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Jacob Physically Wrestles With God

By James Donahue

There are some really strange stories in the Old Testament. The human association with God is described as quite physical in the stories of Adam and Eve in the garden, Moses on the mountain and also when God appears as a stranger and challenges Jacob to a wrestling match that ends in a draw (Genesis 32).

The story involving Jacob is complicated. He is the twin brother of Esau, the sons of Isaac and Rebekah. Isaac was the son of Abraham and Sarah, and their descendants were destined to be the Hebrew race.

Things were not going well for the brothers, however. Under the old Hebrew law, the inheritance of the father was supposed to be passed down to the first-born son. When they were born Esau was born first, followed by Jacob. They came out minutes apart, but Esau was legally in line to inherit the family wealth.

But Esau turned out to be a rebel. Sometime when they were in their youth, Jacob outwits Esau and talks him into trading his inheritance for a bowl of lintel stew. Then when Esau marries two Hittite women, from the Canaanite people, he violates God’s rule for keeping a purity of the family line. Thus even Isaac favors giving the title of first-born to Jacob.

Of course this stirs up a lot of internal trouble within the family. Esau makes it known that he hates Jacob so much that he planned to murder his brother. Rebekah encourages Jacob to flee to far-off land and work for Laban, a family relative. He thus leaves behind the family flocks, land and tents, which fall into Esau’s hands anyway following the death of Isaac.

Meanwhile, Jacob gains his own wealth and grows perhaps more wealthy than he would have been if he had remained at home.

This is the history leading up to the events recorded in Genesis 32.

It seems that Jacob wants to make peace with his brother. He sent a messenger to Esau proclaiming his wealth. "I have oxen, and asses, flocks, and menservants and womenservants; and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find grace in thy sight."

Esau responded with a message that he was coming to meet Jacob and he was accompanied by an army of four hundred men. This caused Jacob to panic. He perceived the message as a threat, and believed that his twin brother was still out to kill him.

Jacob prayed, asking God to "deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, lest he will come and smite me, and the mother with the children."

Jacob then divided his camp, and sent the women and children to hide on the other side of a stream while he waited to meet Esau.

While he was waiting, alone, a strange man appeared and they somehow got involved in a wrestling match. The Bible does not explain how this encounter got started. But Jacob held his own and the two fighters remained deadlocked on the ground for what may have been a long time. Suddenly, Jacob’s opponent touched the hollow of his thigh and a leg bone snapped out of joint. Still Jacob held his grip and the two figures remained deadlocked.

By this time Jacob had a pretty good idea just who his opponent was. The person he was wrestling asked Jacob to "let me go, for the day breaketh." Apparently God did not wish to be seen by mortal man. Remember that Moses also was denied the vision of God when they met on the mountain.

But Jacob said "I will not let thee go, except thou bless me." Yup, he knew who he had in his grip all right.

God then asked Jacob to identify himself. When he did this, God told him: "Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for as a prince has thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed."

Jacob then asked the name of the person he was fighting. The response was: "Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there. And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved."