Wrestling with God

Genesis 32


We first meet Jacob as one of two people sharing his mother’s womb, and as a microcosm of his life, he is wrestling with his brother. From that moment in chapter 25 we see Jacob’s main trait, he is someone who fights for what he wants, he is a self-made man and trusts only himself. Someone born into conflict, with his brother and the world. Yet, from the very beginning, it is obvious that God’s grace is upon his life, that even though he thinks he is someone he would be no one without the hand of God on his life.

Over the next few chapters, we see that the only thing: Jacob and Esau have in common is their mother’s womb. Jacob was his mother’s favourite: Esau was his father’s. Jacob means ‘heel’ or ‘deceiver:’ Esau meaning ‘hairy’ because that is how he was born. Esau was a skilled hunter, a man of the field who would eat his own kill: Jacob was quiet, who enjoyed the comforts of home.

There are a couple of events in the chapters leading up to Genesis 32 that are important for us to know as they help us understand the chapter within its places in Genesis. They help us to see that God has been working in the life of Jacob at every point, even if Jacob has yet to grasp it. They help us to see that at even point Jacob has tried by his own hand it would have failed miserably without God’s hand upon him. First, Esau sells his birthright to his younger brother in exchange for some red lentil soup. Jacob sold his right to something eternal (The blessing of God on his life) to satisfy something temporal. Then as Joseph becomes aware of his own fragility, that he is coming to the end of his time we see the deceptive side of his second son. Joseph wants to pass on the blessing that he received from his father to his oldest Son. Thus, he commands Esau to go out into the wilderness and find him his favourite meal. Rebekah, standing near and listening in is concerned for her favourite son so she quickly sets in motion a plan that will see Jacob receive the said blessing. So, Jacob, listening to the words of his mother as if she is god goes out to the heard and kills to goats and before his brother has returned has received the blessing that was meant for Esau. In the time of Genesis, the blessing of a father was important because it acted as almost the written will. It was the moment when all that was the fathers was passed on to the oldest son. Jacob then does not steal a spoken word, he takes all that is his brother’s by right. It is the act that sets into motion the sequence of events. As you read through the chapters you see the hate that Esau has developed for his scheming brother, he plans to kill him once his father has passed (Gen 27:41). It is a moment that leads to Jacob being sent to his mother’s fathers land to live and work and marry. So two brothers who were born together are torn apart.


Jacob is as one prominent theologian described him a ‘Rat-bag.’ Someone who constantly thinks of himself and tries to grasp that which only God can give through his own mean. Jacob was someone who thought that he must scheme to wrestle of others that which he would only receive from God – Grace and Mercy. In the thinking and actions of Jacob, what do you see? Do you look at him with pity and wonder how he could act in such a way against his family and friends. Even against the very God of heaven and think: ”Thank goodness I am not like Jacob.” Hopefully, you have the humility to see yourself in the story of Jacob. In his actions towards others and God, he is a picture of every one of us today – a sinner.

Yet, as the chapters move on we soon start to realise that the story is not about Jacob. The story is Yahweh and his unrelenting grace that is at work in the life of someone who at times, it would seem wants nothing to do with it. In God bringing Jacob to Israel, we see a picture of the Christian journey. First, it is God who chose Jacob and then patiently worked in his life to bring him to a point of submission and trusting.

Again, as the story progresses we see Jacob receive several spoonfuls’s of his own medicine as he is deceived by his uncle Laban: With Rachel or Leah (Gen 29); The sorting out wages (30) where Laban removes the spotted and stripped male and female goat so that Jacob could not receive any wage in the long term. Yet, time and time again God intervenes and works on behalf of his chosen person.

Eventually, Jacob’s wealth – given because of God at work in his life – leads to jealousy and plotting amongst his cousins. God calls him to leave (31) returned to his homeland. So Jacob, convinces his two wives to go with him and they set off as he arrived with deception and scheming – he talks to his wives who he convinces not to tell their father because Laban stole from them. Rachel (with Jacob seemingly unaware the whole time) steals the household idols mas an act of revenge and her father Laban follows in hot pursuit seeking them because of the wealth they hold, on the journey. Yet one last time we see Yahweh comes to him in a dream and warns him to bring neither harm nor harsh words to Jacob. Yet, one more time we see the grace of God at work in the life of Jacob.


(1-2) God is with you

The previous Chapter ends with Laban breathing out a threat against his Nephew and Son-in-Law: “The Lord watch between you and me when we are out of one another’s sight.” (31:49) and with that threat still ringing in his ears Jacob and his accompaniment rise and soon learn how true it is. The God who has been with him on this entire journey and has worked on his behalf even as his schemes failed is with him now as Jacob meets with the Angel of God. Jacob is reminded that God is with him and of the significance of the events to come. Just as he was twenty years previous (28:12) as Jacob left the land of his father for the land of his mother’s family, depressed and fearful for his future. The Angel of the Lord meet him them to assure him that God was with him, now, the same angel meets him to assure him that as he faces what is ahead God is with him.

(3-5) Setting the scene
As someone steeped in Jewish culture reads they are often reminded of the details of a story by the names of places mentioned in the story. So it is important for us to understand in the same way: ‘Seir’ in Hebrew can be used to mean goat and should remind us of the hairiness of Esau, The word for country is the same as field and would make us recall the way in which Jacob secured his birthright and finally Edom (Red) reminds us of that infamous red soup for which Esau sold it.

These few verses shoe us that Jacob still doesn’t get it, he is still trying to fix things through his own actions. His first action is to sense Messengers to his brother, the word used here is the same as that for Angels in verse 1 and should portray the sense that Jacob is trying to act as God did. It is not at this point that Jacob is trying to scheme or deceiver it is simply that still, Jacob is depending on his own power, planning and ability to solve the problem at hand. Even after the intervention of the Angel of the Lord Jacob still, trusts himself over God. Even though his message displays humility and a deserve to be reconciled to his brother, the road he wants to take in that is his own, which is why he mentions all his material wealth that he hopes will bring him favour with his brother.

Planning and Prayer (6-12)
Suddenly the tempo of the whole narrative picks up because as seemingly as the messengers have passed over the horizon in search of Esau they are back. Their journey was shorter than one would naturally expect because Esau is on his way to meet his brother with a Militia of 400 men. Jacobs respond is two-fold. There is a vertical response and a horizontal response. In his react we start to see something of a change in the heart and character of Jacob. We see that he still thinks he can plot his own path out of this mess in his horizontal response. Yet, for the first time ever there is a vertical, there is a beckoning to Yahweh and in that a sign that God is slowing changing Jacob.

Practical Response (7,13-20)
The last time Jacob spoke to his brother, Esau threatened his life fearful for his life when you consider the last time he heard from his brother he threatened to kill him. So, after 20 years, when you are told your brother whom you stole from is stampeding towards you with 400 men you would rightly fear for your life. It is an understandable fear, but a fear that forgets God. So, Jacob plans how best to survive the expected attack, removing Yahweh’s assurance from the equation: He divides his camp into two because if one is attacked then at least the other will have the opportunity to escape.

Quickly we will look at his attempt to appease Esau using material things. Jacobs next scheme is to overwhelm his brother with generosity. Heard after heard of animals are sent. They are staged for maximum effect to allow for time and impact. The large Gap and the communication that his brother was just behind them to give the sense that each gift was the last one, then another one and another one and another one. Animals that were not mentioned on the previous list – female camels – are now used. such is the urgency and fear of his life he is using everything at his disposal to survive. Yet, no matter what he sends the picture is simple, he is still trusting himself instead of God. He has still to grasp the truth that spiritual blessing only comes only by trusting and submitting to Gods will.

Prayer (9-12)

Jacob’s prayer is a wonderful moment, both in its context and structure. Contextually, it is the first-time Jacob prayers to God. Structurally, it mirrors the Lord’s prayer and gives us a sense of how we should approach God. For the first time, he has turned to God rather than waiting for God to appear to him and all it took was the threat from 400 men who he thought wanted to kill him. Yet, are we any different? When do we pray? The truth is that we are no different and in his shoes, we would have reacted the very same way and often we only do turn to God as a matter of last resorts.

Let’s look at the prayer and appreciate it for both its content and structure:

1. Invocation: For the first time God gets the praise and Honour that is due to him.
2. Recitation: Jacob remembers all that God has done for him and for the first time seems thankful.
3. Confession: Jacob confesses his sin through comparing himself to the grace of God that is in his life.
4. Petition: Jacob for the First time asks for Gods assistance in this circumstance, showing a sign of a changing man who is starting to realise that with all the wealth and plans in the world only God can bring him salvation.
5. Recitation: One last time, Jacob recalls that which God Promised him. Starting to trust that God will act on the covenant he has made with him.

It’s a simple prayer, simple in goal and content, yet it is a prayer we can learn from: it shows us how to pray and additionally it shows us that God is working in the life of Jacob. It is a prayer that is soon answered. The last action of Jacob in this section of the passage is one last desperate act of defence, as under the cover of darkness he moves all that he has across the Jabbok river, his wife, children and possessions. The Jabbok being a fierce and flowing river with a strong undercurrent, you would not cross it during the brightness of the day unless you had to unless your life depended on it. So the fact that Jacob moved risked all he had by moving it under the cover of night, should help our minds grasp how helpless he must have felt, he wanted one last line of defence between the soon expected militia that was baying for his blood and his loved ones. Something was soon to arrive, but it was not as he expected.


This is a strange, complex and vague section of the text which can make it hard to understand and preach. There have been lots of weird and wonderful explanations around the character who Jacob encounters: Some have argued that is Jacob’s Guardian Angel, sent to help him become the man God wants him to be; Some say it is his brother Esau; Others suggest it is his father Isaac coming in the middle of the night to teach his son a lesson; Still others would say it is a demonic force or Canaanite god. While all these could make sense, when you hold them up against the entire story and the book of Genesis, the simplest explanation and the only one that makes sense is that shadowy figure in the middle of the night, is God himself.

There are primarily two reasons the conflict occurs at night: One, to conceal the identity of the adversary; Two, Night is often associated with a time of reflecting and self-examination in Jewish thinking, a time when fear grips a person and they start to grasp the truth. That is what we see happen here: In the middle of the most uneven wrestling match in history, Jacob grapples with God and slowly starts to grapple with the truth of the unmerited means of spiritual blessing. Grace.

This is not a ten-minute conflict, it is a wrestling match that drags on for the rest of the night, with Jacob unrelenting in his will to win even if his body is failing. It makes me wonder how if the other figure is God, Jacob can match him for such a length of time: Hour after hour, they would role about, Jacob doing whatever he could to try to survive with every. Nonetheless, with every scuffle, grapple and throw Jacob tired, and his assailant seemingly just kept going. The reason is Jacob could match God for a period, not because God was weak or Jacob strength was equal, it was because God allowed it for a time and was using it for his purpose.

A subtle touch(25)

Once the sky starts to brighten and the rays of the sun start to creep over the horizon, God decides enough is enough, and with a subtle touch to the hip, Jacob’s joint is completely shattered. All the energy expended fighting to survive and as Jacob sensed the rising sun and perhaps thought he had done enough to survive and would now know his challenger, at the moment when Jacob thought that his actions had been enough God simply touched him and he collapsed. God was showing him that he stood before God only because God chose to allow him to stand. The only reason Jacob had been able to last the night with this man was not that of his own strength, tactic’s or cunning. It was because God had allowed him.

Yet, even still though Jacobs body is broken, his resolve is not. This time something is different, Jacob is different, this encounter has changed him. In verse 26, the figure asks to be released. Through this request, he asks something of Jacob which means in return Jacob has the change to ask something of him – to make a deal. You would expect him to use the situation to his own advantage. To scheme and deceive, maybe to ask for help to deal with the impending threat of his brother, nonetheless, he doses not because Jacob has finally grasped the truth that God has been trying to teach him this whole time.

“I will not let you go unless you bless me” (26b)

Jacob asks for one thing: undeserved spiritual blessing – Grace. The prophet Hossa when describing the events of the wrestling match with God would further add to the imagery in Chapter 9 when he tells us that Jacob knelt and wept at the foot of God.

What is your name?(27-30)

The Angel of the Lord asks the name of the man who would ask something of him, it is a rhetorical question that sets the scene for what is to come. Transformation. The deceiver cries his name: “Jacob”. Then, with authority only expected from a King, the figure declares that no longer shall he be known as Jacob, from this day he will be Israel – he who wrestled with God – The change in name points to a change in Jacob. The reality that he has finally grasped that God’s blessing cannot be earned, it can only be gratefully received. Jacob is now ready to carry the blessing God has placed on his family line and become the father of a nation.

We also learn something about the figure Jacob faced. Normally, the act of giving someone a new name was one reserved for a king. So, if this figure can declare a change of name and Jacob has the sense to accept it, then we learn that he must be facing someone with true authority and he must know it. Jacob seeking to turn the tables enquires for a name and is met with a rhetorical question. Why? The figure refuses to respond because he does not need to respond, Jacob knows that he stands before God and we know this because of what he names the place.

Jacobs names the ground he stands on because of the significance of the events, Peniel. It reminds us and him, that no one can wrestle with God and survive unless God himself wills that survival.
Conclusion: Have you Seen the Face of God?
As the sun rises over a new day, it also rises over a new man. Israel. He who wrestled with God and survived. He who understands that God’s blessing comes from God, and in no other way. Before chapter 32 Jacob was a self-reliant man. A man who was nothing without God’s grace on his life, yet a man who sought to earn everything through his own means. He was someone who trusted only himself.

We start to see a subtle change in the first half of this chapter as Jacob deploys his own measures against the impending threat of his brother and for the first-time prays, he turns to God and trusts himself. It gives you the sense of God I know you said you will be with me, and I think you will in this encounter but just in case I am going to act of my own accord. So even though there are signs that Jacob is starting to trust God, it is not enough and it requires radical intervention.

In the most uneven wrestling match in history, we see something of the beauty and consistency of God’s Character. I do not know what you see when you read the story of God coming to wrestle a man in person, who he had been wrestling with for 20 years: I See Grace, as God directly intervenes into the life of one he loves and allows him to not only survive but triumph.

The wrestling match was meant to break the self-reliance of Jacob and turn it into God-reliance. It reminds us that God’s blessing comes only through God, it cannot be earned or fought for – we must simply put our trust in God and his plans. Only the grace of God is sufficient. So as Jacob sets off to face what was his biggest fear – his brother – surely now he knows that he has nothing to fear because he has wrestled with God and survived.
Today we must answer a Gospel Question: Can we truly say that we have seen the face of God? If so have we grasped the freeing and beautiful truth that we don’t have to do it on our own. As Jacob went to face Esau knowing that he was never alone, have we grasped the same truth that God is always with us? As Jacob learned that he could not rely on his own strength and strategy in what he faced, can we say we too are trusting in God? Today true spiritual blessing comes only through the cross of Christ. So ask yourself? Do you know the freeing reality of the Gospel? Is God at work in you today?


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