Genesis 32:22–32 recounts the puzzling story of Jacob in an all-night wrestling match. His opponent is a man who refers to himself as “God” (verse 28). Later, Jacob also refers to the man he struggled with as “God” (verse 30).
To know Jacob’s story is to know his life was a never-ending struggle. Jacob’s family was characterized by deep-seated hostility. Jacob was a con artist who had been conned, a liar who had been lied to, and a manipulator who had been manipulated. In many ways, he lived up to his name Jacob, which literally means “heel-catcher” and carries the sense of “one who follows after to supplant or deceive.”
God had promised Jacob that through him would come a great nation through whom the whole world would be blessed (Genesis 28:10–15). Still, Jacob was a man full of fears and anxieties. His brother, Esau, had vowed to kill him. His uncle, Laban, had cheated him for years. His two wives had an adversarial relationship with each other.
After he fled Laban’s ill-treatment, Jacob and his family camped in a spot chosen for him by angels (Genesis 32:1–2). From there, he sent messengers with a gift to his estranged brother, Esau, and they returned with the news that Esau was on his way with 400 men (Genesis 32:3–6). Fearing the worst, Jacob divided his family and herds so that, in case one group fell victim to Esau’s men, the other group might escape. Jacob prayed for the Lord’s help and then sent several caravans of lavish gifts ahead of him in hopes of pacifying Esau. Finally, Jacob sent his wives and children across the River Jabbok with all the rest of his possessions (Genesis 32:22–23).
Alone in the desert wilderness, Jacob had the ultimate restless night. A stranger visited Jacob, and they wrestled throughout the night until daybreak, at which point the stranger crippled Jacob with a blow to his hip. Even then, Jacob held on. He must have known there was something supernatural about this stranger, because he demanded a blessing from him (Genesis 32:26). The stranger then gave Jacob a new name: Israel, which likely means “he struggles with God” (Genesis 32:28).
The stranger gave the reason for Jacob’s new name: “Because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome” (Genesis 32:28). Jacob asks for the stranger’s name, but the man declines to give it—Jacob knew with whom he wrestled. And then Jacob receives what he wanted: a blessing (Genesis 32:29). Jacob limped for the rest of his life, but he “saw God face to face” (Genesis 32:30) and received God’s blessing. In his weakness, he was strong.
The next morning, God’s blessing of Jacob was evident. Esau, the brother Jacob had feared, received him gladly (Genesis 33).
In Western culture and even in our churches, we celebrate wealth, power, strength, confidence, prestige, and victory. We avoid weakness, failure, and doubt. Though we know that a measure of vulnerability, fear, and discouragement comes with life, we tend to view these as signs of failure or even a lack of faith. However, we also know that, in real life, naïve optimism and the glowing accolades of glamour and success are a recipe for discontent and despair. Sooner or later, the cold, hard realism of life catches up with most of us. The story of Jacob pulls us back to reality.
Frederick Buechner characterized Jacob’s divine encounter at the Jabbok River as the “magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God” (The Magnificent Defeat, HarperOne, 1985, p. 18). It’s in Jacob’s story we can easily recognize our own elements of struggle: fear, darkness, loneliness, vulnerability, emptiness, exhaustion, and pain.
Even the apostle Paul experienced discouragement and fear: “We were harassed at every turn—conflicts on the outside, fears within” (2 Corinthians 7:5). But, in truth, God does not want to leave us with our trials, our fears, our battles in life. What we come to learn in our conflicts is that God proffers us a corresponding divine gift. He comes to us and manifests Himself to us in our struggles. It is through Him that we can receive the power of conversion and transformation, the gifts of freedom, endurance, faith, and courage.
In the end, Jacob does what we all must do. In his weakness and fear, he faces God. Jacob was separated from all others and from his worldly possessions, and that’s when he grapples all night for what is truly important. It was an exhausting struggle that left him crippled. It was only after he wrestled with God and ceased his struggling, realizing that he could not go on without Him, that he received God’s blessing (Genesis 32:29).