I have always found the passage about Jacob’s wrestling match with the Lord to be fascinating, but also difficult to interpret. What is going on? What are we to learn? God wants us to know this story. But God does not spell out everything we are to get. And I cannot spell that all out yet either, though I think there are a few things worth noting.
Leading up to the main event that night, Jacob has proved himself a trickster, liar, and schemer. But he is not the only one. Laban has lied and lied again, tricking the trickster. Rachel, for her part, tricked her father and her husband in stealing his household gods and then successfully hiding them from his investigation. And the wives of Jacob scheme and scheme again for his affection and his children. This is a messed up family.
But now the Lord has told Jacob to return to the promised land, and Jacob knows that danger awaits. Last time Jacob saw Esau, his brother was plotting his demise. What will happen when he gets home. So Jacob again schemes, dividing up his family and sending Esau a present, hoping to appease his anger and survive.
Genesis 32:24-30 24 And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.”
And there is the wrestling match. How very strange it is. But I think, with scheming and lying and self-reliance in the background, we can learn some very important truths. Jacob had lived under the care of God for years. But Jacob also likely saw himself living by his wits. Jacob had encountered the Lord before, but Jacob was not in any way a clear follower of the Lord. There is nothing that would indicate that Jacob, before this night was a convert.
Now, in the debt of the night, the Lord physically comes to Jacob and starts a wrestling match. For the night, the Lord wrestles with Jacob and does not use his might to defeat the man. But, as daybreak comes, the Lord, with a simple movement, dislocates Jacobs hip, clearly showing us that, at any time he wanted, he could have crushed Jacob.
Look at the change that comes over Jacob. Jacob begins by striving as if he might win. Then, after his injury, Jacob clings to the Lord and asks for a blessing. It seems that the confidence of Jacob is changed. He will not make it on his own. Now he sees that he only survives under the mercy of the Lord.
As Jacob asks for a blessing, the Lord asks Jacob a question, “What is your name?” Consider that when Isaac asked Jacob his name years ago, Jacob lied. Jacob means heel grabber, supplanter, cheater. Jacob is the name of a liar. But here, when Jacob gives his true name, the Lord gives Jacob a new name, a better one. God names Jacob Israel, a name which means to strive with God.
What do we see? Jacob has been a liar and a trickster. He has thought he would make it on his own, surviving by his wits and cleverness. But, when he comes face-to-face with the Lord, Jacob realizes that he is not at all able to make it on his own. He needs the blessing of God. He needs the mercy of God. His battle against God has to be over. And when Jacob asks for the mercy of God while confessing his true nature, God forever changes Jacob to Israel.
That is our story too. We are sinners before the Lord. We have all thought we would make it on our own. We have all schemed, hidden our faults, and tried to come out on top. But the truth is, when we face the Lord, we cannot win. The only way to have peace with God is by confessing, telling the truth about who we are and what we have done. The only way to have peace with God is to, in faith, yield to his authority, to stop fighting and to bow in humility.
The wrestling match Jacob had with God is one many of us have had. The way to victory is through surrender to Christ, the God-man, who came to rescue and bless us. We admit our sin. We believe in Jesus. We surrender to his mastery. And we ask him for his grace. Then, just as he did with Jacob, the Lord gives us a new identity as a forgiven child of God.