Tuesday, July 3

Wrestling with God

There are many gems in the Bible, some more well-known than others. One such gem is the wrestling match between God and man. The occurrence in question can be found in Genesis 32. Written by Moses c.1445-1405 BC, the book of Genesis details the six-day creation of the universe,  the subsequent fall of man and corruption of the universe, the first murder, the first people and their technological achievements, the worldwide flood in the time of Noah, the dispersion of nations from the plain in Shinar at Babel, as well as the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. There are various other incidents and details found within the record, but a general background elucidates the time and place of the event and allows for further understanding. By the time we come to Genesis 32, much has already transpired in the world. Here we find Jacob the son of Isaac (who was the son of Abraham), on his way to meet his brother Esau, whom he had not seen face to face in over two decades. During the journey, Jacob has psychologically had to prepare himself, but is currently in between two situations, having left one with his uncle Laban and proceeded to enter into one with his brother Esau.

Up to this point, Jacob had believed in God but had not actually become personal with Him. Four chapters prior to the "wrestling match" in Genesis 32, Jacob stops at a certain place to rest for the evening. During the night he "had a dream in which he saw a stairway [or ladder] resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it [or There beside him] stood the LORD" (28:12-13). God proceeded to make a promise to Jacob, who then woke up and called the place "Bethel," which means "house of God." Jacob continued to serve God during the twenty years he worked for his uncle Laban, but in all that time never became close to God. In other words, Jacob did not allow his vulnerability to come into play, and he did not have a personal relationship with God. This is also clearly seen at the beginning of chapter 32. "Then Jacob prayed, 'O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, LORD..." (32:9). It is worth nothing that Jacob does not call Him "my God" or something similar, but calls Him "God of my father." He does not identify God on a relational level but on more of a covenantal level, much like the way many of the Israelites in Moses' day did.

Verses 22-32 are the verses in question. According to Genesis 32:22-32, on the eve of meeting his brother after two decades, "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. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 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. Then the man said, 'Let me go, for it is daybreak.' But Jacob replied, 'I will not let you go unless you bless me.' The man asked him, 'What is your name?' 'Jacob,' he answered. Then the man said, 'Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with human beings and have overcome.' Jacob said, 'Please tell me your name.' But he replied, 'Why do you ask my name?' Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, 'It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.' The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. 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."

From Rembrandt (1659; Public Domain)
If a casual reader was reading the passage, that individual is liable to miss a lot of information. Within the above passage, there are several interesting statements made and actions taken by each of the figures involved. To better appreciate the passage, the message and what we can learn, it is therefore necessary to unpack the information, determine what questions we can ask and how we may answer said questions. First of all, verse 22 mentions the geographic location - "the ford of the Jabbok." The Hebrew comes from the word baqoq, which means "to flow" or "pour out." It is generally identified as the Zarqa River (from the Arabic word meaning "blue river"), located in Jordan. In recent years a concern has risen due to the contamination of the tributary, causing problems with the flora, fauna as well as those who live in the area. Our passage does not reveal any other historical details, aside from the fact that his family "crossed the ford of the Jabbok," and that after they had crossed "the stream," he sent his belongings too. In fact, "In Hebrew, the word Jabbok is Yabok, and the word wrestled is Yaaveik. The Hebrew word for wrestling is found only here and the next verse, and nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible. It comes from the root avak that means dust. So the basic meaning of this word is to get dusty while wrestling. The name Jabbok was evidently given to the river at a later date to remember Jacob’s amazing experience that night." 

With this in mind, it is relevant to ask several questions. Evidently, the text says that Jacob literally wrestled with God. But if it was God, how could Jacob see Him, if He later told Moses that "no one may see me and live" (Exodus 33:20)? If he was God, why could he not overpower Jacob? Why did God ask Jacob's name if He already knew? Where does the idea that Jews do not eat the tendon come from? Why did the struggle last until daybreak, if God could simple defeat Jacob with a word? Why did God wrestle with Jacob in the first place? These and other questions arise among readers, and are in fact common questions, or a variation of frequently asked questions. It follows that questions deserve answers, enabling us to then seek the answers. To begin with, it is pertinent to describe the nature of this appearance. It is what theologians call a theophany, or a visible manifestation of God to mankind. The word itself comes from the Medieval Latin theophania which is derived from the Late Greek theophaneia. With this background, we may begin to answer some of the questions posed.

First, "if it was God, how could Jacob see Him, if He later told Moses that 'no one may see me and live' (Exodus 33:20)?" This question could provide a plethora of answers, but it is necessary for our purposes to examine just one. We see elsewhere in Scripture that this same idea of not actually seeing God is present. According to John 1:18, "No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him." A few chapters later, in John 5:37, Jesus says, "And the Father who sent Me, He has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time nor seen His form." However, this raises what skeptics claim is a contradiction. Rather, it is a theological misunderstanding on their part. The Jewish Rabbis actually taught that the angel was the guardian angel of Esau. However, the Hebrew Bible is replete with references to physical appearances of God, but if God has not been seen "at any time," how do we explain these appearances? Some have simply noted that it was God, but in a lessened form, or rather that God appeared physically but withheld some of His glory and did not show His true form. In a sense this rings true, but the answer is not complete.

In fact, the fourth gospel itself actually answers this question. More often than not, when referring to God, John meant the Father. This is not true in every instance as Jesus is also called God throughout the Johannine works (cf. John 20:21, for example), but according to John 6:46, "Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father." In other words, God has been seen by mankind, but not God the Father. It therefore limits us to the other two persons of the Trinity, God the Spirit and God the Son. The Holy Spirit does indeed appear a great many times throughout the Hebrew Bible, but the physical appearances do not appear to be from the Spirit leaving us with these physical appearances - or theophanies - to be described as physical manifestations of Jesus before His earthly incarnation. Typically, theologians refer to such appearances as a Christophany. Jesus often appeared in the Hebrew Bible as the physical manifestation of God, usually appearing as the "Angel of the Lord." Let the reader understand, we are not claiming that Jesus was an angel. The Bible and the earliest textual evidences and archaeological evidences from church history show that Jesus has been considered God from the outset. Jesus is indeed God and not an angel - but if so, how could He be the "Angel of the Lord?"

For those who are unaware, the Hebrew word for angel is mal'ak, which means "messenger." Part of Jesus' original mission on earth was also as a messenger for the Father, aside from His primary goal to provide us with the means for salvation, that is. Nevertheless, this "Angel of the Lord" could rightly be called the "Messenger of the Lord." In fact, this messenger is actually identified as God more than once in Scripture. Consider Exodus 3, where "the angel of the LORD appeared to [Moses] in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up" (v.2). Verse 4 says, "When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush..." verse 5 notes that it is God speaking, and verse 6 continues, "'I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.' At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God." When Moses asked God what name He would tell the Israelites, "God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you'" (v.14). From this passage, it is clear that the Angel of the Lord, also rendered the messenger of the Lord, is God Himself. This angel – or messenger – appears many times in the Hebrew Bible, and is also called God several times. Having appeared in physical form, being called God, and claiming to be God, “I AM,” shows that the angel of the Lord can be no other than God the Son. Interestingly, Jesus claims to be “I AM” in John 5:58, hence why the Israelites attempt to stone Him. It is also worth noting that in some early manuscripts of Jude 5 we read, “Though you already know all this, I want to remind you that Jesus at one time delivered His people out of Egypt, but later destroyed those who did not believe.” Later manuscripts render “Jesus” as “Lord,” although we can note that Romans 10:9 also says, “Jesus is Lord.”

The appearance of the angel of the Lord to Samson's father and mother in Judges 13 is also worth considering in light of Genesis 32. The being is clearly identified as the angel of the Lord (v.3, 13-17, 20-21), and much as He did during His incarnation over one thousand years later, Jesus ascends to heaven (v.20). When this occurs, Manoah and his wife fall down on their faces and once Manoah realized that it was the angel of the Lord he noted, "We are doomed to die... We have seen God!" (Judges 13:22; cf. Exodus 33:20). Clearly, Manoah and his wife understood the being to be God, and God could be seen. This occurs on several other occasions as well. In sum, this angel (or messenger) of the Lord is Jesus, who is Himself God the Son, pre-incarnate. When God physically manifests Himself to humans during the Hebrew Bible, these appearances are those of Christ. There are rare exceptions where a human sees God the Father (Isaiah 6; Daniel 7) but these occur when the individual is in the spirit and not in the physical body. Having this understand, we can then understand how it is that God could physically appear to Jacob in Genesis 32. According to Hosea 12:3-4, "In the womb he grasped his brother's heel; as a man he struggled with God. He struggled with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged for his favor." God's identity is slowly revealed to Jacob during the confrontation at Jabbok, and is fairly evident from the text.

We then arrive at our next question, "If he was God, why could he not overpower Jacob?" The question is rather significant, really. It begs the questions, "if God is all-powerful, is He bound by us? Can we render Him powerless? Is man stronger?" Succinctly put, God is indeed all-powerful. When He was wrestling during the night with Jacob, He could have disabled Jacob at any given moment. At any moment, God could have touched Jacob's hip and moved it from its proper place. The Hebrew word used here actually means "dislocated." But if God could have won the battle at any given moment, why did He choose not to? There are a variety of reasons, but one of the more evident is as follows: the fight continued "until Jacob was exhausted. I suspect the angel would gain a little advantage and then allow Jacob to feel that he was gaining. This went on and on all night long. How exhausted they must have been. But it was necessary. Jacob needed to reach the point where he had no more strength. I believe it was at this point that the man touched Jacob's hip. The message was clear... you have striven with all your might. Yet, I can with one touch defeat you. Jacob needed to see the superiority of his opponent with clarity. Jacob knew the right words and could perform the right actions... but his heart still was not completely the Lord's. It's easy to have superficial faith. However, a crisis forces us to grapple with our real feelings and our true faith. God provokes this crisis to bring Jacob to a point of genuine faith."[2]

In other words, God could have easily overpowered Jacob - but He allowed Jacob to hold on to Him. By struggling and resisting God we cannot create order, it only results in chaos. When we stop fighting Him - as Jacob did - and cling to Him, we are given rest in His arms. For the Christian, we may fight God and resist Him as much as possible. It is rather like a small child putting up a tantrum with his parents, but when he has exhausted his energy and strength, he simply clings to his parents. Jacob finally stopped resisting and simply clung to God. Quite simply, God could have overpowered Jacob at any time during their fight. But God allowed Jacob to fight with Him and exhaust his energies before finally realizing that all he really needed to do was cling to God. We may continually jump the fence over God's plans, but as Proverbs 19:21 reveals, "Many are the plans in a human heart, but it is the LORD's purpose that prevails." This is echoed in Proverbs 21:30 as well, "There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the LORD." Finally, we see this earlier in Proverbs 3:5-6, "Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight." For Jacob, up until this physical fight with God he had not truly trusted God with all his heart.

As a result of the understanding that Jacob was actually wrestling God the Son, we then ask "Why did God ask Jacob's name if He already knew?" If Jacob was actually wrestling with God as the text appears to indicate, and God is all-knowing, why did He not know Jacob's name? According to Ravi Zacharias, Christian author and apologist, "Think of all that God could have said by way of reprimand. Instead He merely asks for Jacob's name. God's purpose in raising this question contains a lesson for all of us, too profound to ignore. In fact, it dramatically altered Old Testament history. In asking for the blessing from God, Jacob was compelled by God's question to relive the last time he had asked for a blessing, the one he had stolen from his brother. The last time Jacob was asked for his name, the question had come from his earthly father. Jacob had lied on that occasion and said, 'I am Esau,' and stole the blessing. Now he found himself, after many wasted years of running through life looking over his shoulder, before an all-knowing, all-seeing heavenly Father, once more seeking a blessing, Jacob fully understood the reason and the indictment behind God's question and he answered, 'My name is Jacob.' 'You have spoken the truth,' God said, 'and you know very well what your name signifies. You have been a duplicitous man, deceiving everyone everywhere you went. But now that you acknowledge the real you, I can change you, and I will make a great nation out of you.' Greatness in the eyes of God is always preceded by humility before Him. There is no way for you or me or anyone else to attain greatness until we have come to Him." [3]

Clearly, God was well aware of Jacob's name, but He wanted Jacob to not only recognize his name but come to terms with who he really was. Before he could confront his brother and continue his journey in life, he had to first come to terms with God - and himself. By forcing Jacob to think about his name, God provided Jacob with a way. Historically we also know that people of antiquity put a high value on their names. We see throughout Scripture that an individual's name carries meaning. Today, it is easy to simply look up a name online and choose from a long list. For ancient Hebrews as well as others in ancient times, your name was highly significant. Modern Judaism still places a somewhat high value on the name of a child, for as the ancient Jewish saying goes, "With each new child, the world begins anew." Adam was appointed the task of giving the creatures in Eden personal names, a sort of creative power which Jews feel has been handed down to parents for their children. The Bible is also full of examples of individuals who were given specific names - names which later were fulfilled, essentially. For example, Jesus actually means "Savior" or "Saved." Therefore, when Jacob was reminded of his name and its meaning, he began to confront who he really was and let God in.
From Alexander Leloir (1865; Public Domain)
While a bit unrelated from the majority of the article, some have asked the question "Where does the idea that Jews do not eat the tendon come from?" According to Genesis 32:31-32, "The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. 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." This is a curious statement due to the fact that there is nothing in the Mosaic law detailing this practice, nor is it echoed in later Scripture. First of all, it is relevant to understand the reason behind God's dislocating of Jacob's hip. The limp itself allowed Jacob to understand that the encounter was an actual, physical encounter with God and not a mere dream. Jacob had seen God in a dream once before years prior (Genesis 28), but now he was having an actual encounter with God in the flesh. Also, when Jacob surely described this experience to his family, he had physical evidence to provide credence to his claims in the form of a wrenched hip. When we consider the answer in a more general sense, we can understand that scars help remind us what we have learned or experienced. Scars remind us of where we have been, what we have done, past hurts and future promise. The scars also remind us of our need for our Creator, as well as the physical scars which he bore.

Next, we can determine the following: since the notion of not eating the tendon attached to the socket or hip is not found elsewhere in Scripture, it was surely a practice that was in use between the time of Jacob and the time of Moses. As a case can be made for the Mosaic authorship of Genesis under the Wiseman hypothesis, we can presume that this practice was at the very least in use during the time of Moses in the 1400s BC. After Moses, the practice appears to have fallen into disuse. It apparently came into being as a result of Jacob's encounter with God and either he or his sons began this tradition which was carried down for over two hundred years to Moses' time. Also, according to Jewish Rabbis, Jacob was given the limp as a punishment for wanting to flee God and for not relying on him. There are a few issues with this notion, but it is still worth noting in our examination of the topic.

Finally, "Why did the struggle last until daybreak, if God could simple defeat Jacob with a word? Why did God wrestle with Jacob in the first place?" Concerning the matter of why God wrestled with Jacob until daybreak, the answer is fascinatingly simplistic when viewed in light of the above answer. Just as God gave Jacob a physical reminder to last him all his days, God also fought with Jacob throughout the night and into the morning to show to Jacob that this encounter was not a mere dream. It also brought Jacob out of the darkness of the night and into the light of day, both literally and metaphorically. It was at this point when Jacob stopped fighting with God and clung to Him instead. The limp and the rising of the sun were physical realities that showed Jacob God's mercy and provided Jacob with the incentive to not fight with God but cling to Him. God could have ended the fight at any moment, but wanted it to last for Jacob's sake. This fight was not for God, but for Jacob. It was not Jacob who initiated the fight, but God. It was indeed his fight against God, but he did not at first realize that the fight was meant to help him. This brings us to the reason why God wrestled with Jacob. Aside from the reasons listed throughout the article, we may examine one other reason.

Chronologically, Jacob was between his struggle with Laban and his upcoming struggle with his brother Esau. Then God came in. This necessary encounter transpired to show Jacob that his struggle had been with God all along. Without friends or family or other support around, Jacob was left to pray at Jabbok. God was still impersonal to Jacob, but after this encounter, he stopped calling God the "God of my father" but "my God." He stopped resisting God and finally gave in to His will. God used the experience as a sort of object lesson for Jacob, and we would do well to learn from him. It was after this experience that God blessed Jacob, worth noting as it is the second blessing that Jacob has received on record. The first blessing was not rightly his, but his older brother Esau's. Jacob used the art of deception (or so Sun Tzu may view it as an art) to obtain this blessing from his father. Several years later, we come to Jacob's physical encounter with God, but this time the blessing is rightfully obtained. It is given to Jacob by God Himself, and a wondrous blessing it is indeed. To be fair, Jacob likely always had struggles the remainder of his days, as the loss of his son Joseph for many years demonstrates. But through those struggles, Jacob clung to the faith he had in God. For many of us, we tend to metaphorically kick and scream when circumstances do not go our way, and instead of accepting the help of the great Creator, we resist it. If you have been resisting, it may be that the day has finally come. The night is over, the time for fighting has ended. It is time to cling to God and live in and through Him.

The Truth Ministries would like to thank you for taking the time to read this article of "The Truth." Feel free to email us at vexx801@yahoo.com or thetruth.ministryweb@gmail.com, visit our facebook page, or visit our ministry website.  It is the mission of this ministry to "demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2nd Corinthians 10:5). We understand that many will disagree with our position, our claims and our ministry, and we recognize the individual's right to believe what he or she wills, and that some will disagree on our position regarding this particular topic. However, understand that we stand firm upon the Bible as God's Word, which we believe to be historically accurate and reliable, and hold to our conviction that this conclusion was arrived at based on what His Word tells us, and through a Biblical worldview, and hope that if you have not already, will come to faith in Jesus. Take care, and God bless you reader. Troy Hillman

[1] Mack, Jay. "Jacob Wrestles With God." Jay Mack . N.p., 2012. Web. 5 May 2012.
[2] Goettsche, Rev. Bruce. "Wrestling With God." Union Church. Union Church, 4 Oct 1999. Web. 5 May 2012.
[3] Zacharias, Ravi K. Can Man Live Without God. 1st. Nashville, Tennessee: W Publishing Group, 1994. 144-145. Print.


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