Ahhh wrestling. What fun is it! Lots of good memories wrestling with my Dad as a kid, friends on the shag-ish carpeting, and then I even tried REAL wrestling in 8th grade (yeah, that lasted the one season and I quit). But what does wrestling (or to the cool kids, “wrastle’n”) have to do with the Bible? I’m glad you asked!
I’ve always been confused about Jacob and his “wrestling” with God as the whole thing has been…odd to me. It seems like it’s just there in our Bibles without any real explanation or direction. Am I alone in this wondering? Maybe…if so then keep on reading. If not well…then you can keep reading or stop as I can’t make you do anything.
(for those wanting the story that I’m speaking of – it’s over in Genesis 32: 22-32 which you can read before moving forward).
So before Jacob gets back to meet his brother Esau (whom he stole the family blessing from), before the family can try to be restored and reunited from a long period of time away from each other (as we hope for that time away has softened hearts), Jacob, on his way to meet his brother, spends the night by himself. He has sent all his animals and family and servants and money ahead of him, with the instruction of all the people saying that “Jacob is on his way but all this, all of us, are part of his family and that we are a gift to you, Esau!” and so he finds himself, at night and alone, on the other side of the river Jabbok from his family, and a man comes and they wrestle from night till daybreak. And as it turns out it’s not some ordinary and random man that’s passing through but it is God himself. And it is during this wrestling the man realizes he cannot defeat Jacob so he touches Jacob on his hip, wounding him, and yet Jacob still doesn’t let go. Why? Because he wants a blessing. ANOTHER blessing (remember, he already stole the family blessing that was meant for Esau back in Genesis 26:34-27:1-46).
So what in tarnation is happening here at the side of the Jabbok? And why is it important enough to be in our Bibles? What does the place, the naming, the hip, the wrestling, and the event itself mean to us?
In one sense we, as English readers, lose stuff from the original writing and dialect. That yes we can maybe see that “Jacob” and “Jabbok” are VERY similar (something I never picked up on) but do we actually draw the conclusions that there is meanings in their similarities? Maybe – but then there’s the “he wrestled” which sounds nothing like “Jacob” or “Jabbok” to us but in Hebrew…it is. So once more we lose things, in this case consonants, in our translations. But there is more than just word-similarities going on here. This is about an encounter with God that would set the stage for the rest of scripture.
So as we look at this text we might be drawn into the “wrestling” that goes on, we even have it in our Bibles as a header that “Jacob Wrestles With God” just before verse 22 of chapter 32. But again, this isn’t about the wrestling – this is about the encounter…this is about the words exchanged. We need to remember that in the OT, and in Ancient Israel, names meant something. So while “Jacob” meant “heel-catcher” (or “schemer” by some translations) (we can read that story in Genesis 25: 19-26) this new name, given to him by God, would be Israel – which means, more or less, that “God fights.” Is this a funny joke God is doing and is playing on the night of wrestling between the two? Maybe (I tend to think God has to have a rather good sense-of-humor). Declaration that God has chosen this people and will fight for him and his descendants? Absolutely.
But something else happens here as this moment becomes a humbling and life-changing experience for Jacob/Israel. Leading up to this he was always a defensive man thinking about his next move and how to get his next thing. But in that long night, in that moment when God came to him, Israel realized he couldn’t keep doing, and living, the life he was living. We read in verse 28 that this Man declares that his name is changed because he has met God…so Israel now realizes that he cannot keep doing, living, and acting towards God the way that he has.
It’s interesting to remember, and ask, that if it was that easy to end the wrestling by just touching his hip then why didn’t he do it sooner? I’m not sure. So maybe this was a teaching moment for God. Was Jacob stubborn? Absolutely. Was he greedy? Absolutely. So then maybe the 12 hours of wrestling took place because that’s exactly how long Jacob needed to actually let go of his way of life and recognize that he ISN’T in charge of his destiny. That he CAN’T just “overcome” everyone he comes into contact with and have a plan or scheme to get whatever he wants. And that God could have snuffed him out or wounded him even more at any moment but God instead has chosen something big to do with Jacob…and it started with a change of name and identity.
So where do we go with this in our lives? Is this a story that is just as it is and that we’re not supposed to “take” anything away? No – that’s not what this is as none of scripture is just to be glossed over and not applied. In the grander picture of things this is the family line that Christ comes down. In the larger picture of things we ARE reminded of the God who fights for us. In the bigger picture of things we SHOULD see ourselves as Jacob because how often do WE wrestle with God? I guess for me, I come back to the “change” that happened to Jacob and the “change” that happens to you and I when God calls us his own and gives us a new name, with a new meaning under the banner of his Son and the wrestling, and overcoming sin, that he did for us.