The Gospel for Christians

Genesis 32:22-32 What does it mean to “wrestle with God”

Posted on by Bryan Jay

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…

Dear Allan,

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.


Summarizing

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.

Bryan

22 Responses to Genesis 32:22-32 What does it mean to “wrestle with God”

  1. Shedrick says:

    Thanks, for this, the Spirit tells me your interpretation comes from Him.
    I will use this in my sermon tomorrow.

    God bless you for this.
    Shedrick

  2. Hank says:

    Of all times I needed this understanding and see it to be true. I too shall pray for the wisdom to apply this to my own life. Thank you for your explanation and may GOD bless you for sharing !!

  3. Shawn says:

    Thank you for this! I’ve been praying today for the Lord’s blessing upon my own blog that I hope to publish soon on “Turning from Worshiping Self to Worshiping God.” I was wondering if Jacob’s insistence that “the man” bless him was really a cry of humility before God. Then God brought to mind this passage and I found your blog! God is faithful!

  4. Mike says:

    Hi Bryan,

    Going through a tremendous amount right now. Feel like I am wrestling with God. Googled it and ended up here. I believe your interpretation is on target. Thanks for writing it. Now I wrestle. Blessings, Mike

  5. Rachelle Fremont says:

    Hi Bryan

    I just said to God if I could find Him, I would wrestle with Him until He changes me. I never understood this passage until today.

    Thanks for sharing

    Rachelle

  6. Rachelle Fremont says:

    Thank you very much!

  7. talilotu ofo says:

    Thank you so much sir, for sharing. Such a spiritual blessing to fill my own hungry soul … I will also use it in my sharing with others. May the Lord our God continues to richly bless you … Tali

  8. Bee says:

    A day ago, I had a dream linked with a sickness (fever, chills). I was shaken awake by the chills. My mind revealed a wrestling match. My soul led me to Genesis 32 which I struggled to digest. Searching through several commentaries, I stumbled upon your words. The murkiness is settling and the water is clearing. The visual struggle is a powerful reminder…”Jacob wins by being broken.” Thank you for sharing your wisdom.
    Blessings,
    Bee

  9. Sherab says:

    Thank you Bryan for your lucid interpretation of one of the most mysterious and powerful sections of the Bible!
    During my own struggle with understanding a story so vast in its potential and so far beyond words in many ways, I have consulted many opinions. Your reading is one which especially struck me.
    And it inspired me to add my own understanding to your wonderful reading: Jacob wins by being broken – but only because he insisted on the struggle, on measuring his abilities and thus realising them. Had he succumbed to a ‘greater power’ straight away, then he would have never been blessed. To find our path through trial and error, to struggle for the truth, is what forges us into a receptacle for the light. And the wounds we acquire on the way will eventually turn into our greatest strengths and form our individual connection points with the divine.
    Blessings to you, Bryan, for publishing your thoughts!
    Sherab

  10. Mitchel says:

    May the Lord continue to speak through you

    thankyou

  11. Pingback: Why We Wrestle with God – A Commentary on Genesis 32:22-32 | The Walk to Siloam

  12. Siloam says:

    Bryan, thank you so much! Your insights have helped me tremendously in my own understanding of this passage: here

    The Hosea passage you point out clarifies so much. Thank you again.

  13. Luis Tunon says:

    This was awesome, my friend. God bless you and your relationship with Him. Thank you so much for this!

    Luis

  14. Dennis Paganga says:

    Thank you so much. Everytime when I prayed asking God for something, I always end up realizing that it’s not how I am supposed to address God,that there’s more to prayer but I couldn’t place it. Your article brings some clarity. Let us continue to inquire on the Lord there’s more to learn from Him.

    God bless

    Dennis

  15. Minty myers says:

    Thanks Bryan, your insight of this passage is an eye opening for me. I pray that I will be consistent, and persistent in prayer.

  16. Harry says:

    I would like to use the sermons to inspire my congregation and for them to know who God is fully.

  17. Ola says:

    Thanks for this revelation. God bless you sir.

  18. Ethel McClyde says:

    May God continue to bless you with wisdom, insight and true humility. Thank you for sharing.

  19. charlotte says:

    thank you for the commentary, it really helped me to understand what it actually meant.

  20. Marline Garcia says:

    My Pastor preached on this chaphter today, and he explained how God took Jacob to Jabok, and how Jacob needed to leave somethings that were within him there. How after he wrestled with the angel of God and his hip got dislocated he continued to wrestle and asked for God’s blessing. Then God changed his name from Jacob to Israel because after that encounter Jacob’s life would never be the same. Some things in his life had changed. Really enjoyed the way you broke it down it allowed me to understand this chapter clearer between the botj of you

  21. Saleh, Jurgoi says:

    I’m bless with this exegesis, the Lord in heaven will continue to be your strength and the source of your knowledge.

  22. Ayella Ronaldo says:

    I was jus thinking about a short devotional for my colleagues during this time of corona pandemic, where everybody seems to be in a state of panic and self effortive. The Spirit led me to this story and as soon as I read your exegetical comment, I immediately wanted to share this insight to the “Jacobs” of our time. May the Lord richly bless his word through you and may he continue to manifest himself powerfully through you. Great enlightenment.

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