This passage about Jacob wrestling with a mysterious man is, I think, one of the most fascinating and intriguing sections in the whole of the Bible. It seems like such a random thing: a mysterious wrestling match with a mysterious figure. And yet this is what God uses for one of the most important aspects of the Bible’s overarching story lines. The name Israel comes into being here. And Israel remains a key name into the New Testament and beyond into our lives today. We are part of God’s people ‘Israel’. As Paul says in his letter to the Galatians.
Gal 6:15-16 Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule – to[b] the Israel of God.
The name Israel is closely connected with Blessing. Not only in Genesis 32 but all the way back in Genesis 12 and in some ways to the beginning of Genesis. Abraham is Jacob’s Grandad and in Genesis 12 Abraham receives his calling and his blessing.
The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
‘I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.’
That Blessing given to Abraham will become a part of Jacob’s story. In my talk this morning I will give some background as to who Jacob is; and how he came to be crossing the river Jabbok where the wrestling match takes place. On our journey this morning I will also cover three types of wrestling that we encounter today in our everyday lives. The first is sibling wrestling; the second is adult and child playful wrestling; and the third is wrestling entertainment shows such as WWE.
I come from a large family and am the oldest of 8 siblings. After me I have three brothers ranging from 1 – 4 years younger than me. After my brothers I have 4 sisters. My sisters are between 6 and 15 years younger than me. Sometimes in large families there becomes a natural split in the middle, an older half and a younger half. That very much happened in my family. I grew up playing with my brothers while my Mum looked after my little sisters who played together. Us older ones would often stubbornly refuse to let the little ones play with us.
Amongst the many games I played with my brothers was play wrestling. Sibling play wrestling though is never just playing. In our play wrestling as young children there was always the concept that at the end of all our playing, one sibling would be the strongest, and that point was never lost. We played wrestling as children because of sibling rivalry. To this day we remain a competitive family.
For Jacob and his brother Esau that sibling rivalry through wrestling began before they were even born. They were twins and they shared their mother’s womb.
Genesis 25:22-23 says that the babies jostled each other within [their mother, Rebekah] …, and she said, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ So, she went to enquire of the Lord. The Lord said to her,
‘Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you will be separated;
one people will be stronger than the other,
and the elder will serve the younger.’
The brothers were wrestling even in their birth. Esau came out first, but Jacob was clinging onto him by the heel. Jacob means ‘he grasps the heel.’ That is the literal meaning anyway; but that word in Hebrew also had the metaphorical meaning of ‘he deceives’. Names matter and maybe Jacob took the identity given to him by his name too far. He remained the kind of guy that was always one-up on his brother, even if that meant winning through trickery or deceit.
In ancient times being the first born was important. The first born got all sorts of advantages; and although the two brothers had come out the womb together attached to one another hand to heel, technically Esau was the eldest. But twice Jacob deceived Esau out of the advantages he had as the first born – there was no way he was up for letting Esau get the best deals as the elder sibling. The first time he tricked Esau out of his birthright; and the second time, with his mother’s help and guidance, he deceived Esau out of the moment their blind Father Issac wanted to give Esau a special blessing as his first born – the covenant blessing that had been passed from God to Abraham and from Abraham to Isaac.
The particular blessing that Jacob managed to get in place of Esau was this ‘…
May God give you heaven’s dew
and earth’s richness –
an abundance of grain and new wine.
May nations serve you
and peoples bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers,
and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.
May those who curse you be cursed
and those who bless you be blessed.’
The ending to that is exactly the same as part of the blessing given to Abraham and his descendants.
So, Jacob seemed to be in a constant battle with his brother in a bid to be the one to come out on top. To be the brother than won all the good stuff going and any advantages that there were to be gained within the family.
There wasn’t much in the way of blessing left for Esau that wouldn’t undo Jacob’s blessing and Esau felt so angry he wanted to kill his brother. Jacob had to leave for his own safety. With his parent’s knowledge and blessing he journeyed to the distant land of his uncle Laban – his mother’s brother.
Jacob spent 20 years with Laban. He worked hard looking after Laban’s animals for 14 years so that he could earn his two wives, Leah and Rachel. The final 6 years he earned his own flocks out of Laban’s as wages tor tending the flocks and working hard to keep all the animals safe.
When Laban agreed to give a wage Jacob’s competitive streak kicked in again. He figured out ways to get lambs to be born with specific markings. So whatever marking Laban and Jacob agreed to as Jacob’s wages: spotted, speckled, streaked, or dark coloured, Jacob would breed the strongest sheep to produce the required markings, so he would get all the strongest flocks and Laban, his own Uncle and Father in law, got the weakest.
Not surprisingly Laban got frustrated when Jacob kept ending up with the strongest animals, so he kept changing which markings would be Jacob’s wages. He changed Jacob’s wages 10x and every single time Jacob would end up with the strongest animals. And so Laban gets angry with Jacob and feels like he is stealing his animals. Laban doesn’t quite get to the point of wanting to kill Jacob but nonetheless he kind of just runs away from Laban because Laban is angry. He goes on the advice of God actually. God tells him to go back to the land of his fathers and his relatives and that He, the Lord, would be with him.
Jacob heads back to his homeland with his family and everything he has earned with his hard work – and trickery. When Laban realises that Jacob has sneaked away he chases after him.
But God has still got Jacob’s back and God warns Laban not to let out the full force his fury on Jacob and to try and remain neutral. Laban and Jacob promise not to harm each other; then they part ways and Jacob continues on his journey.
What do you think of Jacob?
Jacob doesn’t have the strongest relationship with God. When he was initially running away from Esau God had appeared to him in a dream about a ladder and promised to be with him and watch over him. The dream impacted Jacob but didn’t seem to quite believe the dream fully because he made a vow that the Lord would only be his God only if he did bring him back safely to his father’s household. In all his achievements he rarely realised that it was God working through it all.
Adult and Child Playful wrestling
As Jacob nears his home land he sends some messengers ahead of him to tell Esau that he is on his way. The message he receives in return is that Esau is on his way to meet them with 400 men. And this is when suddenly Jacob panics. He normally knows how to have the upper hand but it sounds like Esau is coming to kill him as he was keen to do 20 years ago. But Jacob has a young family to protect and he can’t stand against 400 men. His usual strength and intellect may fail him in this encounter and he doesn’t know what to do.
Jacob the deceiver comes up with a trick idea: He designates his family and his herds and flocks into two parties in the hope that one would survive. He then spends time in prayer. Through the night he comes up with a further trick and sends several very large gifts of animals to Esau ahead of him – each gift separated out from the others so they arrive at different times, and each with a message that Jacob was coming behind. His hope being that the gifts would calm Esau. He sends his gifts ahead of himself and his family and stays in the camp another night with his family and flocks.
Most likely his anxiety, fear, and over-thinking keeps him awake because in the middle of the night he gets up, wakes his family up and helps them ford the river along with all his possessions. Presumably still designated into their two parties. It seems the river is shallow enough to wade through.
And then he is left alone.
He is alone in a shallow river, or on the muddy bank of the river. Standing in pitch darkness, on the threshold of his homeland, alone with his fearful thoughts. His last fight in that homeland had been the one to wrestle the blessing off Esau, the one that now left him fearful of Esau’s retaliation.
Then completely out of the blue he is attacked by a man who wrestles him. In the pitch darkness he can’t see who it is but Jacob stands his ground against this unseen man and the two of them wrestle. They are matched equally in strength and persistence and so the wrestling continues through the rest of the night. Presumably the two of them are wrestling for several hours before the sun begins to rise. It must have been pretty exhausting but Jacob is always a determined guy and keeps the fight up. There are clues in Jacob’s story that he is a pretty strong guy so he may be wondering why he can’t quite get the upper hand over his unseen attacker.
The clue that it is a very real and very physical fight, rather than a dream, is the physical limp that Jacob eventually receives.
Eventually Jacob senses that this is God he has been wrestling. It may seem strange that God chose to come to Jacob in such a physical manner but I think there are clues as to why within the concept of parenting.
When my girls were little they often wanted to play rough and tumble games with their Mum or Dad – including Wrestling. Rose in particular loved to play wrestling. She called our wrestling games ‘battle force’. In Battle force we would play on the bed I share with my husband, usually chucking pillows and duvets down the side to break any accidental falls off the bed. The aim of battle force was simply to get the other person down for a count of three seconds.
I tended to let Rose win most of the time, but not every time. The challenge as the adult over a much smaller and weaker child is to give the effect that she is actually stronger than you – which is easier said than done. Another challenge is to play even when you’re tired or busy. And that’s something I was a bit rubbish at.
Children like to play wrestling because it can give them the effect of power, and the effect of control. But I think the physical matters very much too. It’s a lot like a hug but with a great deal more effort.
The main thing parent child wrestling does is to build relationship. It builds intimacy and trust in a safe manner.
There are a whole variety of reasons why play wresting is really beneficial, and it can depend on the individual child’s need; and I reckon that wresting was the perfect way for God to be a good parent to Jacob. And God wasn’t too tired or too busy to meet Jacob at the river for a wrestling match.
In a book about play therapy with children, the author suggests rules for wrestling. Some of the rules are these:
- Provide basic safety (Well Jacob was wrestling in a shallow river, or perhaps in the mud on the river bank. It likely was a safe place for wrestling with soft landings).
- Find every opportunity for connection (Jacob needed connection. He needed relationship. Although God had appeared to Jacob on a few occasions in the past, the two of them didn’t seem to yet have fully connected. Jacob didn’t yet have complete trust in God and was relying on his own strength and canniness to get him through life).
- Increase their confidence and sense of power. (I believe that God matched his strength to Jacob’s and fought all through the night because a need to feel strong and powerful was linked with Jacob’s identity. He didn’t seem to like being second best in anything. Jacob didn’t lose the wrestling match even after the hip dislocation. God didn’t actually want Jacob to lose his confidence or feel weak. Jacob had been struggling against a sudden feeling of powerlessness as he considered facing Esau and God does want to help him overcome that sense of powerlessness.)
- Use every opportunity to play through old hurts. (Later in the book the author says this: ‘You may need all your strength to make sure no one gets hurt when children kick and fight hard. They aren’t wrestling any more, but releasing a huge pile of terror and anger: They may be only dimly aware that you are there, holding them and making sure no one gets hurt…This happens because children have been hurt and scared, and you may be shocked that they have these emotions inside of them. The wrestling opened the door for the release of these heavy feelings.’ Genesis 32 says that Jacob was in great fear and distress. God let Jacob work out all the frustrations and fears he had in a physical, energy draining wrestling match. At that moment it was fear of Esau that was getting to him most of all but there were other hurts Jacob had to work through. I reckon he sensed the unfairness of the ancient tradition of the eldest getting the benefits and that was why he had fought so hard to get the benefits that tradition said Esau should get.)
- Provide just the right level of resistance to the child’s need. (For Jacob’s situation God needed to match his strength to Jacob’s exactly.)
- Stop if someone gets hurt.
God wrestles with Jacob as his Parent, because of Jacob’s past identity as a wrestler since birth, and because of Jacob’s fears, and because Jacob needs a deeper relationship with God.
For us too we have our fears that we need God to help us deal with. Like Jacob was we too are recipients of the promise that God will always be with us, and the recipients of the blessing given to Jacob in Genesis 12. We too are children of God.
But like Jacob we can forget these things, or lose hope. And maybe we could do with a bit of wrestling to help us deal with our difficult, negative feelings; or our worries about the future. I don’t think I’ve ever wrestled as an adult with someone of equal strength but I have found that doing something physical like running or punching pillows helps with frustration. And hugs help too. Wrestling is an interesting combination of hugging and energy releasing activity so it’s pretty great at dealing with horrible feelings.
Jacob was worried about meeting Esau because of his past treatment of Esau. What are you worried about? You are a child of God and he’s got your back just like he had Jacob’s.
Wrestling Entertainment Shows.
The third type of contemporary wrestling that is relevant to this passage and that is wrestling entertainment shows. The difference between play wrestling and entertainment wrestling is that the hurts and frustrations to be worked through are written into scripts rather than being real. They are essentially TV dramas based around wrestling.
I think this is relevant to the story of Jacob, not because the story wasn’t real life, but because God isn’t removed from putting a bit of controlled wrestling into our storyline as a twist in the plotline. In fact, as said at the beginning this wrestling match is a key in the Biblical Narrative that affects us too: The background to the name Israel is fighting.
Jacob wrestles through the night not knowing who he is wrestling. But, as the very first light of day begins to dissipate the utter blackness, Jacob might now begin to discern some of the features of the mystery man. But this is when the figure, who is actually in control of the script and the story, makes his move to end the wrestling and get away.
He touches Jacobs hip and it dislocates and asks to be let go because it is daybreak. (Remember the rules of play wrestling above? Stop if someone gets hurt.)
One of the reasons for playful wrestling in parenting is to build relationship and to build trust. In order for that trust and relationship to be developed between Jacob and God going forward God included a carefully controlled injury within the fight.
Hurting Jacob easily at the moment of his choice when they had been wrestling hard all night showed that the attacker could have done that any time – but chose not to. And asking to suddenly end the wrestling match just at the very first sign of a wee bit light gave Jacob the hints he needed to start fitting the pieces together of who this guy was This was someone supernatural; and so he asked for a blessing. There is a sense of trust in that. Having wrestled through the night he now trusted his wrestling partner to be a being who would give a good blessing.
His personality trait of persistence is a good personality trait and we can be persistent in seeking a blessing of some kind too.
There is general agreement among scholars that the blessing is the name change which is followed by a farewell blessing.
The blessing of the name change, and the sudden disappearance following a farewell gives Jacob the full realisation that the encounter was with none other than the Lord. Not and angel, but God himself.
God asks Jacob his name before giving a new name because he wants Jacob to say it aloud. Jacob is saying ‘I am a deceiver and a wrestler – a heel grasper’. And that gives God the opportunity to contrast it with a new identity. Israel means God fights or God strives. Though the explanation given is somewhat different than the name meaning. The explanation: ‘because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome’ highlights that Jacob has achieved great things – he does have strength and intelligence. But it also highlights that God has been with him thus far in all his achievements.
The new limp and the blessing of the new name go together. Combined they show that, although Jacob’s strength had been God-given, he should not rely solely on his personal strength and cunning in life. He wins battles because it is God with him that does it.
Blessing and loss go hand in hand in Genesis 32; and for us as individuals or as a congregation we too may need to lose something before we can fully receive a blessing.
We may think we need certain things to survive – but the reality might be that these things are actually holding us back from fully trusting God and fully committing our future into his hands Jacob needed to lose the strength he had in his legs through his hips so he could learn to stop relying on his own strength and wits and learn to trust God. In that was his blessing. For us – God may be wrestling with us so that we can give up some things that we hold dear before he can bless us.
What might we need to give up in order to strengthen our trust in the Lord, move into the future, and receive a blessing? Or maybe we’ve already lost it by a touch from the Lord, and need to let go and move on?
Maybe it is even long held traditions that we think are essential to our wellbeing but are in reality, the things we need to lose.
As we wrestle with God, and with his Word to us in Scripture, we may find that we come away injured by God’s challenges to us. But after losing stuff we need to keep fighting on for a personal blessing. Keep being patient and not giving up.
The new name and the new limp gave Jacob the confidence he needed to face his brother. When Jacob says that his life was spared in this encounter with God it includes a realisation that Esau would not kill him because God was at work fighting on his behalf. As it turns out Esau runs to hug his brother as soon as he sees him and their relationship is renewed and strengthened.
As God’s people Israel, sometimes we too need to stop striving to do things on our own strength, and to trust God to take us safely into the future. As Zechariah 4:6 says Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the Lord Almighty.
Just as Jacob was upset that Esau might end up more blessed than him, sometimes we look at other people or other congregations and think they are more blessed than us. But I think the story of Jacob’s wrestling match shows us that God is aware of supposed injustice and he wants to bless us too and he is indeed on our side and striving for us.
Jacob was blessed by grace. God broke tradition and chose the younger brother over the elder to be the continuation of God’s covenant people. Jacob learned in that wrestling match that he had been chosen by grace; and he realised that one-upmanship was not what God intended. In his old age he chose to bless each of his own sons equally by grace. And we too are under God’s grace. So, let’s hold on tight with persistence and patience as Jacob did for the blessing God wants to give us.