One thing that’s become increasingly clear to me over the years is that most characters in the Bible were way worse than we thought as kids. People we have a tendency to put on pedestals were actually sinners undeserving of God’s grace, not A+ humans. There are a lot of examples to give, and it’s not really useful for us to try and rank them, but for what it’s worth I think that Jacob is pretty high (or low, for that matter) on that list.
I really appreciate how much of the Genesis narrative is devoted to telling Jacob’s story because he… well, he wasn’t the best of people. There’s not much I can do to sugarcoat it. He was named heel because he came out of the womb grabbing onto his twin brother Esau’s heel (Genesis 25:26). And he sure lived up to his name. He was the kind of guy who would grab your heel and trip you up in order to get ahead. Not a great role model.
Up to the point in the narrative that we’ll be looking at today (chapter 32), Jacob most notably had manipulated Esau into selling his birthright and stolen his blessing from their father. His actions led him to flee from Esau to Paddan-Aram, the area where Abraham’s father settled when they were journeying from Ur in Babylonia toward Canaan (what was the Promised Land). His deceitful actions led him to literally leave the Promised Land and “go backwards” to where his ancestors had come from; this is a picture of how sin reverses God’s good plans.
In Paddan-Aram, Jacob met up with his uncle Laban, a heel-grabber on par with Jacob himself. A couple of decades passed, and Laban’s trickery had resulted in a lot of familial turmoil. God eventually instructed Jacob to return to the Promised Land (31:1-3), and so he left with his wives and livestock to return to where his brother was. Understandably, he was pretty fearful of how Esau was going to react. He figured that the 20 years apart only served to cement the grudge. Oh, how Esau would have dreamt of this day of vengeance.
Jacob’s great plan was to coax Esau into kindness by sending him a bunch of gifts. Eventually, out of rope, Jacob prayed (32:9-12). He prayed to the God of his ancestors, to his God. He confessed his unworthiness of God’s love and praised God for his provision. He asked God– on this basis of God’s character and not his own– to spare him from Esau’s wrath.
In true Jacob fashion, though, trusting God’s promise was not enough. He still went through with his original plan to send gifts, and so he sent three groups of herdsmen ahead of him while he stayed at the camp.
In verse 24, the story gets weird. Left alone, we’re told that a man wrestled with him until the morning. This is certainly an odd moment. Who is this man? Where did he come from? Why is his instinct to get into a wrestling match with Jacob?
The story continues. Jacob holds his own, and the man then touches his hip socket and pops it out of the socket. Jacob asks the man to bless him, something I can’t imagine asking in the middle of a wrestling match with a stranger– though, to be fair, I’ve never been in that situation. The man makes him identify himself– essentially making him admit to his heel-grabbing– and changes Jacob’s name to Israel. The last we hear of the man is that he ended up blessing him (v.29).
So… where is Jesus?
Well, given the context clues, I’m sure you can guess that the man Jacob wrestled with points to Jesus somehow. That’s correct!
Let’s walk through it to make sure we understand how this is clear in the text.
For starters, within the passage itself we see a few hints. After Jacob is blessed, he names the place Peniel, which means that he has seen God face to face and lived. The only person he’s seen face to face in the narrative is the mysterious man, and so Jacob makes it clear that this man is God. This is a theophany. To solidify this, it makes sense for the man to be God since Jacob asked him for a blessing, something he wouldn’t have asked of a random man.
The prophet Hosea bolsters this view when he claims that Jacob “strove with the angel and prevailed” (Hosea 12:4). Hosea adds extra context to inform us that Jacob wrestled with the Angel of the Lord, the interesting figure we looked at last week. This angel– this messenger– of God, points to Jesus!
So it is God himself wrestling with Jacob in Genesis 32. One of the first questions that pops up after making this connection is to ask… If this man is really God, why couldn’t he win against Jacob? Why couldn’t the creator of the universe– of Jacob himself– defeat him? Obviously, he could have. So we have to ask a different question: What is this story pointing to? Is there another time you can think of where man seemed to defeat God? Where God seemed to lose the battle in the moment, but what would ultimately result in the greatest blessing of all? See, this is all pointing us to the cross of Christ! Surely, Jesus could’ve stepped down from the cross at any moment. He was not powerless against the Roman guards. His loss was voluntary, for our ultimate good.
No matter how much of a heel-grabber you are, Jesus offers mercy through his death and resurrection. In light of the cross, we have more of the picture painted for us than Jacob did when he wrestled with God. When you find yourself in those through-the-night, exhausting, stalemate-inducing battles with your King, don’t ever forget that your striving is not in vain. Even when you walk away with a limp– and Lord knows, you will– this newfound dependence on God through his mercy will be an even greater blessing than whatever you sought from him on your own terms.