changes Jacob’s name, he names him, “strives with God.” It is interesting that this is seen as a positive thing. He has gone from being the “deceiver” to being the one who “strives with God.” His “prevailing” is also positive. I researched this word and there isn’t much mystery to it. It just means “to win”. Jacob wins! But HOW does he win? How does he prevail? Is it by forcing God’s hand and getting the blessing through his own perseverance? He wins by being broken.
Notice that in v. 30. Jacob does NOT name the place, “I have striven with God and won”, but rather, Peniel, or “face of God.” Jacob doesn’t bask in his victory, he marvels that he has seen God and continues alive. He is recognizing that the man had been God’s angel and that the man could have killed him. He has received grace, and he knows it.
When Esau arrives and is favorably disposed, I think Jacob knew that it was not because of his gifts, but because of the blessing he had received from the angel. The next chapter concludes with Jacob building an altar that is called El-Elohe ISRAEL, (his new name).
Hosea 12, a parallel passage
Going to Hosea 12, I find further support for this interpretation of the event.
The Lord has an indictment against Judah
and will punish Jacob according to his ways;
he will repay him according to his deeds.
3 In the womb he took his brother by the heel,
and in his manhood he strove with God.
4 He strove with the angel and prevailed;
he wept and sought his favor.
He met God at Bethel,
and there God spoke with us—
5 the Lord, the God of hosts,
the Lord is his memorial name:
6 “So you, by the help of your God, return,
hold fast to love and justice,
and wait continually for your God.”
V. 2 starts out by pointing out Jacob’s sin. This can refer to the sin of the nation, or to the sin of the man (Jacob) who represents the nation. I don’t think the following verses are a description of this sin. The sin has been described previously to v. 2. Vs. 3-6 now explain to Israel, the nation, how they should act in view of the indictment that the Lord has against them and his promised punishment. Jacob’s life is an example to them of what they should do.
Verse 3 shows the contrast between the person that Jacob was from his birth (a deceiver who “grasps the heel”), and the person he was after being re-named by God (“in his manhood he strove with God”). Verse 4 describes the striving with God and is crucial to understanding Genesis 32. “He strove with the angel and prevailed; he wept and sought his favor.” Jacob’s “striving” was a weeping and seeking of God’s favor. This phrase captures so perfectly the brokenness of Jacob. He is weeping. He sees his need. He calls out to God for grace (favor).
Moving on in v. 4, it mentions God speaking at Bethel. If you look at this event in Gen. 35:9-10, you see that it also refers to the name change from Jacob to Israel. So this phrase is re-emphasizing Jacob’s victory in his striving. In v. 6 the application is drawn to the nation: “So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God.” The application of Jacob’s example is for them to OBEY the Lord (hold fast to love and justice) and to wait. V. pointed out to me the great contrast there is here between “waiting” and “struggling”. The nation is not to struggle as Jacob struggled, but to be broken as Jacob was broken, manifesting this brokenness in obedience and humbly waiting upon God, looking to him for his blessing.
Here is the great irony of this event: Jacob “won” by being beaten. I see Jacob’s “prevailing” as analogous to Abraham’s faith. His name, Israel, memorializes his holding on to the angel and asking for a blessing, and yet the whole story shows that the blessing would have never come had God left Jacob to continue on as he had been going. He would have vainly tried to assuage Esau’s rage with the gifts and then been decimated by him. God in his grace encountered Jacob, wrestled him to a place of seeing his weakness and asking for a blessing that he probably didn’t even fully understand what it would be.
So, can we just decide to wrestle with God in prayer about something? I don’t think so. But there are moments where God in his grace comes to us and humbles us so that he may bless us. The active part that we play in these encounters is revealed by Hosea 12. When we go to the Word and the Spirit shows us our sinfulness and our justly deserved judgment, we ask him for grace (v. 4–weep and seek his favor), repent (v. 6–“return, hold fast to love and justice”) and then “wait continually for him” (v. 6).
If we are faced with a great need to pray for, could it be that we would even pray all night, not as an attempt to get something from God, but recognizing at the outset that we are seeking to say to God by our extended praying that we are waiting upon him? We can say to him, “Lord, we are broken, we know we can’t meet this need through our own strength, nor can we earn anything from you by praying all night, but we are humbly seeking your favor. Break us further if there is any continuing self-reliance. We look to you for a blessing that we may not even fully understand.”
I can’t remember a time that I prayed all night for something, and my discipline in fasting is lacking also. I offer this interpretation humbly, recognizing that there are many in the “prevailing prayer” school who may have so much to teach me about waiting upon God. May the Lord give me wisdom to apply these insights to my own life.