This is an excerpt from my sermon on Sunday 25 October on Genesis 32:24-29.
Ah, the story of Jacob wrestling with God for his blessing: what an inspiring account! How comforting it is to know that if you just wrestle with God long enough in prayer, he will give you what you want. Or at least, that’s how some people interpret this story. In fact, that is a horrific lie, perpetrated by the false prophets of the so-called “health & wealth gospel.” If we want to get a proper understanding of this story, we need to look at the larger picture: who is Jacob, and what is this blessing he seeks?
What does it all mean?
A famous Anglican theologian and writer, J. I. Packer, has a great reflection on this moment in Jacob’s life in his book Knowing God, which I’d like to quote at this point.
To make this doubly clear to Jacob, as they wrestled God lamed him (32:25), putting his thigh out of join to be a perpetual reminder in his flesh of his own spiritual weakness, and his need to lean always upon God, just as for the rest of his life he had to walk leaning on a stick.
Jacob abhorred himself; with all his heart he found himself for the first time hating, really hating, that fancied cleverness of his. It had set Esau against him (justly!), not to mention Laban, and now it had made his God unwilling, as it seemed, to bless him anymore. ‘Let me go,’ said the One with whom he wrestled; it seemed as though God meant to abandon him. But Jacob held tight: ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me’ (32:26).
And now at last God spoke the word of blessing. For Jacob was now weak and despairing, and humble and dependent enough to be blessed. … There was no particle of self-reliance left in Jacob by the time God had finished with him. The nature of Jacob’s prevailing with God (32:28) was simply that he had held on to God while God weakened him and wrought in him the spirit of submission and self-distrust; that he had desired God’s blessing so much that he clung to God through all this painful humbling till he came low enough for God to raise him up by speaking peace to him and assuring him that he need not fear about Esau any more.
True, Jacob did not become a plaster saint overnight – he was not completely straight with Esau the next day (33:14-17); but in principle God had won his battle with Jacob, and won it for good. Jacob never lapsed back into his old ways. Limping Jacob had learned his lesson. The wisdom of God had done its work.”
Besides this, I want to point out a couple other features of this story.
First of all, these lessons about humility before God can also be summed up in the meaning of the names “Jacob” and “Israel.” The name Jacob means “he takes by the heel” or “he that supplants.” This refers back to the circumstances of his birth, in which he was hanging on to Esau’s heel as they were being born. From the start Jacob was struggling against Esau trying to supplant him, to pass him by and take his blessing and birthright for himself. He thought he was trying to fulfill God’s will for his life, but really he was just serving his own interest and fighting against his own family. At the end of our story, Jacob’s name is changed to Israel which means “he struggles with God.” As the man said, “you have struggled with God and with man and have prevailed.” So Jacob, who struggled with his brother, became Israel, who struggled with God. His attention was turned from focusing on the world to focusing on God.
The second tricky question that might be nagging some of us as we listen to this story, though, is who was the man that Jacob was wrestling? There are three big clues in Genesis 32. The first is what the man himself first says: “You have struggled with God and with men.” Is this just a metaphor, or does this reflect on who this mysterious fellow is? Let’s find out! Jacob quickly asks this man for his name, to which we see the reply “why do you ask me my name?” This is a subtle hint suggesting that Jacob already ought to know who this guy is. Finally, just after where our reading left off, “Then Jacob called the place Penuel,” for there he saw God “face to face.” See now we have three clues:
- Jacob has struggled with God and with Man,
- Jacob already should know who this person is,
- Jacob saw God face to face.
There is only one person in all of history who could rightly say “if you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Yes, that’s right, this is Jesus! Jesus is God, even though he was not yet known by name in the Old Testament. He is God-made-visible, the perfect image of the Father. In the Old Testament it was well known that you cannot look upon the face of God and live, but in just a few rare instances, people got to see a figure of a man who seemed to acknowledge himself to be God. Theologians call this the “pre-incarnate Christ,” the Son of God, the Word of God, making himself known to people before he was even born as a man. Jacob wrestled with Jesus.