When wrestling with God: Jacob’s struggle, and ours…

Posted by on Nov 12, 2016 in Blog | 3 comments

Sometimes life does not go to plan, and you find yourself in a battle with what seems to be everyone and everything. In the midst of those seasons, it is easy to lose perspective and to succumb to the destructive trio of bitterness, cynicism and despair. Given that for most people it is not a question of if those seasons will come, but when they come, are there any biblical narratives that can provides some guidance and strength?

Personally, I often go back to the account of Jacob wrestling with God. You find it in Genesis 32, from vrs 22 onwards.

Jacob had stolen his brother’s birthright from him and had deceived his near blind father Isaac into given him the blessing he had intended for Jacob’s brother, Esau. Jacob hadn’t really thought through the implications of this deception, and realises with sinking despair that an immediate consequence is that Esau intends to kill him. Jacob has to flee for his life into the care of a relative, Laban, who turns out to be every bit as scheming and deceiving as Jacob. He is there for many long years, but Gen 32 picks up at the time of Jacob’s return to his home.

You can run from your problems for so long, but in the end you must face them. Jacob’s stress levels were not helped when he was told that his brother Esau was coming to meet him – with 400 men. He concluded that his brother was intent on war – and dreads the encounter. He sends all those who are near and dear to him away, and is left alone in the desert, but then has the strangest of encounters. An unnamed and unknown man starts to wrestle with him.

Listen to the account of Genesis 32:22-33:4 from the NIV. The words in bold are ones that especially strike me…

22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.

33 Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men; so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two female servants. 2 He put the female servants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. 3 He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother.
4 But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.

Notice some key things about that wrestling match…

Who was Jacob wrestling with? The passage its clear and says it repeatedly – a man, a man, a man… yet Jacob concludes that the place must be names Peniel – because I saw God face to face (30). Turned out that the man was God… Often what we wrestle with in the flow of our life we think of simply as ‘a man, a man, a man…’ but in reality, it turns out to be God. It is why in every situation of struggle we should ask: Where is God in this? – not assuming the absence of God but rather expecting that in some strange way our battle is always with, or together with, God. God is never apart or absent from any of our struggles. Our task is to try and find out His intent in those struggles.

This is a battle that leads to three new things being birthed…
A new name: Instead of Jacob, (which means deceiver, struggler, manipulator) he is to be named Israel – which far more hopefully means ‘one who struggles with God and prevails’. Here is the thing… He is given this new name, Israel, but what name do we usually remember him by… actually, still Jacob. Indeed, as you go through Scripture you find that sometimes Jacob is called Israel, but more often, Jacob… a reminder that he is invited to a new possibility that he only ever partly lives up to. And in the midst of our wrestling, it could be that we should ask: Am I being called to a new name as a result of this, and if so, will I live up to that name?
A new limp: Jacob won the wrestling match – but leaves it limping. Not a bad thing that – walking with a limp – not so supremely confident, a little more dependent, but a much deeper person.
A new vision:  Verses 3-4 tell us that Jacob goes to meet his brother with head facing down convinced he will be shamed – perhaps even killed. He bows to the ground 7 times en route – a complete humiliation – hoping to placate Esau. When he looks up he sees his brother rushing towards him to embrace him and welcome him home. He had spend over a decade thinking of his brother as the enemy – but in this moment he sees that his brother was always that – his brother… not the enemy, not the villain – but his brother. It is a transforming vision.

There is an old rabbinic tale of how to tell when the sun has risen sufficiently to announce the start of a new day. A rabbi asks his students, ‘How do we know that the night is over and a new day has begun?’

One student answers ‘when there is enough light so that we can tell the difference between the sheep dog and the sheep.’

‘No’ the rabbi replies.

Another tried, ‘is it when there is enough light to say – that is an olive tree, and that is a grape vine, and to be confident about which is which?’

‘No’ replied the rabbi.

‘Then when is it?’ his students asked.

He replied, ‘it is when you look in the face of another human being, and see there the face of your brother or your sister. Only then is the night over. Only then, has the new day begun.’

Profound insight…

What did Jacob learn from his wrestling… That the one he was wrestling with was actually God, who wanted to give him a new name, albeit that it came at the cost of a limp (and limping can be transforming), and who helped him to see that the one he thought was his enemy, was no enemy, but his brother…

And when I struggle, I look to this story and ask myself these 4 questions:

1) In what way is God in the midst of this struggle?

2) Am I being called to a new name – and if so, what might it be?

3) What strength needs to be transformed into a limp (in what way am I looking to my own strength rather than God’s?)

4) Could it be that the one I think is my enemy is actually the friend, perhaps even my brother or my sister?

As always, nice chatting…


  1. Thanks, Brian. Helpful for me this week. Go well.

  2. A word in season for me, thanks Brian

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