[As part of our “Loving the Bible” class at Scoala Biblica Piatra Vie, each student is required to write a paper about some passage in the Bible and then present it to the class. I decided that since I’m requiring my busy students to do the paper, I should do it as well. Below is my paper about Jacob and his strange, late-night wrestling competition.]
To every child ever born God has given a destiny and purpose. He has specific plans for each human being and has not only created each person with such individual and unique personalities, likes and dislikes, even talents, but He has also ordained specific things for him to do during his short lifetime, things that only that particular individual can accomplish. Regrettably, most Christians are so haunted by their failures that they see only a long list of lost opportunities, resulting in a deep and pervasive sense of disappointment, a fear of having somehow missed God’s plans and purposes for their life. For many, this sense is great enough that they fail to see by faith the redemptive power of God to bring restoration and renewal. For those who have felt the weight of such a list of failures, there is much encouragement in the life of Jacob, in particular, in one fateful night when God met him and revealed his new identity.
Centuries before Israel became a nation, long before Moses led the Hebrew slaves to claim the Promised Land, God’s covenant with Abraham was in the life of one man and his eleven children. At this time, probably around 2000 to 1700 BC, the land of Canaan was governed largely by various city-states and populated by nomadic shepherds who, with their families and servants, acted as tribal warlords. The greatest centralized powers in the area at this time were Anatolia (the biblical Hittites) to the north, Egypt to the south-west, and Babylon to the east, but there was no one clearly-dominant authority among them. In this setting, the biblical patriarchs could forge their own destinies and lay the framework for a life in covenant relationship with God.
Unlike the case with his father Isaac, who remained in southern Canaan all of his life, Jacob’s life was characterized by travel and would encompass nearly as much geographical territory as had his grandfather Abraham’s. As a middle-aged man, he left his family in the area around Beersheba under the pretense of looking for a wife from his own people some 800 kilometers to the north in Paddan-aram. Twenty years later, guided by a dream, Jacob returned to Canaan to reunite with his family. Forced by drought conditions, he would eventually travel to Egypt to live out the rest of his life in Goshen, in the eastern part of the Nile Delta. His life journey stretched across more than 1000 kilometers and reflected the vast distance he traveled on an inner level as God matured him into the man who would father a nation.
A YOUTH FAR FROM PERFECT
Although Jacob claimed to be leaving his family in Canaan in order to find a wife in Paddan-aram, this was only partly true; there was an additional, more pressing concern that led him to make such a drastic move, and it stemmed from his own foolish and arrogant choices. As a young man, Jacob had taken advantage of his brother Esau, cheating him out of his inheritance rights as the firstborn son. Later, as a middle-aged man, he tricked his own blind and aging father into blessing him rather than his brother, the firstborn and favorite son. When Esau learned of Jacob’s deceitful action, he vowed to kill him. “Esau seethed in anger against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him; he brooded, ‘The time for mourning my father’s death is close. And then I’ll kill my brother Jacob.’” Rather than dealing with the results of his sinful actions, seeking restoration, Jacob chose to run away, leaving behind him a devastated and broken family and carrying with him the weight of his sin and the insecurities of his immature response.
Weighted down by his past, what would become of his destiny in God’s hands? And what would happen to the covenant blessing given to Abraham and promised to his descendants, namely to Jacob?
JOURNEY TOWARDS RESTORATION
While God gave Jacob numerous reminders of His faithfulness ever since the day he left his family, the main restorative work in Jacob’s life did not happen until twenty years later, on his journey home when he prepared to meet his brother Esau. Led by a dream in which God specifically directed him to return to Canaan and to his family, Jacob travelled south from Paddan-aram and finally came to the Jabbok River about 650 kilometers away. At this point, Jacob prepared to meet his brother for the first time in twenty years, and so he sent men to search for him, carrying a simple message announcing his return from Paddan-aram, the blessing of God on his life, and his hopes to be received favorably. The messengers returned with distressing news: “We talked to your brother Esau and he’s on his way to meet you. But he has four hundred men with him.” Reading this as a certain sign of Esau’s intent to fulfill his threat from twenty years earlier, Jacob was very afraid and began immediate preparations. He divided his camp into two groups so that if Esau attacked one, the other would be more likely to survive. He prayed for protection, reminding God of His promises and faithfulness despite Jacob’s failures, clearly indicating a change in his own attitude since he had left home but also strangely lacking in any sign of repentance for his sin against his brother. He also sent three large gifts of flocks and herds to Esau in an attempt to convince him of his goodwill and to appease the anger that had been stewing for twenty years in his heart. These were all good and necessary steps in the process of Jacob’s restoration and the renewal of the call of God on his life, but they dealt primarily with the external reality of the broken relationship with his brother. For full restoration, God would also need to heal Jacob, specifically his identity tarnished by sin, guilt, and insecurity.
By the time Jacob finished his work, busily preparing for war while at the same time desperately trying to avert it, evening had come. Under the cover of darkness, he sent across the remaining members of his household—his two wives, their servants, and the eleven children—and Jacob was now entirely alone. By himself, without distractions, God would have the space and time necessary to deal with Jacob’s heart and prepare him not only to meet his brother but also to take up the destiny and calling on his life as the bearer of the covenant and blessing of Abraham. Here, God would restore him and give him a new identity.
To accomplish this work of restoration, God sent a mysterious man to attack Jacob in the night. The two struggled until just before dawn, when the stranger touched Jacob’s thigh and pulled his hip out of joint, effectively ending the contest and demanding Jacob let him go. Jacob, though his hip was out of joint and obviously causing great pain, refused to release his hold unless the stranger blessed him. The man acquiesced, stating, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.”
The following morning, limping and likely exhausted from the exertions of the night, a very different Jacob would have looked towards the south to see Esau and his army of four hundred men on the horizon coming to meet him. Jacob, still unsure of his brother’s intentions, divided his children and wives—his most prized possessions—into three groups and then led them himself to meet Esau. He very clearly showed a submissive and repentant heart, bowing seven times before meeting his brother. Such a display of humility did not go unnoticed by Esau, and the effect was better than could have been expected: “Esau ran up and embraced him, held him tight and kissed him. And they both wept.” The twenty-year wound between the feuding brothers was now healed and Jacob was ready to pursue the destiny and calling on his life.
THE WRESTLING CONTEST THAT SAVED JACOB’S LIFE
Something important happened during the night as Jacob fought the mysterious assailant, something that left him a changed man. To understand the significance of this event, we should first ask who it is with whom Jacob fought. The Bible refers to Jacob’s combatant as a man, an angel, and even God Himself. Which one was he? Commentators in general collect all the ideas together rather than choosing one or the other, calling him “God… in the form of a man: God in the angel… not in a created angel, but in the Angel of Jehovah, the visible manifestation of the invisible God”, “a physical manifestation of Deity,” the “angel of the covenant,” and “one who in outward appearance wore the form of a man… the angel of Jehovah, who had previously appeared in like guise to Abraham… [and who] incarnated Himself as the Word made flesh.” He was a physical form of the spiritual, infinitely powerful God who by His mercy did not appear to Jacob in all His glory. This was no member of a desert raiding party, nor was it a spy sent from Esau, nor was it a demon wreaking havoc with Jacob’s sleep but rather God Himself. This is important because, being God, we know with a certainty that the wrestler’s intentions are undeniably and incomparably good.
While at first glance, we might assume Jacob’s assailant had come with the express purpose of killing or at least harming Jacob, when we recognize the man was God, we know this first impression cannot be correct. Besides the fact that God is always good, we also know He always wins. Should God have wanted to kill Jacob, He would have been able to do so quickly and easily and, certainly, He would have accomplished the task. Rather, because the man did not win, we can assume this was not his purpose. What was, then, his purpose? The goal of the assailant was in fact to bless Jacob, to release him from his past, to restore him to the destiny for which he was created, to give him a new identity. It is the blessing which the man gives that reveals the purpose for the attack. God fought Jacob not to kill him but to give him a new identity; no longer Jacob, he would be Israel.
The purpose of the battle was not to defeat Jacob but to make him into a new person free from his sinful past. As dawn broke, God pronounced a new name for Jacob: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” In the ancient world, a name was more than simply a tool used to identify a person; a name revealed a person’s essential nature, and to know a person’s name was the same as to know the person. According to Motyer, the link between a man and his name was much more dynamic and powerful than mere coincidence or chance. When God pronounced a change of name for Jacob, he was declaring as well a change of nature, stating in essence that who he was before was now dead and who he was to be would now live. Jacob was dead; Israel now lived. While we may draw quite a bit of meaning from the names “Jacob” and “Israel,” the point of the blessing concerned not the particular names but rather the fact that the name is changed. What mattered for Jacob’s healing was not what new name he received but that he did receive a new name and so also a new identity.
Although the details of the names are not as important as is the fact of the name change itself, there are some interesting details to note. The name “Jacob,” for instance, comes from a Hebrew word that has some quite negative meanings, including “one who overthrows” and “deceiver.” Appropriately, when his brother discovered that Jacob had stolen the blessing, he declared about him: “Is he not rightly named Jacob, for he has supplanted me these two times?…” The name, besides having some highly negative meanings, also symbolized all the deception and sinfulness of Jacob’s youth. He would certainly have been more than happy be get rid of this name along with all its negative associations and sinful history.
Besides giving Jacob a new name and identity, God also gave him a permanent reminder of His oath, a mark to remember His faithfulness to the covenant promise. To bring the battle to an end, God touched Jacob’s thigh, dislocating his hip from the joint and giving the man a permanent limp. While this at first may seem incidental, merely the man’s desperate and unfair attempt to win the contest, the thigh is a highly symbolic part of the human body. When Abraham asked his servant to swear to him, he had him place his hand under his thigh. Further, when Jacob would later ask Joseph to promise he would not bury him in Egypt but in Canaan, he would also have him place his hand under his thigh. When God touched Jacob’s thigh, it was not intended merely to give Him the upper hand but rather to mark him with a sign of covenant, a sign of God’s oath to Jacob. Further, the thigh was used as a euphemism for one’s genitals, and so also carried connotations of reproduction and the continuation of the family line. Touching Jacob’s thigh, the source of life and generational continuation, is symbolic of God’s promise to be faithful to the covenant not merely with respect to Jacob but also with respect to his sons, his grandsons, and all who would come from his line. God wounded Jacob’s thigh to do more than win a wrestling contest; He gave him a permanent and constant reminder of His faithful commitment to fulfill His promises.
THE GOD WHO TRIES US
God is unquestionably good, but it is not outside His character to initiate and even participate in a difficult trial in order to transform a person and prepare him for the work He has for him. In fact, this event is quite similar to events in both Moses’ and Jesus’ lives. In Exodus 4:24-26, Moses had just been commissioned by God to lead the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt. After finally submitting to God’s plan, he obediently gathered his wife and children and began the journey west. Along the way, without explanation, “the LORD met him and sought to put him to death.” In response, Moses had his children circumcised, thus changing their racial identity to Hebrew, and he then began the long process of leading his people to freedom. In Jesus’ case, He never fought directly with the Father as did Moses and Jacob, but even He underwent a period of testing, a battle, before beginning his ministry on the earth. After He was baptized and confirmed as the “beloved Son” in whom God was “well-pleased,” God led Jesus into the desert “to be tempted by the devil” for forty days. While God the Father did not directly battle Jesus during those forty days, He certainly led Him there for the specific purpose of facing temptation. After the trial, Jesus returned “in the power of the Spirit” and immediately began teaching, healing, and casting out demons, fulfilling His ministry. In both cases, the men are called by God and subsequently face a trial divinely orchestrated before fulfilling that call on their lives. Seeing such examples of how God has worked, it is not in the least unusual that Jacob faced a similar trial in preparation for the work to which God had called him.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR US?
Jacob is not the only one who has ever failed drastically in his life and put the call of God at risk. Neither is Jacob the only one to whom God has given a new identity. In fact, each of us can become a new creation through Jesus! “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” Just as God brought Jacob a new identity, so is this promise available to each of us who will put his trust in Jesus. The old, sinful, life does not have to be a weight of guilt and condemnation to the believer; it can be removed, killed, crucified with Christ.
It is important for us to remember that the path towards freedom will not be easy and may be quite frightening, but it is certainly good because it is initiated and orchestrated by God, who is perfectly good and loving in all that He does. Should a person desire freedom and put his trust in Jesus, God will surely make him into a new creation. Some things will change effortlessly and in little time. But other things will require work: repentance and confession to another, the embarrassment of humbling oneself to ask for prayer, the persistent struggle to change ingrained habits, etc. As Jacob did not give up, so we must not give up in our struggle for becoming new creations. As Paul himself wrote, we must fight with all our strength for God Himself is fighting for us: “…work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” Do not give up; a new identity awaits!
Brisco, T. V. Holman Bible Atlas. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers (1998).
Brown, F., Driver, S. R., & Briggs, C. A. Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (electronic ed.) Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 2000.
Elliger, K. and Rudolph W. eds. Hebrew Text: Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1967/77.
Exell, Jospeh S. and Henry Donald Maurice Spence-Jones. eds. The Pulpit Commentary. 1919.
Gesenius, W., & Tregelles, S. P. Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2003.
Jamieson, Robert, Fausset, A. R., and Brown, David. A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. 1871.
Keil, C. F. and Delitzsch, F. Commentary on the Old Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson (1996).
Motyer, J. A. and D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.) New Bible Dictionary. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press (1996).
Myers, A. C. The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987.
New American Standard Bible. La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995.
Smith, Chuck. Bible Commentary.
The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005.
Utley, Bob. Utley Bible Commentary. Bible Lessons International, 2014.
Wesley, John. John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible.
 Myers, 546.
 Genesis 27:41 THE MESSAGE.
 Throughout his life, God faithfully gave reminders to Jacob of his presence and blessing. In Genesis 28:1-4, as Jacob left, his father Isaac pronounced a second blessing over his life, calling for the “blessing of Abraham” to pass on to him. Jacob’s first personal encounter with the God of his fathers took place at Bethel in Genesis 28:11-22 during his flight from Esau; in a dream, God appeared to him and pronounced the covenantal blessing of Abraham over his life. He responded by committing himself to God, provided he should return safely. Even while working for his uncle, God abundantly blessed Jacob’s work (Genesis 31:42) and even provided eleven children for him. At the end of the twenty years, Jacob once again received personal guidance from God in Genesis 31:3, 11-13, a dream indicating it was time to return to his family. Even during his journey home, in Genesis 32:1, he was met by the angels of God in the area around Mahanaim shortly before meeting Esau.
 Genesis 32:3-5.
 Genesis 32:6 THE MESSAGE.
 Genesis 32:28 NASB.
 Genesis 33:4 THE MESSAGE.
 Genesis 32:24 – “…a man wrestled with him until daybreak”; Hosea 12:4 – “…he wrestled with the angel and prevailed…”; Genesis 32:28 – “…you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.”; Genesis 32:30 – “…I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved”.
 Keil and Delitzsch, Genesis 32:24.
 Utley, Genesis 32:24.
 Wesley, Genesis 32:24.
 Exell and Spence-Jones, Genesis 32:24.
 Genesis 32:28 NASB.
 Myers, “Name”.
 Motyer, 800.
 Genesis 27:36 NASB.
 Genesis 24:2, 9.
 Genesis 47:29.
 Myers, thigh.
 1 Peter 1:6-7 – “In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ…”; James 1:2-4 – “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”; James 1:12 – “Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.”; Matthew 5:10 – “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”; 2 Timothy 3:12 – “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
 Exodus 4:24 NASB.
 Matthew 3:17 NASB.
 Matthew 4:1 NASB.
 Luke 4:14 NASB.
 2 Corinthians 5:17 NASB.
 Galatians 2:20.
 Phlippians 2:12-13 NASB.