Bible Commentary: Genesis 32

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Genesis 32

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Wrestling with God

As Jacob and his company continued southwest toward the River Jabbok, today called the Wadi Zerqa, Jacob was met by angels and set up camp, calling the place Mahanaim, “Two Camps,” as the angels were camped here next to him. God was with Jacob and was returning him to Canaan, just as He had promised (Genesis 28).

Meeting Esau was a fearsome prospect. Jacob knew his elder brother to be an impetuous man who acted first and thought later. Would his rash nature explode in wrath? Would Esau avenge himself by slaughtering Jacob and all he had? If Esau still entertained thoughts of vengeance, Jacob would attempt to appease him with gifts. Perhaps showing deference and humility before Esau, addressing him as “Lord” and sending him presents, would turn Esau’s wrath away. Jacob sent out messengers to respectfully inform Esau of his approach. The messengers returned and told Jacob that Esau was coming—with 400 men! Jacob prepared for the worst, dividing his family and possessions into troops to send out one after the other with himself at the forefront (Genesis 33:3 Genesis 33:3And he passed over before them, and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.
American King James Version×
), hoping in this way to preserve as much of his family as possible should Esau attack. Ahead of them he sent troops of men bearing gifts, hoping waves of gifts would cool Esau’s hot head. For the moment, however, Jacob remained at the ford of Jabbok.

What happens next at Jabbok is of profound importance for understanding the character development of Jacob. Before examining the details of the story, though, we must look at Jacob’s prayer.

In reading the life of Jacob, we have seen him develop from a cultured and physically imposing young man—who relied on his own cunning and skill to obtain what he wanted, manipulating those around him—into a man who learned that real prosperity, security and peace depends on one’s righteousness before God. That in itself is a great growth in character. But by the time Jacob arrives in Jabbok after years of service for Laban’s flocks, he has made a quantum leap in character growth. The prayer in verses 9-12 shows that Jacob had now come to see that even complete righteousness before God does not entitle one to God’s goodness. “I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant,” he confessed (verse 10, New Revised Standard Version). Jacob now sees himself as he truly is—an unworthy man wholly dependent on the mercy and undeserved grace of God. Now, to bring his character to maturity, while Jacob is alone at Jabbok, the strangest wrestling match in history will be played out in the darkness, without a single spectator.

In the middle of the night, a supernatural Being comes down and wrestles with Jacob. This Being, identified as God, must have been the preincarnate Jesus Christ, who, as the “Word” with God the Father from the beginning, was also God (John 1:1-3 John 1:1-3 [1] In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [2] The same was in the beginning with God. [3] All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
American King James Version×
, John 1:14 John 1:14And the Word was made flesh, and dwelled among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
American King James Version×
). It could not have been God the Father since Jacob saw Him and, as the apostle John later stated, “No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18 John 1:18No man has seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him.
American King James Version×
)—clearly referring to the Father in this verse. (To learn more about the nature of God the Father and Jesus Christ, request or download our free booklet Who Is God?)

At first Jacob may not have known who his opponent was—but before the match was over, Jacob discerned His identity, for he later calls Him God (verse 30). Now why did God want to wrestle Jacob? A better question would be, why did Jacob continue to wrestle once he figured out he was wrestling with God? What would be the point of wrestling with God? God could easily beat His opponent. Or God could simply match His opponent move for move and produce a draw. Or God could deliberately lose. In any case, to continue the match would seem pointless. So why did Jacob continue to wrestle? We can’t know for sure of course. But perhaps it was simply because God wanted to wrestle—as a test of Jacob’s perseverance and attitude. The wrestling match, viewed in this context, would seem to have been a test of submission: Would Jacob submit to continuing to wrestle, even when it seemed pointless, just because God wanted it that way? Also, from the conclusion, it is evident that Jacob wanted God’s blessing. And God, it seems, wanted to know just how much he wanted it. In the end, Jacob demonstrated his deep feeling of total reliance on God’s blessing. And he showed that he would hold on to whatever God was doing in his life in order to receive that blessing. In confronting Esau and whatever other obstacles he would later face, his own cunning and ingenuity would not deliver him. He knew that he had to trust in God alone.

As the match progresses, Christ sees that He is not prevailing against Jacob. This does not mean that Jacob was winning and Christ was losing. It simply means that Jacob had not yet given up. He was still wrestling. Then Christ makes it far more difficult for Jacob to continue by striking his hip socket. In pain and even in tears (Hosea 12:3-4 Hosea 12:3-4 [3] He took his brother by the heel in the womb, and by his strength he had power with God: [4] Yes, he had power over the angel, and prevailed: he wept, and made supplication to him: he found him in Bethel, and there he spoke with us;
American King James Version×
), Jacob still does not give up. Finally, Christ tells Jacob to release Him as the day is dawning. But Jacob says he will not let go until Christ blesses him. This is almost certainly not disobedience, as it might appear to be. Rather, it is apparent that Jacob understood his holding on until receiving the blessing to be the reason God engaged him in the contest to begin with. In faith, we are to hold God to His promises to bless us until He does so—for that is what He has told us to do. In doing this, Jacob prevailed with God and was renamed Israel, meaning “Prevailer with God.” This does not mean that Jacob won and Christ lost. Indeed, the match ended before either of them was pinned. Of course, Christ could have pinned Jacob at any moment. But that was not His desire—nor was it the point. The point was to see if Jacob could persevere with God in the face of adversity. And he did. So who won the match, Jacob or Christ? The truth is that both won. God always prevails. And now Jacob prevailed with Him. It must be the same with us.